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The Globe and Mail

Sociologist Michael Kimmel on American masculinity in the era of Trump

Michael Kimmel is an author and advocate for changing the discourse between genders.

Michael Kimmel has kept company with a lot of unsavoury guys. He's lent his ear to the bitterness and rage of neo-Nazis, fathers'-rights activists, Confederate-flag-wavers, militia members, Tea Partiers, Bible Belt homophobes and high-school shooters. These furious men have told Kimmel, a sociologist at New York's Stony Brook University, that they feel emasculated by the changing social and economic status quo. Kimmel characterizes their state of displacement and resentment as "aggrieved entitlement."

Kimmel catalogued these stories in his aptly titled 2013 book, Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era. At the time, it read like the last wrathful wheeze of the white, Christian patriarchy. Looking toward a future of greater equality, Kimmel declared, "The era of unquestioned and unchallenged male entitlement is over."

In hindsight however, Angry White Men turned out to be more a portent of things to come than a death knell. An energized, emboldened "alt-right" harnessed white resentment to help elect Donald Trump as U.S. president and white-male entitlement has made a roaring comeback. Just in time to make sense of it, Angry White Men has been reissued with a new preface. In it, Kimmel writes, "Like many Americans, I didn't see Trump's victory coming. I underestimated the depth of angry white men's rage and how others, including plenty of angry white women, might find it resonant as well."

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The Globe and Mail spoke to Michael Kimmel about Trump's appeal, selective nostalgia and the fear of humiliation.

When Angry White Men first came out, you seemed to suggest that the age of white-male dominance was on its way out. What happened?

I still believe that we're moving towards a more equal and diverse future, but it's going to take longer than I predicted. When I first wrote the book, what I anticipated was that angry white men would get increasingly loud as they became decreasingly influential. And where the alt-right and the men's-rights activists and the Gamergaters have been the loudest is on the Internet. The Internet became their man cave, the place they retreated to hide out.

I heard the same rumblings all over, from white men who felt they were being policed and cowed by the forces of political correctness. They would say things to me like, "You can't tell a joke any more without offending someone." And I think that sense of being out of step with the times fed into all these other streams of resentment. Resentment against women, against immigrants, against people of colour, against urban elites. That emotion gave rise to the Tea Party, and its notion that something had been taken away from "real Americans." And then Trump came along and said, "Well, let's make America great again."

And what does that 'great' mean to the men you spoke to?

It means the 1950s. Here's what I heard all the time: "It used to be so easy to be a guy then. Everybody knew their place." And of course for white men and their families, it actually was a great time in America. There was massive federal spending for roads and infrastructure and schools. The G.I. Bill funded college education for veterans. There were low-interest loans helping them buy their own houses.

I heard a similar sentiment from white women who supported the Tea Party and Trump. Many of them didn't vote as "women," they voted as "moms" and "housewives." They voted because they also wanted those 1950s norms to be reinstated.

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But it's a selective take on history. It gives the impression that white people did well on their own merits, without acknowledging how the system was rigged to support them.

Yes, but a lot of white men and women are just looking back at what their parents had and seeing that they don't have it. So they feel like they're not getting what they deserve. Instead of getting angry at the people pulling the strings, like the predatory loans company or the auto-industry executives, they find a scapegoat like feminists or immigrants. And because racial divisions are so stark in America, poor people and blue-collar workers aren't often finding common cause across racial lines.

One theme that comes up in this book, as it does in a lot of your work, is the fear men have of being humiliated. Why is that so frightening to men?

These guys told me over and over again that they did everything that they were told to do. They played by all the rules. And in return, they expected to be able to support their families but they can't. The jobs are gone and it's tough to support a family on one income now. For a lot of these men, being the breadwinner is the defining feature of masculinity. They staked their entire sense of manhood on their ability to be providers and protectors. That's what I mean when I talk about humiliation. It's not about being laughed at, or embarrassed. It's more profound. These men feel like they've failed at being men.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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