(Van Saiyan for The Washington Post)
How 2022 became the year of over-the-top masculinity on the campaign trail
June 20, 2022 at 10:02 a.m. EDT
If you look at the campaign ads for this year’s Senate races, the message is clear: Real men live in Missouri. In the heart of America. The ruby red plains, where pickups are big and flags fly high.
Eric Greitens, a Republican Senate candidate and ex-Missouri governor, posted a rather unsubtle Twitter video in April that showed him visiting a shooting range along with Donald Trump Jr. One second in, we watch as the shooters fire a hail of bullets — two hails, actually — until they pulverize and then fell a body-shaped metal target. “Liberals, beware!” Greitens soon intones with a grim “Terminator”-like finality.
Greitens is, of course, taking cues from the elder Donald Trump, who gave us all a master class in unbridled machismo. Trump said of the Islamic State, “I’m gonna bomb the s— out of them,” and when football player Colin Kaepernick took a knee, Trump pronounced, “Wouldn’t you like to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b—- off the field right now, out? He’s fired.’ ”
American politicians have almost always been obliged to display manliness to win elections, but our 45th president heightened masculinity to absurd, comic-book levels. Many have posited that Trump was old-school, taking us back to the days of John Wayne and guys-only steak dinners, but cultural critic Susan Faludi — author of “Stiffed,” “Backlash” and other books on gender — argued persuasively in a 2020 New York Times opinion piece that, no, Trump introduced us to a new, Internet-age masculinity, a “Potemkin patriarchy” specially tailored for “an image-based, sensation-saturated and very modern entertainment economy. … Contemporary manliness is increasingly defined by display — in Mr. Trump’s case, a pantomime of aggrieved aggression: the curled lip, the exaggerated snarl.”
In political races nationwide this year, Republicans are clamoring to get the snarl and the swagger just right as they seek to out-Trump one another. During the Super Bowl, Senate candidate Jim Lamon of Arizona ran an ad that was styled to look like an old western movie and starred himself as a gun-twirling sheriff firing at a sheepish actor dressed to resemble Joe Biden. In Georgia, Mike Collins, a Republican in a U.S. House race, trundled a wheelbarrow full of paper into the forest, then shot at it as viewers realized he was turning “Nancy Pelosi’s Plan for America” into a cloud of confetti and smoke.
The Senate race in Missouri has arguably emerged as ground zero for the manliness question — and Greitens isn’t the only candidate shilling his virility. Do you remember Mark McCloskey, that vigilante in St. Louis who brandished an AR-15 military-style rifle at Black Lives Matter protesters? He’s now seeking the GOP nomination for Senate, too — touring Missouri in a custom campaign vehicle, an SUV appointed with a giant photo that captures his gun-toting moment of fame. “Never back down!” reads the adjacent text.
Nationwide, all of this GOP chest-beating appears to be working, as Democrats seem poised for a thrashing in the midterms. In Missouri, though, one Democrat volleyed back early, serving up his own brand of manhood. Last June, Lucas Kunce released a Senate campaign video that showed him locking and loading an AR-15. In the ad, Kunce bends over the gun’s sight. He squints. Will he shoot?
No. Instead, Kunce smirks and says, “Forget it. … Stunts like that? Those are for those clowns on the other side. Like that mansion man Mark McCloskey.” There’s a bounce in his voice; Kunce, who’s 39, is enjoying this caper. And he speaks with a certain authority: The guy is shredded. His pecs bulge beneath his blue T-shirt, and his implicit message — that he’s a real man and McCloskey’s a dingleberry — gains steam when we learn that Kunce is a 13-year Marine veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Kunce’s campaign isn’t about masculinity, but it certainly invokes the theme. “All they care about,” he told me, referring to Greitens and McCloskey, “is looking tough, looking strong. For me, masculinity is taking care of people — your family, your community — and making sure that you actually stand for something.”
What Kunce stands for is radical economic change. He’s a self-described populist, and for him, re-creating America is a military mission. “I’m a grenade,” he told an audience not long ago. “Pull the pin on me and throw me into the U.S. Senate so I can change things.”
