The theme of masculinity in the Trump era has received a good deal of attention, but the nature of this attention is shallow. Certainly, Trump is a misogynist who has given a permission slip to a certain section of society to celebrate regressive values. But there is more going on here.
Populist masculinity can be seen as a pyramid scheme with Trump at the top, surrounded by his uber-rich and uber-right cronies. Below this highest level of the pyramid reside the celebrity class of the alt-right such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Mike Cernovich. These mid-tier populists resell Trumpian populism to the people lower down the pyramid in the hope of building sufficient cultural and financial capital to elevate themselves further up the pyramid (they certainly have little genuine interest in those further down). At the base of the pyramid are the much-famed “white working class” and their various economic and racial permutations who suffer certain masculine anxieties. Some of those anxieties, such as the loss of identity in a globalized labor market, are forgivable; others, such as the loss of white male privilege, are not.
What this pyramid suggests is that there is no such singular thing as “populist masculinity,” rather a spectrum of populist masculinities with different hopes, dreams and anxieties. In order to do justice to these diverse experiences, let alone construct compelling alternatives that will draw people away from Trump, it is necessary to think more creatively around the subject of how masculinity functions right now. There are multiple dynamics at play behind populist masculinity. One of these is the suspension of order.
As with Trump, much ink has been spent discussing Milo Yiannopoulos and his rise to alt-right celebrity. Milo’s mixture of anti-feminism (which some would argue swerves deliberately into outright misogyny), coupled with his flamboyant queerness, have left many scratching their heads about how such a character could gain traction on the right. Certainly, his appeal to the right is not universal, as we have seen in the fracturing of the alt-right since the election between those with hardline values and those who are more “moderate” (the “alt-light”).
One of the better articles about Milo was published recently in the Boston Review, entitled #Milosexual and the Aesthetics of Fascism. The author, Daniel Penny, argues Milo draws upon a long history of gay masculinism, homoeroticism and fascism. Penny also notes Milo’s events can be seen as spectacle and entertainment. There is more to be teased out of this observation.
The acceptance of Milo by alt-right audiences can be viewed in a similar way to the acceptance of frat house drag. It is not uncommon to see frat boys crossdress for fun, but it is important to realize what is happening here. Frat drag is not a celebration of anything vaguely trans-related. Frat drag is a liminal performance, a moment of in-between when traditional rules are suspended. The acceptance of Milo’s queerness can be interpreted in a similar way: not because queerness is being genuinely accommodated, but because his performances are liminal spaces. Milo’s events are carnivalesque, and are therefore governed by different rules: standard rules will be restored in the morning, alongside the clean-up of last night’s mess.
There are more troubling manifestations of populist masculinity and the suspension of standard rules. Philosopher Giorgio Agamben writes of the “state of exception,” which is used by governments to leverage exceptional powers inevitably curtailing the freedoms of citizens. Reinforcing Walter Benjamin’s assertion that “the state of emergency in which we live is not the exception but the rule,” Agamben argues we are now having to face a continuous state of exception. What does this mean for populist masculinity?
In short, populist masculinity casts masculinity in a state of exception. By framing masculinity as under attack by liberal values, populist masculinity invokes exceptional powers to assert regressive forms of masculinity that in non-exceptional circumstances might appear unreasonable. We hear much about the so-called “crisis of masculinity.” The crucial pivot here is that masculinity is not in crisis, rather masculinity demands crisis. When crisis ensues, unexpected proposals may suddenly appear on the table: the suppression of women and atypical men, martial law, or any number of other unsavory things justified by alternative facts that would not seem credible in normal circumstances.
All such strategies require an intellectual mentor, and populist masculinity may find one in Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whose book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder argues for the need to thrive in what might otherwise be described as the state of exception. Taleb may not know it, but Antifragile enjoys a certain cult status within populist masculinity. A quick search on the forum of populist masculinist Roosh V shows many references to the man and the concept. Given Taleb is known for his bully-boy tactics and his tendency on Twitter to gauge a man’s worth by how much he can deadlift, perhaps Taleb will function not just as intellectual mentor, but intellectual attack dog.
Milo’s use of liminality in his events, coupled with an overarching mobilization of a masculinity celebrating disorder, indicates we are not working within the normal rules. Consequently, we need responses accomodating this shift in goal posts. Every domain, whether it be health, education, housing or economics is experiencing a similar shift. We exist in an interregnum, somewhere between the old order and an as-yet-undefined new order. We cannot continue to analyze and respond to current events without fully grasping this shift: to do so is to walk willingly towards total irrelevancy.
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).