The violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia, precipitated by neo-Nazis and white supremacists, has not only emphasized the ongoing problem of racism, it has also brought into focus the related problems of toxic masculinity, authoritarianism, and the militarization of America, problems that together, threaten the foundations of democracy.

In 2011, psychologists Jennifer Richeson and Maureen Craig predicted many white people would feel threatened by the fact that America was heading toward becoming a minority-majority country and act to neutralize the threat. After the election, we witnessed an unsettling number of brazen hate crimes and vandalism against Muslim and Jewish institutions.  While it may be difficult directly link these crimes to the charged political climate, Brian Resnick argues in Vox there’s evidence that social norms against prejudice change when people in power start talking and behaving badly.

Toxic Masculinity

Images of the violent hate groups in Charlottesville clearly shows them to be almost exclusively white males, many of whom were dressed in military style garb and some carrying weapons, including guns. The energy they projected was clearly male aggressive dominance.

The concept of toxic masculinity is used in the social science to describe traditional norms of behavior among contemporary men that are associated with detrimental social and psychological effects. Such toxic masculine norms include dominance, devaluation of women, extreme self-reliance, and the suppression of emotions. Terry Kupers, a professor at the The Wright Institute school of psychology defines toxic masculinity as “the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia and wanton violence.”

 Psychologist Terry Real, author of I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, sees the re-emergence of a dangerous form of masculinity with potentially far-reaching psychic and emotional consequences.

Everywhere we see evidence of spreading toxic masculinity, reflected in how sports games are played, to the portrayal of heroes and the recruitment and success of abusive CEOs. The near deification of toxic leaders such as Steven Jobs, whose success seems to be narrowly measured by the financial bottom line, are a reflection of this issue. And some observers would argue that Silicon Valley’s widespread culture of toxic masculinity have cut deeply across an industry that prides itself on being a meritocracy where intelligence and creativity matter more than gender, skin color or pedigree.

In the book, Guys and Guns Amok: Domestic Terrorism and School Shootings from the Oklahoma City Bombing to the Virginia Tech Massacre, UCLA professor of education and cultural critic Douglas Kellner argues that "school shootings and other acts of mass violence embody a crisis of out-of-control gun culture and male rage, heightened by a glorification of 'hyper masculinity' and violence in the media.” The school shooters and domestic terrorisms examined in the book all exhibit male rage, and attempt to resolve a crisis of masculinity through violent behavior; demonstrate a fetish for guns or weapons, Kellner contends.

Toxic masculine types seek to become the alpha male in all situations. For other men, in the eyes of these alpha males, expressions of emotion and affection suggest weakness; compassion and empathy convey vulnerability; and anger and rage remain as the only acceptable expressions of their emotions. Y. Joel Wong and his fellow researchers have identified eleven traditionally masculine characteristics in reviewing 78 studies of masculinity and mental health. These traits are:

  • A desire to win (sometimes at any cost)
  • A need for emotional control
  • Risk-taking
  • Violence
  • Dominance
  • Sexual promiscuity
  • Self-reliance
  • Primacy of work
  • Power over women
  • Distain for homosexuality
  • Pursuit of status.

Macho Leadership

In today’s workplace a trend towards “macho” leadership is reflected in the continuing prevalence of charismatic male business leaders who are seen as dominating, forceful and aggressive. Their profile is often replete with an admiration for workaholism, winning at all costs, narcissism and ruthless business practices. Many leaders today are still perceived with so-called masculine characteristics—rational, assertive, and aggressive.

Voters prefer candidates with more masculine features during times of belligerence. We can even relate the results of the 2004 U.S. presidential election. With the Iraq War freshly launched, citizens weren't about to hand control over to John Kerry his longer, more cerebral face. And of course there’s a clear connection between our desire for macho leaders and authoritarianism, as virtually all authoritarian leaders are male. According 44% of white respondents across the U.S scored as “high” or “very high” authoritarians.