There are other Democratic Senate candidates who exude some of Kunce’s brawn: for instance, John Fetterman, the 6-foot-8, heavily tattooed Pennsylvania lieutenant governor who favors hoodies over business suits. But Jackson Katz, creator of the 2020 documentary “The Man Card: White Male Identity Politics From Nixon to Trump,” is particularly excited about Kunce. “For decades,” says Katz, “the Democrats have been seen as the non-masculine party, and they’ve done nothing about it. They’ve been clueless. And now here’s a guy who can’t be written off physically or personally as soft.”
Can Kunce actually win? Can a political novice sell a revised, anti-Trump version of manhood in a once-centrist state that, in the past six presidential elections, has consistently voted Republican? Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for one, is worried that the race “could end up being competitive,” as he told CNN in April, before advising Missouri Republicans: “You better nominate a fully capable, credible nominee or you’re in trouble.”
But perhaps the bigger question about the rise of an ultra-macho style in Missouri’s — and America’s — politics isn’t whether it’s effective; it’s what it all means. If this new exaggerated masculinity proves consistently appealing to voters on both the right and the left, then what does that suggest about the kinds of candidates who can, and cannot, realistically seek office in the future? About what types of issues we can debate and on what terms? About what kind of people we want to lead us — and what kind of country we want to be?
Lucas Kunce is 6-foot-2, and he wears his clothes tight, so that even in repose, he seems athletic, his muscles hardened by a regimen that involves running, swimming and weightlifting. His automobile is less impressive. It is a well-loved 2013 Ford Focus. The paint is chipped; the passenger-side front door sticks a little and sometimes needs a special shove.
For three days this May, I plied the campaign trail with Kunce. We moved — the candidate, his press officer and I — west to east across Missouri, from Kansas City to St. Louis, the three of us passing innumerable highway signs for adult bookstores and fundamentalist churches, on a trip that seemed loose-limbed, unofficial. There’s a boyish abandon about Kunce. The onetime Marine major is half-inclined to address every audience he encounters as though it were made up of leathernecks convoying with him through Fallujah. “Lucas has no filter,” his press officer, Connor Lounsbury, will tell me. “None. I can’t tell him how to act. He’s just Lucas.”
Sometimes the no-filter approach works its intended magic. Like when we travel to a school for apprentice ironworkers in North Kansas City. When Kunce enters the classroom, he finds 30 apprentices, all male, in grimy orange and yellow T-shirts. They are sinewy and bearded, and they slump in their chairs, their arms crossed as their helmets, plastered with stickers, sit before them on tables, bearing slogans such as “Rat Poison Ironworkers. Local Union #10.”
“I’m a grenade,” Lucas Kunce told an audience not long ago. “Pull the pin on me and throw me into the U.S. Senate so I can change things.”
For most politicians, it’d be a hard room, but Kunce begins with, “We got any veterans in here?” Soon, he’s talking about how, when he was growing up in Jefferson City, in the ’90s, his family was so broke that his mom “begged the grocery store manager not to cash the check until the end of the month.” The manager complied. “People cared for each other,” Kunce says, “but today that grocery store is owned by some private equity a–hole, and if you don’t have money, you’ve got to go down to payday loans. That’s f—ed up, right?”
The ironworkers nod. They snicker knowingly. They’re listening, and Kunce continues, now talking about how the United States has spent $6.4 trillion on wars since 2001. “The thing that p—es me off,” he says, “is how they spent almost nothing for the communities of the people who served in those wars. The first house I ever lived in was bulldozed. The house I joined the Marine Corps from is boarded up.” The problem, Kunce says, is “politicians who make decisions based on their stock portfolios. I want to take power back in this country. I want every damned one of you to have power.”
Eventually, the apprentices begin moving toward a practice construction site. In the corridor, Kunce’s aides hand them a new helmet sticker, a piece of campaign propaganda that reads, “Make S— in America Again!” Thirty-year-old Matthew Luckey tells me, “I’m going to clean my helmet off so this sticker will stay on there.” A father of four who voted for Trump in 2020, Luckey says of Kunce, “He seems like a pretty down-to-earth guy.”
