Violence—and the threat of violence—has long been a solid staple of “conservatism.” From the Civil War to the present day, one of the most consistent defining characteristics of right-wing dogma has been the implicit or explicit threat of inflicting violence on other Americans in order to get their way. Often that violence has been directed at people unable to defend themselves; think of Klansmen and White “Rifle Clubs” terrorizing southern Blacks in the wake of this country’s aborted attempts at Reconstruction, or braying white crowds spitting their venomous hatred at Black children sitting at lunch counters or trying to walk into a school. Because attacking or killing people who have little or no recourse to defend themselves is the easiest type of violence to inflict, it’s also been the most prevalent, visible type of violence in our country’s history.
But the last five years have seen a radical, new embrace of violence by the right, one egged on by the ubiquity of social media. It’s a violence directed not only against marginalized and minority communities who they disdain, but now against their political opponents as well. The election of Donald Trump, who constantly channeled violent feelings among his supporters toward immigrants, the press, and liberals, normalized that violence for them and made it acceptable. Following Trump’s lead, the Republican Party has now wholeheartedly embraced employing the threat of violence as a useful, legitimate political tactic. One of the key ways they’ve managed to do this is by convincing millions of American men that threatening violence is an acceptable way of expressing and defining their ”masculinity.” As a natural consequence of this deliberate glorification of male-centric violence, many of the targets of this tactic turn out to be women.
Josh Hawley will never be elected president. With an inquisitor’s withering face (and a voice to match), he’s the poster child for every stereotypical thing people despise when they think about lawyers. The only way Hawley will ever attain that high office is by skating in unelected as a vice presidential nominee, which is why he’s so scrupulous (now) to keep in very good graces with Donald Trump, who he probably expects will die in office if this country is foolish enough to reelect him. That’s almost certainly a vain hope though, since Trump by nature doesn’t ever want someone around who might try to upstage him.
But Hawley knows what buttons to push to maintain his viability should something untoward befall Trump’s 2024 prospects. To this end, he fancies himself as a spokesman for modern conservative values. In his self-lauding Senate biography, Hawley refers to himself as one of the nation’s “leading constitutional lawyers” (trust me, no one thinks that about him), but he recently deviated from those delusions into the role of a self-anointed spokesperson for the male gender. Specifically, the aggrieved, besieged, and put-upon white male gender, whom Hawley contends are being viciously and relentlessly emasculated by an “effeminate” modern American culture, and implicitly, by American women.
As many are aware, Hawley recently gave a deservedly mocked speech bemoaning the state of American masculinity, blaming it mostly on the encroachment of feminists, Hollywood, and unnamed legions of liberal college professors who dared tread upon what Hawley and his ilk perceive as traditional bastions of maleness. In that speech, delivered at the National Conservatism Conference in Orlando, Hawley cited “the left’s assault on manhood” as the reason why so many men are “in crisis.” As reported by Jonathan Edwards for The Washington Post, Hawley backed his assertions with sobering statistics showing male suicide rates, rampant male substance abuse, and the fact that female college applicants and graduates now outnumber their male counterparts, asserting all of these societal ills were attributable to the systematic derogation of manhood in American society. In the most derided portion of his speech, Hawley intoned, “Can we be surprised that after years of being told they are the problem, that their manhood is the problem, more and more men are withdrawing into the enclave of idleness and pornography and video games?”
While the rejoinders to Hawley’s thesis practically wrote themselves (such as this one by The Guardian’s Arwa Mahdawi as well as this one from CNN’s David Perry), from a purely political standpoint we should not underestimate the consequences of encouraging men to blame their failed personal and professional situations on a social conspiracy against them. While Hawley’s views may seem downright pathetic to many of us, they evidence an increasingly blatant attitude informing the behavior of conservatives. It’s a behavior modeled and legitimized by Donald Trump in the eyes of millions of American men, and as a result it’s been fulsomely co-opted by the Republican Party. It’s the behavior we see demonstrated in anime clips depicting armed congressmen killing unarmed congresswomen as some sort of “joke.” It’s the same behavior we see in an insouciant young punk’s face after he’s let off scot-free by a racist judge after killing unarmed people protesting against a biased criminal justice system, all while being cheered on by the right.
As noted by columnist Jennifer Rubin, writing for The Washington Post, embracing this violent, hyper-masculine ethic has now become standard fare for the Republican Party:
Threats and portrayals of violence against women have turned into a badge of honor for a party in which traditional notions about gender (back to the 1950s!) have become a key predictor of Republican support. Casting men (even a Supreme Court justice nominee) as victims of aggressive, “nasty” or unhinged women accusing them of wrongdoing has become standard fare in the Trump party.
