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Viral Masculinity and the Populist Pandemic

Is populism fueled by a feeling of manhood under attack? If gender is its driving force, are there better ways to respond?

COVID-19 delivers a stark warning: the global surge of populism endangers public health. Wronged and Dangerous introduces “viral masculinity” as a novel way to meet that threat by tackling the deep connection of our social and physical worlds. It calls us to ask not what populism says, but how it spreads.

Leading with gender without leaving socioeconomic forces behind, it upends prevailing wisdom about populist politics today. You do not need to know or care about gender to get invested. You only need to be concerned with our future.

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This chapter takes on the final question of Part II: Can we formulate a concern in common that isn’t anti-populist? Answering in the affirmative, it introduces the notion of anger management, shorthand for a mode of governance that ‘leads’ by stoking aggrieved entitlement (keeping victimized anger on simmer, ready to boil over on cue). COVID-19 offered a taste of how destructive anger management can be, and bigger challenges of interdependence like climate change lie ahead. Aiming our concern at anger management need not invite technocracy, or handing the reins over to the ‘experts.’ Rather, the common concern is for life, and the goal is to care for public health, not to pronounce moral threats to democracy. There is a bigger threat, which is that anger management can kill us with its bluster. The chapter introduces pufferfish as an icon for this problem. Anger management—or ‘government by pufferfish’—is a maladapted reflex that is undeniably bad for the world.

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The work of Parts I and II bear fruit in Part III, which revisits the cause of New Populism. Most analysts point to socioeconomic and demographic changes as the decisive stimuli for the populist surge. This chapter systematically unravels that analysis of cause in three turns. It challenges economic (class-mainly), socioeconomic (a combination of class and cultural marginalization), and socioeconomic ‘plus’ (racial and religious resentments) explanations. Even when expanded beyond its reasonable limits, the concept of class cannot well explain New Populism. Class-forward analysis, any assessment that leads with socioeconomic unrest, breaks down.

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New Populism is not so much about content but, rather, the feeling of aggrieved entitlement in search of content. This condition, established in Part II, requires a different understanding of cause than that used in class-forward accounts. This chapter introduces an alternative, non-linear model of cause, which asks how (on what energy) rather than why (for what reason). What animates New Populism, and how does it move—the body, and from one body and place to another, changing as it does so? Put simply, whose feeling is aggrieved entitlement; on whose behalf is it felt? The chapter suggests that this highly infectious feeling prefers the name of ‘The People’ to its own. It outlines the book’s claim that aggrieved masculinity is the beating heart of New Populism. Dominant manhood, wronged and endangered, is its animating figure.

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This chapter works through the most common defenses by which gender is dismissed or downplayed as a viable cause of New Populism. These include: (1) ‘women do it too’; (2) ‘politics are patriarchal’; (3) ‘masculinist extremism is a fringe element’; (4) ‘populism is the opposite of identity politics’; (5) ‘even feminists agree’; (6) ‘the populism-identity politics distinction is important to maintain’; and (7) ‘class is more important and broadly human than gender.’ These habitual responses are sociophysical, in that they condition our senses to perceive and process New Populism in predictable ways. The knowledge and skills of Part I are needed to disarm the physical reflexes by which we deny the centrality of gender—specifically, the gender binary and normativity—to New Populism.

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This chapter elaborates the core argument that New Populism is identity politics for the universal subject, that manly figure posing as the generic human. Populism is the perfect air-freshener, beard, or gender-laundering service for aggrieved masculinity. It sanitizes the feeling, gives it the legitimate face of ‘The People,’ and opens it for others to absorb. Through New Populism, dominant masculinity hijacks class to do its bidding. To catch this sleight of hand, we need gender-first instead of class-forward analysis. Gender-first analysis begins with gender to crack the binary code by which aggrieved masculinity travels the globe: MANLY RIGHT, WRONGED. It then registers all the other factors (race, class, religion, sexuality, and so forth) through which New Populisms vary. The US case is informative but not paradigmatic. Aggrieved masculinity takes regionally specific forms.

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Gender-first analysis exposes a different motivating history for New Populism than the one typically told. This chapter demonstrates that in the US context by tracing the claim that masculinity is in crisis. Time and again, ‘crises’ of manhood appropriate class, folding privileged men into a ‘working class’ of wounded manhood. The chapter zooms in on the past two decades, in which New Populism exploded. Through a layered analysis of momentum from Fight Club to Joker, it shows a continual escalation of aggrieved masculinity up to the nihilistic present. Nothing can soothe this cross-class ‘crisis’—some 50 years in the making—because the manly supremacies it seeks are unsustainable. ‘Crises’ of masculinity drive the spread of New Populism. Increasingly, they endanger us all, even those they claim to serve.

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Part IV explores how aggrieved masculinity continues to multiply exponentially and what to do about it. The chapter proposes to treat it as an actual, not merely metaphorical, pandemic of feeling. To start, we must admit what COVID-19 exposed: that manly grievance has become a public health problem. This chapter makes that case, demonstrating how violence motivated by aggrieved masculinity, often targeted toward Others, poses a generalized risk, as evident in US mass shooting patterns. Climate denial and destruction, also linked to aggrieved masculinity, endanger public health as well. The rise of New Populist “anger management” (from Chapter 10) exacerbates the public health threat by turning manly grievance into policy. Any residual hard–soft division—between class and culture wars, for example—is shattered by this chapter, which shows how New Populist culture wars endanger everyone, including the very men they seek to benefit.

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This chapter delves into how aggrieved masculinity intensified after it was declared all but extinct. The chapter suggests that the online culture wars of the late 2000s and 2010s better illuminate the rise of New Populism than the socioeconomic and demographic shifts marked in Chapter 11, though all of these are involved. During this period, the “manosphere” (the online phase of anti-feminist men’s movements) became a major political player. The manosphere cultivated the focus on Western Man under siege and perfected the edgy, countercultural vibe that fuels New Populism today. The chapter identifies the manosphere as the ‘super-spreader’ of New Populism. This is neither technological determinism nor a linear account of cause (why, for what reason, or in response to what event). Instead, this is the version of cause introduced in Chapter 12 (how, or on what electricity, does something move). The manosphere propels New Populism’s global surge with a transnational economy of attention and amplification.

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In light of the last chapter, this one considers the limitations of “toxic” and recommends “viral masculinity” as a metaphor suited to the challenge ahead. A poison control frame does not address the transnational movement of manly grievance because it concentrates on the substance (ideology) instead of how it gets passed around (feeling). Viral mitigation better captures a pandemic of feeling and redirects focus accordingly: from stopping individual ingestion to slowing communal transmission. Viral masculinity is more than a metaphor, in fact. Short of a biomedical virus, it is a physical transfer of social feeling through bodies, technologies, and other material means. Aggrieved masculinity is a genuine sociophysical pandemic.

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