Outside, the apprentices are building the iron bones of a three-story building. The instructor takes Kunce aside to teach him how to tie rebar with wire — a step in the manufacture of concrete — and as Kunce bends over the rebar, he is intently focused.
But then there’s a distraction. Off in the corner of the job site, one by one, apprentices are roping into harnesses to pull their way up a 35-foot-high iron beam. It’s a challenge that involves hugging the beam close and angling your feet just so into a 12-inch-wide gap. One guy struggles his way to the top and triumphantly rings the bell there. Another makes it only 10 feet up, then falls. I hear the grisly sound of the man’s feet slapping the pavement. There’s a collective sigh of relief (he’s all right), and then there’s a hush. And I realize that the plan, all along, has been to give Major Kunce a crack at the beam.
Kunce climbs into the harness. Then everyone waits for a boom lift to maneuver into place, to save the candidate if he gets stuck. No one else got such backup, and the machine ups the ante: Either Kunce will prove himself a hero here, or he’ll leave known as the weenie who needed the boom. No one is working now. The apprentices are all gathered at the base of the beam, making sardonic jokes and spitting chewing tobacco.
When Kunce starts out, his grip is firm, but his hips are canted back, too far from the beam, and his feet slip in the slot. About a dozen feet up, though, he finds his groove, and then he’s just flying, hand over hand, toward the top. He’s moving more quickly than anyone else will all day, and the assembled ironworkers are loving it.
“Hell, yeah!”Someone shouts.
“Don’t look down. Keep going up!” Another apprentice shouts.
Kunce reaches the top and smacks the bell.
“Yes,” One ironworker cries below. “That’s my senator!”
This nation was founded on great acts of brawn. George Washington stood in a boat, crossing the Delaware, towering and mighty in his rough-hewn breeches, his broad chest to the wind. He was strong enough to hurl a silver coin across the Potomac, and he once broke up a brawl between soldiers by seizing both combatants by the throat.
Or so the story goes. In his forthcoming book, “First Among Men: George Washington and the Myth of American Masculinity,” Maurizio Valsania, a history professor at the University of Turin in Italy, writes that our first president was in fact not a hulk, but rather a “coifed” upper-class gentleman who wore a corset to ensure that his back was, per the fashion of the day, ramrod straight, like a ballet dancer’s.
Valsania doesn’t gloss over the ruggedness of Washington’s life — he did cut down trees; he did fight in wars — but the professor stresses that Washington, who was potbellied, with a concave chest, only became a he-man in the American imagination decades after his death, when Andrew Jackson made pushing west and fighting Native Americans the national mission. “As the symbolic father of a nation prizing strength and territorial expansion,” Valsania writes, “Washington must by necessity remain the tallest, strongest, most athletic, and most virile of men.” For the actual Washington, however, the highest values were “self-effacement and making sacrifices for the common good,” Valsania told me. “He was a communitarian.” Valsania says all of our early leaders were.
Jackson was a radical departure. A loudmouth who liked to brag about his brawls and his duels, he brought to the White House a bumptiousness that spoke to an ambitious, rising middle class. He was an individualist and, ever since his early-19th-century presidency, Valsania says, “there’s been a tension between two American masculinities, between the individualist and the communitarian.”
America’s consummate communitarian, probably, was Franklin Roosevelt, who in one 1932 speech tried to convince his audience that the time for burly Jacksonian individualism had passed. “The man of ruthless force had his place in developing a pioneer country,” Roosevelt said, but his modern equivalent — “the lone wolf, the unethical competitor, the reckless promoter” — threatened to drag our nation “back to a state of anarchy.”
As a refined aristocrat, Roosevelt wasn’t inclined to drive his point home with muscular heft, but there have been communitarians who’ve done so, the prime example being President Lyndon Baines Johnson. LBJ pushed through his Great Society agenda partly via the “Johnson Treatment,” which saw the beefy 6-foot-4 Texan lobbying congressmen by jabbing his finger at them, grabbing at their lapels and leaning threateningly into their personal space.
