Donald Trump warned last week that if he is indicted over removing classified documents from the White House, “I think you’d have problems in this country the likes of which we have never seen before.” Many pundits interpreted this as a threat of violence—echoing South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s comments last month that there would be “riots in the streets” if Trump is prosecuted.
For months, commentators have been talking about whether angry and heavily armed mobs of Trump supporters will react with violence and cause massive civil disruption if their leader is criminally charged. Speculation has focused on whether fears surrounding this possibility have contributed to the Justice Department’s reluctance—so far—to indict the former president, his family members, or any of his closest cronies.
Beyond questions about the legal and political factors involved in indicting a political figure who remains very popular in his party and who could announce another run for the presidency in 2024, much of the commentary concerns the threats to American democracy posed by the increasing normalization of violent rhetoric.
But the central role of gender in the perpetration of violence—and rationalizations for its use—has barely even been mentioned. In this country and every other, men commit the overwhelming percentage of interpersonal and political violence; discussions about violence that fail to analyze that fact—or even mention it—are missing an essential part of the story.
If media commentators want to provide their audiences with deeper insights into the nature of the dangerous escalation in violent rhetoric and action that has accompanied the rise of Donald Trump and the radicalization of the GOP, examining the relationship between masculinities and violence is a good place to start.
Among the many angles to explore:
1. Domestic Violence Survivors Know the Impact of Threats
Domestic violence advocates have known for decades that threats of violence are a tool that abusers often use to control their victims. The mere threat of violence can have that effect.
Some pundits have argued that as multiple investigations close in on Trump, he is lashing out with threats of violence as an act of desperation. Nonetheless, when Trump or his supporters hint at the potential for violence if they don’t get their way, they are doing what abusive men have been doing to women for centuries in intimate relationships.
2. Far-Right Actors Driven by White Male Supremacy
For its participants and apologists, the January 6 insurrection was a justified use of violence to “save the country” and “take back” control that they—encouraged by then-President Trump, felt had been stolen. In the months leading up to that momentous event and during the assault on the Capitol itself, right-wing social media was full of chatter about “resisting tyranny” and similar language drawn from the Revolutionary War era. (White) male militias and groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, which played a central role on Jan. 6, don’t even attempt to hide their justifications for violence. They see themselves as the vanguard of a movement to restore white men to their rightful place atop the American social hierarchy.
3. White Males Invested in the ‘Fight for Trump’
Trump’s supporters have long seen him as a heroic figure who has the guts to take on a rigged system—despite the odds. This explains the posters with Trump’s head photoshopped on Rambo’s body that are ubiquitous in Trumpland: the rugged individualist tough guy takes on the corrupted and degenerate establishment with the force of his will and the command of explosive firepower.
His followers—especially white men—have an identity investment in this myth. They derive a sense of purpose and importance by being someone who is willing to “fight for Trump,” in the rallying cry of the assault on the Capitol. Trump and Graham might well be right: if the King of Mar-a-Lago is indicted, it is not hard to envision a scenario in which some of his supporters act out violently.
4. Trump Critics Painted as ‘Unmanly’
If vocal support for Trump—and willingness to commit violence to defend him and advance the cause he represents—enhances the “masculine” cred of (some) white men, failure to back him can result in the opposite. The abrasive right-wing author and activist David Horowitz tweeted that a National Review editorial critical of Trump reflected everything that’s wrong with “conservative pussies.” He added that “We have a ruthless enemy that will find a million ways to make us look bad if we bend over and let them.”
According to testimony that surfaced in the January 6 congressional hearings, former New York mayor and Trump loyalist Rudy Giuliani famously called other Trump lawyers “a bunch of pussies” when they refused to go along with various proposals to overturn the 2020 election.
More recently, after Attorney General Merrick Garland held a press conference to explain why the FBI had executed a search warrant at Mar-A-Lago, far-right strategist and Trump advisor Steve Bannon ranted repeatedly on his influential podcast The War Room that Garland was a “weasel,” a “bed-wetter” and a “five-foot, six-inch wimp.”
The message to anyone—especially Republican men who might disagree with Trump or find his behavior unacceptable—is loud and clear: If you dare speak out, not only will you face harsh criticism, you will also be shamed and unmanned.
5. Far-Right Women Uphold Tropes About Masculinity
Women who support Trump play an important role in fomenting and rationalizing political violence, both by using violent rhetoric themselves, and by attacking the “manhood” of liberal and progressive men. Recall Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.)’s mocking of Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a marine combat veteran from Arizona, for criticizing her over the insurrection.
“While you were hiding with your little pen,” she wrote, “brave Republican MEN were helping police hold the door, so that ALL of us could get out safely. Coward.” When President Biden urged people to wear a mask to protect against the coronavirus, conservative political commentator Tomi Lahren tweeted “Might as well carry a purse with that mask, Joe.”
Numerous Fox News personalities—men and women—complain regularly about the “wussification of America” anytime someone questions whether cartoonish displays of male aggression are helpful in the 21st century.
And in this era, many (white) women who are radicalized are drawn in at first out of a desire to protect their children, a parental impulse that is often weaponized by white supremacist groups that racialize their fears. It is often not a great leap for those women to support Trump and other forceful demagogues in media and politics who promise to shield them and their families from danger, and to lash out at wimpy liberals and other “soft” men as failed protectors.
There is no surefire antidote for any of this, but at the very least, calling attention to the ways in which cultural beliefs about “masculinity” help to shape discourses about the legitimacy of violence—whether in private relationships or public events—is an important step in the right direction.
Hear more from Jackson Katz on confronting systemic male violence in this recent episode of On the Issues With Michele Goodwin:
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