On a cold winter’s day just before Christmas, Mike McNulty picked me up at the Denver airport in his wheezing Aerostar van with the broken seatbelt clasp—he couldn’t afford to repair it—and we rode the hour’s drive to his new home in Fort Collins. The McNultys had recently relocated there after Mike was laid off from his six-figure job selling fire insurance, forcing them to sell their three-thousand-square-foot house in suburban southern California. Now, he told me on the way home, his wife was talking about getting her own job, finding an apartment, and considering filing for divorce. “Every promise that has been made to me has been broken,” he said.
Climbing out of the Aerostar, Mike slipped on the icy driveway and something shook loose and hit the ground with a clatter. It was his holster, with the pistol. The gun was just one of the weapons from the arsenal he stored on one side of the family “craft room” in the cellar, the other side being occupied by his wife’s sewing kits, knitting yarn, and Easter-egg paint sets. Mike unlocked the safe and cabinets to show me what remained of his once vast collection—he had to sell much of it to pay the bills: the Tanto knife (“You can penetrate car doors with one strike”); the custom-made saber (“made by the same guy who made the sword Conan the Barbarian used—it’d cut through your waist”); the Nighthawk amber micro-light that strapped to a finger (“so it doesn’t mess with your night vision”); the reloading press, powder scale, and vibratory tumbler cleaner he used to make his own three-inch rounds (“they are big dudes”); the rifle and military-style semiautomatic twelve-gauge with a three-inch chamber, an extended magazine that could pack nine of the “big dudes,” and a combat sling to hoist it. “It’s not made for bird hunting,” he noted gratuitously.
After his furlough from the insurance business, McNulty had become a devotee of Second Amendment rights: he founded a gun-rights group called COPS—California Organization for Public Safety—and lobbied against the state’s assault weapons ban and for concealed-weapons permits. Since his arrival in Colorado, he’d applied his weaponry expertise to the making of a documentary. His subject: the fifty-one-day federal siege in 1993 of a communal complex housing a small, armed Christian sect called the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. Federal agents had originally come to Waco intending to deliver search-and-arrest warrants to the sect’s leader, David Koresh, who was suspected of possessing unregistered weapons and illegally converting them to machine guns. The standoff, which eventually involved multiple federal and state law enforcement agencies armed with high-tech military weaponry and Blackhawk helicopters, ended on April 19 in a fiery blaze that killed seventy-four residents, including twenty-one children. McNulty suspected that federal officers, either intentionally or through gross negligence, had caused the conflagration.
For the last twenty years and more, Hillary Clinton has been the perpetual Princess of Darkness, the sybil of female usurpation, the root and fount of all male decline, disappointment, and betrayal.
McNulty led me upstairs to his home office, which doubled as a film-editing room. The walls showcased his more decorative armaments—a Viking knife replica under glass, a simulacrum of Napoleon’s sword on a plaque—sharing space with a map captioned “The Film Industry’s View of America” (the East Coast was labeled Media, the West Coast was Hollywood, and everything in between, including where we were, was “In-flight Movie”). The shelf below held a box of McNulty’s new business cards—“filmmaker and investigative reporter”—a stack of unpaid bills, and several stamped and sealed return envelopes to various sweepstakes, the last of which were made out in his wife’s hand.
On prominent display on the credenza was his prized trophy, an item he regarded as a frightful augur of the nation’s dystopian future, an image he said he sometimes pictured in the bull’s eye when he was out at the firing range: a “$3 Hillary bill” with the First Lady’s face and “Madam President” stamped on its front.
That was twenty years ago.
In the season of Trump’s ascendancy, the cult of guns and the hate of Hillary were so often treated in public discourse as some new fever in the land, like Zika freshly arrived from the tropics. Yet the summer’s campaign invective kept transporting me back to my time with Mike McNulty. So many of the reigning elements of the 2016 presidential trail appeared to be flash-thawed from the middle years of the Clinton administration. The questions seemed old: Why are these Trump devotees extolling a candidate whose policies are so against their own interests? Are they upset about lost jobs and declining incomes? Are they harboring resentment over their shrinking social status? Are they embittered by the opportunities offered to minorities and immigrants and women? Yes, now, as yes, then. And the people we asked those questions about were the same, too: Angry White Males, putatively in charge of the culture, who had about them the fetid air of anachronism.