Since Johnson, though, Republicans have largely been able to castigate Democrats as weak. In his film “The Man Card,” Jackson Katz argues that this winning strategy took root in the 1968 presidential election when Richard Nixon media adviser Roger Ailes, who would go on to found Fox News, first tapped the “fear, anxiety and anger of the White middle class.” Ailes helped land Nixon the “hard-hat vote” — the support of the White working class — and thereby aligned Republicans inextricably with White male virility.
In the years since, Democratic candidates have tried to project strength, but the efforts have largely fallen flat. Think of 1988 presidential candidate Michael Dukakis riding around in a military tank, looking like a little boy in an oversized soldier’s costume, or of Barack Obama deciding, in 2013, that it was a good idea to release photos of himself shooting skeets.
Even when Democrats seem poised to win the manliness game, they lose. In the 2004 presidential election, their candidate, John F. Kerry, was a decorated Vietnam War veteran, his military credentials far stronger than those of incumbent George W. Bush, who’d dodged the draft and instead joined Texas’s Air National Guard. Still, some 200 former naval men emerged to form Swift Vets and POWs for Truth, which sought to poke holes in Kerry’s naval résumé. We winced at footage of Kerry windsurfing while Bush repeatedly got himself photographed cutting brush at his Texas ranch; it was Bush who managed to establish himself as the “real man” in the race.
Joe Biden has tried to be manly, certainly. In the run-up to the 2020 election, he released a video called “That’s a President,” which starts by telling us that being commander in chief is “about protecting Americans.” A medley of tough guy pics ensue — Biden convening with camo-clad soldiers, Biden playing Joe Cool in dark sunglasses — as a deep male voice extols the Democrat’s virtues: “Strength. Courage. Compassion. Resilience.”
But none of that has stopped Republicans from trying to portray him as unmanly. In March, after Biden decided not to risk establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) went on Fox News and told Sean Hannity that the president’s Ukraine policy constituted a “wimp fest.” Hannity heartily agreed. “We saw Donald Trump using modern warfare,” he said, now focused on Afghanistan, “to kick the living Adam Schiff out of that caliphate and [fiefdom] that was grown under Obama and Biden.” No shortage of testosterone in that sentence!
It would be impossible to call Lucas Kunce a wimp, or to tar him with the label “elitist” — another, related slur beloved by Republicans. As the candidate tells us in “Home,” a two-minute campaign ad thick with tear-jerking violins, he grew up on “an old cracked street in Jeff City, Missouri.” His father was an IT specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. His mother was a teacher. Or, rather, she was until Kunce, the oldest of four children, was 8. Kunce’s sister was born then, with cardiac issues that required three open-heart surgeries. His mother had to stop working to care for the girl. Medical bills piled up, and in 1990 his parents filed for bankruptcy.
But the family patched through. “Our neighbors and friends lifted us up,” Kunce says in the ad. “They gave me the chance to make something of myself.” Slowly, lovingly the camera zeroes in on Kunce, standing in profile on a gritty street. “So I did,” Kunce continues. “I went to Yale and became a U.S. Marine to honor those who had given me so much.” Kunce goes on to lament that, once he came home from Iraq and Afghanistan, he found “the community I had loved had been hollowed out … the wealth of our state sucked dry.”
For anyone who missed the video’s masculine motifs, “Home” soon delivers a hopeful medley of macho visuals as Kunce promises to “Marshall Plan the Midwest.” We see an auto garage where wrenches hang gleaming on a pegboard. We visit a boxing gym and hang out for a second or two of sparring, and we follow a young bro shouldering a load of lumber out to his pickup while Kunce enthuses about investing “in the heartland, where we’ve been making things for generations.”
