Is Losing Cultural Centrality Worth Killing Democracy Over?
The crowd who stormed the Capitol on Wednesday came from a variety of factions, from Proud Boys and other White Nationalists to more garden variety Trumpists, but what they had in common was that they were overwhelmingly white men, men who feel their cultural centrality slipping away as minorities and women continue to gain ground.
Documentarian, Jackon Katz has pointed out that many white men feel disenfranchised as women gain more equality and power, and the country becomes more racially and ethnically diverse. Trump says to these men, “we celebrate you, and the other side hates you.”
The cult-like sway that Donald Trump holds over some people is directly related to his total embodiment of the 1950s era masculinity that these men so fear losing — so much so that they would prefer to overturn democracy rather than have that sense of identity and place in society challenged. They not only were prepared to storm and trash the Capitol but were ready to hang Vice President Mike Pence as a traitor for refusing to carry out Trump’s orders to subvert the orderly transition of the presidency to Joe Biden, who won the election by over 7 million votes.
As New York Times television critic James Poniewozik notes, “From his earliest days in the tabloids, the character of Donald Trump was a performance of hyperbolic maleness.” This is something that many women resonate with as well, but it touches the pain point of so many white men in America on a visceral level. Trump taps into this fear because he understands something fundamental about masculinity in a patriarchal culture. America was a nation founded by and for the interests of straight white men, and until about 50 years ago, that was still overtly the case. As challenges to that continue to gain momentum, fighting to maintain the status quo feels to many like a holy crusade.
“Political scientists and media commentators have long noted that Trumpism as a political movement is not as much about issues as it is about identity. This point was driven home during the Republican National Convention, which was such an unapologetic vehicle for Trump’s cult of personality that the GOP didn’t even bother to offer a party platform.”
American politics has always been about the performance of masculinity, particularly on the political right. When George H.W. Bush began his presidential campaign calling for a “kinder, gentler, nation” Newsweek suggested he was battling a “wimp factor.” To combat that, Bush bought a ranch in Texas, which offered plenty of photo ops of him doing “manly” things. He also started attacking the masculinity of opponent Mike Dukakis. “He thinks naval exercise is something you find in Jane Fonda’s workout book,” Bush said.
Recently, the performance of traditional white male masculinity has gotten so out of hand that it has contributed to the deaths of thousands of people by discouraging the basic safety and hygiene protocols of wearing a mask in public during a global pandemic. The Republican party has focused even more than usual in recent years on the inherent masculinity of the party, defining Democrats as feminized and soft. The gender binaries of patriarchy demand that not only masculinity be championed but that it must also be defined by shunning and shaming femininity in anything related to power or prestige.
The Man Card (documentary) concludes by pointing out why it’s a problem to appeal to men’s masculine identity instead of attacking real issues. “Rather than fighting for systemic change to restore the sense of pride and purpose, so many white working-class men are looking for, leaders offered symbolic recognition instead. They appealed to them at the level of their culture and identity and scapegoated women, people of color, and immigrants as the source of their problems,” explains the narrator.
With the scapegoated refusing to get back into their place in the hierarchy and still gaining power, the identity politics of white masculinity could not handle the threat. Even those they once trusted (Mike Pence, Attorney General William Barr) became traitors for speaking an uncomfortable truth. Joe Biden definitively won the election and there was no credible evidence of voter fraud or irregularity. Yet, with each failed legal challenge to the election, the numbers of disgruntled Trumpists only grew. How could this be possible?
It was an unfaceable reality. One that had spawned white male identity politics heroes such as Jordan Peterson and Donald Trump, who appeal to the aggrieved sensibilities of those who see their cultural centrality slipping away. Donald Trump “possesses an intuitive grasp of the deep-seated desires, frustrated dreams, and seething resentments of millions of American men, especially white men.”
On January 6th, those resentments boiled over. The ostensibly beloved and deified American flag was taking down from the Capitol and a Trump flag was installed instead. The mob erected a noose and were overheard searching for “that traitor Pence” so they could hang him. They carried Confederate flags and called black members of the Capitol police the “N’ word. A man in paramilitary gear was seen carrying a large number of zip-tie handcuffs in the Senate chamber. All this because white male cultural centrality is being threatened.
The same people who most like to complain about identity politics have taken their own to a dangerous new level, one where they would willfully destroy democracy in order to keep its primacy and then consider it a righteous act. The fact that some 45% of Republicans agree that the mob was justified to storm the Capitol and view it as a largely peaceful protest, speaks volumes about how deeply this loss of place in the culture permeates. The full extent of the violence, destruction, and mayhem perpetrated during the siege of the Capitol is still coming to light.
For some white men (and the women who support them), loss of identity as the top of the patriarchal dominance hierarchy is enough to commit sedition, and perhaps even murder. Capitol policeman Brian D. Sicknick was beaten to death with a fire extinguisher during the riot and his death has spawned a Federal murder investigation. If the mob had found Pence, if they had found Speaker Pelosi, how many others might have died?
This was not a protest, it was a violent tantrum, one that was incited and encouraged by the President himself. All because white male identity politics wasn’t getting its way. There have been promises of a repeat on Inauguration Day and even if that is controlled, I fear that a sad new era has been ushered in, one where some white men violently seek to return to an era where they were the unchallenged leaders and default citizens of the United States.
© Copyright Elle Beau 2021
Elle Beau writes on Medium about sex, life, relationships, society, anthropology, spirituality, and love. If this story is appearing anywhere other than Medium.com, it appears without my consent and has been stolen.