Populist Masculinity: What It Is, and How To Beat It

And no, we're not talking about Bernie Bros.

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Populist Masculinity: What It Is, and How To Beat It

We are all now very familiar with the theme of masculinity in the Trump era. Commentary regarding the 2016 presidential campaign resulted in endless column inches highlighting how Trump embodied misogyny and hyper-masculinity. This commentary also introduced us to the alt-right, composed in part by the manosphere, a loose online network of anti-feminist Men’s Rights Advocates and GamerGate types. Given this appeal to a certain unsavory vision of masculinity, it then came as no surprise to discover that white men voted for Trump in disproportionately large numbers.

Throughout the campaign, and since, the response to this vision of masculinity has encompassed various positions that range from a reasoned calling out of patriarchy through to vitriolic ad hominem attacks, describing such masculinists as “insane,” “crazy,” and “wingnut.” Clearly, this response was not compelling, as both men and women alike ignored these arguments and voted for Trump in sufficient numbers to deliver him a victory. But why did this happen, and what can be done to counter it during the coming years?

One of the limitations of what can be described as an “orthodox” feminist analysis of masculinity is that it tends to treat all forms of masculinity that it identifies as “not feminist” as one group, and therefore responds to it with one argument based largely on exposing the injustices experienced by women. However, those who are lumped together as “not feminist” comprise a broad spectrum of groups with different concerns, experiences and political worldviews. Unless we identify these different groups it is impossible to even understand what is going on with masculinity right now, let alone imagine a useful way forward that results in an equitable outcome for everyone concerned.

Trump personifies populist politics and a particular vision of masculinity in combination that we could call “populist masculinity.” But populist masculinity is not a single category, rather a hierarchy of populist masculinities that are delineated by class, cultural capital, money and power. Trump exists at the top of the populist masculinity pyramid, and below him exists an elite of mostly wealthy individuals that populate his administration. The orthodox feminist analysis of this part of the pyramid is sound, as we can understand it in terms of hegemonic masculinity that subordinates everything in the pursuit of power and profit. Or we can understand it as George Lakoff’s distillation of conservative values as ultimately being about perpetuating the “strict father model” at the level of the nation state.

As we progress down the pyramid things begin to get more complicated. As rightly noted, the manosphere, as part of the alt-right, played an important role in supporting Trump. At the forefront of the manosphere are those who gain media attention such as Roosh V and Mike Cernovich. Such individuals articulate a clearly anti-feminist position, and it is worth noting that they have a background in pick-up artistry and men’s self-improvement, both distinct currents running through populist masculinity. Also in this category is Milo Yiannopoulos, who again speaks from an anti-feminist platform, but whose celebrated gay identity troubles the assumption that populist masculinity is inherently homophobic.

However, it should be noted that these voices are not representative of the whole manosphere, and indeed often appear to be only interested in mobilizing it in order to bolster their personal brands. As such, they embody a kind of post-truth masculinity that is more interested in harnessing the energy of feelings than promoting specific facts. This is particularly difficult for orthodox feminism to counter as one cannot argue against feelings by appealing to facts (a losing strategy among progressives, again identified by Lakoff).

Beneath such manosphere celebrities reside a bewildering array of interests. At one end of the manosphere spectrum we can find the nastiest forms of misogyny and homophobia. However, the majority of the manosphere is at worst suspicious of feminism and indeed often indifferent to feminism, preferring instead to focus on men’s issues such as male mental health. You might not know it unless you actually spent time within the manosphere, but it even contains people vocally sympathetic to feminism who have traditional progressive values. As such, we should not see the manosphere as part of the alt-right, rather intersecting with the alt-right. Most criticism of the manosphere completely misses its constituent parts, treating it as a singular regressive entity. Those within the manosphere identify this error, which often has the result of consolidating their opinion that those outside of the manosphere are at best elitist and out of touch, or at worst actively out to erase the experiences of those within the manosphere, another key element of populist masculinity thinking capitalized upon by the likes of Yiannopoulos.

Below the manosphere is a much broader base of working-class people who may not articulate their concerns in the vocabulary of populist masculinity, but nevertheless enact those concerns. These are the white working-class male Trump voters, and the women who care about them. These men have experienced a fracturing of their identities as the world changes around them. Some of these changes, such as the loss of white male privilege, are not to be lamented. However, other changes, such as the loss of wages in a capitalist global labor market, should garner some sympathy.

It is at this base of the pyramid that the orthodox feminist analysis of masculinity reveals its greatest limitation. In short, if you are a white working-class man existing on subsistence wages it is very difficult to hear Hilary Clinton when she talks about how men’s power, consolidated in patriarchy, needs to be overthrown so she can break America’s ultimate glass ceiling. These men do not feel as if they have any power to overthrow. This highlights the major disconnect in this discussion: populist masculinity is largely based on individual experience, whereas the feminist critique is largely based on systemic experience.

There are numerous other layers to the pyramid, but these are the most easily-identifiable. There is a dynamic between the layers that extends the metaphor further to that of a pyramid scheme. Of course, Trump has little interest in those at the bottom of the pyramid, but needs them in order to support his own position at the top. Equally, those below Trump, but still well above the base, must sell populist masculinity to those below them in order to maintain their position in the pyramid, and hopefully gain enough cultural capital to ascend within it. In order to fully understand populist masculinity we therefore need to remember two things. First, populist masculinity comprises numerous different political positions and personal experiences. Second, populist masculinity relies on two concurrent dynamics: that between populist masculinity and its perceived political opponents, and that between its own hierarchical layers.

Once we have begun to get a better idea of what populist masculinity actually is, we can begin to imagine credible methods to counter it. If progressives double-down on the strategy of railing against populist masculinity, claiming it is not just wrong but insane, it will likely continue to fail. As Princeton University professor Jan-Werner Müller notes in his exploration of populist politics, “one ends up in a paradoxical situation: because populists exclude, we exclude them; because they demonize their opponents, we demonize them. Instead, one should concede that some of their complaints may have been justified.” Some progressives identify this strategy as dangerous because it “normalizes” populists, suggesting it implies surrender rather than resistance. But it is entirely possible that some populist masculinity complaints may have been justified: even feminists should be able to concede that feminism is not necessarily 100% correct in all circumstances, and should at least listen to their opponents.

More importantly, by understanding the nature of populist masculinity and listening to its proponents, it may even be that this vision of the “opponent” begins to dissolve. Given that the top of the populist masculinity pyramid has no real interest in those at the bottom, it seems entirely possible that with enough understanding and listening new forms of horizontal alliance can be made between the base of populist masculinity and rank and file progressives. There is, after all, one common enemy: those at the top who thrive by exploiting those at the bottom.

Joseph Gelfer is an author whose books include Masculinities in a Global Era (Springer Science+Business Media, 2014) and Numen, Old Men: Contemporary Masculine Spiritualities and the Problem of Patriarchy (Routledge, 2009).

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