Sculpted, sweating, bare torsos doing push-ups, bulging muscles, two scantily-clad men locked in a fight—they, too, are ripped. A blond, equally fit man shoots at plastic bottles, a man’s hand grasps a cow’s udder. The music swells dramatically—so far it’s been menacing drum beats—we see a completely naked man standing on a hill in a redeemer pose, his sinewy arms stretched up towards the sky. In front of him, obscuring his private parts from view, is what looks like a gigantic Covid test.
This trailer for Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s new documentary The End of Men has drawn a lot of mockery online—especially when it became clear that the device covering the genitals isn’t a glowing Covid test, but that the naked man standing on a pile of stones is in fact bathing his testicles in UV light—a process, that according to macho fitness influencers, is supposed to increase the sperm count. This claim is not backed up by science. But what does this staging of half-naked men knocking over huge car tires in slow motion have to do with the American political or even Religious Right, for which Carlson has become a trusted mouthpiece?
At first glance, the video may seem ridiculous, but it actually offers a chilling glimpse into the ideology of America’s increasingly radicalizing Right. In right-wing ideology—and most notably in fascism—gender roles are inherently political, as numerous historians and other humanities scholars have shown.
The historian Michael Hatt writes: “The stability of masculinity depends upon the visibility of the male body; to be learned or consolidated, masculinity requires an exchange between men.” Not only are the depictions of idealized, militant masculinity important propaganda tools for fascists, they also provide viewers with a deep insight into their thinking.
Fascism requires a perpetual state of war. This doesn’t have to be a real war—instead, a narrative is built in which the “real” people are threatened from the outside. These enemies are painted as both incredibly powerful, but also as despicable and degenerate. According to this understanding, in order to counter this constant threat fascism needs men—physically strong men, who are not only able to throw large car tires around, but who also deter their opponents through their overpowering physique. The relationship between masculinity and force is crucial: Fascism, as historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat writes, “links masculinity to the performance of violent acts.”
Carlson is in good company: some Republican politicians, like Josh Hawley, have made an alleged “war on men” by the left, which results in the de-masculinization of the American male, part of their culture war program. Tucker Carlson is among those on the American Right seemingly obsessed with this image of militant masculinity, who is, at the same time—anticipating LGBTQ hostility from his audience and peers—trying to distance themselves from what they see as “degenerate” sexual behavior.
Of course, there’s a certain homoeroticism to the carefully staged, slow-motion images of naked and semi-naked men wrestling, or flexing their biceps. In fascism, the male body is supposed to be a desirable one, but only in a strictly heterosexual framework. And yet, Carlson’s trailer doesn’t show any women.
So why the focus on desirable male bodies and strength? In fascism, closeness between men is only acceptable in a militarized, brutalized context. This “protects” the man from the suspicion of homosexuality. Emotional closeness is exclusively invoked in concepts such as comradeship, which at the same time frames the soldierly ideal as a synonym for the male ideal.
Psychologists and historians have repeatedly pointed out that this narrative of perpetual siege and the constantly battle-ready man lays the foundation for acts of violence by followers of this ideology against those who don’t belong to what they conceive to be the “real people,” the real “volk”—or, in this case, the “real America.” It’s no coincidence that right-wing publicist Glenn Ellmers has claimed that citizenship is not enough to be considered an American.
Which brings us to the heart of White Christian nationalism: America is seen as a country founded by White Christians, for White Christians. “Christians,” however, only refers to those Christians who share the political attitudes of the Right—the others, it’s claimed, aren’t “real Christians”—and therefore not “real Americans.” Christian and American identities are inseparable in Christian nationalism, merged into one another.
At the same time, blood and soil are central to this ideology. This focus stems, as Yale sociologist Philip Gorski describes, from drawing a parallel between the Bible’s conquest of the Holy Land by the Israelites, and the violent conquest of the American continent by White Christian immigrants. The ground had been sanctified by the blood that had been shed—and in turn, the newly won land had to be defended by force of arms.
Fascism glorifies violence—but only by the men of the “Volksgemeinschaft,” the “Volk community.” In Christian nationalism, for example, the exercise of violence by white Christian men—or even male youths like Kyle Rittenhouse—isn’t only positively construed, but even desired. Therefore it’s not surprising that in Tucker Carlson’s trailer, a gun is fired. Violent male resilience against “degenerate” threats who want to destroy the country—and thus its “real” people—has a positive connotation here.
The (imaginary) threats however, don’t necessarily have to come from outside. Instead, what’s often spoken of is an enemy from within: the American Right doesn’t see its political opponents, the Democrats, as exactly what they should be in a democratic system—political opponents with whom one sometimes agrees and sometimes disagrees. Instead, the Right see their vision of a multi-ethnic, pluralistic democracy as deeply un-American. And you don’t negotiate with an opponent who wants to bring ruin to your country.
Sweaty fascist bodies
Tucker Carlson’s trailer and documentary are far from the only depictions of fascist masculinity that have crept into the public consciousness in recent years—or, as in the next example, roared into pop culture. The film 300 hit theaters in 2006 and tells a version of the legend of the Spartan king Leonidas, who, while completely out-manned, defeated the Persian army with only 300 of his men, none of whom survive, but heroically save their “fatherland” in a gory orgy of violence. It’s reminiscent of the concept of a “hero’s death” that the Nazis also promoted. But that’s not the film’s only fascist element.
