Over the course of roughly a year in 2020 and 2021, a number of events occurred that on the surface might appear unconnected. A “men’s rights” attorney, who was somewhat famous for filing quixotic lawsuits against women’s studies programs, bars that host “ladies nights” and the Selective Service (for declining to register women for the draft), showed up at the door of a federal judge who had presided over one of his cases, shooting her husband and son (the latter fatally).
Several months after that, a group of self-styled right-wing militiamen in Michigan plotted to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Around the same time, Donald Trump notoriously told the far-right Proud Boys, when asked about them during a campaign debate, to “stand back and stand by.”
Then, in the first months of 2021, an unprecedented number of state bills restricting abortion access and trans people’s rights were introduced across the country. All of this took place amid a steadily-growing tally of mass killing events related to the “incel” movement, in which men who feel aggrieved by sexual rejection nurture collective rage against women.
This flurry of facts is tabulated in the first pages of a new scholarly book, “Male Supremacism in the United States: From Patriarchal Traditionalism to Misogynist Incels and the Alt-Right,” released this month as part of a Routledge series on fascism and the far right. The book, a collection of essays and studies from 14 academics and researchers, was edited by Emily Carian, Alex DiBranco and Chelsea Ebin. All three are among the cofounders of the Institute for Research on Male Supremacism, a first-of-its-kind center launched in 2019 to address a gap in scholarship on how organized misogyny serves as a vital cornerstone of right-wing activism.
To date, most research conducted on gender and right-wing ideologies has focused on a few areas: white women as key players in advancing white supremacy, for example, or how groups like the incels and the “manosphere” have served as “gateway drugs” to the alt-right and white nationalist movements, which are seen as more serious threats than misogyny alone.
With chapters on the incels, the Proud Boys, the new wave of anti-abortion activism and the ways male supremacist ideology plays out in discussions of economic policy, demography and pop culture, IRMS’s book aims “to help correct the failure to take misogyny as seriously as racism, xenophobia, and antisemitism.”
Running through many of these topics is the broader narrative that there exists a “crisis in masculinity” or a “war on men” — yet another argument once relegated to the extreme right-wing fringes that is increasingly becoming conventional wisdom for “mainstream” conservatives. Along with those claims of impending man-pocalypse — Tucker Carlson recently warned of the coming “End of Men” — comes a potent rallying call for the far right, which deserves to be understood on its own terms.
Two editors of the volume, Alex DiBranco and Chelsea Ebin, spoke with Salon this May.
We’re talking two days after a leaked Supreme Court opinion, which suggests that Roe v. Wade will be overturned soon. How does that development relate to the work in this book?
Ebin: The urgency of attending to male supremacism has really been driven home in the past few days. Many of us working at the intersection of male supremacism and other forms of supremacism anticipated that the Court would reverse Roe. But anticipating it and actually reading the draft opinion are two very different things. One of the things the book is helpful in doing is understanding male supremacism as intersectional with other forms of supremacism. We need to build a broad-based coalition that recognizes that reproductive justice demands racial justice, economic justice and justice for LGBTQ folks and opposition to not just male supremacism, but male supremacism as it reproduces other forms of supremacist ideology.
One of this book’s goals is to reframe the neglect that reproductive justice often receives. This has nothing to do with moral values. These decisions are trying to create a white male Christian supremacist state.
DiBranco: Frequently issues like reproductive rights are referred to as part of “traditional values” or the “culture wars,” and not named as supremacist ideology. One of the goals of this volume is reframing the neglect that reproductive and gender justice often receive, recognizing that this has nothing to do with moral values, but is another form of supremacist ideology. Really recognizing that these decisions are attempting to bring us back to a white male Christian supremacist state.
Tell me about the origins of this book. For those unfamiliar with the term, what do you mean by “male supremacism”?
DiBranco: After Trump’s election, we saw a move towards taking misogyny somewhat more seriously. But even when people began to write about misogyny and the alt-right, for instance, it was often framed as a gateway — white supremacy and white supremacist violence was the serious threat, and this was just a pathway to it. It is in many ways a gateway; because our society is very accepting of misogyny, it’s an easy recruitment mechanism. But it’s also an end in and of itself, as an ideology and a motivator of violence.
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We decided there was a need to talk about male supremacism in the language that has been used for white supremacist and Christian supremacist studies. We launched IRMS in 2019 and immediately saw a lot of interest, with media and scholarship starting to recognize how it fits into this broader supremacist structure. This book continues in that vein. We hope it will be a resource that can lead to further understanding of what male supremacism is and how it works with white supremacy and Christian supremacy to motivate not only fringe groups but the core of what our society is built on.
There are a lot of different movements or ideologies covered under this umbrella. What connects them?
