It is time we take masculinity more seriously in discussions of the far right and right wing politics
Fri 17 Aug 2018
What if male identity, rather than racist ideology, is the most important reason why people join far-right groups? That is the central claim made by Michael Kimmel, a US sociologist, in his new book Healing from Hate: How Young Men Get Into – and Out of – Violent Extremism, which studies why young men join (and leave) extreme right groups in Germany, Sweden and the US.
While the central thesis is slightly overstated, the book is remarkably well-written and researched. Kimmel, a longtime scholar of men and masculinity, fills the book with quotes from his many interviews with so-called “formers”.
Almost everyone will have noted that far-right groups and rallies are predominantly male, from the original, deadly Unite the Right rally last year to the pathetic Unite the Right 2 last weekend, but Kimmel is one of the few to have made this the focus of his research.
From interviews with former activists, Kimmel summarizes that far-right groups use masculinity in three distinct, but related, ways. First, they use it to describe or explain their personal situation – for instance, you are single or unemployed because “Others” took your girl/job.
Second, masculinity is used to problematize “the other” – they are not real men because either they are too effeminate or too animalistic. Third, and finally, they use it to recruit members – you can regain your masculinity, and thus your girl and job, by fighting the “Others”.
While Kimmel’s conclusions are based on interviews with members of a specific subset of the far-right universe – mostly small neo-Nazi groups, which more resemble street gangs than political parties – the importance of masculinity has been noted in other far-right groups too. In Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, US historian Kathleen Belew argues that the origins of the contemporary white power movement, and particularly its paramilitary form, militias, are to be found in the trauma of the Vietnam war.
Belew shows the importance of Vietnam veterans in the white power movement – most notably Louis R Beam Jr, who popularized the notion of “leaderless resistance” within the far right, inspiring terrorists from Robert Jay Matthews to Timothy McVeigh. She also points out how the defeatist mood in the US led to a push for “remasculinization”, expressed through paramilitarization far-right subcultures. In other words, weekend warriors joined militias to regain their manhood as they prepared to protect America (especially women and children) from a range of perceived threats from non-white “barbarians” to so-called UN-operated “black helicopters” believed by conspiracy theorists to be plotting a takeover of the United States.
It is tricky to translate insights from smaller, more activist and extreme groups to the broader electorate. Still, it is clear that gender, and specifically masculinity, also plays a role in terms of the propaganda and appeal of radical right parties and politicians. Michael Kimmel’s earlier book, Angry White Men, originally published in 2013, noted the importance of masculinity in the broader rightwing subculture of America, ie “the Trump base before Trump”.
Most radical right parties have a clear gender gap in their electorate, which is usually roughly 60% male and 40% female, despite the fact that men and women support radical right attitudes to a largely similar extent. In fact, a recent study on “the demography of the alt-right” by George Hawley of the University of Alabama, showed that white US women have stronger feelings of “white identity” and “white solidarity” than white American men.
But just like extreme right groups, many radical right parties espouse a strongly gendered discourse, in which they appeal to a frail masculinity, threatened by emasculating feminists, effeminate liberals, and overly virile “Others”. While women are mainly presented as victims, particularly of the latter – rape of white women by non-white men is an age-old favorite of the far right – men are called upon to protect their “nation” or “race”.