Ever since the Jan. 6 committee showed that video of Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) running from the insurrectionist mob he’d earlier encouraged with a fist in the air, we’ve all had a good laugh at his expense. I mean, who doesn’t like a manhood-obsessed hypocrite getting a well-deserved public comeuppance?
But as clownish as Hawley comes across, we dismiss him at our own risk. He is selling a vision of masculinity to White America that has much more to do with prejudice than manliness. It’s an old story — but a successful one, and one that’s poised to catch on. Stopping that from happening will require offering an alternative, with better examples of what being a man really means.
During a recent interview, Jason Kander, an Afghanistan War veteran who in 2018 stepped away from rising success in the Democratic Party to tend to his mental health, broke down his fellow Missourian’s plan. Hawley, he said, “is positioning himself, and therefore his movement — his far-right, White-guy movement — as, ‘If you’re a man, then you believe in these things.’” These things, you could probably guess, are archconservative values such as the patriarchy, opposition to women’s bodily autonomy, support exclusively for heterosexual marriage, an aversion to labor organizing. In other words, as Kander told me via email later, Hawley is “making manhood synonymous with conservatism.”
The pitch holds natural appeal for older White men who already hew to traditional morals. But what about the younger White men who, as Kander says, watch Ultimate Fighting but still like their LGBTQ co-workers and have friends who have had abortions? Hawley figures he can woo them too, so long as they share one potent trait with the older group: racial resentment. This vision of masculinity is as much about being White as it is about being a man.
Jonathan Metzl, author of “Dying of Whiteness,” says Hawley’s harping on masculinity is a new version of an old game. “There has been a crisis of White masculinity since the ’50s, and every decade it gets rearticulated through similar themes. This crisis casts White men as victims against competition by women and non-White men in the labor market,” Metzl wrote in an email. “But Trump, the NRA, Tucker Carlson, Jordan Peterson and others have brought White male anxiety into the mainstream with the message that we are going to fight back as aggressively as possible. And, of course, casting yourself as a victim then obviates recognition of how you are in many cases the aggressor.”
At the beginning of his own book, “Invisible Storm: A Soldier’s Memoir of Politics and PTSD,” Kander also touches on manhood. “It wasn’t like I’d grown up with a sense that being a man meant being tough or flinty or eating a lot of meat,” he writes. Kander knew his parents “didn’t want their sons to commit to the leathery Clint Eastwood archetype. I knew that being a man meant being dependable, taking care of your people, and going where you’re needed.”
Kander’s memoir isn’t meant to be a manhood manual. Yet in writing openly about dealing with the trauma that had him contemplating suicide, and giving space to his wife, Diana, to write about how everything affected her, Kander incidentally presents a refreshing version of masculinity, one that views vulnerability as a virtue on the endless journey to being the best man one can be for one’s family and community.
This is the opposite of what Hawley hawks. He has bemoaned what he calls “the left’s assault on the masculine virtues” and how this “crisis for men … [is] a crisis for the republic.” These wrongheaded themes will no doubt be the foundation of his forthcoming book, “Manhood: The Masculine Virtues America Needs.”
The jokes write themselves. “This is like me writing a cookbook. ... I don’t know how to cook,” Kander said.
But when you have a huge group of people desperate to learn how to cook — people who feel as though their self-worth depends on cooking exactly the right way — they’re going to latch on to whatever cookbook comes their way. Hawley may be a clown, but he’s clever, too. He knows White men feel they’re facing a crisis, and he plans to give them an answer. Coincidentally, that answer just so happens to serve Hawley’s own interests, ambitions and even 2024 presidential run.
Masculinity should never be about exclusion or intolerance, nor displays of unyielding strength. Some of the best men I’ve known have had generous hearts that reinforced firm values and high expectations. Through their examples, I’ve learned more about what it means to be a man than anything Hawley could possibly present in a few hundred pages. Every man deserves a similar model. Because if you’re turning to Hawley for a how-to on manhood, you’re doing it all wrong.