What's the Matter with (right-wing) Men?
The same factors driving shocking levels of male violence also drive conservative politics. And the Republican Party is fueling the bloodshed and disorder.
Every Tuesday morning, I wake up and scan the day’s headlines to see what I might write about for my weekly CNN.com column. This morning, as I scrolled through CNN.com, the Times, and a few others, I was struck by how many headlines were about male violence and dysfunction: “At least 10 people wounded in Lakeland, Florida, shooting, police say;” “California dad charged with attempted murder after allegedly driving his family off a cliff, prosecutors say;” “First police report in Tyre Nichols case contradicts video evidence and didn't mention beating by police;” “Illinois prosecutors drop pending criminal cases against R. Kelly;” “New Mexico grand jury indicts failed GOP candidate accused of shooting at Democratic officials' homes;” “Man accused of severely beating and kidnapping woman knew his victim, police say.”
And those are just from a single perusal of CNN’s homepage.
Reading through these headlines, it’s clear the damage that men do, in large scale and small. There are the angry narcissistic losers Tom Nichols calls the “Lost Boys” in a very good Atlantic piece, the mostly-young men who enact mass violence, whether that’s through mass shootings or terrorism. And there are the men behind the more common and quotidian acts of violence that rarely make the national news, most but not all of it criminal — the men who beat their partners, the men who hit their children, the men who join gangs and have public shoot-outs, the men who fire guns in drive-by shootings or rob convenience stores, the men who hit or torture or force-fight animals, the men who rape or otherwise sexually assault their partners or women they just met or women they don’t know. In the US, men commit roughly 90% of homicides, 85% of non-parental murders of children under five, 99% of rapes, 88% of robberies, 85% of burglaries, and 78% of aggravated assaults. Most men who are murdered are killed by other men; most women who are murdered are killed by men, too.
And so this was loosely on my mind when I joined a webinar hosted by Tresa Undem, who along with Michael Perry runs the progressive polling firm PerryUndem, on “The state of opinion toward gender, power, and policy.” PerryUndem really is the gold standard in trying to suss out how ideology on race and gender shapes politics and public opinion, and these latest results told a stunning story. There is a huge partisan divide when it comes to gender and sexism, with Republicans holding much more sexist views than Democrats, whether those Republicans are men or women. While men were generally more sexist than women, and across every racial and ideological demographic men held more regressive and hostile views on sex and gender than women, the partisan gap was much larger than the gender gap across the board, including on questions that get to a respondent’s underlying disrespect of or anger toward women. For example, just 40% of Republicans agreed with the statement “I want there to be equal numbers of men and women in positions of power in our society.” Fewer than one in five said it would be better if we had more women in political office, and significant majorities agreed with questions that were measures of hostile sexism: Women are too easily offended, women interpret innocent remarks as sexist, and many irresponsible women will decide to have abortions up until the moment of birth.
Yes, that last one is so whacko out of touch with reality I don’t really know what to say. But 81% of Republican men agree that, unless the law blocks them, many women will have abortions up until the moment of birth, simply because we are irresponsible. A third of Democratic men said the same. (I should say here that “abortion until the moment of birth” does not actually happen — abortions past the point of viability are extremely rare and are overwhelmingly the result of a serious fetal anomaly or maternal health issue, and even the latest-term abortions are not happening moments before birth).
These questions are a good way to measure misogyny. Very few people are going to flat-out say “I hate women.” But a lot of them, apparently, will associate women with hated behaviors, and if asked in the right way they will signal their general dislike of women, who they see as overly-sensitive, irresponsible and immoral, ruining the natural order of things, and in need of male authority.
Republicans are also in denial that gender shapes how women are treated while also being almost comically insecure when it comes to gender and gender roles. They are both more likely to believe that full equality has been attained and are also more likely to react badly if faced with any transgression of traditional gender norms. It is, it seems, a “separate but equal” view of gender, with all of the unequal realities that “separate but equal” models inevitably entail: Women and men are fundamentally different and that’s equality, except that men are actually treated worse, and also I get very upset if someone thinks I am doing something associated with femaleness. Remarkably, 72% of Republican men believe that white men are the most-attacked group in the nation. 30% believe men make better political leaders than women. 81% say it bothers them when a guy “acts like a girl.”
Sexist beliefs were the number-one predictor of a person’s view on abortion rights.
Republican women moderate most of these numbers — they are less sexist across the board than Republican men. But they are still much, much more sexist than Democrats of any gender (and Democratic men are, unsurprisingly, more sexist than Democratic women).
One question that particularly made my stomach turn was on marital rape, which a shocking 40% of Republicans say they don’t believe should definitely or probably be prosecuted.
