On April 13, federal authorities arrested 21-year-old Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira for leaking classified intelligence documents. If his alleged crimes are extraordinary, his story seems painfully familiar.
A young man with a lot of anger, Teixeira lived at home and seemed to have no real social life beyond obsessing over weapons with his gamer friends on the social media platform Discord. He had a veritable garrison at his Dighton, Massachusetts, home. To persuade the presiding judge not to release him on bond, prosecutors unearthed the unsettling fact that Teixeira, who was permitted to see classified intelligence in his role as an IT specialist at Joint Base Cape Cod, had once been denied a weapons permit by the state of Massachusetts for making violent threats at his high school. His online activity suggested an alarming preoccupation with mass shooters and an apparent sympathy for terrorist attacks by the Islamic State.
Teixeira was rewarded for his violent fantasies in his “Thug Shaker Central” Discord group, where users casually shared racist, antisemitic, and anti-Ukraine posts. The group typifies a deeply misanthropic culture that’s taken hold online in an age of widespread male discontent. “There’s no point hiding it,” one group member told The New York Times. “I’m not a good person.”
Unlike past intelligence leakers—those purporting a just cause like Edward Snowden or aggrieved sorts looking for money like Aldrich Ames—Teixeira’s ambitions in disclosing sensitive documents were small. His sole purpose was to impress his online pals with his access to secrets. He seems not to have wanted the intelligence widely shared, and the only reward he sought was the group’s admiration.
Teixeira has no antecedent as an intelligence leaker. Still, as a young man with limited ambitions, a pitch-black worldview, and an inability to make his way constructively in today’s America, he’s symbolic of a generation of lost men.
Over the last decade, scholars like Richard Reeves and Nicholas Eberstadt and journalists like Hannah Rosin have sounded the alarm about the social dislocation of American boys and young men, who are falling behind women in school and the workplace by multiple measures. Some are falling out of society altogether. During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the decline in college enrollment for male students was seven times the rate for female students. Some 63 percent of young men now are single—for young women, it’s half that—and more young men live with their parents than with a partner. Men now account for almost three out of every four “deaths of despair”—suicide and drug overdoses.
About 15 percent of men say they have no close friends (the rate was 3 percent in 1990) and are twice as likely to report having little emotional support than women. They spend an increasing share of their time playing video games and watching porn. And they’re turning to places like Teixeira’s message board to stew over their sense of abandonment.
Attention to this crisis of male malaise has been apparent across the political spectrum in recent years. Senator Josh Hawley, the Missouri Republican, pointed to the symptoms in a speech in November 2021 at the National Conservatism Conference. “Many men in this country are in crisis, and their ranks are swelling,” he said. “They are suffering more anxiety and depression. They are engaging in more substance abuse.” His assessment was similar to the one offered by Reeves, of the left-leaning Brookings Institute, in his 2022 book Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It.
But unlike the left, the right is working to reach disillusioned young men directly, offering a captivating and self-pitying narrative: America’s liberal elites are out to punish them. “The deconstruction of America begins with and depends on the deconstruction of American men,” Hawley railed in his speech. “This is an effort the left has been at for years now.” Hawley’s new book, Manhood: The Masculine Virtues America Needs, is a 256-page treatise on this idea. “No menace to this nation is greater than the collapse of American manhood,” he writes. “To be frank, some welcome that collapse: namely, those on the American left. In fact, they have helped drive it. In the power centers they control, places like the press, the academy, and politics, they blame masculinity for America’s woes.”
Republicans like Hawley are confronting a genuine social problem. But they’re using it—to promote their careers, to bring disillusioned young men into the party’s fold—in fundamentally harmful ways. They’re misdiagnosing what is causing the ills of men and boys. (Spoiler alert: It’s not feminism.) And they’re wooing those hurting through a message of resentment.
“This attempt to restore traditional manhood was always linked to restoring some sense of traditional America,” Kristin Du Mez, a gender studies scholar at Calvin University, told me. But if Hawley’s is an old message, with echoes of Phyllis Schlafly-Jerry Falwell antifeminism, it’s in a new package. “What we have today is much less restrained,” she says. “There’s less talk of virtue. And, in fact, it seems much more aggressive.” When MAGA lawmakers talk about masculinity, they don’t sound like the culture warriors of the 1970s and ‘80s. They sound like Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes, and other exponents of the so-called “manosphere” movement that permeates the adolescent male online experience.
