Are we electing a president, or a strongman?

Machismo, noun.

Exaggerated pride in masculinity, perceived as power, often coupled with a minimal sense of responsibility and disregard of consequences.

I bring this up not to poke fun at that ridiculous pageant on the Lincoln four years ago (entertaining as that is), but to point out the importance of machismo in the Republican primaries. (As I write this, I’m watching the King of the Hill episode in which Hank worries that Dubya’s limp handshake means he won’t be a strong enough president. Coincidence is a funny thing.) All the GOP candidates are falling over themselves to prove how tough they’ll be on Iran, or immigrants, or Guantanamo prisoners. For the most part (especially on Romney) it looks to be ordinary electoral posturing.

But for Rudy Giuliani, the tough-guy act appears to be less an election-year persona than an ingrained element of his character. To wit, the following:


So what we have here is two claims. One, the bit about McCain. For those who don’t know, John McCain, as a pilot during the Vietnam War, was shot down over North Vietnam, captured, and imprisoned for five years, during which time he was tortured. But hey, Rudy ran a city for eight years, so he must be better informed on the topic. Next, that bizarre bit about “there would be a lot more Mafia guys running around” if he hadn’t used “intensive questioning” on them. As several others have pointed out, this means either that he doesn’t know the difference between torture and interrogation, or that he waterboarded domestic criminal suspects.

My suspicion is that he doesn’t mind people thinking it’s the latter. After all, the current President, in his aforementioned carrier landing and his decision to keep Saddam Hussein’s pistol as a trophy, has more than a bit wrapped up in the “Great Warrior against Terror” bit. How on earth does one top that? Ah, right, imply that as soon as we do manage to capture Osama, you’ll personally be the one to strap him to a chair and apply the electrodes. And given Rudy’s place in the polls, it appears it’s working.

This is why, as much as I’d love to believe the chatter that the Christian right will bail and vote for a third-party candidate rather than the pro-choice Giuliani, I don’t really buy it. The Republicans have spent fifty years now building the President-as-Protector narrative, and don’t show any sign of abandoning it anytime soon. Indeed, it’s only gotten stronger in the last six years. Just look at how easily the President still gets his way on matters relating to foreign policy and executive power, despite having worse popularity ratings than Nixon. Congress keeps handing him blank checks for the war in Iraq, and Tuesday the Judiciary Committee gave him his Attorney General nominee. (Speaking of which, thanks ever so much for that one, Senators Feinstein and Schumer. You’re an inspiration to us all.)
After all, he’s our Protector. We were attacked (as we’re never allowed to forget), and we haven’t been since. And the real kicker? If we’re attacked again, it doesn’t mean that he screwed up and should be held accountable; it means that his hands were tied by pesky civil libertarians and terrorist-coddling lawyers. Thus, he needs more powers. And if you think it’s been bad under Bush, just consider the idea of this sort of narrative with a leader who once tried to pull a Musharraf in his municipality.

I realize how alarmist this sounds, but think for a moment about how far we’ve moved politically in the last few years. I’ve just mentioned that a Presidential candidate clearly thinks torture is acceptable, and he’s in the lead. We’re discussing an attack on Iran, and the major concern of Americans isn’t so much that we’re about to invade a country that hasn’t attacked us for the second time in four years, but that we might rush into it. Ten years ago, could you have imagined any of this? We’re not through the looking glass just yet, but it wouldn’t take much of a shove to get us there.

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