As Rubin notes, the intersection of violence and misogyny is unavoidable when the exhortations to violence are primarily directed by and toward men: “Whether it is in setting up bounties to rat out women who seek abortions or constant denigration of women, misogyny has become as central to the GOP’s tone and tenor as xenophobia.” It’s the same behavior we saw in former Montana Rep. (now governor) Greg Gianforte’s punching a reporter who dared to ask him an impolite question about his own corruption. It’s the same behavior Hawley himself was channeling when he famously pumped his fist in the air, exhorting the (mostly white and male) Capitol insurrectionists to attack their own government. And, ultimately, it’s the same bestial, dominant, Nazi behavior that Hitler lionized when he touted the virtues of “The ideal man, embodied by the soldier … tough and aggressive, in control of his body, mind, and psyche.”
Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a professor of history and Italian studies at NYU. She’s also an expert on fascist and authoritarian regimes, such as the tenure of Benito Mussolini and the proto-Trump era of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. Writing for the Atlantic, she puts her finger on what happens when virulent male-centric rhetoric—what we are seeing from the GOP right now—couched in nationalistic tropes begins to percolate through the culture of any society that has up to that point aimed for equality between the genders.
Illiberal political solutions tend to take hold when increased gender equity and emancipation spark anxieties about male authority and status. A conquest-without-consequences masculinity, posing as a “return to traditional values,” tracks with authoritarianism’s rise and parallels the discarding of the rule of law and accountability in politics. We commonly associate autocracy with state restrictions on behavior, but the removal of checks on actions deemed unethical in democratic contexts (lying, thievery, even rape and murder) is equally important to its operation and appeal.
That’s why it’s unsurprising to see a culture of lawless masculinity developing within the GOP, which adopted an authoritarian political culture during the Trump years. Renouncing democratic norms, the Republicans have normalized disinformation, election subversion, and violence as a means of governance, as expressed in their support for the January 6 coup attempt and the fiction that Donald Trump, not Joe Biden, won the 2020 election.
As Ben-Ghiat explains, the normalization of this aspirational, hyper-masculine ethic is often the only necessary ingredient greasing a society’s slide into embracing lawlessness, because it is so attractive to so many men who want to find simplistic reasons for their personal failures, resentments, and setbacks in life. It gives them a ready excuse to act out on their worst impulses, blaming others in the name of a culturally normalized “masculinity.” While this phenomenon has been labelled as “toxic masculinity” when applied to individuals, Ben-Ghiat sensibly extends the concept, labeling it “lawless masculinity” when it is manifested on a broad, national, and political scale.
The ethos of lawless masculinity is a lubricant of corruption, normalizing behaviors and redefining illegal or immoral acts as acceptable, from election fraud to sexual assault. These new norms attract collaborators who find it thrilling to be able to commit criminal acts with impunity.
Ben-Ghiat references the doubling down behavior of people like Mike Pompeo (who screamed obscenities at a female journalist) and Ron DeSantis’ pose as a “pitbull Trump defender” as examples of politicians who appear to revel in their displays of crudeness as emulating the brand of “lawless masculinity” purveyed by Donald Trump. It soon became evident that this ethic was required to survive for any length of time in Trump’s orbit, and, as she notes, it extended to his circle of cronies and enablers: “Trump also defended men accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault, including Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and populated high-profile government positions with men, including Steve Bannon, who were accused of sexual harassment, domestic abuse, or inappropriate workplace behavior.”
So, should anyone be surprised by all of this? Of course not. The right-wing media universe has fed this attitude for decades. From Fox News’ penchant for showcasing a seemingly endless bevy of agreeable leggy blonde women as representations of modern females to Rush Limbaugh’s demonization of “feminazis,” all of these efforts foreshadowed a time where women in the conservative mindset existed solely for their utility in pleasing men’s sensibilities. This Maxim-centric culture built up a huge following of men ready to buy into these images which, although far removed from women in the real world that they might have to reckon with, filled them with unreasonable expectations both as to women’s roles and their own. When the harsh, real world came crashing down on these men, they were primed and ready for someone like Donald Trump to tell them that violence was a justified response. The rest of the GOP, sensing opportunity, soon began to adopt his insouciant bearing, because they quickly saw how it made their constituency of mostly white, undereducated men feel powerful and relevant.
According to Ben-Ghiat, this will only get worse:
Whether or not Trump returns to office, the GOP has made his brand of outlaw glamour its own. A real man takes what he wants, when he wants it, whether in the bedroom, the workplace, or politics, and pays no penalty. As the Republican quest to destroy democracy intensifies, so will abusive, predatory, and criminal behavior be further enabled and justified. For a century, “getting away with it” has been central to authoritarianism’s allure, and it will be no different as the American version of illiberal rule unfolds.
No one should be under any illusions: Combating a political party that embraces misogyny and violence as its operating principles is not going to be easy, because at their core the tactics that the GOP is using here are rooted in male insecurities that literally go back for millennia. And while there are plenty of men secure enough in their own selves and sense of self-worth who are smart enough not to fall for this nonsense, there are many more who will continue to eat it up like catnip. In the end, whether the GOP’s embrace of hyper-masculinity succeeds—and whether it continues to be rewarded for taking us down into a cesspool of violence and misogyny—may ultimately depend on how women in this country decide to react to it.