KLAUS THEWELEIT’S MALE FANTASIES is a peculiar chimera, at once cultural history, critical theory, and gory, Gothic prose poem. The book, published in German in 1978 and in English a decade later, clocks in at 1,052 pages split into two marginally wieldy volumes. On a bookshelf, with its title emblazoned on each spine in the über-Teutonic font known as “blackletter,” it is liable to be mistaken for an exhaustive S/M manual. The book is in fact a weird and brilliant study of fascist masculinity. As of this writing, it is the only thousand-page poststructuralist study of fascism that can claim a cult following, but it is no mere Continental curio. To the contrary, as a psycho-political investigation of authoritarian manhood in extremis, it offers a powerful heuristic for our present situation. And by our present situation, I mean Donald Trump.
“Surreal” means over or above the real, but, even as Trump’s campaign has achieved hypoxic altitudes of preposterousness, it has also notoriously traveled into depths of the base and the crude. The devolution of the March 3 debate into what most regard as a dick-measuring contest was widely seen as the apotheosis of this vulgarity. But maybe we should be thinking about it the other way around — maybe the vulgarity is the byproduct of an unreconstructed and uncouth machismo. The old-school American macho man — cowboy, frontiersman, working-class hero — has no regard for polite sensibilities. Trump may look like a rancid creampuff in a Brioni suit, but his crass language serves the function of a ripped physique in a ripped T-shirt, projecting a Stanley Kowalskian virility. However, even Marlon Brando’s Stanley, with his parabolic swagger, might be scandalized by Trump’s uninhibited dominance displays.
Respectable aggression, the kind that could be considered “presidential,” channels testosterone into martial rectitude. It maintains a stony game face and aims for gravitas. But Trump always just seems to be blatantly, mortifyingly in rut. It is difficult to imagine a more priapic character. Flushed and pouting, boasting and strutting, oscillating between hoarse shouts (“Get ’im out!”) and harrowingly intimate murmurs (“It’s gonna be great, it’ll be so great…”), he appears too inflamed to even try to sublimate the libidinal thrust of his ambition. His supporters frequently claim that their candidate says what everybody else thinks but cravenly refuses to verbalize. Allegorically speaking, Trump the populist is a brute who ravishes the hypocrisies of a liberal-leftie haute bourgeoisie. His penchant for NC-17 insults (this one’s “a pussy,” that one got “schlonged”) and, more generally, his rhetorical recourse to the body, its extremities and effluents, might be understood as the trappings of a flamboyant gender performance that directly assaults PC pieties.
Asked in a recent interview about the appeal of the presumptive nominee, journalist Mark Leibovich said, “Political correctness is an incredibly powerful bogeyman.” Trump’s supporters tend to be emphatically anti-PC. Some more than others. Consider the Tillies, a family of ardent Trumpists recently profiled on the PBS show NewsHour. In the segment, we see family members manning the phone banks and thanking “Father God” for Trump’s existence. Standard human-interest fare, except that, while mom Grace Tilly explains her newfound interest in the electoral process, the NewsHour team blithely ignores the neo-Nazi tattoos waving around on her earnestly gesticulating hands. PBS was roundly chastised for this lapse, and everybody moved on to the next abomination, having drawn an increasingly redundant moral from the story: racism is rampant among Trump supporters. But the cross of Odin on Grace Tilly’s hand is not only a symbol of white supremacy — it’s also a symbol of patriarchy, consecrating the Aryan nation to a Father God who underwrites the prerogatives of mortal men (of Scandinavian extraction). I am not suggesting that all Trump voters are neo-Nazis. My point is simply, while it’s certainly true that Trump emits many racist dog whistles, his gleefully essentialist, stridently phallic masculinity is a dog whistle, too. Really, it’s more like an air horn. Male Fantasies helps us to attend to that signal, to parse its frequencies, and to consider its message.