DiBranco: In the same way that white supremacy manifests in different ways, there are many expressions of male supremacism. When I started this work in 2017, I would use Donald Trump and Mike Pence as an example. Trump appealed to a lot of the secular misogynist groups that have grown up in the last decade. He was overtly objectifying, hateful towards women and had histories of sexual harassment and assault. Then Pence represented the Christian right, “I can’t sit alone with a woman” brand of sexism. But they’re all looking to destroy the rights of women and trans and non-binary people in similar ways. Trump was perfectly happy to do the work of the anti-abortion movement. Betsy DeVos catered to men’s rights groups in totally redoing Title IX protections on college campuses.
Donald Trump appealed to secular misogynist groups: He was objectifying and hateful. Mike Pence represented the Christian right, “I can’t be alone with a woman” brand of sexism.
Ebin: We conceive of male supremacism as an ideology but also something that’s embedded within our culture, our political systems, our economic system. Each essay in the volume speaks to the way in which this ideology, the various belief systems, inform other aspects of our experiences.
I think the first thing most people hearing the term male supremacism would think of is incel-related violence. They might also think about some of the sillier things we’ve seen recently, like Tucker Carlson’s bizarre new documentary on masculinity, or even how incels themselves, as deadly as they have been as a movement, have sometimes been treated as a punchline.
Ebin: One thing we see is how caricatured forms of male supremacism can serve as a political strategy to obscure how male supremacist ideology operates within the mainstream as well — as if the problem is only misogynistic incels and not the ways male supremacism also informs anti-trans legislation and the anti-reproductive justice movement and white supremacist movements. Tucker Carlson is both representative of the way in which male supremacism operates on a spectrum, and he’s also engaged in a quite cunning activity of creating bait for people within the mainstream: They can continue to espouse male supremacist beliefs but point to a foil and say, “But I’m not that. I don’t tan my testicles. I just believe that men are more deserving of good employment opportunities than women.”
DiBranco: When I first started presenting research on misogynist incels, before the term became widely known, I always struggled to define it in a way that wouldn’t make the audience laugh, because I would say these are cisgender heterosexual men who believe that they are entitled to sex with women and that not having it is an injustice.
I’ve encountered this working on things like Christian theocracy too. The more absurd it sounds like to regular liberals, the less likely they are to believe those people really want to do these terrible things. That misogynist incels really do think it is justifiable to commit mass violence, and they want legislation providing them with women’s bodies. There really are Christian Reconstructionists who think that you should stone women for committing adultery and men for being gay. It can be so difficult to get people to take that seriously.
Going back to the idea of male supremacism as merely a gateway to the far right makes me think about when the term “alt lite” was popular for a while to describe people who weren’t explicitly white nationalist. Most of those people, for example, were part of men’s rights movements or thought rape should be legal, but we still don’t take these movements seriously.
Can you talk about the idea of a “men’s crisis,” and how that gets expressed through ideas of male victimization and female privilege?
Ebin: Something happens with the deployment of an ideology of victimhood that allows movements to position themselves as always being defensive and reacting to aggression coming from the opposing side. We see this in the idea of a crisis for men: If we position men as victims, then there necessarily is a responsible party, a perpetrator. And using that victim/perpetrator framework allows men to then claim that what they’re seeking is not to subjugate or dominate, but only to defend themselves.
This is the same strategy used by white supremacist groups, by opponents of CRT, by “parents’ rights” groups. They always present themselves as defenders of something rather than as aggressors. It’s fundamentally a false narrative and a strategy to distract from the fact that they’re seeking domination.
DiBranco: An example that people in the U.S. might recognize is how the Christian right has used the language of persecution, even though we remain a majority Christian country. Instead of admitting that what they want is Christian theocracy, they portray themselves as the ones being attacked.
Similarly, a lot of anti-CRT organizing is based on this idea that white people are being victimized today. The legislation proposed in red states suggests that it’s white people who are being judged by the color of their skin and being made to feel bad, that they are the true victims.
Any time a supremacist structure is shaken, a group that has been enjoying the benefits of being dominant is threatened, and then you see this sense that they perceive or portray themselves as being the true victims.
How do women fit into these movements?
DiBranco: Supremacist groups want women at the forefront of their movements because putting a woman’s face on misogyny makes it more palatable. Phyllis Schlafly both operated within patriarchy and defended it from that position. There are lots of examples in the anti-abortion movement of promoting young women who speak out against abortion. So-called “equity feminists” like the Independent Women’s Forum have been major women’s voices speaking against Title IX protections and denying that domestic and sexual violence against women are large problems in the U.S. Strategically, for male supremacist groups, having women at the forefront is beneficial.
Supremacist groups often want women at the forefront of their movements, because putting a woman’s face on misogyny makes it more palatable.
But increasingly, some right-wing groups are becoming more overt in their misogyny. Rather than using white women in a white male supremacist project, groups like the Proud Boys, which are trying to bring men of color into their coalitions, are more likely to exclude women and be explicit about their misogyny. There is a different tactic going on there where they are looking at men of color as more likely allies in their project.
Also, women are such a small minority of these male supremacist movements. While we have a chapter on Schlafly and we talk about the role of women in misogynist movements, by and large these are movements of and for cisgender men.
