By now we have all been bombarded with images of the invasion of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, unforgettable scenes of violence and destruction, fueled by an angered mob of no, not “protestors” — terrorists. (Yes, they are terrorists. As an Arab, I feel that it is important to remind us all that “terrorists” come in all colors.)
The images are forever seared in our global repository of stuff-I-can-never-unsee.
Capitol barricades broken, people injured, walls scaled, windows smashed, and once inside, offices broken, furniture destroyed, symbols desecrated, and even feces smeared on the walls. They were armed with weapons, a noose, tactical gear, and explosives. This violence didn’t just “happen” — it was planned and deliberate.
While there is some diversity in this rebel army, the terrorists — and in particular their so-called leaders — are mostly male, and mostly white. Coincidence? You decide.
A predominantly male movement fueled by violence has its roots in something all too familiar to me — toxic masculinity. This has become a buzzword, a catch-all, and often a hasty label for a range of social problems. And it has provoked a backlash — often from the very men most likely to fit under this label.
So what is it?
Toxic masculinity is produced by a set of patriarchal norms that perpetuate the notion that being a “man” means to be dominant, aggressive, violent, and very often misogynist, homophobic, and an array of other -isms. It’s a combination of “locker room talk,” “boys will be boys,” and all of the other phrases we bandy about to excuse behaviors that are unacceptable and harmful — not just to women, but to men as well. And to society overall.
Of course, not all masculinity is “toxic”. That’s why it’s an adjective. There are plenty of other types of masculinity that are positive, nurturing, and so on. For decades, however, it has been toxic masculinity that was socially accepted and idealized as part-and-parcel of what makes a man a “real” man, leaving little room for alternative masculinities.
It bears repeating that Trump and his followers are the paradigm of toxic masculinity in the U.S. “Grab them by the p*ssy,” and an array of derogatory phrases we’ve heard far too often are examples of the way Trump’s toxic masculinity has not only thrived throughout his presidency, but has inspired his movement. The same movement that stormed the U.S. Capitol just a few days ago.
Worse, the iteration of toxic masculinity that Trump and his followers adhere to takes a special disliking to women in power. Cue Trump’s Twitter history: from calling 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hilary Clinton “HRC the Skank,” to calling the recently-elected Vice President Kamala Harris a “monster,” the President’s dislike for powerful women is no secret.
So what’s the connection between the violent political attack at the Capitol and Trump’s toxic masculinity?
It’s well known that when Trump speaks like this about women, minorities, and in short anyone who is not Trump himself — namely white, wealthy, heterosexual, able-bodied, and so on — he is speaking directly to his followers.
A base of primarily white American men — similar to the one we saw storming the Capitol building — share the same views. Encouraged by the impunity Trump has faced over the past four years, and incited by Trump’s (completely baseless) claim that the presidential election was stolen from him, Trump’s base is supported and encouraged to use violence as a means to demonstrate their discontent. He has given them license to act.
Trump is not unique in his use of aggressive, hypermacho politics to fuel divisions. Comparisons can be made to leaders worldwide who have incited violence — both in politics and at home — as part of their call to action. Trump has always fancied himself a strong-man alongside his favorite world leaders — Duterte and Kim Jong Un among them.
I wrote recently that America is no different from other countries in its penchant for violence, both at home and abroad. Our rates of sexual violence and intimate partner violence are similar to other countries at our economic level. Our ability to use violence for political gain is no different. No, those things are not relegated to “other countries” — they are everywhere. Toxic masculinity unfortunately transcends borders.
I’ve worked to end violence against women around the world for over two decades. While not all men are violent, the vast majority of violence against women — physical, sexual, and emotional — is perpetrated by men: men who believe that violence against women is an acceptable outlet for their own rage and frustration, or conceive of it as part of any “normal” intimate relationship. We know that violence against women is about power — specifically an abuse of power and an attempt to control women.
This type of control and abuse of power is at the core of toxic masculinity, and why we must put what happened at the Capitol in discussion with acts of violence against women: they are fueled by the same core belief.
During my time as a humanitarian worker, I have seen toxic masculinity at work in various countries and cultures, always with violence against women as its most egregious manifestation.
Entitlement. Violence. Power. All of these are at the core of toxic masculinity — and violence against women.
When a creature in a furry suit with horns who goes by the title “shaman” and other equally comedic characters force their way into the symbol of American democracy, using violence and destroying public property, it is not a “public protest.” It is an act of violence.
Public protest is fine. Political disagreement is normal. Civil disobedience is very often necessary — but it is always peaceful. The attack on the Capitol would not have been possible without a culture of toxic masculinity.
To assume that those who invaded the Capitol are just disgruntled protestors is naïve, and does a major disservice to the decades of feminist activism that continue to highlight the fact that violence and heteronormative masculinity are tightly tied together. And to assume that those who invaded the Capital will not continue their attempts to destabilize our lives is dangerous.
If there’s one thing I know about violence, this cycle is just beginning.