Back in 1996, I met them at the McDonnell Douglas Outplacement Center in Long Beach, California, a “career transition” storefront in a mini-mall behind a Der Wienerschnitzel fast-food franchise, a sort of human retooling shop where nearly thirty thousand ex-aerospace workers would be “processed” through “skills transference workshops” and “interview-skills training” and “stress management” sessions, before being spat out into the brave new world of the temporary-service economy. The Outplacement Center was one of the way stations of my research for a book I was writing in the nineties about the contemporary troubles of American men, titled (after the term the men so often used to describe themselves) Stiffed. The men at the Outplacement Center sat in plastic chairs all day and talked about Mexicans taking their jobs away, even though, as ex-aerospace planner Ron Smith conceded to me, he didn’t think there were any aeronautic middle managers “coming across the border.” Still, he said, the “peter power” of illegal aliens made him hope for what he called, variously and approvingly, a “police state,” “a dictatorship,” or a “controlled environment” in which the old “system” would be re-imposed and the reins of authority returned to a benevolent but firm white male management. Evidently, America, even in the boom years of the Clinton era, already needed to be made great again. One day at the center’s front office, one of the laid-off men burst in, spewing hatred at every minority behind the desk, blood vessels visibly throbbing in his temples.
The mid-nineties was the era of Promise Keepers, joined by two million men, who assembled in football stadiums to listen to Christian motivational speakers beckon husbands back to their “biblically sanctioned” roles as heads of household—speakers like Gary Smalley, who brandished a giant plastic figurine in a pink dress and baby Janes at his audience at one of the mass rallies I attended. “All of us,” Smalley warned, “are like this doll,” feminized, weak, and as he put it, “batteries not included.” I met a group of Promise Keepers each week in a living room in suburban Glendora, California, where they gathered to recount their tribulations and ponder the reclamation of their manhood. They struggled to follow the seize-the-power precepts handed down by Promise Keepers leader Bill McCartney, the former Colorado University football coach known for his abusive management style, fulminations against gays (“an abomination against Almighty God”), and turn-a-blind-eye oversight of a sports team with a jaw-dropping arrest record of burglaries and rapes. The men studied manuals like Fight Like a Man and exchanged layoff and marital war stories. “When you’re facing one of those World War II fights from your wife . . .” was the way Howard Payson phrased it. “When the bombs are dropping on you from your family,” Mike Pettigrew said. They talked of resurrecting “a mission” and “an identity” through membership in the Promise Keepers’ army. “As men, we all need to identify with something that’s important,” Martin Booker concluded, to a room of nodding heads. Soon thereafter, the organization they so identified with began charging astronomical fees for its events, and its financially strapped followers stopped flocking to the stadiums. Ex-coach Bill McCartney eventually ditched the helm of Promise Keepers for more promising opportunities. His wasn’t the only betrayal.
The Peasants with Pitchforks saw a woman’s power as insurrectionary because they had lost standing in the eyes of their wives. But ultimately, female authority had little to do with their afflictions.
At the Republican National Convention in San Diego in 1996, the “Peasants with Pitchforks” rallied to the bugle call of their “Braveheart,” who was not Donald Trump but GOP presidential contender Pat Buchanan. “Mount up, everybody,” he cried, “and ride to the sound of the guns!”—before, that is, the Buchanan delegates were ordered, for the sake of “party unity,” to change their votes on the first ballot. Michael Bayham, a Buchanan delegate from Michigan who had spent all his savings getting to San Diego, tried to lead a protest walk-out. But his fellow travelers were strong-armed into submission; he marched off alone, with only a journalist for company—he had asked me to photograph what he’d hoped would be a dramatic show of delegate disenchantment. “It was kind of like the invasion of Normandy,” he said afterwards. “They got all the boats lined up, and they were ready to attack, and then I’m the only grunt who jumped out and stormed the beach.” As another Michigan Buchananite, Mike Flory, told me forlornly as he changed his ballot: “I’d be the man in front of the tank at Tiananmen Square if I thought it would do any good. . . . We have no voice. We are outside the castle with no way to cross the moat.” The few Buchanan holdouts were later purged from their GOP state posts. Meanwhile, their Braveheart returned to his celebrity TV perch, cohosting CNN’s Crossfire.
For the last twenty years and more, the Angry White Males have been looking for a general to storm the ramparts and lead them across the water. Donald Trump is only the latest in a string of plutocrats and media personalities impersonating wartime commanders and working-class heroes, inveighing against immigrants and championing gun rights. And in all that time, and through all those found-and-lost saviors, Hillary Clinton has been their perpetual Princess of Darkness, the sybil of female usurpation, the root and fount of all male decline, disappointment, and betrayal.
