On Tuesday, Republican Senator Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma decided to settle a social media beef in the middle of a Senate hearing titled “Standing Up Against Corporate Greed.” Mullin read from a months-old post by Sean O’Brien, the president of the Teamsters, in which O’Brien called Mullin “a clown & fraud,” mocked the senator with an unflattering photo and the hashtag #LittleManSyndrome, and challenged the senator to a fight: “Anyplace, Anytime cowboy,” O’Brien boasted.
Mullin’s reply to O’Brien, who was at the hearing as a witness: “Sir, this is a time, this is a place. If you want to run your mouth, we can be two consenting adults, we can finish it here.”
“OK, that’s fine. Perfect,” said O’Brien.
It devolved from there: “You want to do it now?” “I’d love to do it right now.” “Well, stand your butt up then.” “You stand your butt up.” Mullin stood up, and Senator Bernie Sanders, the committee chairman running the hearing, had to break it up. “Stop it … Sit down … You’re a United States senator,” Sanders said, gesturing for both men to take their seats, rapping his gavel and sounding exactly like my dad breaking up a fight between my brother and me in 1993.
Video of the fracas went viral — and though I’m not proud of it, I have to admit that I was momentarily entertained. I wasn’t the only one. It was pretty clear that both Democrats and Republicans enjoyed the would-be scrap. Online, I saw all sorts of people expressing support for their guy and placing odds on who’d win an eventual brawl between a Massachusetts teamster and a mixed-martial arts fighter turned legislator.
In July, my newsroom colleague Joseph Bernstein described this kind of standoff as part of a trend of high-profile or powerful men fixing to fight. Over the summer, for instance, tech billionaires Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk both expressed interest in facing off in a cage match, though it’s “probably not” going to happen. The set-to between Mullin and O’Brien wasn’t the only incident of its kind in Congress this week.The Times’s Robert Jimison reported on the rest of the action in a story headlined: “Fight Club Erupts on Capitol Hill.”
In today’s attention economy, it’s undeniable that these displays of ultimately juvenile masculinity play extremely well — and Donald Trump, who can be funny, is the master of ceremonies in this adolescent circus. According to a new fact sheet from Pew Research, 43 percent of TikTok’s users regularly get news there, up from 22 percent just three years ago, so the short video medium is likely to only grow in terms of political influence, especially among Gen Z. And though it may go without saying, what’s good for the basest kind of political entertainment isn’t necessarily good for Congress, the country as a whole or young men.
“This is a hearing,” Sanders had to remind everyone. “And God knows the American people have enough contempt for Congress. Let’s not make it worse.” No doubt he’s aware that of 16 major institutions in the United States, Americans have the least confidence in Congress (and it is at an new low), according to Gallup polling from 2022.
I don’t have boys, but I know that by several measures, they are floundering compared to American girls. Men are now less likely than women to graduate from college, at a time when being college educated is an indicator of future health and well-being. It’s also axiomatic that for most adults — in both professional and romantic relationships — you won’t be successful unless you have a certain level of maturity and self-control.
But when senators act like children, without censure (and apparently without any regret, since Mullin later said, “Every now and then, you need to get punched in the face”) how are we, as a culture, supposed to model healthy adult masculinity? I don’t mean that in a “Won’t somebody please think of the children” kind of way. I just don’t think we can be a functional society if this becomes the new norm.
I called Richard Reeves, the author of “Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters and What to Do About It” and the president of a new think tank, the American Institute for Boys and Men, to find out what he thought of the Mullin-O’Brien exchange. I asked him how we can encourage young men to act better than senators and captains of industry when the rewards for reasonable behavior seem less obvious than ever.
Reeves said he thought people were fascinated by the incident because it was a live spectacle that is less typical than it used to be — the violent crime rate is down over the last few decades, canings and duels are no longer in fashion on Capitol Hill, and physical fighting among high schoolers has also trended down.
But when you get past that rubbernecking, it’s actually pretty shameful. “I know what my father and grandfather would make of this, and it’s embarrassing really. It’s humiliating as a citizen, right?” Reeves said — that a person in such an esteemed position would not have the restraint to refrain from threatening somebody in the middle of a work function.
Reeves doesn’t have easy answers for the societal problem of powerful men’s immaturity (and we both noted that powerful women haven’t exactly been acting like grown-ups, either, even grandmothers). But he senses that the solution is boys being around men who can show them “what more mature men do. And most importantly, what mature men don’t do. Even if they could, they don’t.”
He sees salvation in the male role models in boys’ lives — fathers, teachers, neighbors, coaches. The men who are quietly present, stand-up guys who aren’t looking to make a scene on C-SPAN or TikTok. Because it might be funny to preen on social media for a second, but the rest of us need to learn to let go.