As Kunce and I cross Missouri, I ask him how he took the unusual path from Yale to the Marines. He tells me that after finishing college and attending law school at the University of Missouri, he returned to Jeff City and found a mentor in Al Mueller, a Marine and Vietnam vet who ran the soup kitchen that Kunce’s parents launched in the late 1980s, in the basement of their Catholic church. “Al,” he says, “always put others before himself. He thought the Vietnam War was a mess, but he enlisted. He decided, ‘If it’s not me, it’s going to be somebody else.’ ”
In 2007, when Kunce was 24, Mueller took him several times to the Marine Corps League, a sort of VFW hall, in the community of Apache Flats, just outside Jeff City. A singer-songwriter named Ron Saucier was often on hand, warbling patriotic songs playing tribute to soldiers. “There were World War II veterans there, and Korean War vets,” Kunce remembers, “and they told me their stories.” Like Mueller, these older men seemed noble to Kunce. “I already knew that I wanted to do public service,” Kunce says, “but that’s when I decided how I would serve.” Here was a communitarian alpha male in the LBJ tradition — and he was jumping into the fray.
Kunce has been on Fox News numerous times, and also on MSNBC and Bloomberg Television. He’s out-fundraising all other candidates for the Senate seat, including Republicans, bringing in $3.3 million as of March 31, the last time such figures were available. Most of his donations have come from outside the state — from Democrats hoping for a ray of sunshine in the midterms. Ninety-eight percent of the gifts have been for less than $200 — a stat that puts him in the same league as John Fetterman, widely regarded as a grass-roots folk icon. Still, it’s not a sure bet that Kunce will win the primary. His opponent, beer heiress and nurse Trudy Busch Valentine, 65, has made very few political appearances, but in recent polls she was just behind Kunce in a race that still isn’t on many Missourians’ radar screen.
What’s clear is that if Kunce does face Greitens in November, he’ll be up against someone who trumpets his own intense machismo. Before he was governor, Greitens, now 48, was an intelligence officer in the Navy SEALs. He has published four books about his SEAL experience, among them “Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life.” In appearing on TV to promote these brisk sellers, he has reflected on questions such as, “How do people deal with hardship and become heroic?” In his winning 2016 gubernatorial campaign, he worked the SEAL motif relentlessly, even going so far as to sell bumper stickers that read, “ISIS Hunting Permit.” Not everyone appreciated his virile strutting: That same year, 16 of his fellow SEALs joined forces to produce a sharply critical video that accused Greitens of “stealing the valor and sacrifice of our brothers who actually fought, died, and dedicated their lives to taking the fight to our nation’s enemies.”
Greitens is, like Kunce, a toned physical specimen. He has run a marathon in under three hours and has an impressive boxing résumé. But he has faced a welter of ethical issues. In 2018, he stepped down as governor, accused of violating campaign finance laws — a charge that was deemed unfounded in a 2022 Missouri Ethics Commission ruling. In 2018 he was also accused of terrorizing his hairdresser. He allegedly tied her up, blindfolded her, stripped her, forced her to have oral sex, took photographs and then threatened to distribute them if she ever spoke publicly of the episode. More recently, his ex-wife has accused him of knocking her down and smacking the couple’s young son so hard the boy’s tooth jiggled loose.
In 2018, Greitens was indicted on one felony count for invading the privacy of the hairdresser. The charge was later dropped, though, and the Missouri Supreme Court is now looking at claims that the prosecutor in the case, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, withheld evidence. In a March statement, Greitens called his ex-wife’s allegations “completely fabricated” and “baseless.”
I sought an in-person interview with Greitens; for weeks, he did not reply to my emails. Eventually, though, his campaign sent me a written statement attributed to the former governor. “I fight for what I believe in and I stand on principles,” the statement read. “Far too often, especially in politics, we see weak-kneed politicians who are afraid to stand up and do the most difficult things. When I am U.S. Senator, my sole purpose will be to defend this country from all threats, domestic and abroad, just like the oath I took when I first enlisted with the Navy.”
The rhetoric was manly, no doubt, but I’d eventually discover that, in the Senate race in Missouri, you don’t have to be a man to talk like a honcho. One evening, while visiting the St. Joseph Country Club for a Republican fundraiser, I speak to U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, who was polling in third place in her party’s crowded primary, behind Greitens and Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt. She offers me a solution to the use of drones for carrying drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border. “In Missouri,” she tells me, “there’s a lot of gun owners. We do a lot of target practice. I know we could shoot them down.”