Pick up any newspaper today or watch any TV news program and you’ll read about macho men having raped a woman, killed someone in a fight, intentionally injured someone in a football or hockey game; or made a political speech advocating the obliteration of an enemy along with the “collateral damage” of killing innocent civilians. Macho men also are prevalent on Wall Street, and government, vividly portrayed in movies and TV shows such The Wolf of Wall Street and The House of Cards. We are obsessed by the macho heroes shown in American Sniper, Lone Survivor and even our super-hero movies. The language that mainstream media and general public uses is a reflection of this phenomena. Examples of commonly heard words to describe both public policy and individuals are the following:

  • “the war on terrorism,”
  • “fighting cancer,”
  • “enemy nations,”
  • “carpet bombing them into oblivion,”
  • “crushing the business competition,” or “crushing a goal.”
  • “doing whatever it takes to win.”
  • “collateral damage is acceptable [translation-it’s okay to kill civilians]

A research article entitled “Scripting the Macho Man: Hypermasculine Socialization and Enculturation” by Donald Mosher and Silvan Tomkins argues the ideological script of machismo descends from the ideology of warfare—victor and vanquished, master and slave, and head of the house.  Ultimately the gist of the macho man persona is embodied in the warrior’s ideology, where the macho warrior holds dominion over all he has conquered, and to maintain that dominion, the macho man must be prepared to risk all by acts of great daring, compelling the enemy to submit through violence, and dominating women.

Toxic masculinity manifests everywhere in our culture and can be seen reflected in politics, international conflict, municipal policing, domestic violence and interpersonal relationships. All you have to do is look at both internationally and domestically, leaders who routinely pound their chests while advocating for the use of deadly force as a solution to complex social problems, where diplomacy and reconciliation are routinely scorned as weaknesses.

According to J. R. Macnamara, in the book, Media and the Male Identity: The Making and Remaking of Men, less than 20% of media profiles reflective positive themes for men. Incidence of violence—by both the bad guys and the good guys—dominates the news in comparison with stories of compassion, kindness and selflessness.

According to Lauran Leader-Chivee, Senior V.P at the Center of Talent Innovation, our view of executive presence has become entangled with the cult of masculinity. America loves its male, extraverted, charismatic and authoritarian leaders. In particular, people associate leadership with agentic traits – conventionally masculine descriptors such as “assertive,” “forceful,” “dominant,” and “competitive.” These masculine traits are more likely to be viewed as characteristics of a successful leader than stereotypically feminine communal traits like “affectionate,” “compassionate,” “warm,” and “gentle.”

In my article in Psychology Today, “Why Do We have This Obsession with Winning,” I argue business language is infused with the vocabulary of the battlefield. The battle to win in a competitive market and dominate the opposition with an aggressive plan, by “destroying their opponents.”  You even hear of aggressive executives and entrepreneurs referring to a task or goal as something they “crushed.”

A study by Anne Koenig and her colleagues, published in the Psychological Bulletin on the topic of masculine leadership stereotypes concluded, that there is still a “strong and robust tendency for leadership to be viewed as culturally masculine.”

New research from the Kellogg School of Management, Stanford Graduate School of Business and Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business’ co-author Robert Livingston, of the Kellogg School argues “as humans we are wired to respond to dominance.” He explained: "Being selfish makes you seem more dominant and being dominant makes you seem more attractive as a leader, especially when there’s competition...on a subconscious level this is the conclusion people are coming to: Kindness equals weakness….Being selfish makes you seem more dominant and being dominant makes you seem more attractive as a leader.” Livingston believes that this tendency to associate aggression with leadership is an explanation on why we get corruption. “People who are more likely to be moral, kind and pro-social are least likely to be elected to these leadership roles,” he said.

The Rise of Authoritarianism

The Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), sociopathy, and psychopathy have one thing in common: they are disorders whose primary personality trait is the obsession with control, domination of, and power over others, whether that is people, animals, the environment, systems, or organizations.

During times of instability, leaders can enhance their power by advocating radical change to restore order. Leaders taking power in unstable environments are also granted more authority because instability demands quick action and unilateral decision making. But once decision-making becomes centralized, it is often difficult to take back.

Related to structural and organizational instability is the perception of imminent threat. This can range from feelings of mistreatment (e.g., Germans after Versailles) to the desperate economic and social situations in Somalia and Zimbabwe to a beleaguered corporation facing bankruptcy. When people feel threatened, they are more willing to accept assertive or authoritarian leadership.