Where this data is particularly interesting is in demonstrating how sexism animates Republican Party support (and how the Republican Party shapes its followers sexist views), but also how this base of sexist voters shapes misogynist public policy, most notably on abortion: Sexist beliefs were the number-one predictor of a person’s view on abortion rights (and you can probably guess what kind of rights sexist men and women believe women should have).
40% of Republicans don’t believe marital rape should definitely or probably be prosecuted.
Among people who want to see abortion outlawed in all or most cases, more than half said they were more comfortable with women relegated to traditional roles as mothers and homemakers (only 24% of abortion rights supporters, and just 19% of Democratic women, said the same). And while 80% of abortion rights supporters said that a man should be prosecuted if he rapes his wife, just 57% of abortion opponents agreed.
Opposing abortion rights, then, comes along with a whole spectrum of sexism: Believing women should be at home raising children; being much more likely to believe men have a right to rape their wives; and believing that men are better suited for public life than women. Abortion opponents were also much more likely to believe men understand what abortion actually is, while they seem to believe women are ignorant: When asked whether they think a woman having an abortion knows she is ending a life or a potential life, just 38% of abortion opponents said they believe women understand what they are doing; by contrast, 55% of them said that they believe men know what abortion entails.
This question, particularly when paired with the data showing that huge majorities of Republicans believe many women will have abortions willy-nilly right up until the moment of birth, really encapsulates the one-two punch of sexism: Women are at best ignorant nincompoops who need protection, and at worst selfish, scheming, immoral whores who need harsh rules and the firm moralizing hand of male authority.
The pollsters helpfully pulled out the roughly one-quarter of respondents who strongly agreed with the statement “There are many irresponsible women who will decide to have an abortion up until the moment of birth.” Two-thirds of them did not agree that men who rape their wives should definitely be prosecuted.
PerryUndem has been asking these and similar questions since 2016, and this latest survey also documents what has changed. Troublingly, Republicans have grown more sexist since 2016: More likely to both say that equality has been achieved while also more likely to express beliefs that indicate hostile sexism, and more likely to be bothered by any gender role transgression (a guy “acting like a girl”). And Republican women have gotten closer to the views of Republican men on the question of persecution, increasingly agreeing that white men have it the hardest.
This is now the picture of today’s Republican Party:
Men who feel insecure in their identities.
Men who believe that they are the most victimized people in the nation, but also the people most deserving of power — men, in other words, who feel a frustrating dissonance between what they believe they deserve and what they have.
Voters whose views on abortion are shaped primarily by sexism, and specifically by misogynistic beliefs about women being irresponsible and immoral, as well as more benevolently sexist beliefs about women needing guidance and not understanding what we’re doing.
Voters whose views on abortion are shaped secondarily but still significantly by flatly false information that is more about their ideological priors than reality — that abortion up until the moment of birth is a common or even real thing, that women “make a habit” out of having abortions.
This is who is shaping the Republican Party, and who the Republican party caters to. This is whose beliefs anti-abortion laws are based on. These are people who are divorced from reality but convinced they are right, self-aggrandizing but insecure, misogynistic but desperately wanting traditional feminine support.
In his Atlantic piece on men who commit mass violence, Nichols writes:
Narcissism is a common malady, but for the Lost Boys, it is the indispensable primer for a bomb whose core is an unstable mass of insecurities about masculine identity. This, of course, helps explain why such spectacular and ghastly acts are an almost entirely male phenomenon. Women, who are less prone to commit violence in general, are rarely the perpetrators of these kinds of senseless massacres. In general, they do not share the same juvenile fantasies of power and dominance that are common to adolescent boys. Nor do they tend to harbor the same resentments about sex and status that are common to all teenagers but that in the Lost Boys persist beyond adolescence and soon grow to volcanic levels.
This paragraph struck me because the descriptions of the Lost Boys — resentful about sex and status, insecure about their masculine identity, engaging in juvenile fantasies of power and dominance — read a lot like the descriptions sociologists have made of Trump voters, and conservatives more broadly. It reads a lot like the findings of the PerryUndem study.
Nichols writes that “Another way these young men express their sexual insecurity is to seek heroic redemption by imagining themselves as the defenders of helpless women against sexual threats from other men.” This language of condescending protection animates so much of right-wing politics, from abortion bans Republicans claim are to protect women (from predatory doctors, from themselves) to attacks on transgender people using the bathroom or playing sports (to protect women and girls) to book bans (to protect children from “groomers” or just liberal ideas).
Of course the young men who pick up guns and enact mass violence are not the same as the men who simply vote Republican. But so much of what today’s Republican Party stokes in its base — resentment over race and immigration and changing gender roles; a sense of entitlement to resources and power; the narcissism of being cast as the only Real Americans — shows up, dangerously magnified, in these dangerous young men.
