What Marco Rubio's new macho pose tells America

Story highlights

  • Jay Parini: Rubio's machismo urging Americans to arm against invaders would be funny if it weren't so irresponsible
  • He says Rubio is fending off opponents' jabs that he's young and weak
  • But senator and the GOP don't show leadership by sowing fear, Parini says

Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont and is the author of "Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Difficult times occasionally summon great leadership.

Yet somehow, many in the GOP confuse macho talk with leadership, imagining that bluster is enough. Chris Christie as well as Jeb Bush and others have gone after Marco Rubio incessantly on this point, implying that the junior senator from Florida is some kind of sissy. "This is a first-term senator who still is learning where the men's room is in the Senate, let alone figuring out how to lead a country," Christie told Fox News.
Bush made fun of Rubio's fancy boots with their pointy toes and heels, bragging: "I don't have a height issue."
    Jay Parini
    Rubio has responded to the implication he is not tough or tall enough with an almost comic machismo. Indeed, he went into a gun store on Christmas Eve as he informed a crowd in Iowa the other day. He just couldn't wait to get his hands on a gun. Only real men buy guns on the eve of the birth of the prince of peace.
    This in itself is dismaying. But it only gets worse. In a speech in Sioux City, Iowa, last weekend, Rubio stooped to shameful fear-mongering. "If God forbid ISIS pays a visit to you, to our community," he said, "the last thing standing between them and our families may be the ability to protect ourselves with our guns."
    Did I get this right? He wants to encourage more Americans to buys guns so they can protect themselves from ISIS?
    Hearing Rubio's words, I was sadly reminded of the famous domino theory, which helped to bring us the Vietnam War. I remember my father -- a lifelong Republican -- echoing the popular line at the time. "If we don't fight the Commies in Vietnam, we'll be fighting them in California." We'd heard this kind of thing from LBJ, Richard Nixon and many others.
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    As ever, fear drives American foreign policy.
    I sometimes feel as if I spent my childhood hiding under desks in elementary school classrooms, preparing for the nuclear bombs that would soon drop on our heads. My first-grade teacher warned us that we might soon become cinders, and I lay awake at night worried about the prospect. The entire country was worried, and went along with a continuing buildup of U.S. military forces in the '50s and '60s. (Don't you wonder what keeps the children of today up at night? Nightmares about ISIS?)
    Even by 1980, Ronald Reagan played the same old hand, suggesting that "if there weren't this game of dominoes, there wouldn't be any hot spots in the world." It gave Reagan a reason to pour billions into conflicts in Central America, which by his lights was on our own doorstep, threatening our very existence.
    Our worries about Nicaragua and Grenada helped to justify this buildup, as the Commies were coming up from south of the border any day now.
    But the threat of communism dwindled. So we went quickly from defending ourselves against godless communism to fending off radical Islamic extremists. And now we have, says the right, the menace of ISIS bearing down on Sioux City and elsewhere. And we have Rubio saying it's time to man up and add guns to our family arsenals.
    Let's be clear: In no way does a violent gang of crazies in Syria and northwestern Iraq pose an "existential" threat to the United States. Even the attacks of 9/11 didn't present one, however grisly and sad. American sovereignty is strong. We have the largest military in the history of the world, and we still spend nine or 10 times more on our military each year than anybody else in the world. Nobody can knock us down, even if they would like to.
    ISIS can, however, cause fear and trembling in the United States and elsewhere. That is the chief weapon at its disposal: fear. It might even kill hundreds of people each year outside its strongholds in Iraq and Syria -- mostly in the Middle East. But this number is relatively small compared with the 90 or so deaths by handguns that occur, on average, in the United States every day. In fact, for each American killed by terrorists around the world each year, there are a thousand handgun deaths.
    Now that would be something for Rubio to scream about. "Handguns are killing us! Ninety people a day! 32,000 a year! Disarm, for your own safety! Boycott gun stores!"
    Instead, this senator is spreading terror himself -- as ISIS hopes he will.
    I hope that sooner rather than later Americans grow tired of the overheated rhetoric and macho posing that now dominate the political stage. It is nothing but "road rage masquerading as American politics," as the British historian Simon Schama recently said.
    Let's not be a nation of scaredy-cats and allow our presidential wannabes to instill fear in us. We have nothing to fear but fear itself. (Remember that, from FDR?) ISIS is surely a problem -- it's made of thugs who would certainly like to destroy anyone who doesn't conform to their narrow vision of Islam, which the vast majority of Muslims reject.
    But ISIS is a problem that we -- in collaboration with Western European allies as well as the Russians and Turks -- shall solve. It won't last through the decade; it's surrounded by enemies on every side.
    It's time for real leadership in the United States, not the kind of empty swagger that Rubio and his cohorts in the GOP parade before us almost every day of the week.