Theweleit’s focus is the Freikorps, the ultra-right-wing militias that coalesced across Germany in the wake of World War I. Largely composed of veterans who felt lost and humiliated by the outcome of the war, the Freikorps fought Bolshevism wherever it reared its head, putting down the Spartacist revolt in 1919, helping to destroy the Bavarian Soviet Republic, and crushing communist stirrings in the Baltic states. These busy men, many of whom would become prominent officials of the Third Reich, also found time to write. A lot. Theweleit assembles excerpts from a vast corpus of Freikorps literature and subjects these materials to eccentric exegesis. He finds that imagery suggestive of intimacy, hybridity, or the breaching of boundaries — dirt, disorder, fluidity, flux — is associated in Freikorps writing with terror and deep revulsion. To him, this suggests that the fascist man’s obsessive misogyny and hypervigilant machismo are rooted in the traumatic severing of the “symbiosis” between mother and infant son. In his view, the “soldier male” (Theweleit’s term for the archetype of fascist manhood) is the product of a catastrophic reaction formation. But one need not subscribe to this Freudian-Deleuzian etiology to find Theweleit’s elucidation of the fascist imagination persuasive. His sprawling and darkly visionary survey convinces the way art convinces — it possesses the quality that in novels is referred to as inevitability, an internal coherence that strongly suggests things could not be otherwise. And as he pivots from the dream-logic of the subconscious to the public sphere, extrapolating from the soldier male’s inner life to his existence as a political and historical agent, the unnerving implications of his theories grow ever more apparent.
“The most urgent task” of the soldier male, Theweleit writes, “is to pursue, to dam in, and to subdue any force that threatens to transform him back into the horribly disorganized jumble of flesh, hair, skin, bones, intestines, and feelings that calls itself human — the human being of old.” Of all of these malign forces, femininity, or rather femaleness, is paramount, representing a noisome tarn, a swamp in which the ego will flounder and drown. Though sometimes suppressed in idealized visions of an ever-virginal “white woman,” the rage that Theweleit’s soldier males express toward the opposite sex is more often frankly homicidal. “When confronted with women, by contrast, their impulse is to pierce the facade of female ‘innocence,’ to display the whole morass […]. It is a shot or a rifle butt blow that extracts the evidence.” Sex, though it may be keenly desired, is revolting and dangerous: “Pleasure, with its hybridizing qualities, has the dissolving effect of a chemical enzyme […].” In flight from this lethal dissolution, the soldier male seeks “the conservative utopia of the mechanized body,” laboring to construct a self that is inorganic, adamantine, and wholly masculine.
Within the fascist’s primary social unit, the troop, he bonds intensely with his brothers-in-arms, and in so doing fuses with the “macromachine,” a fractal-like magnification of the rigid and phallic “totality formation” that is the fascist body. Hierarchy is essential to the functioning of the macromachine — it is the crystalline structure that holds liquidation at bay. Beyond this hierarchy, the soldier male acknowledges no authority: “All others belong only ‘under’ him — never alongside, behind, or in front.” But with lines of authority clearly drawn, the macromachine can pursue its raison d’être: war.
For the soldier male, battle is “a mechanism of self-maintenance.” He “survives by differentiating himself as killer, in opposition to whatever he perceives as threatening.” Over and over in Freikorps literature, Theweleit finds imagery of enemies transformed into what he calls the “bloody miasma” — a red cloud, a formless pulp — as the soldier male visits upon his adversary the feminizing dissolution that is his own worst fear. The red miasma then gives way to “a white totality,” a void where the enemy, the “swarthy rabble,” has previously stood. This hygienic zone of purity correlates with the ideal of the “white woman”; by displacing the tainted, teeming rabble, the white totality also displaces womanly filth. Race and gender are conflated. Theweleit dryly jokes that if you had asked a member of the Freikorps to note his sex on a form, he would have written “German.” To be German is to be Aryan, but also to be masculine. Nationalism forges whiteness and maleness into a single property, an indivisible, invincible identity within the “totality formation” that is Germany itself.
Any kind of social flux or leveling in the body politic is as threatening as flux within the soldier male’s own body, for such upheaval fractures the nationalist totality. Theweleit argues that the Freikorps engaged in endless civil war, unflagging combat against the “swarthy rabble,” because
the fascist identifies the existence of classes with the existence of the repressed in his own body; if the repressed has a life as class, then it gains a right to existence. If it is class, then everything he has banished to the lower regions, including woman, has a right to defend itself. None of this must be, for this man needs subordinates if he is to live.