According to the World Values Survey, Western societies have become increasingly more liberal and diverse on social issues, as evidenced by more egalitarian attitudes towards genders, tolerance of minorities and lifestyle preferences and a desire for more direct forms of democratic participation. These generational and values shifts have threated many traditionalists’ values. Increasingly older, white and less educated people (mostly males) are becoming marginalized, fearful, and angry.

Some researchers have shown a clear link between “angry populism” and authoritarianism, noting in the U.S. but also in European democracies such as Germany, Denmark and Norway, similar phenomena exist. Conservative politicians and their supporters for the most part demonstrate a clear anti-intellectualism, often scorning science, evidence, facts and reason, and replacing it with the language of platitudes and moral absolutism.

Many liberal critics such as Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges, Robert Scheer, Angela Davis and David Theo Goldberg have argued the U.S. has been gradually transformed from a weak democracy to an authoritarian state, characterized by a permanent war economy, the erosion of civil liberties, the control by powerful corporations, corporate control of the media and the militarization of civilian life.

Henry Giroux, writing about American authoritarianism, describes the authoritarian Nazi rule and Mussolini’s fascists state with their “idealization of war, nationalism, ‘fallen soldiers,’ racial cleansing and dogmatic obedience to the homeland merged with the language of God, family and country were integral to promoting servility and conformity among the populace.”

Giroux contends we see the rhetoric of Donald Trump and other conservative political candidates as a “mix of war-like values, expressions of racism, a hatred of women’s rights, unabashed support for the financial elite, a religious fundamentalism and a celebration of war and a deep seated hostility for all things public.”

Sheldon Wolin in his book, Democracy Incorporated, argues the U.S. has produced its own unique form of authoritarianism, which he calls “inverted totalitarianism,” in which the government is now governed by “anonymous and largely remote hands of corporate power,” in which holding political office is dependent on lobbyists representing big business.

Authoritarianism is not simplistically a personality disorder personified in extreme personalities, it’s also about how people are governed in a democracy. Authoritarian politicians and leaders no longer live in the shadows as they once may have. Now authoritarian leaders are enthusiastically embraced by a significant segment of the population. It’s not limited to Republican Party extremists. For example, former U.S. General Wesley Clark called for the reinstitution of WWII style internment camps for what he termed “disloyal Americans,” in a CNN program.

Jonathon Weiler, in his book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, argues that a substantive portion of the American voting public are authoritarian---they want to be, and want others to be controlled. Writer Amanda Taub wrote a great piece in Vox, citing its polling and research data, concluding that Donald Trump is merely a symptom of authoritarianism, not the cause of it. Research by Marc Hetherington has shown that based on 14 years of polling, authoritarians have moved steadily from the Democratic party to the Republican party.

The popularity of Hollywood films such as Top Gun, Zero Dark Thirty, Lone Survivor and Sniper overlook the real story—the cooperative relationship between Hollywood and the Pentagon Increasingly, entertainment has partially become an ideological vehicle for pro-war, pro-militarist propaganda, often extolling the virtues of authoritarianism.

Many liberal critics argue that authoritarianism has become a movement in American ideology, governance and policy in its attack on the welfare of the poor and disadvantaged, on civil liberties, by the acceptance of killing civilians by drones through unauthorized wars, and the legitimization and even promotion of the use of torture and use of domestic violence against  minorities of color, class and religion.

What’s disturbing is that the mainstream media treats these conservative extremists who promote a culture of fear, racism and hatred, as merely eccentric, odd, colorful, humorous or simply irritating, refusing to acknowledge or even discuss the dark side of authoritarianism.

Naomi Wolf, writing in The Guardian, identified 10 steps which reflect a move towards an authoritarian state. Ask yourself: How many of these actually exist now?

