Donald Trump wants everyone to know that he’s a tough guy. In 2017, the congressional candidate Greg Gianforte “body-slammed” the Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs after Jacobs tried to ask him questions about health-care policy. It was a cowardly, criminal act. Not long after, Trump praised him. At a campaign rally, the president of the United States said of Gianforte, “Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of—he’s my guy.” One could write the comment off as a bad joke, a one-off mistake made off-the-cuff, but it’s entirely consistent with Trump’s fundamental ethos. He’s a bully, and his fans love him for it.
There was a time, not long ago, when I thought I knew what sort of masculinity conservatives revered. It was captured most memorably in the movie American Sniper. The film, which tells the story of the legendary Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s life and death, has a short scene in which Kyle’s father delivers what’s known as the “sheepdog speech,” cut with images of Chris defending his brother from a playground attack.
The sheepdog speech had been circulating for years, mainly in military circles, and it conveys a simple idea: There are three kinds of people in the world—the sheep who need protection, the wolves who seek to devour the sheep, and the sheepdogs, those blessed with a “gift of aggression [and] an overpowering need to protect the flock.” Kyle’s father’s words frame the whole rest of the movie. “You know who you are. You know your purpose.”