The portrayal of the Spartans is an exact realization of fascist fantasies of masculinity: tough guys, huge muscles, bodies sweaty from battle, hardened in the wild. The fact that they’re almost invincible is due to eugenics: if you’re too weak, you’ll be killed. Incidentally, it’s no coincidence that James Dobson, a highly influential “educator” on the Religious Right, learned from the eugenicist Paul Popenoe—who himself founded marriage counseling for white couples as a form of “positive eugenics” after World War II. In fact, Popenoe wrote the foreword to Dobson’s 1970 book, Dare to Discipline.
But back to the sweating Spartans. Their opponents—in this case the Persian king and his army—are queer-coded, while also conveying that they are decadent and inhuman. Fans of the film defend it as a meta-criticism of fascism, but the claim quickly collapses. YouTuber “Big Joel,” who recently reignited earlier discussion of the film’s fascist nature, correctly identifies the Persian sexual “degeneracy” and its portrayal as a clear fascist marker:
“We know that [the film] is not a subtle criticism of Sparta or fascism because in the subplot the queen is raped by a man who has been perverted by Persian degenerate tendencies.”
The inhumanity of the opponents is also given visual expression: the Persians are monstrous, exoticized figures who want to destroy the Spartans, who function as protectors of civilization.
The notion of hegemonic masculinity as the cornerstone of civilization is not in itself an idea unique to fascism, but is inherent to all patriarchal societies. It’s the combination with other features and narratives that matters. But what about the testicle-tanning—how does this fit in? Behind the ridiculousness on the surface lies the connection to White Nationalist narratives.
In Carlson’s trailer, we see a sperm that fails to penetrate an egg cell. Interpretation isn’t even required here as the narrator’s voice is already doing it for us: “Weak men”—represented here by overt fatphobia—caused societies to collapse. The opening scene alludes to declining birth rates. This is a favorite topic of white nationalists like Tucker Carlson, who for years has lamented the low birth rates of white babies. This demographic anxiety is overtly racist, since it’s contrasted within the narrative with an amorphous mass of BIPOC, who came to the country as immigrants and are reproducing at a much higher rate. It’s not a big leap from this to conspiracy myths like the “Great Replacement” or “White Genocide.”
“Weak men,” explains the narrator’s voice, grow up in “good times.” This Golden Age is followed by one of decline, of destruction—an age that produces “strong men” who can “survive.” Or, as the narrator says, “iron sharpens iron.” This was the idea behind Hitler’s sentiment that young people should be “hard as Krupp steel.” These men, the narrator says, would then “go on to re-establish order.” An example of what Carlson means when he talks about restoring “order” is easy to find: Kyle Rittenhouse shooting two people at a Black Lives Matter demonstration. At the time, Carlson said that Rittenhouse had wanted to “maintain order when no one else would”
The age of destruction
“And so the cycle begins again,” concludes the narrator in Carlson’s trailer. The mystical tone of voice might seem random, but the video describes a form of traditionalism which Steve Bannon and Putin confidante Alexander Dugin subscribe to. In their ideological ponderings about society, both refer to René Guénon, the founder of traditionalism, and the Italian fascist Julius Evola as a big influence.
At the core of traditionalism is the rejection of modernity (with the exception of its technical achievements), combined with esotericism and mysticism. Similar to fascism, it also glorifies rural life, or at the very least presents an anti-urbanism. So it’s only fitting that in Carlson’s trailer full of sweating men’s bodies we see one of them milking a cow: sweat and soil.
While modernity is based on perpetual progress, on constant further development, the traditionalist worldview doesn’t move according to a horizontal timeline. In traditionalist thought, this is expressed in a cyclical understanding of time that was borrowed from Hinduism, invoking a mystical Indo-European-Aryan heritage. Traditionalism is in search of a supreme spirituality or religiosity and is deeply attracted to Eastern mysticism. It’s cross-religious—some traditionalists are Sufis, others Russian Orthodox, others don’t belong to any fixed religious community.
But one thing connects them all: They believe that we’re in the fourth age, in the “Kali Yuga”: the age of destruction. That means the world—degenerate, decadent and corrupt—must first be destroyed before a new Golden Age can rise from its ashes.
There’s a parallel here with black-pilled white nationalists; accelerationists who believe that violence and destruction of current society is the only way forward. This view is also prevalent in incel and male supremacy circles—with the addition that the only way they will succeed is through violence. (It’s not for nothing that Umberto Eco named Traditionalism—what he called “cult of tradition”—and the “rejection of modernity” as the first two in his list of features that are typical of fascist cultures.)
The proximity of the term “Kali Yuga” in online communities to the far Right has been analyzed by scholars using the example of 4chan. It’s troubling when this ideology is mainstreamed through figures like Tucker Carlson and Joe Rogan, who runs a hugely successful podcast on Spotify. For Carlson, the alleged decline of conservative values, and thus the decline of America, can be explained directly by the effeminization of men. For him, violence and masculinity are intertwined: he nodded in agreement while right-wing radio commentator and ex-soldier Jesse Kelly said on his show that the American military doesn’t need to be “woman-friendly” or “gay-friendly” but instead needs “type-A” men “who want to sit on a throne of Chinese skulls.”
When Tucker Carlson, who for years has acted as a bridge for White Supremacist Talking Points from the far Right to the conservative mainstream, becomes increasingly open, produces a film about an alleged crisis in masculinity—when the call for “tough men” gets louder—our alarm bells should be ringing. Because behind this short trailer—for all the silliness of irradiated testicles and men lifting tires—there is a fascist, violent and dangerous ideology that relies on escalation.
(First published in German in the online literature magazine 54books)