Speaking to reporters outside the White House on Tuesday, President Trump succinctly summarized one of the central, underrecognized through lines of American politics in the past several years.
He was asked about the nomination of Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to sit on the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh’s nomination is in limbo because he faces allegations of sexual assault and misconduct from several women, dating back to his high school and college years. Trump has insisted that those allegations are without merit and that Kavanaugh has been treated unfairly by being held accountable for things that happened 30 years ago.
Trump on Tuesday expressed concern about the standard that sets.
“If you can be an exemplary person for 35 years and then somebody comes and they say, ‘You did this or that,’ and they give three witnesses and the three witnesses, at this point, do not corroborate what they were saying — it’s a very scary situation where you’re guilty until proven innocent,” he said.
He was asked what he’d say to young men in America.
“I say that it’s a very scary time for young men in America, when you can be guilty of something that you may not be guilty of,” Trump replied. “This is a very difficult time.”
Later, Trump was asked what message he had for young women, according to a pool report. Women, he said, “are doing great.”
This idea that men are suffering unduly at the hands of false allegations is enjoying some currency. There’s a political component to it: Trump and his allies are elevating Kavanaugh to a position of victimhood that they hope balances the scales with his accuser, particularly Christine Blasey Ford, who testified before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week. She says she was assaulted. But, the argument goes, isn’t Kavanaugh being assaulted in a way, too? Should young men worry about how they, too, might someday be targeted? Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., told an interviewer this week that he now worries more about his sons than his daughters.
Data on how many false assault accusations are made is hard to determine, but false claims make up only a small observed percentage of reported assaults. Most assaults, of course, aren’t reported at all.
That specific claim — that men will be accused unfairly of misbehavior in an effort to stymie them — is a very narrow subset of the broader strain of male protectionism that runs through conservative politics at the moment. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), in his energetic defense of Kavanaugh during last week’s hearing, put a finer point on that idea.
“I know I’m a single white male from South Carolina, and I’m told I should shut up, but I will not shut up, if that’s okay,” Graham said. The subtext is obvious: White men are constantly told to be quiet, to let others speak, because white men have a privilege that others don’t. Again, it’s a form of aggrievement equivalence, focused on transforming criticism into bias.
It’s a sentiment that’s particularly potent among Trump supporters. A poll conducted in late 2015 determined that 42 percent of Trump supporters said that white men faced a lot of discrimination in the United States — a percentage substantially higher than supporters of other Republican candidates (30 percent) and 22 percent of Americans overall. Put another way, Trump supporters were almost twice as likely as Americans on the whole to say that white men faced a lot of discrimination.
That was in 2015, before the overlapping surges of frustration among women over Trump’s election and, months later, the advent of the #MeToo movement, which focused on precisely the sorts of behavior of which Kavanaugh stands accused. When the Black Lives Matter movement gained attention in 2014, there was a surge in concern about race relations in the country, which Trump was able to leverage (intentionally or not) for his advantage in 2016. It seems likely that the surge in concern about the political and physical power of women in America would similarly bolster a backlash.
But that sentiment of suffering American men predates Trump. It was first manifested politically in the Gamergate movement, a months-long, underrecognized effort by a group of young men to criticize the role of women in the video-game industry. Gamergate included the sort of trolling, targeting and aggression that were central to the alt-right in the 2016 campaign. After the campaign, FiveThirtyEight documented how Trump’s most vocal fan base on Reddit overlapped with both misogynistic groups on the site and Gamergate. Gamergate popularized both tactics and a philosophy that were leveraged by the alt-right on Trump’s behalf.
The philosophy, in short? Men (often extended to white men in particular) are under assault in modern American culture. Far from being privileged, as some would argue, men were, in fact, often victims of overwhelming cultural forces.
This argument is often not subtle. Here’s Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, whose rhetoric has often overlapped with white nationalism over the past several months, talking about how “the left” is targeting white men.
What’s important is the argument, summarized in the chyron: “Left broadens its attack on ‘white men.’ ” Not only is the left attacking white men, that summary tells us, but the attack is widening. That’s how bad this is. The evidence to that effect? First, a column from commentator Matthew Dowd, who was chief strategist for George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection. Then, a tweet from a college professor. That’s the left that is taking down white men.
This segment ran on Monday night.
Trump’s election was in part a function of concern among white Americans about the increasing diversity of the country. His constant rallying cry denouncing “political correctness” was a way of talking about that increase without mentioning it: If men and whites and white men can’t make unfounded comments about the inherent danger posed by Muslims, the thinking seemed to go, is this really America? Not being able to be offensive became the real offense.
America’s demographics are shifting only slowly. It is still the case that the majority of people in positions of power are overwhelmingly men, even though men are a minority in the country. Four in 5 members of Congress are men! Men make more money; men are given more opportunity. There are moments when men are discriminated against, certainly, but there are far more moments when the weight of societal bias toward men puts women at a disadvantage.
Trump’s strategy on men facing allegations of assault was captured in Bob Woodward’s book “Fear.”
“You’ve got to deny, deny, deny and push back on these women,” Trump told a friend facing assault allegations. “If you admit to anything and any culpability, then you’re dead.”
This was a friend who, Woodward writes, actually behaved inappropriately. But Trump told him to deny anything happened.
That serves Trump well politically. He and his allies were quick to celebrate assault accusations that targeted Democrats such as former senator Al Franken (Minn.), leveraging the fact that Franken admitted to behaving inappropriately. When Roy Moore faced serious allegations while on the Senate ballot in Alabama, Trump stood by him, citing Moore’s denial of wrongdoing.
With Kavanaugh, the charges are different but the politics are the same. Kavanaugh’s fervent defenses of himself give Trump the power not only to equate his suffering with that of his accusers but also to additionally amplify the sense of grievance and threat felt by men who support him. The idea that there will be a rash of men facing assault allegations is nonsensical; very few men seek positions that require the sort of public scrutiny that would draw such allegations to the surface.
It’s important to recognize, though, the extent to which Kavanaugh is a symptom, not a cause, of the underlying gender-based tension in the United States. Gamergate nudged misogyny into the light. The alt-right leveraged and repurposed it. Trump won the presidency thanks, in at least some small part, to the sense among white men that they were being treated unfairly.
This shouldn’t really be a scary time for young men, even extending that idea beyond the Kavanaugh fight. This continues to also be a moment in which women are often not doing great.