“Fiery” is right-wing media’s new favorite word.
In the wake of last week’s unprecedented confirmation hearings of Judge Brett Kavanaugh, we’ve been told that “Lindsey Graham offered a fiery speech” (Daily Caller), after “the Supreme Court nominee’s fiery rebuttal” (Newsmax) or “fiery testimony” (Fox News) that was all followed by President Donald Trump’s “fiery Tennessee rally” (Fox News) where he mocked Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s own testimony.
Have conservatives not heard of the thesaurus?
Actually, the pyromaniacal metaphor is a telling insight into the right’s valorization of male rage, and the separate moral worlds into which liberals and conservatives are sorting themselves this week.
For liberals, centrists, and even some conservative women, Judge Kavanaugh’s yelling, sobbing, and spitting performance last week was a sign of an unhinged man. For many, it evoked painful memories of bullies in high school, abusive partners, or rage-prone presidents with strange combovers. As Kavanaugh interrupted the women on the Judiciary Committee, seethed with rage, and vacillated wildly from emotion to emotion, he seemed to be proving his opponents’ case: that this is a man entirely capable of drinking too much and being abusive to women.
After all, he was being abusive to women right then and there.
Yet the reaction among conservatives was the opposite. Spontaneously or prompted by spin, the right-wing consensus emerged that Kavanaugh was defending his honor, showing his mettle, refusing to back down in the face of a partisan hit job. Wouldn’t you be angry if your reputation had been thus impugned?
Even Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), whose call for an FBI investigation either prolonged the agony of or breathed new life into the confirmation process (depending on your point of view), said Kavanaugh responded appropriately for “a man unjustly accused” (at least in Kavanaugh’s mind).
Where progressives saw instability and violence, conservatives saw strength and character. Where progressives saw pathetic, conservatives saw “fiery.”
Of course, had Kavanaugh been a woman, lurching between rage, tears, and barely muffled contempt, one feels certain that her testimony would have been described not as “fiery” but as unhinged, insane, deranged, or, best of all, hysterical (from the Greek ὑστέρα, for uterus).
Doubtless had Dr. Ford behaved thus, while describing having been sexually assaulted, she would have been dismissed as hyper-sensitive and non-credible.
For men of a certain vintage, however, acting “fiery” is a good thing. When I graduated Yale Law School, seven years after Kavanaugh, several of the top firms in New York were known to possess “screamers,” men (always men) who threw Kavanaugh-like temper tantrums, frequently excoriating their assistants and junior associates. Likewise several of the top judges in the country. It was just how things were.
Over the last few decades, more and more people—mostly women—have been pointing out that “how things were” is often brutally inequitable. At the very least, the nasty, toxic-masculine men of American professional life create hostile work environments. At worst, their toxicity slides into sexual and emotional abuse. It isn’t OK.
But if the Trump era stands for anything, it’s the rejection of the namby-pamby rules of political correctness. Threatened by the increasing power of women and LGBT people, Trumpist populism has doubled down on masculinity’s lowest common denominator. Men are men, dammit! We swear and curse and yell, and that’s how it should be! Sure, rape is bad, but just a few lewd comments, a grabby hand here and there—women should just deal with it. Boys will be boys.
But more than that. Not only will boys be boys, in this misogynistic conservative logic, but it’s a good thing that they are, because we need strong leaders like Trump and Kavanaugh to keep the bad guys away and keep the rest of us in line. Kavanaugh showing that he’s a “real man” thus made him more compelling to some conservatives, not less so.
Indeed, the fact that boys behave badly is proof that human beings are bad, or at least errant, creatures. The world is a dangerous place, and people need to be reined in. Kids, in particular, need strong discipline so that they learn to control themselves. Good men are men who aren’t afraid to be mad. Stern, angry, father figures—like Donald Trump, Fred Trump, and Brett Kavanaugh.
No wonder there’s a strong correlation between corporal punishment and conservative political views. As Nicholas Kristof put it in 2010, “spanking states go Republican, while those with more timeouts go Democratic.” Research suggests that the causation goes both ways: Conservative parents spank their children more, and kids who are spanked grow up to be conservative themselves.
All of this in imitation of the original “fiery” man, God, who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah in fire, who killed nearly every human on earth in a massive flood, and who, according to conservative Christian doctrine, has condemned the vast majority of human beings born everywhere to everlasting torment in the fires of hell.
Only the intercession of Christ saves us from God’s fiery wrath. Because we are sinners, all of us, and we sin all the time, with our bodies, our hearts, everything. If it were up to God, we’d all deserve to be judged guilty and sent to hell forever.
The fires of hell may seem distant from the “fiery” testimony of Kavanaugh, but they are the same fires: the flames of angry male wrath.
Needless to say, there are ample ideological and scientific arguments that this worldview is destructive and wrong. Actually, humans do better when they cooperate instead of fight all the time. Actually, anger is not helpful in making rational decisions and taking effective action. Actually, coddling toxic masculinity is unjust, hypocritical, and unwise.
And actually, corporal punishment is counterproductive and tends to create morally stunted adults who act out of fear of punishment rather than authentic ethical judgment. Take away that fear—by deregulating the financial industry, for example—and they’ll take whatever they can get. (“I take advantage of the laws of the nation” by not paying taxes, candidate Trump bragged.)
There are also many other ways of seeing God, morality, and/or the meaning of life: as about love, justice, and peace, for example, rather than judgment, wrath and punishment. But that really is a different moral world from the conservative one. To many conservatives, it looks like anarchy.
It isn’t. Quite the contrary, moderating toxic male anger is the only thing that will save us, now that humanity has the capacity to destroy itself several times over. The poet Robert Frost famously wrote that “Some say the world will end in fire, / Others say in ice. / From what I’ve tasted of desire / I hold with those who favor fire.” He was probably right about that.