Much of the commentary about CNN host Chris Cuomo’s heated argument at a New York bar earlier this month with a man who taunted him as “Fredo” focused on whether or not the term is a slur against Italian-Americans. That’s understandable, because Cuomo said as much in the heated moments of the exchange, comparing the moniker “Fredo” to the n-word.
But anyone familiar with the central characters in the iconic Godfather movies knows that calling someone Fredo is also a thinly veiled attack on their manhood.
The event sparked a spate of minor news stories, and became fodder for conservative talk radio, right-wing podcasts and Fox “News.” Notably, Fox’s Sean Hannity defended Cuomo’s aggressive response to the man on the grounds that it’s not right for public figures to be harassed, especially when they’re with their family.
This prompted an angry tweet from Donald Trump, who called Cuomo an “out of control animal” and “a disgrace,” and questioned why anyone would defend him.
For his part, Cuomo was contrite in retrospect. “Appreciate all the support,” he tweeted. “But — truth is I should be better than the guys baiting me. This happens all the time these days. Often in front of my family. But there is a lesson: no need to add to the ugliness; I should be better than what I oppose.”
It’s a good lesson. It’s always good practice to take the high road in ugly encounters, and whenever possible to de-escalate situations that have the potential to spiral toward violence.
But there is another possible takeaway from this incident, one that Democratic candidates need to learn from. It is something that right-wing strategists have known for a long time, and that Donald Trump has long taken to the bank — and to the White House.
Voters — especially but not exclusively white male voters — like candidates who appear tough, and who are willing to hit back when they’re attacked. Arguably the greatest source of Donald Trump’s popularity with his white male base is his reputation as a “counterpuncher,” someone who will strike back against his critics and never back down. It might be a reality TV persona, but it works, and in 2016 it translated into Trump’s landslide margin over Hillary Clinton among white men.
That’s why analysis of the Chris Cuomo incident that focused on the anti-Italian bigotry of the young man’s statement got only a portion of the essential story right. White men of the alt-right, as well as white nationalists, are fixated on attacking the supposed softness and wimpiness of liberal and progressive men, calling them pussies, eunuchs and soy boys. They even have a gendered word for conservative men who are insufficiently rabid and aggressively doctrinaire: cuckservatives.
In this context, the provocateur who called Cuomo “Fredo” was impugning the liberal Cuomo’s toughness and masculinity by associating him with Fredo, the Corleone brother widely disdained for his weakness and insecurity. What motivated Cuomo’s aggressive reaction to the slur was arguably as much about a perceived challenge to his manhood as it was to a slur against his ethnicity.
Which is why even Sean Hannity, himself obsessed with displays of masculine aggression and arguably the most egregiously sycophantic Trump supporter in conservative media, rose to Cuomo’s defense. Hannity clearly respected Cuomo’s defense of his integrity and his family’s honor even though he doesn’t share any of his political views.
What does this have to teach the Democrats? It’s pretty simple. For more than a generation, the Republican Party has drawn millions of white working and middle-class men away from the Democratic Party — and gotten them to support the party of tax cuts for the wealthy — through a skillful use of identity politics appeals. These appeals have spoken not only to their anger about perceived threats to their whiteness, but to their resentments and anxieties about threats to their traditional ideal of manhood.
They have been successful with the latter of these grievances in part because the Democrats, with few exceptions, have decided either to focus on policy differences with the GOP and stay away from struggles around personalities, or because they haven’t been able to find and run candidates who can easily communicate authentic toughness.
As a result an entire generation of young white men thinks about Democrats — especially Democratic men — in the most caricatured terms, as passive, effete elitists who are unwilling to get tough when it’s necessary in a dangerous world. It doesn’t matter whether the Democrats can produce position papers that demonstrate how their policies would in fact make us all safer, or would much better represent the economic interests of the average “working man” than would the party of the 1%.
In an era of media spectacle and social media propaganda, narrative Trumps policy.
Conservative pundits often claim that their voters are motivated by rational calculation, but cannier right-wing strategists — like Steve Bannon — know that the GOP wins over countless white men with visceral appeals to their fears, their anger, and other volatile emotions.
One of the tasks at hand for the Democrats in 2020 — whether their presidential candidate is a man or a woman — is for them to put forward someone who, like Chris Cuomo, is willing to convey just enough fury and controlled aggression to fight back hard when Donald Trump inevitably tries to ridicule and humiliate them.