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Why Marjorie Taylor Greene’s latest insult for Pete Buttigieg scares me so much

The transport secretary went on Fox News to address MTG’s claims that Buttigeig is trying to ‘emasculate the way we drive’. The Republican firebrand was clearly sending out a very specific dog-whistle

Skylar Baker-Jordan
Tennessee
Wednesday 05 October 2022 18:16 BST
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Pete Buttigieg rejects MTG's claim that electric cars are 'emasculating'

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

There is a man in town who always captures my attention, whether at the coffeeshop, Walmart, or especially the gas station. It’s hard to miss him; he is nearly seven feet tall, wears sturdy work boots, has a curly mullet and drives the largest pickup truck I’ve ever seen. What truly catches my attention every time, though, is the black smoke billowing from said pickup, so thick and so noxious it would make William Blake want to write a sequel to “Jerusalem.”

I asked a friend who knew him why this man’s truck produced such fumes. “He’s rolling coal,” she said, with a shrug and a smirk. I needn’t tell you she’s a Republican.

“Rolling coal” is when diesel truck drivers “soup up their engines and remove their emissions controls to… belch black smoke at pedestrians, cyclists, and unsuspecting Prius drivers,” the New York Times reported in 2016. To many of these men — and it is overwhelmingly men who seem to partake in this form of protest — “the very efforts to ban coal rolling represent the worst of government overreach and environmental activism.”

I thought of that man, and the thousands of American men who are “rolling coal” on a daily basis, when watching Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg yesterday on Fox News. In responding to comments by Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene that he is trying to “emasculate the way we drive,” Buttigieg said he had no idea what that even meant.

I have an idea. Greene was not just taking a homophobic potshot at the first openly gay cabinet secretary, but dog-whistling to the very men rolling coal all across America — men who link climate denial, extractive industries, and authoritarianism with a rigid and traditional conception of American masculinity. In doing so, Greene was letting the coal rollers know that she is on their side.

This “petro-masculinity,” as the concept is known, sees fossil fuels — such as coal, oil, and natural gas — which must be extracted from the earth as being intrinsically bound up with traditional gender roles and sexual morality. It is a middle finger to the environmental movement specifically and the left more generally. It is an assertion of not only their politics, but their cultural leanings: a rebellion against egalitarianism and an assertion of their literally toxic masculinity.

That alone makes MTG’s comments newsworthy. But there’s a more sinister bend here, too. Petro-masculinity has been linked to a rise in authoritarianism. As Cara Daggett, an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Tech, wrote in an academic essay on the topic, “Fossil fuels matter to new authoritarian movements in the west because of profits and consumer lifestyle, but also because privileged subjectivities are oil-soaked and coal-dusted.” She says that it’s not coincidental that white, conservative American men “regardless of class” are among the most vocal climate deniers and the most vocal supporters of fossil fuels and extractive industries.

In this way, she writes, groups like the Proud Boys — a far-right hate group — reverse “the shame of white consumption and imperialism.” As an example, she points to the first “degree” required to join the Proud Boys. Members must declare: “I am a western chauvinist, and I refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.”

This statement is instructive. A 2019 article from the New Republic quotes a 2014 study from researchers at Chalmers University of Sweden which found that “for climate skeptics… it was not the environment that was threatened, it was a certain kind of modern industrial society built and dominated by their form of masculinity.” This makes sense when you consider the nature of extractive industries. Coal mining, for example, was and is a male-dominated sector of the economy. Extraction traditionally required strength and stamina and was dirty, grueling work.

However, as capitalism has found more efficient ways of extracting these resources from the earth, putting more coal miners and oilfield employees out of work, these men have lost the ability to provide for their families by the exertion of their physical labor. They have also lost the status that brought within their community and their feeling of inclusion in the American imperial project. Ill-prepared for the new, neoliberal job market, they struggle to provide for their family — and providing for your family is a cornerstone of American manhood.

It should be noted, however, that not all masculinity is toxic and that providing for your family is noble. It should also be said that the disappearance of well-paying jobs with which a man or woman can make a living is a real problem for the globalized economy. It’s worth acknowledging that at the core of this is an economic choice made by elites at the expense of working people, and that the failure to retrain for free the men and women who lost their jobs in places like Appalachia is a failure not only of capitalism but of the neoliberal state.

That failure has caused an identity crisis within many American men, fomenting hostility towards the green sector and environmental movements. To these men, “going green” — not climate change — is the existential threat. They then turn towards authoritarians like Donald Trump and Marjorie Taylor Greene in hopes of combating what they see as the threat to their masculinity and the threat to their economic security. Indeed, the two are intrinsically entwined.

It was these men to whom Marjorie Taylor Greene was dog-whistling. She wasn’t just making a point about climate change, but about culture. More than simply being homophobic, she is dog-whistling to the far-right and the authoritarians within her own movement. Both are every bit as noxious as the fumes spewed into the air by the coal rollers themselves.

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