Nearby, hunkered over a white tablecloth, is the figure who first got me thinking about Missouri and manhood: Mark McCloskey. McCloskey is, okay, polling in fifth place among Missouri’s 21 Republican Senate candidates, but there’s something archetypal about this personal injury lawyer who, in 2020, patrolled his lawn with an AR-15 as his wife, Patricia, stood beside him waggling a smaller, more ladylike Bryco .380-caliber pistol at Black Lives Matter protesters.
McCloskey is the aggrieved White male, so one afternoon I meet up with him and Patricia at a bar in St. Joseph to ask what compelled him to brandish his gun. Like many conservatives, McCloskey sees our nation as an impending catastrophe in need of hard male energy. He tells me that the Black Lives Matter protesters were “screaming death threats and arson threats.” Audio recordings of the incident don’t support this claim — their wording is hard to decipher — but McCloskey says that the activists pointed and told him, “That’s where I’m going to have my breakfast after we kill you and take the house.”
What McCloskey perceived as a Black Lives Matter siege on his home was just another chapter in a long-running siege on American liberty that “goes back to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1905. The forces that created the Soviet Union and Red China,” he tells me, “have a program of trying to undermine free society.” Today, he says, “the CDC is using our phones to track us. There are people sitting in holes in D.C. with no hope of a trial” — Jan. 6 protesters, he means. “This country has the smallest remnants of freedom left,” he continues, “and my campaign is a movement to restore freedom, to restore individuals as the masters of their own lives.”
McCloskey tells me that the impulse to “stand up for God and country” resides in his DNA — and for a moment he transports me to long-ago Fort Dodge, Iowa, where, one day, his elderly great-grandfather was crossing a “bridge over a creek. Some young punks were coming the other direction saying, ‘Out of my way, old man,’ ” McCloskey recounts, “and he just knocked them off the bridge, into the water.”
Mark McCloskey says his “campaign is a movement to restore freedom, to restore individuals as the masters of their own lives.”
As I sit there listening, I marvel at how different the raw streets of Fort Dodge were from McCloskey’s manicured lawn — and how the myth of frontier masculinity keeps enduring in America, no matter the context. But we’re an hour into the interview now, and I’m cognizant of Patricia, who’s been sitting silently by her husband’s side the entire time. I look over to her, finally, and note that she’s a lawyer too; she also patrolled the lawn that day in 2020. Why isn’t she the one running for Senate? “I wouldn’t think about running,” she says. “He’s the dude.”
A couple of hours after scaling the iron beam, Kunce is slated to meet the photographer for this story. The plan is to take pictures of the candidate in Independence, where he lives within sight of the house that Harry Truman called home for over 50 years. Lounsbury, the press officer, thought Kunce was going to shower and change for the shoot. But when we meet him, Kunce has done neither.
We shoot the photos. We get on Interstate 70 and press east. Just outside of St. Louis, in well-heeled Chesterfield, Kunce meets 60 or so local Democrats gathered in a large gazebo set in a sumptuous grassy park.
When Kunce speaks, his arm gestures are coiled, taut, emphatic. He talks about onerous student loans, which, he says, obliged his law school classmates to abandon their save-the-world ideals and work instead for those “white-shoe law firms that help payday loans squeeze more money out of us.” Then he skewers the politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, who perpetrated the war in Afghanistan. “They lied to our faces,” he says. “They told us, ‘Give us your sons and daughters. Give us your trillions of dollars. We’re building something real and lasting in Afghanistan.’ And it all fell apart in 11 days.”
Afterward, Kathy Coe, an IT specialist, stands up to tell Kunce, “I love that you have fight in you. My huge frustration with the Democrats is that we’ve been too polite. Right now, we’re bringing a knife to a gunfight.”
Eventually, I’ll speak to Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a history and gender studies professor at Calvin University in Michigan, and learn that she too appreciates Kunce’s force. “He’s exactly the sort of candidate the Democrats should be running right now,” says Du Mez, author of “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.” “He’s a strong, ripped White male who knows how to use a gun. Who better to reveal how much of the right wing’s masculinity is performative?”