In Freikorps literature, enemies in civil combat are “the micromasses, the bacillae of social diseases […].” They appear in a variety of grotesque incarnations: “the bellicose Communist, the lascivious Jew […]. The demons may equally be women — as agents of the flesh or ‘trapdoors into nothingness.’” Such base and pestilent creatures may be exterminated by any means available. The Freikorps had a highly developed conception of honorable combat, but its rules applied only to worthy rivals. Civil war was no holds barred, “since here the opponent’s aspirations are immediately presumed to be presumptuous and illegitimate.” Male Fantasies offers many, many glimpses of the tactics that might be deployed against a “presumptuous” enemy. Here, for example, are a few lines from Ernst von Salomon’s autobiographical novel The Outlaws (1930): “We smashed our way into startled crowds, raging and shooting and beating and hunting. We drove the Latvians across the fields like frightened hares […]. We hurled the corpses into wells and threw grenades in after them.”
“She had blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her … wherever.” The line could easily have been lifted from one of Theweleit’s excerpts. In fact, of course, it was said by Donald Trump, about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. He seems to be describing the cataclysmic end stage of a hemorrhagic fever, only here the lethal mechanism is not a virus but a menstrual cycle run amok. Trump’s bizarre allusions to Kelly’s bleeding “wherever” and Hilary Clinton’s bathroom break indicate that he is both fixated upon and disgusted by women’s bodily functions. His rhythmic emission of shocking comments and tweets about women and their appearance is clearly compulsive. He is definitely not what Theweleit would identify as a soldier male, but, for Theweleit, that archetype is just the most extreme incarnation of pathological, constitutively misogynist masculinity. “I consider it unjustified to see the ‘fascist’ male as an isolated case,” he writes. “His development is part of a wider history” — specifically, the history of “the ways the European male ego develops in opposition to woman.” Theweleit seems positive about what is causal here — everything flows from fear and loathing of women. This seems too neat, just as “European” seems too narrow. But I think his basic point is correct, and crucial, insofar as it urges us to think about our own historical moment in terms of this longer durée.
In his 2013 book Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, sociologist Michael Kimmel quotes a gun enthusiast named Rick:
Just look around. There’s illegals everywhere. There’s Wall Street screwing everybody. And now we got a goddamn […]. Oh, fuck it. I don’t care if it is politically incorrect. We got a fucking nigger in the White House. We’re all screwed. Nobody gives a shit about us guys anymore.
While acknowledging that plenty of women fulminate against “illegals,” minorities, and even “feminazis,” Kimmel proposes that the rage fueling groups like the Tea Party stems from the sense of “aggrieved entitlement” harbored by some white men. These men are well aware that they are being screwed by “Wall Street” and the economic system it represents. But they assign at least as much blame to “illegals,” minorities, and women as to the real agents of precarity. And women, by Kimmel’s reckoning, are the primordial adversary, the original illegitimate enemy, the template of insolent insubordination.
The men of the Freikorps also found themselves losing privilege in a time of instability. And it enraged them. Von Salomon, the writer quoted above, concludes his reminiscences with this peroration:
We had built a funeral pyre to burn dead matter; but more than this, we burned our hopes and longings, codes of civil conduct, the laws and values of civilization, the whole burden of fusty verbiage we carried, our belief in the things and ideas of a time that had rejected us.
The overwrought tone and bathetic cadence suggest that the author is trying to convey an emotion of real intensity, a genuine hatred for the ossified codes, laws, and values of civilian society. This is a hatred that von Salomon shared with his comrades. The men of the Freikorps believed that a cabal of leftists and Jews had orchestrated the signing of the Versailles treaty, which they considered an unnecessary capitulation and a total national humiliation. Perhaps worst of all, Germany had agreed to a demobilization that, as Freikorps soldiers saw it, consigned brave warriors to lives of ignoble boredom. For soldier males, the prospect of being “chained for life to the office” aroused the deepest resentment imaginable. Nothing was more outrageous to them than the notion of combat veterans returning from the exaltations of battle only to be offered “the princely sum of eight hundred marks monthly to rot away for fifty working hours in work that offends their very nature.” The old guard that perpetuated this offensive system deserved no mercy: “[We] voiced our common desire to stand the whole older generation against the wall and shoot them.”
