Many years ago, I read a column by Stewart Alsop, in which appeared the classic phrase “The Phony Tough and the Crazy Brave.” I’ve googled and found that most people remember the phrase being from Full Metal Jacket, but Alsop’s column was about Watergate.
Most of the Watergate conspirators were Phony Tough, given to pronouncements like “I would walk over my grandmother if necessary to assure the President's reelection.” They liked to curse (expletive deleted), and strut around, and tell each other how manly they were.
Alsop had seen their like in the military, where such behavior is fairly common. Much rarer were the “Crazy Brave,” the men who really would walk over their grandmothers, punch out their enemies, hold their hands over flames, or do whatever else the phony toughs would brag about – and more. Such men flourish during wartime, because war is the dissolution of the rules of civilized behavior, and is the natural habitat of the lawless and the sociopathic. So the idea of war appeals to the phony tough, but the actuality of war gratifies the crazy brave.
Alsop wrote about the hoodoo that the crazy brave have over the phony tough, because the latter have few defenses against the man who dares them to follow through on their braggadocio. When G. Gordon Liddy proposes to break into DNC headquarters, how can John Mitchell say no, without being seen as weak? When Oliver North decides to sell arms illegally to Iran in order to fund his crazy brave brethren in Nicaragua, what is John Poindexter other than a rubber stamp?
As a friend of mine says, the Militia Movement is primarily about going out in the woods on weekends, getting barking drunk, and telling the other guys how manly you are. The crazy brave Tim McVeigh must have come as quite a shock. Now they're talking tough about policing the border, because illegal immigrants are easy prey. I'd say it would be interesting to see what happens if one of the Minutemen encounters actual drug smugglers sometime, but that's just me projecting my own violent fantasies on someone else, which is only one step away from the phony toughness trap. So I think I'll just say, "Drink up, guys! And stay off the highways."
Phony toughness is the essence of a certain kind of bully and we live in a time of national bullydom. I can’t pinpoint the crazy braves who could crystallize the disaster. Ted Nugent is a draft-dodging gas bag, for example, good at killing small animals and blasting away at trees, but you've got to wonder how he'd fare in a real firefight. My guess: badly.
But I do so hope my country comes to its senses before the right seductive sociopath appears, ready, willing, and able to lead his countrymen straight over the cliff. All for toughness, you understand. It’s always important to be tough.