Du Mez adds, “There can be other real-deal candidates capable of subversion: strong women of color, for example. But right now, when masculinity is the motif of the season, Kunce seems right. It’s going to be hard for the Republicans to say he’s not a real man.” Still, she continues, “Kunce is a test case. Republican masculinity is about defending White Christian nationalism. Think of Mark McCloskey on his lawn. Kunce is doing the muscle thing, but he’s extricating the Christian nationalism. We’ll have to see if it works.”
It’s likely to be an uphill battle. The Cook Political Report has rated the Missouri Senate race as “solid Republican,” and Terry Smith, a political scientist at Missouri’s Columbia College, isn’t inclined to doubt that prediction. Smith sees Greitens as the man to beat in Missouri. “In 2016, I learned my lesson on writing certain kinds of candidates off,” Smith says, alluding to Trump’s shocker victory. “I would never count Eric Greitens out. He’s a bad boy, and that resonates with voters. And he has access to a lot of money.” Billionaire shipping magnate Richard Uihlein last year gave $2.5 million to a super PAC supporting Greitens. “Kunce has a long way to go,” Smith tells me.
Kunce doesn’t deny that opposing Greitens would be tough, but he’d relish the challenge. “If it’s me against Greitens, it’s going to be bloody,” Kunce says. “It’s going to be a very bloody, nasty fight.”
Politics as slugfest is exciting, and it makes for killer tweets. But what if we lived in a world where bravado and masculinity weren’t the prime criteria for political success? Kelly Dittmar, a political science professor and the director of research for the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, argues that we should strive for such a world by reimagining political campaigns. “We should expand the credentials we seek, value, and reward among candidates and officeholders,” Dittmar wrote in 2020 on the center’s blog. “Disrupting the gender power imbalance in U.S. politics requires not only shifting power away from men but also from masculinity.”
Dittmar doesn’t just disdain macho saber rattlers like Greitens and McCloskey. She gives low marks to all politicians, male and female, who drench their rhetoric in machismo, for this, she argues, “only maintains power in those credentials.” She laments how, in 2016, presidential candidate Carly Fiorina told Trump to “man up,” and she even takes a swipe at Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who decried Trump’s boorish treatment of Fiorina by calling him “a pathetic coward who can’t handle the fact that he’s losing to a girl.”
Is Kunce just another politician misguidedly using tough-guy rhetoric to take down Trump and his heirs? The answer is complicated. Kunce is a lot more than a gunslinger. When I think of him now, I place him back at Apache Flats, at the Marine Corps League, mixing with the sort of World War II vets that ’40s-era correspondent Ernie Pyle valorized when he savored the communitarian spirit those soldiers shared in combat. “We are all men of new professions,” Pyle wrote, “out in some strange night caring for each other.”
With the rise of ultramasculine candidates in this election cycle, the tone of menace underlying American politics is getting more pronounced.
But then there’s Kunce’s tight T-shirts, the easy and knowing way that he handles a gun for the camera, his happy embrace of the f-bomb as a go-to campaign trail adjective. With his arrival — and with the rise of other ultramasculine candidates in this election cycle — the tone of menace underlying American politics is getting more pronounced.
I could feel this as we crossed Missouri on I-70. One afternoon, as we were driving east in the Focus, Kunce told me about his last military posting, in which he was on staff at the Pentagon, leading arms negotiations between NATO and Russia — and growing increasingly tired of how the Russians violated treaties. He said, “Power and coercion is the only language they understand. If you talk about hugs and kisses, you’re just going to get abused.”
Then, abruptly, he shifted topics, now zeroing on his Senate race. “Eric Greitens, Mark McCloskey,” he said, “all these fake populists on the right, these guys who oppose unions and higher wages, who don’t actually want to end corporate control in our country? They are the Russians, and you’ve got to fight them with firepower.”
Bill Donahue has written for Men’s Journal, GQ and Outside.