The Three Witches of Waco
I first watched Mike McNulty’s film Waco: The Rules of Engagement at a Los Angeles screening in the unlikely environs of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance. The auditorium, whose offerings generally attracted liberal westsiders and the descendants of Holocaust survivors, was packed that night with men in T-shirts emblazoned with gun-rights slogans. They hissed and booed every time a hated “Clintonite” appeared on the screen. A shot of attorney general Janet Reno, who took most of the blame for the Waco catastrophe in the film, produced the bellowed mantra “Butcher Reno!”
The movie featured a thoroughly condemnatory picture of federal culpability at Waco—interspliced with grisly, lingering shots on the charred corpses of children and accompanied by a foreboding soundtrack. The verdict: the FBI had started a firestorm by shooting into the Branch Davidian compound with machine guns and tear gas, and the Clinton administration had covered it up with “massive government lies.” What actually happened remains murky. One of the surviving Branch Davidians I interviewed confirmed to me what subsequent investigations have suggested: that the religious cult itself started the fire.
On the morning of April 19, 1998, I met a group of “Patriots” who had gathered in a grassy field outside Waco to mark the fifth anniversary of the Branch Davidians’ destruction. Many were dressed in camo pants and combat boots, as if poised to re-fight the battle. “It was a whole nation that died here,” William Haines, who represented the Michigan Militia’s “legislative arm,” the Third Continental Congress, declared from the dais. “I know that someday they’re going to come after us.” Long before Donald Trump searched for road fatalities caused by illegal immigrants, long before Tea Party rallies and Republican and Democratic national conventions showcased Gold Star families, the fallen were being fetishized. Men who felt discarded needed martyrs to represent their losses. “We have a common bond with the people who died here,” Jack DeVault, author of The Waco Whitewash, said. “They really were sacrificed for us.” Mike McNulty was the day’s featured speaker and star, the “big movie producer,” as the men assembled on the lawn referred to him, not without an edge. “You have a responsibility,” he instructed them from the dais: they all needed to expose the government’s venality for “the sake of the women and children.” That responsibility, as protectors of the “Branch Davidian family,” was precisely the one they feared they had lost at home.
In this reconstituted protection racket, the sect’s (already dead) wives and children were to be rescued from an enemy that was notably female. Three women in particular came up so often that I began to think of them as the Three Witches of Waco: gun-control advocate Sarah Brady (whose husband, former White House press secretary James Brady, was crippled during an assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan), attorney general Janet Reno, and Hillary Clinton. “It’s really Clinton’s wife who’s the treacherous one, her and Janet Reno,” L. H. Miller, a laid-off ironworker, told me after the ceremony. “She and her kind are taking money out of Social Security,” Coolidge Gerder, a tax accountant, put in. “They are paying for abortion with Social Security.” And so it went. Once the men got on the subject, there seemed to be no diverting them.
Miller: “Who gives Clinton’s wife the authority to get on the plane and give away money everywhere she goes?”
Gerder: “She gave away a million dollars to each first lady she visited in Africa to get educated, to get computers.”
Haines: “Reno’s master is Satan.”
Miller: “They’re all lesbians, you know, Reno, Clinton’s wife, all of ’em.”
Gerder: “Reno was a man in Florida, before she got changed.”
When I started to laugh and asked Gerder how he’d come to that conclusion, he was outraged by my bemusement. “How do I know?” he shouted. “Because I know things.”
Who’s Calling the Shots?
Even before Trump coined “Crooked Hillary,” the Angry White Males of the nineties had reached the same conclusion. It was a theme that Mike McNulty returned to frequently in our time together. “I think she’s literally and figuratively the power behind the throne,” he told me. “I don’t think Bill is competent enough to pull off some of the things that have been written about. Hillary’s a very smart woman—also very dangerous. Usurpers are always dangerous, because ultimately they have to exercise evil in order to achieve their ends.” One of the evils she exercised, he believed, was issuing the order on April 19 to destroy the Branch Davidian compound. “She was the one who was calling the shots at the White House.”