  • Invoke both an internal and external enemy. The internal enemy can be a racial or ethnic group. The external can be country but even more nebulous—“terrorism” or “drugs,” "Islam."
  • Create a prison or detention center outside the rule of law (e.g.: Guantanamo Bay).
  • Develop a “thug like caste.” They don’t need to be uniformed like the brown shirts in Germany. How about the armed militiamen patrolling the border and urban streets, or Federal farmland?
  • Expand an internal surveillance system that spies on the country’s citizens.
  • Harass dissenting citizens or citizen groups.
  • Engage in arbitrary arrest, detention and release of suspected insurgents (read “terrorists”) including creating “watch lists.”
  • Target key individuals who oppose the authoritarian policies with harassment and threats.
  • Control the press and media through policies, legal threats and providing false information.
  • Disseminate the belief that dissent equals treason.
  • Suspend the rule of law through enhanced executive and judicial powers and legislation.

Growing Militarism

Historically, there has been a reciprocal relationship between militarism and masculinity. On one hand, politicians have utilized ideologies of idealized masculinity that valorize the notion of strong active males collectively risking their personal safety for the greater good the wider community to gain support for the use of violence by the state and aggressive domestic politcing. On the other hand, militarism feeds into ideologies of masculinity through the eroticization of stoicism, risk-taking, and even lethal violence. This can be detected in populist fictional and nonfictional books and movies about war and weapons as well as in media coverage of military actions.

The military has expanded its role in America far beyond its mandate of national security and defense in the last three decades. As James Fallows argues in his article in The Atlantic, “Most Americans would be shocked to learn that something like 95 percent of the foreign affairs budget of the federal government is devoted to the military. National security accounts for about twenty percent of the entire federal budget, but the public seems to have an altogether different perspective: According to a CNN/Opinion Research poll conducted in March of this year, Americans think foreign affairs make up forty percent of the budget, with thirty percent of the budget devoted to the military and the remaining ten percent devoted to foreign aid. Despite the high numbers given the military, the militarism built into the federal budget seems to spark very little concern.”

To illustrate a few facts:

  • The 2016 defense budget in the U.S. was $598.00 billion, with a proposed increase for 2017.
  • The sum total of all defense budgets of other western countries plus Russia and China in 2016 was approximately $375.00 billion.
  • The U.S. has 800 military bases around the world and thousands more of other military related facilities.
  • The U.S. State Department budget is $27.7 billion; Education $68 billion and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) $5.7 billion.
  • The U.S. is the biggest exporter of military arms in the world.

Authors of America’s War Machine, James McCartney and Molly Sinclair McCartney explain how the military have become so ingrained in the U.S.’s political and economic systems, arguing the Pentagon is where the money is, and in Washington, as elsewhere, money talks. Even military leaders, beginning with President Eisenhower, warned of the “military-industrial complex,” have raised concerns over the growing militarism of the U.S.  In a March 3, 2010 speech, Admiral Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared, “U.S. foreign policy is still too dominated by the military, too dependent upon the generals and admirals who lead our major over-seas commands.” Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has made the same point, nothing that it seems to be easier for Congress to vote for money for the Pentagon than for the State Department. Historian and former military officer Andrew Bacevich contends, “Today as never before in their history, Americans are enthralled with military power. The global military supremacy that the United States presently enjoys—and is bent on perpetuating—has become central to our national identity.”

Gordon Adams and Shoon Murray, in their book, Mission Creep—The Militarization of US Foreign Policy explain their view of US militarization:  “a growing trend to view decisions on national security strategy, policies and policy implementation from a military perspective,” adding, “foreign policy issues and security challenges discussed at the senior policymaker level are framed as military challenges, most readily susceptible to policy solutions and programs for which military capabilities are seen as the appropriate response.” This view has certainly been reflective of recent events in the U.S.

Where once toxic masculinity, authoritarianism and bombastic military posturing may have been more subdued and camouflaged, it appears now they are unapologetically in the open. They are not only out of the shadows, but are enthusiastically embraced by a segment of the population and a significant number of their political representatives. Extremism has gone mainstream. The convergence of these three trends is a serious threat to a healthy democracy in the U.S., one that its citizens need to take seriously.

Copyright, 2017 by Ray Williams. This article may not be reproduced or published without permission from the author. If you share it, please give author credit and do not remove embedded links.

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I also write at The Financial Post, and Fulfillment Daily and Business.com

To read more about how leaders can use mindfulness practices to transform chaotic workplaces, read my book, Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces.

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