The question is one of ideological degree. And it’s also one of connection: These violent young men may share many of the same views as their fathers, but they are less connected to community and family. That untethering is what seems to take violence from inside of the home to the public realm.
Another piece, this one in the Times, looks at commonalities among mass shooters, comparing the men who engage in these mass attacks to the men who die “deaths of despair” from suicide, drug, and alcohol use. Like Nichols, the authors identify maleness as a central feature, although they seem more sympathetic to the shooters; like Nichols, they identify isolation, resentment, and feeling like their identities were under attack. “Often, they turned to extreme ideologies to cope with their failures and to find a sense of purpose,” the authors write. Often, these men also have a history of domestic violence. Nichols points to this as well:
Fear of women and hatred of minorities, animosity toward authority, patterns of absent or dysfunctional fathers, histories of being bullied, romance with symbols of power, conflicts of identity and sexuality—we can catalog at length the similarities among these young misfits. They are, in the main, scared and narcissistic boys, and like many boys teetering on the cusp of manhood, they are tormented by paradoxes: insecure but drenched in self-regard, fearful yet brave, full of self-doubt yet fascinated by heroism. For most males, this is a transitory part of adolescence. For the Lost Boys, it is a permanent condition, a deadly combination of stubborn immaturity and towering narcissism.
The men who enact mass violence do have particular afflictions that separate them out from the Republican voter who may also be xenophobic and misogynist, most notably their misfit-ness — their isolation. But of course many women and girls are misfits, too, and they are far less likely than men to hurt others because of it. It’s the entitlement, the hewing to narrow gender roles, the sense that one isn’t being allowed to be a true man (and that’s someone else’s fault), and the desire to make other people listen and pay attention and bow down — that’s what seems to drive so much violence from this particular demographic.
And it’s those same dangerous sensibilities that the Republican Party is stoking.
The GOP over and over again tells their overwhelmingly white and largely male base that they are victimized, while also telling them that they are the best, bravest, strongest, realest Americans in the whole world. The GOP tells their base that they are imperiled — by crime (from Black and brown people), by sexual threats (“groomer” gay and trans people coming after kids, feminism changing your relationship with your wife), by outsiders with different believes and cultures, by information (perhaps the most dangerous thing of all). The GOP keeps gun laws lax and deadly weapons easy to get. And the GOP pushes masculine ideals that leave men emotionally closed-off and isolated.
Sometimes, they offer purpose, too: Fight to stop the steal. Fight to save babies from abortion. Fight to keep children safe from groomers. Etc etc. The enemy is rarely real, but rather an amalgamation of everything they’ve been primed to hate.
This is a dangerous game. It has real impacts on policy — note, for example, how often harsh anti-abortion laws are based on the total fantasy that pregnancy is safe for all women, or are based on the misogynist fantasy that women are having abortions whenever just because. It has real impacts on public safety — men who are resentful, angry, and armed are generally not great for society or for their individual families and communities.
Misogyny and male violence span the political spectrum. But only one party defines itself by fanning the flames.
This is such an important article. One thing that strikes me is that, now that many artificial barriers for women have been removed, women are excelling. They're going to college in higher numbers, they're becoming doctors and lawyers and business people, they play sports, they're just fine living independently. (As an aside, when I was a kid 67 years ago, I couldn't get a paper route, which were reserved for boys only. I couldn't play sports, which I loved. Those times are not that far in the distance.)
Th removal of barrier for women is threatening to some men, who now face competition for jobs that used to be theirs or meet women who are strong and self sufficient. Maybe what they should do instead of crying, whining and attacking women is grow the heck up, put on their big boy pants and adjust to a world in which they're not automatically the top of the heap.
Homo Sapiens are an extremely violent and exploitive species. Look at our 200,000 year history and how we are destroying (and exploiting) the natural world today.
An evolutionary psychologist can perhaps best answer your question. My educated guess is that since male homo sapiens are stronger than females, natural selection has placed them in the aggressive role of “fighter” and “defender of the tribe.”
Michael Ghiglieri’s book The Dark Side of Man describes this reality, and how a society with a lot of young men is much more inclined to violence and war than a society with a higher percentage of women.
Women are the peacemakers. It’s human nature. (I am not so sure about women who are inclined toward Trumpism.)
Thus, I think the better question is “What’s the Matter with Men?” I provide an answer above. The “cure” for this societal illness is a liberal (and liberally-educated) electorate, with meaningful (or better yet, equal) input from its female members. Jill makes the sound point that Republican women can be anti-women sexists, which as I see it is a hugely regressive problem.
In an educated, civil society, the aggressive instincts of the society’s male members are tempered. Men become “civilized.” Contrast a Trumpist society, where the aggressive male instincts are encouraged--revealing the dark side of our nature.
I believe what I write above complements Jill's excellent article.