White Masculinity and the January 6 Insurrection

Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as people try to storm the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C on January 6, 2021. (Brent Stirton / Getty Images)

Over the past year, political commentary about the causes of the Capitol Insurrection has rightly tended to focus on matters of race. The mob was overwhelmingly white. The Confederate flag was conspicuously displayed in the crowd. According to the liberal consensus in academia and journalism, even if the main catalyst for the riot was a wholly unproven set of claims about a “stolen election,” white racial anxiety and grievance were its animating passions.

But while it is critically necessary to analyze the racial politics of January 6, this focus too often has the effect of rendering invisible another key aspect of that tragic event: the role of gender. The vast majority of insurrectionists were not only white people; they were white men.

If it makes sense to discuss the assault on our democracy in terms of the racial identity and agenda of the rioters, it also makes sense to explore why it was that the vast majority of them were men. Any comprehensive examination of the ideological and cultural forces at work on January 6 needs to account for the crucial intersection of race and gender. 

Consider the numbers. According to data compiled a few months after the insurrection by researchers at the University of Chicago, of those arrested and charged with committing crimes at the Capitol, 93 percent were white, and 86 percent were men.

Among the organized groups most involved in the planning and execution of the day’s actions were cartoonishly hypermasculine groups like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and the 1st Amendment Praetorian. One of the reputed masterminds of the entire operation was Trump advisor and strategist Steve Bannon, a far-right ideologue who peppers his language with violent, militaristic rhetoric and who early on recognized Donald Trump as a “patriarch” who could block feminist plans to “undo ten thousand years of recorded history” by advocating for gender equality. 

To anyone who has paid close attention to the regressive gender politics that underlies right-wing movements, the insurrection was an overt and violent assertion of white male centrality and entitlement.

Yet countless media stories and conversations on television, radio and podcasts use gender neutral language such as “people,” “individuals,” “extremists” and “folks” to refer to the rioters. They barely ever use terms like “white masculinity” or reference the 86 percent statistic, much less discuss its significance. It’s as if the overwhelmingly male make-up of the violent mob is seen as unremarkable, so obvious and unexceptional as not to require further explanation.  

This is mistaken. The 86 percent male participation rate in the Capitol riot criminality offers important insights not only into the insurrection, but also into the cultural politics of Trumpism. In the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, Donald Trump received far more votes from white men than from any other demographic. His most fervent supporters routinely refer to him as an “alpha male” whose “toughness” and “strength” are key reasons why they revere him.

While many liberals and progressives regard much of this adulation of the malignantly narcissistic real estate developer turned reality TV star as absurd and beyond satire, the former president’s rallies and the internet are filled with memes and heroic images of Trump as Rambo, a hard-bodied, gun-toting warrior whose mission is to save the country from the forces of liberal softness, degeneracy and social chaos.

It’s as if the overwhelmingly male make-up of the violent mob is seen as unremarkable, so obvious and unexceptional as not to require further explanation.  

It is true that more than a few (white) women could be found among the angry mob on Jan. 6, and the one insurrectionist killed on that day was a woman, the 35-year-old Air Force veteran Ashli Babbitt. Men are by no means the only people susceptible to the demagogic appeals of aggressive and charismatic male political figures who promise to protect and defend them—unapologetically and sometimes with force—from enemies both foreign and domestic.

But men—many of whom are conditioned from childhood to see themselves primarily as protectors and defenders—are the ones who respond most eagerly to pleas for them to help rescue their country, through violent means if necessary. Indeed, the “peaceful” gathering that preceded the insurrection was labelled the “Save America Rally,” highlighting a ubiquitous theme in right-wing media since Barack Obama was elected president that the country was in danger of being lost to the forces of socialism, multiculturalism, feminism, LGBTQ rights and general secular fecklessness and immorality.

It is also impossible to understand the reasons why January 6 happened without understanding the ways in which Trumpism is rooted in the aggrieved entitlement of millions of white men who are enraged at the loss of their cultural centrality—both as white people and as men. It is equally important to understand political violence in this context—not as a spontaneous eruption, but as a planned strategy for taking back control.

In this way, the feminist-led movement against domestic violence over the past half-century has much to teach us. In heterosexual relationships, men’s use of violence is not as much impulsive as it is rooted in a belief system in which their needs come first. They use force, or the threat of it, to gain or maintain a woman’s compliance, or to punish her for transgressing against his authority.

The analogy with January 6 should be clear.  An overwhelmingly white and male mob sought to take back by force what they could not accomplish in a peaceful and democratically conducted election. They did so after being riled up by their leader—the president of the United States—whose speech that day was filled with dog whistle challenges to their masculinity. 

An overwhelmingly white and male mob sought to take back by force what they could not accomplish in a peaceful election, after being riled up by their leader whose speech was filled with dog whistle challenges to their masculinity. 

In his infamous “Stop the Steal” speech that set the stage for the subsequent march and then the storming of the Capitol, Donald Trump claimed that Republicans were constantly fighting “like a boxer with his hands tied behind his back. … We want to be so nice … We want to be so respectful of everybody. … We’re going to have to fight much harder.”

He went on to say, “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.”

Congressional investigators and federal prosecutors will have to decide whether they think that Trump’s exhortations to the angry mob—as well as his many other actions behind the scenes on January 6 and in the preceding days and weeks—rose to the level of criminal incitement or even conspiracy. But those who are alarmed by the increasing threat violence poses to our fragile democracy don’t need to wait to be told whether Trump’s language had a pernicious effect. 

Once you understand that a very large percentage of violence—interpersonal or political—is undergirded by retrograde beliefs about manhood that both encourage its use and make excuses for it after the fact, the urgent task is to make those beliefs themselves visible, dishonorable and unacceptable.

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Jackson Katz, Ph.D., is a regular Ms. contributor and creator of the 2020 documentary The Man Card: White Male Identity Politics from Nixon to Trump. He is also a member of the Young Men Research Initiative working group and founder of Men for Democracy.