Social media algorithms and private message board platforms like Discord have exposed millions of young men to the manosphere’s revanchist understanding of gender, one premised on the idea that feminism and LGBTQ rights are to blame for their struggles with work and school and relationships and are the reason they’re still living at home. The liberal regime that controls Western politics, culture, and media, they hear, forbids them from expressing their natural manhood. This ideology comes with an arcane language—to be “red-pilled,” for instance, is to wake up to this sinister anti-man agenda.
In recent years, right-wing leaders have borrowed from this online parlance. This tactic has received little attention, but to the initiated, manosphere concepts are everywhere. Hawley’s examination in Manhood of the supposed feminizing cultural forces keeping men stuck in a cycle of “screens, leisure, porn” bears a solid resemblance to Peterson’s credo and the Proud Boys’ weird anti-masturbation dogma, as Du Mez has noted. In October 2021, when then-Congressman Madison Cawthorn called on mothers to raise young men as “monsters,” to much confusion, he was lifting language from a popular Peterson video and winking allyship to the online right. Cawthorn later used his departing speech from Congress to deliver a screed on the threat to traditional masculinity in America. “Our young men are taught that weakness is strength, that delicacy is desirable, and that being a soft metrosexual is more valuable than training the mind, body, and soul,” he said.
An obsession with the online conspiracy theory that declining testosterone levels threaten Western civilization is now a familiar topic on Fox News and a recurring theme for Republicans like Representative Matt Gaetz. That theory inspired former Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s infamous viral segment, “The End of Men,” which was more or less a screen adaptation of the manosphere bible “Bronze Age Mindset.” The film even featured as an expert the pseudonymous influencer “Raw Egg Nationalist,” a leader in the far right’s bizarre bodybuilding-and-raw-food movement. (In its latter years especially, Carlson’s show scraped many ideas from the online far right, including the “great replacement theory.”)
Few figures on the far right have learned to leverage online male grievance in electoral politics as has tech financier and Republican patron Peter Thiel. Two of the Senate candidates he backed last year—Ohio’s J.D. Vance and Arizona’s Blake Masters—aimed at this demographic. Vance’s fiery Twitter thread from November 2021 defending Kenosha shooter Kyle Rittenhouse (“he defended his community when no one else would”) echoed ideas from the Proud Boys’ “Western chauvinist” ideology. And on the campaign trail last year, Vance’s fulminations against professional women and his suggestion that women should stay in violent marriages for their children seemed calculated to court the online right.
Unlike Vance, who went through a Thiel rebrand, Masters was a creature of this world before he ran for office. As Politico put it, “Masters, a millennial message-board addict with an awkward personal affect that sharply contrasts with his macho posturing, is those voters.” His platform fused a regressive vision of gender—he even called for allowing states to make contraception illegal—with a tech-bro pro-Bitcoin plank. Though he lost to incumbent Democrat Mark Kelly, his win over more traditional Republican candidates in the primaries suggested an appetite for his brand of politics.
The male-dominated “edgelord” culture that Republicans are co-opting—the culture that seems to have fostered Teixeira—was not always especially political.
Lonely young men have gathered on message boards since the early days of the internet. But in 2014, tensions over gender representation in the video game industry boiled over into harassment against several female journalists and game designers. “Gamergate,” as the incident was dubbed, is credited with helping unify the diffuse online manosphere. Two years later, Peterson became an international phenomenon for declaring that male dominance is a pillar of Western civilization. His YouTube videos lent a tweedy authority to manosphere ideas until then the province of trolls and 4Chan users. Through this 60-year-old professor, those ideas found purchase with a growing number of young men. Another gateway was McInnes and his online comedy show, where a Barstool Sports-style misogyny attracted flocks of men who would become the Proud Boys, which he announced in 2016. (McInnes officially left the Proud Boys in 2018, but according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “remains intimately involved in their internal matters.”) The alt-right was taking shape, with zero-sum masculine aggression at its core.
The electoral potential of male grievance became apparent around the same time. Donald Trump was all id and ego on the campaign trail. He may have bragged about his daughter Ivanka’s business acumen, but his smears of women energized the online misogynist right, as the researcher Alex DiBranco documented. (Trump got his testosterone levels measured on a Dr. Oz episode during the campaign.) His campaign manager Steve Bannon, who liked to call the opposition “cucks,” recognized the possibilities this offered.
As Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie would testify in 2019, Bannon employed the consulting firm to drum up votes from “incels” (involuntarily celibate men who blame feminism for their non-existent dating lives) in 2016 because they were “easy to manipulate.” “You can activate that army,” Bannon later told USA Today. “They come in through Gamergate or whatever and then get turned onto politics and Trump.” For instance, as scholars Pierce Alexander Dignam and Deana A. Rohlinger have documented, the Reddit community r/TheRedPill, a popular manosphere community that had long resisted engagement with traditional politics, embraced Trump as an avatar of their cause. (The founder of r/TheRedPill was later revealed to be Republican New Hampshire Representative Robert Fisher, who promptly resigned.) That November, 53 percent of men voted for Trump compared to 42 percent of women, a historic gap.
To a new generation of Republican leaders, Trump proved the potential of disillusioned young men as a growth demographic. In 2019, former George W. Bush speechwriter and Trump national security official Michael Anton used his review of “Bronze Age Mindset,” the pseudonymous manosphere polemic, in the Claremont Review of Books to call on his party to adapt in an evolving political climate. “Tax cuts, deregulation, trade giveaways, Russophobia, democracy wars, and open borders are not, to say the least, getting the kids riled up,” he wrote. “What is? The youthful enthusiasm for BAM suggested a place to start looking.” Within a few years, the once-stodgy Claremont Institute was publishing manosphere influencers.
The violent assertion of male authority has always been a step toward fascism. January 6 bore an unsettling resemblance to the hypermasculine paramilitarism that heralded fascist takeovers in Germany and Italy. Men, McInnes has said, must be prepared to use violence: “You’re not a man unless you’ve beat the shit out of someone.”
Simon Copland, a manosphere researcher at Australian National University, told me that he’s recently noticed greater symbiosis in the relationship between Republicans and the manosphere. “It’s not just that the manosphere influences politicians. It’s that the things they’re saying start to influence the manosphere as well,” he told me. The GOP’s newfound obsession with the idea that drag performers and transgender educators are sexually “grooming” children is one example. “That is filtering back down into the manosphere, where people are picking up those narratives,” he explained. This MAGA-manosphere alliance was publicly burnished when Trump dined with self-identified incel and white nationalist Nick Fuentes in November.
Hawley has fashioned himself the right’s principal interlocutor with angry young men—his less-than-manly waltz out of the Capitol on January 6 notwithstanding. After his National Conservatism Conference speech in 2021, the freshman senator told Axios he planned to make masculinity his signature political issue, a declaration he appears to be making good on with his new book.
The book’s topic is a more inspired choice than the more typical look-at-me screeds from Republicans like Tom Cotton’s Only the Strong: Reversing the Left’s Plot to Sabotage American Power or Ted Cruz’s Justice Corrupted: How the Left Weaponized Our Legal System, two recent additions to the genre of conservative victimhood. Hawley is staking his career on manhood, and his instincts aren’t terrible: young men are hurting and looking for answers. Republicans like Hawley may be guiding them to the wrong answers, blaming corporate sensitivity training (which can be self-parodies), university curricula, and inclusive gender categories on passports for their struggles. But if the causes are misplaced, the effects are all too real.
Reeves and Hanna Rosin, author of 2012’s The End of Men—no relation to Carlson’s segment cited above—have documented how macroeconomic changes over the last half-century have disproportionately harmed men. “The postindustrial economy is indifferent to men’s size and strength,” Rosin writes. In an economy that increasingly requires a college degree, men struggle to adapt: In the 1980s, the gender ratio among undergraduates was about even, but there are now almost two women enrolled for every man. After each recession, fewer men have rejoined the workforce; most recently, in 2008, three-quarters of the 8 million jobs lost were lost by men. One in three men with only a high school diploma are now out of the workforce—10 million in all—with the biggest drop in employment among men between ages 25 and 34.
Eberstadt, the conservative author of the landmark Men Without Work, writes that “something like infantilization besets some un-working men,” who, unable to find work in the growing service and professional sectors, succumb to prescription drugs and television. The literature shows that Hawley is right to suggest that many of this unemployed cohort are filling their time with video games instead of participating in domestic and community life.
Our education system, too, is less sensitive to boys’ needs. Boys are now twice as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD and twice as likely to be suspended as girls, and their attainment in elementary, middle, and high school lags. Schools devote less time to physical education and provide fewer breaks in lessons than boys need. They have few role models: In 2018, only 24 percent of all K-12 teachers were men.
