Ashley Mattheis, a researcher who has studied the men’s rights movement for several years, told me recently she was finishing up her dissertation right around the time of the first 2016 Republican national debate. It was a political lifetime ago; there were still 17 candidates howling at each other onstage. “At some point during the debate, I started cataloging lines,” she says, reminiscent of what she was seeing among the fluid online community referred collectively—and somewhat clumsily—as the “Mansophere.”
“I was like, okay, that’s an MRA idea,” she says, “that’s an MRA idea.” The news was full of chatter about false rape accusations and defunding the Violence Against Women Act. A year later, Betsy DeVos would take meetings with men’s rights groups as she prepared the change national policies about campus rape and assault. Shortly after that, the president’s son was giving interviews about his concern for his sons growing up in America and being falsely accused. Mattheis’s research on a group once considered a hateful counter-cultural oddity had definitively entered the mainstream.
Men’s rights activists and their adjacent movements aren’t as expressly visible as they once were, despite continuing to commit sporadic acts of violence in the name of male supremacy and seeing their talking points reflected on primetime TV. The figures who defined the most vaguely palatable faction of the group, who held conferences dedicated to feminism’s destructive effects on men and fought “anti-male bias” in court have seen their relevance wane and the once breathless attention lavished on them as symbols of bigotry vanish. The threads that animated the vast and relentlessly fracturing “manosphere” of pick-up artists, incels, MRAs, and trolls has coalesced, as Tracy Clark-Flory writes, into a “grand unifying theory of feminist conspiracy,” one that embraces violent fantasies and the racist rhetoric of the far right. MRAs, meanwhile, have been notably quiet in recent years.
Five years ago, Warren Farrell, considered by some to be the father of the men’s rights movement, said that he considered the extreme fanatics he encountered to be a necessary evil on the path to male liberation, implying to a Mother Jones reporter they were the Stokely Carmichaels to his MLK. Five years later, that violent faction is the most visible face of the broader movement. Incels make regular appearances in the news, most often when they commit terrorism in the name of male subjugation: In 2018, another crop of explainers appeared when Scott Paul Beierle shot six women in a Florida yoga studio, having driven 250 miles to a town where he had been arrested for groping female students. But when the prominent MRA lawyer Roy Den Hollander was allegedly connected to a cross-country killing spree in July, the news barely registered outside of a few mentions in the local press.
As the men’s rights movement has splintered, the tactics and vocabularies it popularized remain, winkingly spouted by rightwing politicians and finding new energy as the backbones of other hate groups. Misogyny, it turns out, wasn’t the end goal but part of the progression towards a much broader vengeful fantasy. The MRA trolls who once made entreaties to consider the plight of men in a female-dominated society are still sending emails, but the emails are about the broad conspiracy perpetrated by the Jews.
Some of the core beliefs of these groups—that feminism has favored women to the exclusion of men, that women’s sexuality gives them the upper hand—have mutated and been superimposed onto mainstream politics. The candidate who once accused his opponent of “playing the women card” and observed that men can’t talk to women anymore out of fear of being falsely accused is pushing to confirm a Supreme Court justice whose values allegedly include female subservience. His VP famously will not meet alone with women besides his wife.
Since the 2016 election, in particular, the Right’s affection for traditional gender roles has been merged with the gospel of virility for its own sake and a zealous obsession with the country’s decline as the product of soft liberals and “feminizing” forces. This isn’t entirely a product of online movements bubbling up, of course: This is still the country where, in 2012, a Republican Senate nominee introduced the idea of a woman’s body shutting a pregnancy down in cases of “legitimate rape. But the fantasies of a manosphere obsessed with the idea of female sexuality as a bargaining chip, propelled by a supposed epidemic of false assault claims, were realized in the horrific news cycle around the confirmation of Christine Blasey Ford, when GOP operatives and politicians spoke publicly of the “trauma” of a man accused and the phenomenon of furious, spurned women who take their anger out “on the country or on all men.”
As Nicole Hemmer, a political historian studying right-wing media pointed out to me, 2016 was the moment when male supremacists began to see their ideologies reflected in the mainstream: “The kinds of things being written and posted about Hillary Clinton were not that different from what you might see in incel communities,” she said. It’s not hard to draw a line between the fervent ire directed at Clinton and, say, the daily death threats heaped upon Illhan Omar or a senior HHS official tweeting at various women to label them either a “jezebel” “homewrecker” or a “dogface.” Even in circles that might otherwise lean heavily on a less internet-connected misogyny, the idea that feminism has unfairly degraded men and eroded society sneaks through: In a recent and rather viral Federalist blog encouraging “strong women” like Amy Coney Barret to “submit to their husbands with Joy” an interpretation of a Biblical verse is rendered as a welcome antidote. Female submission, the author wrote, was a welcome counter to ideas that “trigger so many of us who grew up indoctrinated with an irrational fear of masculine authority.”
As the talking points incubated in online forums filter upwards, the less easily co-optable forms of misogyny are inextricably linked to other violent groups. As was documented in his recent trial, for instance, Chris Cantwell identified with male supremacist movements and claimed on his radio show to be calling on his “incel friends.” “If you were looking around today and you felt radicalized by the lack of sexual opportunity you had, it seems like you would be less likely to join a pick-up artist group, those don’t exist anymore. You’d be drawn to incels, or drawn to the Proud Boys, that’s where the energy is,” says Hemmer. The phenomenon, she adds, might be considered the radicalization of formerly more innocuous looking forms of misogyny: “The original seeds of the pick-up artist community have largely expired,” she says, “but the fruit that they have born are all over the internet and in real life as well.”
Hemmer says she finds it frustrating that the rise of white supremacist groups is covered as solely a nationalist project. “The ideology of these groups is absolutely white supremacist and western supremacist,” she says, “but there’s a strong devotion to patriarchy. They imagine a society ordered not just by hierarchies of race but by hierarchies of gender.” Mattheis, the researcher studying MRA groups, has similarly recognized the ideas she’s catalogued in neo-nazi and nationalist online personalities, who use a hatred of women as an entry point into broader narratives about civilizational decline. Extremist far-right groups, she’s noted, use incel imagery to advance their ideas about appropriate violence. None of these boundaries are fixed: In the very early days of the Men’s Rights movement, Mattheis says, “they had a strong anti-corporatist sort of leaning that disappeared for a long time.” She’s seen those ideas more recently introduced with an anti-Semitic flavor, targeted towards the globalists and the political elite. “And this might now wash with everyone, but one of my prime arguments is that gender and misogyny become a way to circulate other forms of extremism.”
Hemmer believes the online communities in which men are encouraged to perceive themselves as persecuted are reflected somewhat in mainstream politics. But, she says, the boundaries are hard to perceive given how indistinguishable their ideas are from what so many people believe. “One of the reasons it’s hard to write about the incel phenomenon,” says Hemmer, “is this idea that men kill women who won’t have sex with them, or that men kill women in general—it happens every day in the United States. It’s the water in which we swim, the air we breathe.”