Trump, UFC and the new conservative culture war

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Donald Trump’s first public appearance after his recent felony conviction wasn’t a campaign rally or political fundraiser. It was an Ultimate Fighting Championship event. Earlier this month, a crowd made almost entirely of men gave the former president a hero’s welcome as he walked into the arena to the song “American Bad Ass” by Kid Rock. Then, they took up an anti-Biden chant.

The choice of venue won’t surprise anyone who’s been paying attention to conservative masculinity lately. For Trump, a professional fight is a political space, and his appearance there is a strategic choice. We can trace a thread from his brand of brash masculinity to right-wing commentators like Tucker Carlson (whose 2022 documentary “The End of Men” bemoaned a decline in manliness) and popular podcaster Joe Rogan (a former UFC commentator trained in mixed martial arts). At the extreme end of the spectrum is the manosphere, filled with “misogyny influencers” like Andrew Tate, once a professional kickboxer and now, like Trump, under criminal investigation.

As a scholar who studies conservative media, I see the manosphere and its mainstream relatives as part of a new conservative culture war. Right-wing influencers are once again using social issues to distract working-class people from their economic struggles, just as Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and other Fox News pundits did in the early 2000s with issues like gay marriage and the “War on Christmas.”

These efforts succeed because they speak to real feelings of hopelessness about the future, lack of opportunity, and alienation and loneliness that are common today, particularly among young men. Drawing on a well-worn conservative playbook, the manosphere culture war redirects blame away from economic elites and heightened inequality to feminism and “woke” culture.

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It offers an anti-feminist spin on the longstanding conservative narrative that educated elites have captured the government and media and are oppressing hard-working “real Americans.” Now it’s women, gender-nonconforming people, and feminists pushing topsy-turvy ideas about gender, family and roles at home and work. Diversity initiatives, the MeToo movement, transgender rights and women outpacing men in educational attainment are used as proof that women (and other groups coded as “not male”) now have the upper hand.

This “oppression of the majority” narrative allows Donald Trump to portray himself simultaneously as a powerful, manly renegade and a sympathetic victim. Manosphere content walks a similar tightrope. Both the economy and dating are depicted as rigged games that the average man today can’t win — unless he bucks the system and embraces a return to traditional masculinity. Influencers like Tate promise dignity and power for people who don’t see other paths to financial and social success in today’s economy.

The manosphere’s economic ideal is the entrepreneur who takes control of his life and escapes the grip of a nine-to-five boss, rather than remaining a “slave” in the “matrix” (favored manosphere terms, based on the popular movie series). This masculine entrepreneurial hero has clear parallels to Trump’s mythology as a self-made, outsider businessman who forged his own path. To get there, manosphere influencers peddle individualistic get-rich-quick schemes like crypto-currencies, multi-level marketing and YouTube monetization in expensive seminars. It’s an easy sell to young people who believe college is more likely to be a source of crushing debt than upward mobility.

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The economic vision of a self-made entrepreneur is paired with the social ideal of a muscular, dominant alpha male, whose high value in the “sexual marketplace” allows him to attract and control women. It’s no coincidence that hypermasculine fighting culture is the sport of choice. It’s a solo sport that perfectly mirrors the individualistic, dominance-driven economic solution the manosphere promotes. Even Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk have dabbled in this brand of masculinity, threatening to step into the ring and duke it out over business squabbles.

The manosphere culture war succeeds by forging a cultural connection with men and offering them recognition and affirmation, even as it does little to address the structural roots of people’s struggles. The left should take note. They have lost working-class, non-college-educated voters, especially men, in droves over the past few decades. The result is a growing “diploma divide” between voters with and without a college degree.

Liberals may be making the same mistake again by failing to connect with the alienation and lack of opportunity many Gen Z men (and women) feel. Indeed, some data suggests that teenage boys are now more likely to identify as conservative than liberal (though most have no political affiliation at all).

The manosphere culture war presents lack of masculinity as the problem and aggressive masculinity as the solution. An effective response must redirect attention back to the forces that have actually screwed young people and rigged the system against them. It should offer communal and systemic solutions, rather than go-it-alone competition to game the system and a “gender war” that pits young men and women who are struggling against each other.

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However, asserting the economic benefits of progressive policies is not enough to combat the hypermasculine appeal of Tate, Tucker and Trump. The left’s populist economic agenda needs to be packaged with the kinds of emotional and cultural connection the manosphere offers. While the progressive response won’t be a mirror image of the manosphere — and may not involve masculinity at all — it must speak to young men’s cultural attachments and lifestyles. It has to resonate with the things that give them a sense of identity and community, whether that’s sports, music, video games or something entirely different.

Progressives must appeal to culture as an entry point into the bigger debate over why society and the economy feel so unfair to so many. As the right learned a long time ago — and as conservative figures from Trump to Tate demonstrate so well — recognition and affirmation are the foundation of a powerful political coalition.

Reece Peck is an associate professor at CUNY Graduate Center and the College of Staten Island, the author of “Fox Populism: Branding Conservatism as Working Class” (Cambridge, 2019), and a member of the Bridging the Diploma Divide Working Group, a network of scholars dedicated to healing political divisions.

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