Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri surprised even some allies when he recently devoted his entire speech at a high-profile national conference of conservatives to an extended analysis of why so many men appear stuck in a cycle of “idleness and pornography and video games,” as he put it.
Hawley’s warnings against what he called liberals’ “attack on men” could open a new front in the culture wars that Republicans have used to consolidate their support among the voters most alienated by social and demographic change. Polls consistently show that a significant majority of Republican men, and even as many as half of Republican women, believe that amid the reassessment of gender relations sparked by the #MeToo movement, men are being unfairly punished and discriminated against.
Republican politicians haven’t targeted those anxieties nearly as explicitly as they have the unease in their base about the nation’s growing racial diversity—a concern that has infused the party’s focus in the Donald Trump era on issues including undocumented immigration and the teaching of race in public schools. But Hawley’s speech showed how resistance to shifting gender roles can be braided into a broader conservative message of defending “traditional” American values against accelerating change.
Apprehension about new dynamics in both race and gender “are correlated,” Erin Cassese, a University of Delaware political scientist who has studied gender and politics, told me in an email. “Essentially it’s a preference for the status quo in all things—gender relations, race relations, political and economic systems.”
Elected to the Senate in 2018, Hawley quickly built a following on the right with speeches that sought to bridge traditional conservative beliefs and the economic and white-identity nationalism at the core of Trump’s political appeal. In speeches accusing both parties of surrendering to a “cosmopolitan consensus,” Hawley portrayed himself as the champion of the GOP base in small-town, blue-collar, manufacturing-oriented America. The homespun clothes of a heartland populist always were something of an awkward fit—Hawley holds degrees from Stanford University and Yale Law School—but he generated enough buzz on the right to fuel talk of a possible 2024 presidential bid; one writer in the conservative National Review even declared him possibly “the most interesting thinker the U.S. Senate has seen since Daniel Patrick Moynihan.”
Many people will remember Hawley instead from the instantly iconic photograph of him raising a clenched fist in encouragement toward Trump supporters not long before they stormed the Capitol on January 6. Hawley has defended his gesture by insisting that he was promoting only peaceful protest, but the image of him egging on the protesters—in a tailored, buttoned suit—seemed to crystallize the contradictions between his populist posturing and his elite reality. Hawley only compounded the backlash that evening when, along with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, he vocally objected to certifying the Electoral College results on Trump’s behalf.
Hawley’s speech at the National Conservatism Conference in Orlando on November 1 can be seen as an attempt to restore his luster as a guide to the GOP’s post-Trump future (whenever that might be). Which is why it struck some as so unexpected that Hawley focused his remarks not on any of the right’s immediate discontent over Joe Biden’s presidency or critical race theory but on what he called the left’s “attack” on men. “I was surprised,” Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center who attended the speech, told me. “I would have thought he would have chosen a more overtly nationalistic speech, either economic nationalism or patriotism, with the brand he is developing.”
Hawley’s speech intertwined two ideas. The first was that “the masculine virtues” or “manly virtues”—personal characteristics such as “courage and independence and assertiveness,” as he explained—were indispensable for “self-government” and “political liberty.”
The second assertion, which filled the bulk of his speech, was that the principal reason so many American men have dropped out of the labor force, failed to marry, or tumbled into depression and drug abuse is because “the left”—a diffuse constellation in which he placed Democrats, colleges and universities, Hollywood, the news media, psychologists, and even corporate advertisers—is engaged in an ongoing culture war against them.
“The left want to define traditional masculinity as toxic. They want to define the traditional masculine virtues … as a danger to society,” Hawley claimed. “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?”
Olsen, though generally a fan of Hawley, thought his ideas collided. Although many conservatives might accept Hawley’s depiction of the culture as hostile to traditional conceptions of manliness, Olsen said he found in conversations after the remarks that the senator’s “exaltation” of the virtues he ascribed uniquely to men grated on some right-leaning women in the audience. And although Hawley insisted that he was not absolving men of personal responsibility for their choices, his stress on the role of popular culture in explaining why so many young men were stuck in their parents’ basement “sounded to many listeners like an apology for men,” Olsen said. “If that’s the way women at a national conservative conference are viewing it,” he added, “you know how more moderate women in the suburbs or the hinterlands are taking it.”
Penny Young Nance, the president and CEO of Concerned Women for America, one of the most prominent organizations of culturally conservative women, didn’t attend the speech, but she was more positive when she read a transcript of it. “I do think that we have a very confused generation of young men, and they live in a swipe-left and swipe-right world, and all of the choices they are given are often not good for them,” she told me, nodding to the prevalence of dating apps. “I speak for a whole group of women who feel like saying ‘Put down the mocha latte whip, put down the game console, put on a real pair of pants, and get a job.’”
Nance wasn’t ready to endorse Hawley’s emphasis on cultural messages as the reason for men’s drift (“I think it’s a little more complicated than that,” she said), but she didn’t interpret the speech as an excuse for men’s bad behavior. “I think he was calling them to their better angels, and I think we all need to do that,” she said.
Nance’s generally favorable reaction is a reminder that both strands of Hawley’s argument have deep roots in conservative thinking, and potentially a substantial audience in the modern GOP coalition. Cassese noted that Hawley’s description of “manly virtues” as indispensable to public life, and his assertion that women have distinct virtues, extends across decades of conservative thinking, particularly among the white evangelical Christians who now comprise the party’s most loyal supporters, about the value of preserving separate “spheres” of life for men and women.
