Missouri Senator Josh Hawley is on a crusade. He wants to use politics to help fix the crisis in American masculinity. Like many political crusades, it touches upon a very real issue, but both the cause of the crisis and the proposed solution are crudely drawn, overly simplistic, and utterly inadequate to deal with the true dimensions of the cultural challenge. Even worse, when the “solutions” come from Hawley and the new right, the cure just might be worse than the disease.
In a speech at last week’s National Conservatism Conference in Orlando, Florida, Hawley detailed what he described as a number of ideological attacks on the concept of “traditional masculinity.” In the most-quoted portion of the speech he said, “Can we be surprised that after years of being told they are the problem, that their manhood is the problem, more and more men are withdrawing into the enclave of idleness, and pornography, and video games?”
In a follow-up interview with Axios, he said he wanted to “call men back to responsibility,” and he once again repeated his warnings against “spending your time on video games, spending your time watching porn online.”
Before I get to what’s wrong with Hawley’s position, let me get to what’s right. Men are facing tremendous challenges in this country. In a poignant September article in The Wall Street Journal, Douglas Belkin detailed the grim numbers of the academic achievement gap. “At the close of the 2020-21 academic year,” he wrote, “women made up 59.5% of college students, an all-time high, and men 40.5%, according to enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit research group.”
Enrollment has declined by 1.5 million students in five years, “and men accounted for 71 percent of the decline.” If present trends continue, “two women will earn a college degree for every man.” Even more alarming than the educational decline has been the deadly, disproportionate toll of the opioid crisis on men.
While the effects of porn and video games are hard to measure, they do connect with the concerns of millions of parents of young boys and teens. Many of us have talked to parents who struggle to pull their kids out of their rooms and into the sunlight. Facing a loss of purpose, young men retreat into online spaces. Gaming in moderation is a fun hobby (I’ve gamed for years). Gaming to excess swallows a person’s life and ambition.
But here’s more of a core problem—faced with a culture-wide challenge to the prospects and sense of purpose of generations of men, the right has answered left-leaning critiques of “traditional masculinity” with a supremely toxic alternative that worships power and aggression and forsakes moral courage.
Look no further than Senator Hawley himself. I find it ironic that the man now calling men to “virtue” and “responsibility” is the same man who famously pumped his fist at the January 6 mob and proceeded to challenge the November election results with no legal foundation, all in support of Donald Trump—a man who should be absolutely no one’s masculine role model.
In his Axios interview, Hawley said that “A man is a husband. A man is somebody who takes responsibility.” In his national conservatism speech, Hawley celebrated the virtue of “courage.” Do any of those traits define the current leader of the American political right? Trump, a serial liar, used alleged bone spurs to escape service in war. He’s a husband who’s also been a husband to two other wives.
And speaking of pornography, Trump not only famously slept with a porn star and paid her hush money; he also appeared in a Playboy soft-core porn movie called Playmate 2000: Bernaola Twins. But there was Hawley, going to the mat in the Senate to save his presidency.
Why harp on these actions when Hawley has properly identified a number of cultural maladies? Because it’s a perfect representation of the cultural dysfunction of the new American right. It is perfectly capable of pointing to multiple, very real cultural problems, yet its populist cure suffers from fatal flaws.
If you spend any time in right-wing political circles, you’ll immediately note a rather profound shift in masculine cultural mores since the rise of Trump. Right-wingers are imitating their cultural avatar, and they’re doing so in a way that privileges populist conformity and raw aggression and often mocks commitments to truth and even moral courage itself.
Decency and civility are “secondary values.” Even hatred is applauded, provided it’s aimed at the right people. “I think our people hate the right people,” Ohio Senate candidate J. D. Vance told The American Conservative. Concepts like “owning the libs” or “triggering the libs” or “drinking liberal tears” celebrate antagonism as a virtue.
If you spend time with young men, there’s one thing you learn instantly. Mentoring matters. It matters for everyone, of course, but virtuous male role models seem to have an especially dramatic effect on boys. There’s even compelling research that the greater presence of fathers in a neighborhood can have a positive impact on young men. Just being around fathers can help a boy thrive.
And that’s exactly why the new right’s disconnect from virtue is so damaging. In 2019, the American Psychological Association published its controversial “Guidelines for Psychological Practice for Boys and Men.” The guidelines argued that “traditional masculinity ideology,” which it described as orienting boys toward “anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence,” could negatively impact mental and physical health.
Yet not all of the attributes described above represent vices. Nor are they inherently virtues. They’re characteristics, and whether they’re vices or virtues depends on a young man’s values. For example, a focus on “achievement” can be located in pride or greed, but it can also orient a person toward innovation and excellence.
A sense of adventure can manifest in reckless, foolish behavior. It can also empower exploration and teach a culture that there are risks worth taking.
Even violence—a dreadful thing in ordinary times—has its place in very particular contexts. The men who stormed Normandy’s beaches and the men who defended Hitler’s Atlantic Wall all employed violence, but according to different systems and pursuing different ends through different means.
It is this very complexity that renders role models so vital. You can’t just tell a young man how to live; you have to show him. And that model counts in all facets of life, not just fatherhood. In the Army, good noncommissioned officers show the youngest troops how to be soldiers. In sports, veterans show rookies how to become professionals. Mentoring programs are often vital to young businessmen.
When I was very young, like many young conservative boys, I was introduced to the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling. If you’ve never read it, it sets a high bar for manhood. The opening stanza gives you the flavor:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise
Among the many tragedies of the new American right is the extent to which it has cast its lot with men while neglecting to call those same men to a higher and better standard, in word and (especially) in deed. Read Kipling’s words above. Do any of them reflect the ethos of the new right? Do they paint the picture of Donald Trump?
All too many men and boys are desperate for meaning and purpose. They crave a higher calling. It’s vital for men at all levels of our society to fight ideological and cultural battles on behalf of the values we all live by, but it’s even more vital that they live those values in public and in private. One cannot marry a movement to restore virtuous masculinity to a movement that prizes cruelty, excuses hate, indulges lies and conspiracies, or elevates any person—no matter how powerful—who will choose in a fateful moment in history to raise his fist to a howling mob.