Theweleit’s authors yearn for “the whole noxious world to burst in one great explosion.” Nothing less than tabula-rasa destruction is indicated: “Everything must change … Everything must be destroyed … The world will shatter around us but we shall march onward …” While locked in mortal combat against those who sought to destabilize the social order, they themselves desired nothing more than to watch that order die a violent death, not in collapse, but in an all-consuming conflagration that would leave nothing but cinders behind — cinders, and the steely, unmeltable totality of their own power. Freikorps writers are very hazy on the details of this post-apocalyptic society. Certainly, however, its hierarchies would accord not with Marx’s economic tiers, but with the Great Chain of Being, a natural order of superiority with themselves at the top. The soldier males of interwar Germany had no interest whatsoever in maintaining the class structure, per se — indeed, according to Theweleit, the very concept of class was anathema to them. They weren’t defending the interests of capital — they were defending that familiar avatar of privilege, the white male. Their leftist enemies might have been fighting a class war, but the Freikorps were fighting what we, today, might call a culture war. You could say they were practicing identity politics by other means.
Male Fantasies prompts us to contextualize two culture wars — past and present, hot and cold — within a “wider history” of masculinity that, in turn, could be seen as coterminous with another history: that of pseudo-conservatism. As theorized by Theodor Adorno, pseudo-conservatism is a political orientation that blends radical and reactionary impulses in contradictory ways but ultimately seeks the institution of an authoritarian regime. The hard-right Tea Party populism efflorescing under Trump is not fascism. But when fascism and Trump’s populism are juxtaposed under the rubric of pseudo-conservatism, certain ominous resonances do suggest themselves. Instead of overt militarism, we have the paramilitary fetishes of Minutemen and hunters who shoot bears with assault rifles. Instead of expansionist nationalism, we have a revanchism within our own borders, a drive to “make America great again” by retaking territory lost to minorities, women, immigrants, etc. Instead of — or, I guess, in addition to — a vast population of traumatized veterans, we have a vast ghost-army of workers traumatized by economic instability; and instead of being enraged by the prospect of humiliating, low-paying desk jobs, they are enraged by the prospect of humiliating, low-paying service-industry jobs. Adorno finds that the yearning to blow up “the whole noxious world” is present in American pseudo-conservatism as well: “The pseudo-conservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition,” he writes in The Authoritarian Personality (1950). “The most extreme concept of the tradition of American democracy is summoned by the pseudo-conservative way of political thinking: the concept of revolution.” This revolutionary impulse, however, is just that: an impulse, with no political program behind it. “There is only a vague idea of violent change, without any concrete reference to the people’s aims involved — moreover, of a change which has in common with revolution” — i.e., true revolution — “only the aspect of a sudden and violent break.”
Since the publication of The Authoritarian Personality, no “sudden and violent break” in American history has taken place. There’s no reason to assume that our future holds such an event, and no reason to assume it doesn’t. One of the hazards we are currently facing is the risk that we will acclimate to our circumstances, tell ourselves that what we’re experiencing is just another episode in the mundane craziness of American political life, soothe ourselves with the thought that a Trump presidency is highly implausible.
Among its other virtues, Theweleit’s book militates against such tendencies, offering a salutary reminder of the anarchic contingency of history. Anything can happen, and, in Germany, anything did happen. Those who banked on the plausible in Weimar Germany were proven naïve, even if they constantly adjusted their definition of plausibility to accommodate the latest bizarre occurrence. There was, finally, a rupture that nobody could have seen coming. If it should come to pass that America’s pseudo-conservatives initiate a sudden and violent break, scholars will debate the cause of the upheaval for many decades. Historians who posit a single decisive factor will be rightly chided for oversimplifying, whether the proposed trigger is outraged privilege, or the growing realization that “neoliberalism has well and truly failed” (to quote Thomas Frank’s widely read Guardian article on the motives of Trump voters), or something else entirely. But those who read Male Fantasies may well come to feel that we shouldn’t underestimate the power of aggrieved entitlement as a sociopolitical force. Theweleit’s soldier males — narrating their exploits with implacable rage, hair-raising relish, and, always, grandiose machismo — make a very vivid case against complacency.