Hawley’s arguments, Cassese argued, are a “continuation of culture wars politics sparked by the mobilization of evangelical Christians” that traces back to the 1970s. Deana Rohlinger, a sociology professor at Florida State University, sees Hawley’s praise of “manly virtues” in government echoing not only the conservative case in the ’70s against the Equal Rights Amendment but arguments dating back to the early 20th century against providing women the right to vote. “In the long-term historical context in the U.S., he is really making the same arguments … Women are nurturing and they are suited for raising children, and men are assertive and they should be out in public life in politics,” she told me.
One powerful measure of that belief comes in results Cassese analyzed from the University of Michigan’s National Election Studies on the 2020 election. She said the data showed that nearly half of not only the white men but also the white women who voted for Trump agreed that families were better served when men worked outside the home and “the woman takes care of the home and family.” Only about one in seven white Biden voters (men and women alike) agreed.
The sense that men are being unfairly punished in the #MeToo era is even more widespread on the right. The nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, in its 2020 annual survey of American values, found that 70 percent of Republican men and almost exactly half of Republican women agreed that “these days society seems to punish men just for acting like men.” (Only about three in 10 Democratic men and two in 10 Democratic women agreed.)
Tresa Undem, a Democratic pollster who specializes in attitudes toward gender and racial dynamics, obtained almost the exact same results among Trump voters in a large post-election survey. (Among white evangelical Christians who voted for Trump, 69 percent agreed that men are punished for acting like men.) Even more striking, in that survey 65 percent of men who voted for Trump, as well as 54 percent of female Trump supporters, agreed with the statement “White men are the most attacked group in the country right now.”
Agreement with that assertion, Undem told me, was “one of the top predictors of voting for Trump.” There was also, she said, a powerful correlation between the Trump supporters most likely to say that men in general, or white men specifically, were under attack and those who expressed unease about the impact of immigration on American society or who asserted that bias against white people is now as big a problem as discrimination against minority groups. In fact, Undem says, an index of attitudes about perceived threats to the social and political dominance of white men that she constructed from the poll questions predicted support for Biden and Trump almost perfectly. “It was this direct linear relationship between where you landed on this scale and your likelihood of having voted for Trump,” she said. Polls have also consistently found that a large majority of Trump voters believe that discrimination against women is no longer a problem in American society (just as a large majority says the same about minority groups.) As in studies of the 2016 election, views about the economy proved far less predictive of the vote than these attitudes toward changing racial and gender dynamics, she found.
Undem believes the claim that men, particularly white men, are the group facing the gravest threats in American society today will strike most Democratic and even independent women as “kind of ridiculous.” But given the breadth of those feelings within the GOP coalition, Undem said she’s less surprised that Hawley has anointed himself the champion of embattled American men than that no other Republican had moved sooner to plant that flag. “It wasn’t a surprise; it was a surprise that it took this long,” she said.
Hawley, for his part, is following the tracks laid by another prominent Republican: Trump. The former president signaled boundless disdain for any renegotiation of gender relations through his frequent mocking of female politicians, often with overtly sexist language; his belligerent dismissal of multiple charges of sexual harassment (dating back to the Access Hollywood–tape scandal during the 2016 campaign); and his argument that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was the real victim when he faced an accusation of sexual assault during his confirmation hearings. It’s “a very scary time for young men in America,” Trump insisted at the time.
Hawley wasn’t nearly as belligerent in his speech, and notably steered clear of attributing the troubles of men to personal or political demands by women (who after all, account for a majority of voters nationwide, even if men usually provide a majority of Republican votes). Instead Hawley pointed the finger primarily at cultural institutions controlled by the left, a target that more unites the right, while also nodding toward the decline of American manufacturing in a globalized economy as a contributing cause.
Scholars studying the genuine problems Hawley alluded to—declining labor-force participation and social instability among men, especially those without college degrees—find his diagnosis for those difficulties largely beside the point. They attribute factors such as the decline in good-paying blue-collar jobs and a fraying of social support networks, whether labor unions or close friendships, especially among men without advanced education.
Blaming cultural messages for men’s struggles is “an effective political tactic … but I don’t think the challenges confronting working-class men are because they are viewed as lesser or persona non grata in elite circles, or they are mistreated by the media,” Daniel Cox, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told me. “When you really look at folks who are struggling and having the worst outcomes, it’s people who are in rough economic shape and relatedly, those things are tied to poor social support.”
Democrats are quick to note that Hawley, for all his expressed concern about opportunities for working-class men, opposes the Biden economic agenda (both the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the broader reconciliation package), even though the plan targets many of its new benefits toward blue-collar families and would create millions of jobs in construction, manufacturing, and caregiving that do not require a college degree, according to analysis by the liberal Economic Policy Institute.
Juxtaposed against those positions, Hawley’s speech embodies the confidence among conservatives that they can hold white working-class voters, particularly men, by identifying with their cultural anxieties, even as they vote against Biden programs that could deliver them tangible economic benefits. Hawley is opening a new front by focusing on gender rather than on race, but he’s doubling down on the long-standing GOP bet that for most working-class white people, cultural grievance will trump economic interest.