If there is one thing that seems to unite the most extreme political reactionaries throughout the world, it is their gender. Whether it’s alt-right white supremacists marching in Charlottesville with their tiki torches, misogynist “incels” and men’s rights activists who believe feminism is the root of all their problems, or Islamic extremists who aim to restore the caliphate, one thing is constant: they are overwhelmingly male.
This story was originally published on Salon.
It is hardly surprising that men are more susceptible to the allure of reactionary politics, considering that it's much easier for men to romanticize the past than it is for women (or any previously oppressed or mistreated group, such as LGBTQ people). Patriarchy has long been the norm in Western and non-Western societies and cultures, and thus women are less inclined to feel nostalgic for some “golden age” in history when they were treated as second-class citizens.
Needless to say, in America there is another important factor that increases the likelihood of one adopting a reactionary political ideology: being white. This was evidenced in a recent Pew Research Center analysis, which found that although millennials are the most progressive generation (and lean overwhelmingly Democratic), white male millennials are more more likely to support the Republican Party.
Another analysis from the Washington Post provides further insight into this phenomenon, finding that white males are more likely to feel “white vulnerability,” or a “strong perception that whites are losing ground to other groups through no fault of their own.” This was demonstrated in one survey from GenForward Survey, which found that 48 percent of white millennials think that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks, while 70 percent of Trump-voting millennials believe that “discrimination against whites is as big of a problem as discrimination against minorities.”
This victim mentality that many white men have developed today stems in part from what sociologist Michael Kimmel has called “aggrieved entitlement,” which he describes as “that sense of entitlement that can no longer be assumed and that is unlikely to be fulfilled.”
“There are still many in this generation of men who feel cheated by the end of entitlement,” Kimmel writes in his book “Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era.” “They still feel entitled, and thus they identify socially and politically with those above them, even as they have economically joined the ranks of those who have historically been below them.”
Though written in 2013, this is a convincing explanation for the overwhelming support that Donald Trump — a purported billionaire who was born into privilege — received from white men across the country (especially less-educated white men). While Trump has never had a clear political ideology, he personifies a bitter reactionary anger that so many white males have come to feel in a society where women, people of color and sexual minorities are finally being granted equal rights and opportunities. “When one is accustomed to privilege equality feels like oppression,” and today more and more white men in America (and Europe) feel as if they are being oppressed by egalitarian forces like feminism, multiculturalism, gay rights and the like.
Another recent study of the 2016 election published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences further demonstrated how a reactionary mentality fueled the Trump candidacy, revealing that white male voters were more drawn to Trump because they felt their status was at risk. “It’s not a threat to their own economic well-being,” said the study’s author, Diana C. Mutz, “it’s a threat to their group’s dominance in our country overall.” Not surprisingly, those who showed a high “social dominance orientation,” which measures one’s preference for hierarchy in a society, were more likely to support our current president.
“White Americans’ declining numerical dominance in the United States,” Mutz writes, “together with the rising status of African-Americans and American insecurity about whether the United States is still the dominant global economic superpower, combined to prompt a classic defensive reaction among members of dominant groups.”
These members of dominant groups are more prone to reactionary politics because they are likely to feel their status and privilege being threatened. The reactionary feels disaffected with the modern world and nostalgic for some past era, before the rot of modernity set in — and before he became a victim (in his mind) of egalitarian movements.
One of the more disturbing and pitiful reactionary group to emerge in the digital age has been the “incels,” or involuntary celibates, who were thrust into the national spotlight last month after the terrorist attack in Toronto, committed by a self-described member of the “Incel rebellion.” The incel community, which congregates on websites like Reddit and 4Chan, is deeply sexist and misogynistic, and its members blame women for their inability to find sexual partners. Incels feel an “aggrieved entitlement,” and believe that women owe them sex. As one might expect, feminism is the bête noire within the incel community, and these basement-dwelling reactionaries long for the days before the sexual revolution and women’s liberation.
Incels are just one tiny facet of the much larger reactionary trend in America and around the world. Young men are becoming radicalized by reactionary ideologies at an alarming rate, and the success of Trump and right-wing populists in Europe suggests that we are living in an age of reaction. As the most extreme reactionaries begin to use violence and other dangerous tactics to advance their political agenda, it is important to understand what has driven this reactionary trend.
Though the obvious answer is that “aggrieved entitlement” has been the main factor, the truth is more complex. Ultimately the same thing that has driven left-wing populism has driven this politics of reaction: a legitimate feeling of discontent with the status quo. There are plenty of valid reasons to be disillusioned with the modern world, of course, but this dissatisfaction can lead one to embrace either a reactionary politics that fetishizes the past, or a progressive politics that aims to create a better future.
Obviously those who feel this kind of malaise are liable to embrace reactionary politics if they become convinced that they would have been better off in the past, while those who do not suffer from golden-age syndrome are more likely to embrace the left. One way to challenge the reactionary mentality is to debunk the romantic depiction of the past and offer a more accurate and cogent critique of the modern world (which, among other things, means offering a critique of capitalism). When challenging the reactionary’s way of thinking it is also important to make clear that, realistically, he wouldn’t have been much better off in the “good old days.”
As Kimmel notes in his book, reactionary ideas “reflect a somewhat nostalgic longing for that past world, when men believed they could simply take their places among the nation’s elite, simply by working hard and applying themselves. Alas, such a world never existed; economic elites have always managed to reproduce themselves despite the ideals of a meritocracy.”
“The anger of the middle-class white Americans is real,” he continues, but its aim “is misdirected not towards those who are the cause of their misery but against those who are just below them on the economic ladder.”
To counteract the reactionary mindset, it will be necessary not only to expose and discredit reactionary myths about the past, but also to acknowledge that reactionaries have legitimate reason to feel disenchanted with the modern world — and, finally, to offer a genuine progressive alternative to the status quo.