As a rule, Republican men can’t go wrong with machismo. It’s coded into the whole party’s DNA, like elephants and straw polls. Ronald Reagan rode his horse, George W. Bush cleared brush, and over two elections, Mitt Romney, wrapped himself in tough-guy slogans like “strong.” In every presidential campaign since 2000, the Republican nominee has come out on stage to Van Halen licks. In 2008, Barack Obama came out to the Indigo Girls.
So Steve Lonegan, the Republican Senate candidate in New Jersey, probably felt he was on solid ground Tuesday when he basically called his Democratic opponent, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a sissy. At issue was Booker’s comment the day before that he didn’t mind rumors about his own possible homosexuality because there was nothing wrong with being gay. “It’s weird,” Lonegan said Tuesday, after accusing Booker of “acting ambiguous” and “weird.” “As a guy, I personally like being a guy.”
And he didn’t stop there. His campaign, Lonegan bragged, has been doing opposition research on Booker’s reported habit of polishing his nails. ”I don’t like going out in the middle of the night, or any time of the day, for a manicure and pedicure. It was described as his peculiar fetish, is how it was described,” Lonegan said. “I have a more peculiar fetish, I like a good Scotch and a cigar, that’s my fetish, but we’ll just compare the two.”
It’s been damage control ever since. Booker struck back decisively. “He’s challenging the masculinity of millions of Americans, and that is really unacceptable,” Booker said in an interview with the Huffington Post on Wednesday. “That kind of callous and bigoted disregard to gays and lesbians just shouldn’t be tolerated.”
Rick Shaften, a Lonegan adviser, told the Bergen Record that Lonegan never intended to make a reference to Booker’s sexual orientation, but only his nail care habits. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a reigning master of the Republican tough-guy shtick, distanced himself. “The fact of the matter is everybody in the world knows, because I’ve said it before, Steven Lonegan and I don’t agree on every issue, and I certainly won’t agree with every utterance that comes out of his mouth,” the governor said.
Lonegan’s crime, beyond insulting a large number of his would-be constituents, was in misunderstanding the type of machismo that anchors his party, and the complex ways that we experience gender, sex and sexuality in politics. To begin with, the three concepts are not inextricably linked to one another. There are plenty of macho gay men, and feminine straight men, just as there are plenty of women, straight or lesbian, who exhibit the gendered characteristics of masculinity. In most academic literature, the social construct of gender, in fact, is treated as distinct from sex and sexuality.
It is an unquestioned fact, however, that for much of the last forty years, the political parties in the United States have had gendered identities. As the linguist George Lakoff has argued, Republicans have taken on the archetypal role of the strict father, while the Democrats have become the party of the nurturing mother. In 2010, Nicholas Winter, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, went about trying to quantify the difference by analyzing the gendered words Americans used to describe the two parties over three decades in response to the American National Election Study, a massive recurring poll of political views.
As expected, Americans mentioned positive masculine traits about seven times more often when talking about the Republican Party than the Democratic Party, and positive feminine traits about six times more often when talking about the Democratic Party. The odds that an American would have a gendered view of the party increased with their level of political knowledge. “Americans have absorbed the gendered discourses surrounding the parties,” Winter concluded, in his article (pdf here) published in Political Behavior in 2010, “and associate stereotypically masculine and feminine traits with the Republicans and the Democrats, respectively.”
But as anyone who has followed presidential campaigns will tell you, there is a difference between the tough-talking, paternalistic, rock-solid masculinity of the modern Republican Party and the juvenile frat boy hazing that Lonegan embraced on Tuesday. Macho Republicans generally conceal their gendered insults towards Democrats in coded terms—like French, elite, weak—and successful ones avoid embracing stereotypes that surround sexual orientation. In short, the machismo of the Republican Party is the machismo of the wise father, not the cigar smoking, scotch drinking bro laughing with his buddies about the men in the nail-care salon down the street. It’s the machismo of Reagan, not Lonegan.