In Missouri The Democratic Senate Candidate Is Turning The Tables On The GOP's Faux Masculine Pose
The Dems Are Offering Some Good Candidates And Some Bad Ones-- And One Game-Changer: Lucas Kunce
In a both-sides-ism guest post for The Atlantic yesterday, Mitt Romney tries to rise above the fray and look at, in his words, “What accounts for the blithe dismissal of potentially cataclysmic threats?” And he’s got a Beltway answer of course: Blame everyone but Mitt Romney: “The left thinks the right is at fault for ignoring climate change and the attacks on our political system. The right thinks the left is the problem for ignoring illegal immigration and the national debt. But wishful thinking happens across the political spectrum. More and more, we are a nation in denial… A classic example of denial comes from Donald Trump: ‘I won in a landslide.’ Perhaps this is a branch of the same delusion that leads people to feed money into slot machines: Because I really want to win, I believe that I will win.”
Bolstering our natural inclination toward wishful thinking are the carefully constructed, prejudice-confirming arguments from the usual gang of sophists, grifters, and truth-deniers. Watching angry commentators on cable news, I’m reminded of H. L. Mencken’s observation: “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
When entire countries fail to confront serious challenges, it doesn’t end well. During the past half century, we Americans have lived in a very forgiving time, and seeing the world through rose-colored glasses had limited consequences. The climate was stable, our economy dwarfed the competition, democracy was on the rise, and our military strength made the U.S. the sole global hyperpower. Today, every one of those things has changed. If we continue to ignore the real threats we face, America will inevitably suffer serious consequences.
What we need, he writes, is a spectacular leader, one who people feel compelled to trust and follow. Biden is a nice hapless old man and Trump “would feed the sickness, probably rendering it incurable. Congress is particularly disappointing: Our elected officials put a finger in the wind more frequently than they show backbone against it. Too often, Washington demonstrates the maxim that for evil to thrive only requires good men to do nothing.” He had that right.
So what about Bernie? Romney isn’t stupid but he isn’t wired to understand that Bernie’s the leader he’s described. “I hope for a president,” he wrote, “who can rise above the din to unite us behind the truth. Several contenders with experience and smarts stand in the wings; we intently watch to see if they also possess the requisite character and ability to bring the nation together in confronting our common reality.” He didn’t name any and I sure as hell hope he isn’t thinking of DeSantis or Pence or Pompeo from Team Red or Mayo Pete, Kamala or Gavin Newsom from Team Blue. None of them have what it takes— on any level— to bind this country back together again.
He ended his post by telling his readers we all need to ”rise above ourselves— above our grievances and resentments— and grasp the mantle of leadership our country so badly needs.”
Sure, sure; blah, blah. Mitt Romney humiliated himself after Putin handed Trump the 2016 election, kissing his ass and eating snails in the hopes of a top job. Trump could barely keep a straight face during the farce. No one ever took Romney-- who captured a bigger percentage of votes (47.2%) than Trump did (46.1%)-- seriously again, except his co-religionists. A couple of weeks ago, Bill Donahue penned a piece for the Washington Post about the GOP's cult of pretend masculinity, a sad attempt to play up to their base's worship of toxic masculinity. He focused on Missouri, where woman beater-- also child beater-- Eric Greitens is both: exaggerated pretend masculinity meets a toxic masculinity transparent enough that he resigned as governor rather than face impeachment by the Republican-controlled state legislature.
Now a gun-crazed, Trump-worshipping Greitens is the Republican front-runner for the open Senate seat and the GOP establishment has given up on their crazy primary voters and launched a campaign for a conservative, life-long Republican running as an independent. It augurs well for Democrat Lucas Kunce, the hero of Donahue's feature.
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 Minority 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?
...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.”
...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.”
...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.”
...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.”
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.”
I almost forgot-- please use the thermometer to contribute what you can to Lucas' campaign on the Blue America 2022 Senate page. Just lick on that or click here. Same, same.