Countering the Radical Right: Opinion

Real American men and the liberal war on meat

How Joe Biden’s climate plan sparked Republican panic over masculinity and the most American of holidays

Cat Tebaldi
28 May 2021, 12.01am
A man wears an apron adorned with the US flag to BBQ meat on 4 JulyCavan Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Cavan Images / Alamy Stock Photo
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On 24 April, Fox News broke out in a panic over “plant-based beer” and “grilled brussels sprouts” for a “Green 4th of July.” The tone and tenor suggested environmentalism was a deadly threat to the US, and especially American manhood.

Radical Right congressperson, gun enthusiast and Q-Anon supporter Lauren Boebert tweeted that US president Joe Biden’s climate plan would cut 90% of American’s red meat consumption by 2030 and that Biden should “stay out of her kitchen”.

The image of Biden in the kitchen evoked fears about the administration’s totalitarian overreach, and suggested an inversion of gender roles – Biden, and all vegetarians, were not real American men. Boebert and others repeated talking points by Larry Kudlow, the Fox Business host and former Trump adviser, who argued the Green New Deal would be the end of grilling and traditional 4 July celebrations, stoking a panic about the end of the most masculine form of cooking and the most American of holidays with casual racism.

Those covering the story used Mock Black speech or words or grammar associated by white speakers with Black language – such as “Up in your grill” – to evoke racial stereotypes. This links Biden to imagined urban Blackness and tells the audience that they know the “real American men” are white and suburban.

Meanwhile, in order to let everyone know they didn’t support Biden or brussels sprouts, right-wing men flooded Twitter with pictures of their meat. They retweeted several pounds of unseasoned grey T-bones, raw steaks, prime ribs – often accompanied by an American beer. One popular meme echoed the National Rifle Association, saying we could take their steak from their cold dead hands. Liberal Twitter responded by mocking the Right with #meatbeer; laughing that they didn’t know that beer is always plant-based (except Coors) or that you should order steak medium-rare. Almost nobody mentioned that we should, in fact, eat less meat.

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This was just the latest in a series of Republican attacks on ‘vegetarian totalitarians’ and the welfare state, from the “broccoli horrible” argument against the Affordable Care Act to stoking fears that the Green New Deal will ban hamburgers.

On 13 April 2021 Iowa Republican Senator Joni Ernst proposed the TASTEE Act (Telling Agencies to Stop Tweaking What Employees Eat), which would ban “Meatless Mondays” in federal cafeterias, warning us of a “war on meat” which sounds a lot like the “war on Christmas” or “the war on men”.

Meaty manhood

These meaty moral panics present and valorize an American identity that revolves around a man battling liberals to earn his beef. Republican politics often use meat to mobilize an image of working-class, masculine toughness, or heartland American patriotism. It's not just meat, it's dad at the grill on 4 July – the picture of manhood. The food is heavy, under-seasoned and over-cooked, but presented with pride. Texan politicians share photos of dry brisket, Wisconsin’s governor of ham and cheese sandwiches. Trump, of course, eats steak well-done with ketchup, and poses with hundreds of fast food burgers.

Food ideology helps shape Right populist discourse against liberal “cultural elites”, a white working-class authenticity, in opposition to a liberal search for cultural distinction. Although an enormous steak is expensive, it is given value as an ordinary man’s food in part through a simple or oversized presentation that makes it seem everyday and authentically American. It is also populist in contrast to liberal foods, such as sprouts, and liberal food ideologies.

From castigating 'soy boys' to Jordan Peterson’s carnivorism, meat means masculinity for the Right

Liberal food snobbery, such as Mike Bloomberg’s campaign billboard reading “Trump eats burned steak”, or tweets mocking Republicans’ lack of knowledge of craft beer haute cuisine also allow the Right to craft this populist image. In the words of the Right, a huge side of meat with ketchup is “owning the libs”, these imagined, eco-conscious, pretentious liberals who probably order steak “à point”.

Soy boys and tradwives

From castigating 'soy boys' to Jordan Peterson’s carnivorism, meat means masculinity for the Right. Even those who don’t yearn for a white nation might associate veganism with women or celebrate meat as food that builds muscular strong men. Such shared ideologies make this an important area for the normalization of far-Right politics.

Perhaps the best example is the meat-heavy Paleo diet. The author of ‘The Paleo Manifesto’, John Durant, is a Trump supporter who describes himself as an “unfiltered contrarian”, but his diet had between one and three million users in 2013. Pioneered in 1975 by Walter Voegtlin, since disavowed by modern Paleo leaders for his “white supremacist, eugenicist, and generally unpalatable politics”, this diet celebrates a natural, white, premodern utopia.

This vision of traditional utopia is also maintained by the tradwives, the women in their 20s and 30s who celebrate “traditional femininity” and actively promote submission to men, homemaking and having large families. Researcher Annie Kelly notes that this vision of nostalgic femininity is linked to white supremacy. Central to the women’s production of anti-feminist and white nationalist nostalgia are ideas of bodily and racial purity and fertility, such as home cooking as a performance of traditional lifestyles and gender roles.

For some a traditional utopia reflects an interest in wellness; a farm-to-table cuisine leading to a natural, healthy lifestyle, as well as a pure, fertile body and a slender figure. Often celebrating traditional Western foods or preparing labor-intensive meals that would be impossible for working women, tradwives link wellness to whiteness and anti-feminism. I grew up with this ideology, from a cookbook called “Nourishing Traditions”, which gave pickled beet and fermented cod recipes, and saw modernity and processed food as polluting to the body and mind – and challenged ‘politically correct’ nutrition.

Others celebrate traditional American food and traditional gender with a 1950s’ flair and a pearl necklace. If grilling is male, baking is feminine. Perhaps the only thing more feminine would be the dinner a tradwife proudly cooks from anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly’s cookbook, ‘Faithfully, Phyllis: In the kitchen’.

Cooking itself is often a metonym for the ‘traditional’ female role, her place ‘in the kitchen’. Cooking for and serving your man becomes an important image of submission and femininity, which honors and elevates white masculinity.

Tradwives use pies and pearls to translate far-Right politics into the language of home and family. Although their tastes are different, mainstream Republican politicians and tradwives use food in very similar ways, using hamburgers and steaks to translate the Green New Deal into a front in a war on meat, men and white suburban homes.

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