Josh Hawley, a Republican senator from Missouri, is worried about men. “The left want to define traditional masculinity as toxic,” he warned attendees at this year’s National Conservatism Conference. “They want to define the traditional masculine virtues — things like courage, and independence, and assertiveness — as a danger to society.” Hawley proceeded to claim that men are in crisis, and so is the country, and this is the fault of Marcuse-quoting leftists who wish to deconstruct America and masculinity along with it.
Hawley has his admirers.
But for all his bluster, there’s nothing novel about what Hawley has to offer the conservative movement. Though he gestured at inclusivity in his speech and decried a simultaneous assault on womanhood, listeners should not be fooled. Hawley simply recycled old anti-feminist talking points for a new audience. In the process, he’s done feminists — and trans-rights advocates — a favor by demonstrating anew how tightly linked the anti-trans and anti-feminist causes truly are.
Start at the top, with Hawley’s articulation of “masculine” virtues that presumably exist in contrast to more feminine traits. Of course, if women possess any virtues beyond childbearing in Hawley’s estimation, it’s impossible to tell. In his speech, women are assigned no quality but their identities as birthing parents. Or, as he put it: “Many of my Democrat colleagues in the Senate won’t even say the word ‘mother’ anymore, for heaven’s sake. ‘Birthing people’ is the term of choice, as if women don’t exist.” Hawley dressed these sentiments in references to left-wing thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Herbert Marcuse, and even Karl Marx, but engaged none of them; engagement isn’t really the point. He set up a straw man so he could easily knock it down. There is no left-wing plot to destroy men. Forget Marx for a second. Imagine the flimsiest form of liberal feminism to exist, made up of tweets about male tears and ironic misandry, and it still wouldn’t constitute a plot to destroy men.
Hawley is not the thinker he would desperately like to be; there’s a reason his references to Marx et al. consist of name-dropping instead of a more serious engagement with the texts. He knows his audience doesn’t expect more from him. He relies instead on deliberate misinformation, a tactic that is endemic to the right-wing movement. This reveals Hawley to be something of a fraud. As eager as he’s been to cultivate a reputation as a “populist” Republican concerned with the fate of the working man, Hawley introduces no new ideas, no original thoughts. Even his impulse to regulate big tech is related to his antipathy for porn.
So it’s not hard to imagine the kind of world that Hawley would like to build. It’s a masculine vision defined by strict gender roles, with women in a more passive and subordinate position. In this world, trans people are absent; if they insist on making themselves known, they’d have no rights, or even have their existence criminalized. This is a familiar agenda. The right has been pushing it for decades, repeating the same anti-feminist talking points ad nauseam. Even now, Hawley is not the only political figure arguing for such a return to tradition. Blake Masters, the Peter Thiel–backed Republican Senate candidate in Arizona, recently released an ad bemoaning the demise of the single-family income. America, he said, should be a place where a worker can raise a family on one income alone. “The left, they attack me, and say, ‘Oh, Blake, that’s sexist,’” he complained. While Masters never explicitly says that the worker in his scenario is male, his imaginary left-wing critic clarifies matters.
When Republicans like Masters and Hawley say they speak for the common man against the liberal elite, they’re really speaking for themselves. Both Republicans dream of a nation of housewives, the quiet, submissive support behind legions of manly men. There’s no evidence that this is what the public wants; for all Hawley’s talk of elites, his fantasies are not common and, by definition, are not populist in character. He preaches a doctrine of exclusivity, which empowers men — and only a particular sort of man, at that — above everyone else. This is an attempt to hold onto power, to defend it from those who would seek a more equal future for themselves. This is an old story. Hawley promises nothing new.