The reception on the left to Hawley’s masculinity crusade has been predictable—jeers, sneers, but little appreciation for a real social problem. Jezebel found the idea of men’s issues as politically relevant laughable, calling Manhood a “book literally no one asked for.” Rolling Stone puzzled at “the lack of substance behind Hawley’s newfound obsession with men.” The same flippant response followed Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene’s suggestion on a podcast last August that “discrimination” against young white men “has created hopelessness in many of these guys,” which “turns them to all kinds of bad things: porn on the internet, reading crazy stuff in chat rooms.” HuffPost mocked Greene’s “bizarre new explanation for porn.” Media analyst Jason Kint tweeted that the male suffering Greene described was “a preposterous concern.”
It’s a tempting impulse: Hawley and Greene’s depiction of an omnipotent left discriminating against white men is ridiculous. Hawley’s unctuous demeanor gives Cruz a run for the most annoying senator. (John Danforth, the former Republican Senator from Missouri who was a political mentor to Hawley, says he regrets helping the Stanford-and-Yale grad win the seat he once held.) His Capitol jaunt, juxtaposed against his raising his fist in solidarity with the January 6 crowd, makes him a worthy target. He and Greene are both malign actors disparaging feminism in bad faith.
But their bombastic indictments of the left contain a kernel of truth. “Discrimination” under liberalism, as Greene suggested, is not the cause of men’s struggles, but left-leaning institutions like the media and universities have also not been promoting an especially constructive message for men recently. Progressives have struggled to express what a non-“toxic” masculinity entails or provide examples of positive male role models. “I think the idea of ‘toxic masculinity’ is toxic,” Reeves told me, a view shared by many other gender scholars. Boys struggling with school and their mental health shouldn’t be told there’s something wrong with their nature, as though manhood is a sort of original sin. A cultural shift in how we talk about men is essential to creating an appealing alternative to manosphere influencers. A wise and compassionate liberalism can embrace multitudes. Many young men are hurting; women too often face misogyny, discrimination, and violence. Acknowledging the woes of one group doesn’t diminish the sufferings of another.
Liberals must acknowledge, as Hawley and Greene do, the plight of men struggling with their place in the modern world, unsavory as they might find it. “I think there’s a fear that talking about these issues will distract from or undermine the work that still needs to be done on behalf of women and girls,” Reeves told me. “Zero-sum thinking is destroying a lot of our political discourse.” By failing to articulate a commitment to helping young men, the left has let Republicans fill the vacuum.
But the left has a compelling story to tell if they choose to tell it. The reasons for the sorry condition of young men are well-documented, and some have policy solutions that Democrats are uniquely positioned to pursue.
Changing the material conditions of work and school through public policy can help address the crisis of despair among young men. Investing in a thousand more vocational schools, as Reeves suggests, expanding mental health services and paid paternity leave, and implementing school policies better suited to boys could help narrow the achievement gap and improve male life outcomes. The sort of spending programs that help men are more likely to come from the left. The concern with monopolies and the concentration of economic power is something this magazine explores regularly. To Hawley’s credit, he’s broken from the Republican establishment/Business Roundtable consensus on these issues. Expanding the role of community colleges, which play a singularly important role at this moment in our economic history, offering an avenue to the middle class for the majority of Americans who will not get a four-year college degree, is an issue where the Biden administration is strong, and the likes of Vance and Hawley have nothing.
Democrats have been afraid to highlight what they can offer men as men, in contrast to how they promote (as they should) female-owned small businesses. “One of my annoyances with the [Biden] administration is the fact that the  infrastructure bill was a huge job creator for working-class men, but no one in the administration would say that,” Reeves says. Nearly three-quarters of the bill’s 800,000 jobs created yearly will go to men. Expanding Medicaid coverage under 2021’s American Rescue Plan disproportionately helped men, too, who have higher rates of suicide and shorter life expectancy than women and benefit from extended mental health coverage under the program.
Hawley may lament the plight of working-class men, but he voted against both bills. Aside from his interest in antitrust—which seems more aimed at the conservative bugaboo of Big Tech than Big Oil—he has little to offer men. Yet he and his party continue to enjoy a reputation for being on their side. By refusing to show how they’re delivering for men the way they boast of delivering for women or minorities, Democrats are blowing it. They’re failing to expose the fraudulence of the right and leaving votes on the table. If the left is going to win back men, it’s time to start talking to them before they fall prey to the demagoguery of Josh Hawley, to self-destruction like Airman Teixeira, or to the quiet despair of millions of others.
Author: Will Norris