Donald Trump has stolen the machismo from the rest of the GOP field. He's the tough guy, the winner, the smart one, the rich(est) one. He pledges to singlehandedly undo trade deals and force the Mexicans to build a wall. He laughs off lobbyists, doesn't need to worry about pleading at fundraisers, mocks the media and still gets all the airtime. He calls Ted Cruz a "pussy" and Jeb Bush "low energy" and a "clown." He fills stadiums — like one Rolling Stone visited in Sumter, South Carolina, this week — with cheering fans as he ridicules politicians back in Washington as "controlled by special interests." The weaklings.
As the other Republican candidates try to scratch their way back to making a dent in Trump's double-digit lead in South Carolina, their efforts are squarely directed at restoring that machismo to the Republican brand. While Trump taunts both parties for feebly allowing America to lose its greatness, his Republican rivals try to bolster their own macho bona fides by attacking liberalism, liberals and the reviled bugaboo "political correctness."
In fact, Trump has made it not only acceptable but required to talk about political correctness — which is, for many Republican voters, emblematic of weakness in the face of enemies, and of internal forces that are undermining a lost, great America.
"Everyone is tired of political correctness," Ann Cortes, a Ted Cruz supporter who came to hear him speak at the USS Yorktown in Mount Pleasant, tells Rolling Stone. Trump "shook things up and freed the other candidates" to talk about it, she says.
Lois Stratos, another Cruz supporter at the USS Yorktown, agrees, saying "Trump has energized" the Republican Party with his opposition to PC culture.
Cruz is still trying to imitate Trump, even as Trump has traveled the state accusing him of being a serial liar. In casting himself as the most Trump-ish anti-Trump, Cruz is trying to position himself as the toughest and most ideologically pure conservative.
For many South Carolina Republicans, this supposed political correctness is wrapped up in President Obama's allegedly weak national security — that is, he's said to be afraid of taking on what has become America's number-one enemy, "radical Islamic terror." For the past seven years, Cruz claims in his USS Yorktown speech, "we've had a commander in chief who eagerly negotiates with terrorists and makes concessions to our enemies."
Cruz's supporters admire his refusal to compromise. "I'm tired of seeing Republicans talk big" and then not deliver, says Allison Moore, a homeschooling mother from Ware Shoals. Cruz, she says, "would not back down" in fighting for conservative priorities.
For Moore, who came to see Cruz speak in Columbia with her young children, Cruz is the tough conservative, not Trump. "A Trump presidency would put the nail in the coffin of the United States of America," she says.
Cruz packs his speeches with dog whistles about weak liberals. "When it comes to ISIS," he says at the Columbia rally, "enough with the patty cake, with the political correctness." He adds that political correctness is "endangering our safety."
Cruz made his plan to rebuild the military a cornerstone of his South Carolina campaign and has portrayed the Department of Defense as undermined by Obama. "The last thing any commander should need to worry about is the grades he is getting from some plush-bottomed Pentagon bureaucrat for political correctness or social experiments — or providing gluten-free MREs," he has said, in a sentiment he's repeated a number of times, as if gluten-free meals for soldiers represent the surest sign of a military losing its edge.
Cruz, who continually compares himself to Reagan, says the word détente means "French for surrender."
When it comes to fighting "radical Islamic terror," says Cruz, who has degrees from Princeton and Harvard, "this is not a debate in an Ivy League faculty lounge."
Carpet-bombing is in; French in faculty lounges is out.
This sort of talk energizes Republican voters who seem to have bought the Trump line that America has become a "laughingstock" by not being tough enough. "I like to be proud to be an American," says Randy Berry, a Cruz supporter from Lexington. "I'm tired of seeing us cower." Obama, he says, "does not project that power," while Cruz does.
Women backing both Cruz and Rubio cite the candidates' ability to protect America from threats as well as their steadfast commitment to God and conservative principles as the foundation of their support. Yet more than any other single issue, terrorism looms over every campaign rally, and over many conversations.
It's why Amy Kay, a Rubio volunteer from Charleston, says she's getting a concealed weapon permit, and why other women she knows are buying guns.
Jeb Bush, meanwhile, is tough on terrorism only by proxy — his brother. At a rally in North Charleston on Monday night, former President George W. Bush, not Jeb, was the draw for some undecided voters. Chris Mullinax, a voter from Charleston, says she came "because George W. Bush is the ultimate favorite president of my lifetime." She says he did an "incredibly wonderful job at tackling terrorism," adding that she believes he didn't play golf or take a vacation after 9/11.
Mullinax's niece, Kelly Sokevitz, a nurse and recent graduate of Clemson University, is also undecided. She says Trump has campaigned heavily at her school. "Dudes, fraternity guys love Trump," she says with a laugh.
The frat bros might like Trump, but the Bush family is trying to convince South Carolinians that a political scion with "quiet conviction" is their man. While George W. Bush said as president that he "made a lot of tough calls," tough is not a word he uses to describe his brother. Instead, he says he has a "strong and steady hand," is "thoughtful and trustworthy," and "understands the most solemn job is to protect us."
When Jeb Bush takes the stage, a small but steady stream of people begin to exit the conventional hall.
Rubio, by contrast, presents himself as the hard-working, dedicated family man, the embodiment of the American dream – not the son of a political dynasty, like Bush, nor a messianic ideologue like Cruz. He's styling himself as the rescuer of conservatism and, crucially, American exceptionalism.
While America is "on the road to decline," Rubio says — a process he claims began with the election of Obama — "we are on the verge of the greatest chapter in the story of America." He says we're "on pace to lose the American dream," and therefore "we need to convert more people to conservatism."
For his supporters, particularly conservative women, Rubio is "Reaganesque," "the real deal," "electrifying" and "unifying." Renee Calvert of Summerville, a Rubio volunteer, describes him as a family man who will "bring honor back to the White House."
Pamela Sloan, a Rubio supporter from Mount Pleasant, has brought with her to the rally a Bible verse she says is relevant to his candidacy. She reads to me from 1 Timothy 4:12: "Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity."
Rubio speaks frequently about his hardworking immigrant parents and what he portrays as his own achievement of the American dream. Later in the day, Sloan emails me to say Rubio's gratefulness for what America has given his family is what makes him a strong leader. "He has a thankful heart and it is visible, noticeable, and, I believe, empowers him to do more," she says in the email. For some voters, at least, winning back the party's stolen virility may not require the highest form of flattery to Trump.Watch the similarities between wrestler Ravishing Rick Rude and presidential candidate Donald Trump.