McNulty would ultimately spend twenty-eight months and $400,000 of his savings, along with $7,000 in grants from the NRA and Gun Owners of America, to research his documentary about the government’s central role in the fiery deaths at Waco. He’d gotten his hands on a government surveillance film taken from the air during the siege, and he believed it showed federal agents shooting at the Branch Davidians from behind the building. He shopped the evidence he’d collected to every network and cable news program he could think of and eventually caught the attention of an independent Hollywood producer, a former TV news reporter and anti-gun-control advocate, who agreed to underwrite the costs. But when the Sundance Film Festival decided to debut the movie and it looked like the documentary could have mainstream potential, the producer settled on a marketing strategy that would, as he put it, make the film palatable to “the Hollywood crowd.” McNulty was “not politically acceptable” and had to be cut out. Legal battles ensued, and in the end, McNulty relinquished ownership of the film. He was forbidden even to give an interview to the media without permission. “I didn’t have the money to fight it,” McNulty told me. “I feel like I’m standing outside the Branch Davidian compound and trying to plead with them not to come in and burn down the whole thing.” When the film was nominated for an Academy Award, McNulty’s name was kept off the official forms. He attended anyway—wearing a loaner tux, his wife in a discounted designer gown. He was looking forward to “rubbing shoulders with the big boys.” There were to be no shoulder bumps: because he’d been purged from the Academy’s roster of nominees, McNulty couldn’t attend any of the Oscar parties. The McNultys wound up having dinner at a franchise restaurant on their way out of town, the late-night special at Carrows.
A Controlled Explosion
One day McNulty and I drove out to the Larimer County firing range to practice shooting with his military-style semiautomatic twelve gauge. It was a long ride, and by the time we got there it was dusk and bitter cold. We picked up our ear-protector headsets and hustled over to our designated shooting booth. The range was about to close. McNulty placed the Rambo shotgun in my arms. I could barely lift it. “That’s why women should never be in combat,” McNulty was quick to note. The subsequent flash and the recoil knocked me momentarily unconscious. After a second try, I’d had enough. McNulty reclaimed his weapon and, converting it to semiautomatic status, pounded out a rapid series of shots before the announcement came over the loudspeakers that it was time to leave.
I didn’t ever want to fire the shotgun again, but then I didn’t feel that for years an invisible army had been firing at me.
On the ride back, I confessed that I had not been prepared for the gun’s explosive force. I was shocked and repelled by its terrible power. McNulty told me I was missing the point. “A twelve-gauge full-bore shotgun going off,” he said, is “a horrendously violent instantaneous event. It has a mind of its own.” But the gratification comes not from that violence, but its mastery. “It’s this wild, bucking thing that you can control,” he said. “It’s an explosion, but it’s a controlled explosion.” By then, I knew something of the many explosions that had occurred in Mike McNulty’s life, and how little control he had had over their consequences. I didn’t ever want to fire the shotgun again, but then I didn’t feel that for years an invisible army had been firing at me. So many of the Angry White Males of the nineties felt that way—with some reason, though they were terrible at identifying their tormentors.
The men in the aerospace Outplacement Center had been grounded by industrywide restructuring intended to serve only the men in the executive suites. The men in the Promise Keepers meetings had been denied the satisfaction of playing the paterfamilias at a time when the pater had no portfolio. The Peasants with Pitchforks in San Diego had been abandoned by their Braveheart and rendered powerless on the GOP convention floor. They were, as Mike McNulty was, victims of historical forces. And, history being what it is, those forces were most often led by men: the men who ran Wall Street and the Beltway, Silicon Valley and Hollywood. They saw a woman’s power as insurrectionary because, as men deprived of power, they had lost standing in the eyes of their wives. But ultimately, female authority had little to do with their afflictions, or with the overlords afflicting them, men who more resembled the likes of Pat Buchanan or Donald Trump than they resembled Hillary Clinton.
Mike McNulty died suddenly of a heart attack on February 20, 2015. He was sixty-eight years old. As the season of “Crooked Hillary” and “Life’s a Bitch, Don’t Vote for One” unfolded, I often wondered what McNulty would have made of it. I doubt the “Make America Great Again” phenomenon would have surprised him. He was no stranger to the fears and furies on display that summer of 2016 that gave rise to the Trump presidency.
McNulty’s real antagonists were the explosive forces of economics and class—a deindustrializing society and a downwardly mobile workforce, the collapse of corporate employment and middle-class security, the reconstitution of power in the glossy redoubts of infotainment and tech culture. But those were forces he couldn’t change and couldn’t fight. What he could get in his sights was the image of a woman in charge.