Ebin: I think it’s also helpful to understand how some women may see male supremacism as an ideology that supports other beliefs they have or that can confer other privileges they seek to maintain or acquire. When we look at women at the forefront of some of these movements or as spokespeople, they’re not just tools of the men in these movements. They often have their own political interests and values they’re seeking to promote, and male supremacism can be a vehicle for achieving those.
Right-wing use of the term “red pill” largely originated within the men’s rights movement, but these days the term is so ubiquitous it’s hard to find a right-wing movement that hasn’t used it. What does that say about male supremacism’s relationship to the broader right?
DiBranco: There’s definitely lots of movement between men’s rights and white nationalist activism. When you look at the profiles of people at Charlottesville [i.e., the 2017 Unite the Right rally], people from these different groups worked together. So the ability for that language to move from the men’s rights activists into the broader white nationalist movement makes a lot of sense.
I think the popularity of that concept right now is also related to how core conspiracist thinking is to our present-day misogynist, racist, antisemitic supremacist movements in general. Anti-feminist conspiracism is a really significant part of the beliefs of contemporary misogynist groups. In a lot of ways, that looks like the conspiracy theories we’ve traditionally seen around Jewish people — feminists have become the ones now seen as the elites pulling the strings behind the scenes, to the detriment of men.
If we look globally, in the 2011 shootings in Norway, there was a lot of focus on the perpetrator being driven by xenophobia and Islamophobia, which is absolutely accurate. But he also saw feminists as responsible for immigration and for feminizing white European men. They were the core of where this conspiracy theory was rooted in his mind.
Given all the different touchpoints between male supremacism and the Christian right, white supremacists, the anti-abortion movement, is this building towards a sort of unified ideology on the right?
DiBranco: It’s always important to look at both the intersections and the divergences. We certainly know Christian, white, cisgendered, heterosexual supremacy is a core element of what the right is focused on in the U.S. But one of the reasons we talk about male supremacism as an ideology in its own right, and not just as a pathway to white supremacism, is that they all have their other versions of it. In his chapter, Matthew Lyons refers to a sort of quasi-feminism in neo-Nazi organizations, where they encouraged women to operate as warriors to protect the Aryan race. Meadhbh Park’s chapter on Gavin McInnes and the Proud Boys discusses their decision to appeal to men of color and exclude women from their organizing. There’s also QAnon, which is maybe filling that gap since white women are disproportionately involved in it compared to other current right-wing groups, and it also attracts some liberal white women through things like the anti-vaccine movement.
It’s important to look at all the systems of supremacism and see where they feed into each other, but also to remember that the right is not monolithic. It has its own divergences, its own infighting, and part of our strategy in organizing against supremacism includes considering the different components within it.
What should we be paying attention to and watching for within this world?
Ebin: Honestly, it’s very hard to answer that question right after the Alito leak, because it feels like things are really bleak. The future for the rights of people who can experience pregnancy is looking pretty dim, as are our other privacy rights. But as Alex said, we should be watching for the points of convergence between different supremacist movements. We’ve been talking about male supremacism on the right, but we also see it on the left. We need to be attentive to the ways that male supremacism can be a tool for producing coalitions and unlikely bedfellows.
We should be attentive to where these movements diverge. As a counter-strategy, that’s probably the best thing we can do: break up alliances between anti-vax suburban women and male supremacist vigilante groups.
We should also be attentive to where these movements diverge from one another, and where that creates opportunities for interrupting the formation of those coalitions. As a counter-strategy, that’s probably the best thing we can be doing: trying to break up alliances between white suburban women who are anti-vax and concerned about green cleaning products and QAnon conspiracies and male supremacist vigilante groups.
DiBranco: It’s also valuable to think about what we want to work towards in gender justice, so that we’re not only being reactive. And to pay attention to where supremacists have for many decades put their attention and where we have fallen behind. Abstinence-only education, for instance, is something that’s been federally funded only since the 1990s. But now you have a generation of young people educated on stereotypes about men and women, biological essentialism, very anti-consent language and victim blaming. A lot of the women who supported Trump saw him as what they had been told to expect from men.
The right has really long-term playbooks in taking over school boards, in focusing on education, in influencing the next generation. We need a lot more investment in those areas, in research and think tanks at the state level, in organizing structures. We can’t wait until the school board has come under assault by QAnon or Proud Boys supporters, but should work to promote social justice priorities from the beginning.
Ebin: All the strategies Alex laid out are strategies the right has employed for so long. One of our major missteps is in viewing the right as only following the actions of progressives. When we look at the right’s strategies over the last 45 years, it was not just reactionary. Oftentimes it was enacting new ways of organizing, of affecting down-ballot races and targeting the courts in a much more systematic way than progressives or liberals identified at the time. We need to stop operating under the misperception that the right takes its cues from the left and instead recognize that it has an agenda, and we need to focus on articulating an agenda for the left as well.
Read more from Kathryn Joyce on the rise of the far right: