BY MATTHEW HERBERT
You’ve probably never heard of the early 20th-century Indian nationalist Vinayak Savarkar. I know I hadn’t before I read Pankaj Mishra’s 2017 book, Age of Anger: A History of the Present. But you’ve heard of Hitler; you’ve heard of Mussolini.
Like those famous despots, Savarkar believed in a strong sense of national identity based in racial purity, traditional values, military strength, and the redemptive power of violence. This is the usual laundry list of nationalist creeds. But there’s one more thing. Scan the beliefs of Savarkar and the better-known militant nationalists of the 20th century, and you invariably find misogyny too. Fascists, from Hitler to Savarkar, hate, fear and scorn women.
One way or another, they all picked up on Nietzsche’s charming advice to men: “You go to women? Do not forget the whip!”
Savarkar went to England in 1902 to study under Herbert Spencer. Under Spencer, Savarkar wrote that when he reflected on the restrained way Indian nationalism had developed, he lamented how limp-wristed his countrymen had been. In particular, they had given in to “‘suicidal ideas about chivalry to women’ that prevented Hindu warriors from raping Muslim women.”
Unsurprisingly, Savarkar believed more broadly in the emancipatory power of violence, not just for bringing women in line. Every humiliating curtailment of Indian power, he believed, could be redeemed through an act of violent coercion. “In his world view,” Mishra writes, “revenge and retribution were essential to establishing racial and national parity and dignity.”
Throughout Age of Anger, Mishra makes a powerful case that violent nationalists–right up to the sadistic loyalists of ISIS’s caliphate–take their ideas from a surprising source–Europe’s intellectual history. I have much praise for this aspect of Mishra, to be delivered in a separate book review.
What riveted me to his pages, though, was not Mishra’s main argument, powerful as it is. What held me was the uniformity with which he depicts all recent fascists espousing the hatred of women. By the middle of the book, misogyny no longer seemed to me like the spare change of fascism. From Hitler to Mussolini to their lesser known forbear Gabriele D’Annunzio, strong men evince a need to subjugate women, to take revenge on them for achieving parity with men.
Here is one of D’Annunzio’s main expositors trumpeting the ideas their movement tried to implement when D’Annunzio took over and briefly ruled the Adriatic city of Fiume in 1919 (my italics):
We want to glorify war–the world’s only hygiene–militarism, patriotism, the destructive acts of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas for which one dies, and contempt for women.
Upon reading that sentence, I started to get the tingling sense that misogyny was no mere appendage to fascism. Could it be an organic part of the whole setup? To set the right tone for his brave new city state, D’Annunzio invented the goosestep, the sleek black party uniform and the stiff-armed fascist salute. All that and woman hatred. Sounds like a merry place.
Now fast forward to today’s reactionaries. Few of them are so bold as to keep up the full trappings of 20th century fascism. (Although some do echo it. Check out GQ`s analysis of the “Fashy” look at Charlottesville’s 2017 white nationalist rallies.) But what they do keep up is the besetting sense of having been victimized by weaker parties, and, boy, is there a list of them. This is what marks fascists off, from Europe’s obscure nationalist ideologues right up to Charlottesville’s tiki torch bearers of 2017–the feeling that their natural prerogatives as the master sex have somehow been undone.
More broadly, the defining sentiment of today’s pro-Trump, pro-Brexit populists is the feeling of being put upon, of having been disadvantaged by alien ideas that lack popular legitimacy. Effete bureaucracies, such reactionaries believe, have constructed a system of airy-fairy political fictions that unfairly constrain the individual’s scope of action and deplete his identity. Meanwhile, one’s competitors outside the liberal order run rampant, their natural “rights” untrammeled by polite society.
Since the French Revolution, the liberal project has had as its centerpiece the idea that all humans are equal and therefore equally deserving of political rights and freedoms. Fascists, though, are quick (and correct) to sense the frailty of this creed. It only stands up if the masses believe it.
Like the Indian nationalist Savarkar, today’s outraged reactionary awakes one sordid morning, surveys the dirty tricks used by pathetic schoolmasters trying to run his life, and says, “I didn’t vote for this. And furthermore, what I’m being taught is patently false.” The world speaks a different, harder language to the brave few who have ears to hear it.
Vissarion Belinsky, a 19th-century Russian writer, probes the simmering rage the born-again nationalist feels when he sees how the elites have hoodwinked him into a life of unmanly submission. Once you’ve been red-pilled, you cannot fail to see that all your schooling was really just an emasculating sham, a war against basic facts:
Our education deprived us of religion; the circumstances of our lives gave us no solid education and deprived us of any chance of mastering knowledge; we are at odds with reality and are justified in hating and despising it, . . . .
Nothing is so frustrating as dealing with someone who cannot accept reality. We feel such a person denies mankind’s very hope for survival. Live with your illusions if you must, we feel, but don’t try to foist them off on the rest of us. We’ll take good, hard reality, as unwelcome as it might be. This is more or less what Belinsky is saying. He hated the fictions that polite society had imposed on him.
As I read Mishra, I kept coming back to a disturbing, almost radioactive realization. The clearest, hardest reality of the communal human experience is the male’s brute physical superiority. It is undeniable that males seek access to sex above all else, and they are fitted by nature to be able to win it by force. This is a plain biological fact. Only a statistically insignificant number of females can fend off males who are determined to rape them.
This hard, unwelcome fact sits at the very basis of human relations. Getting over it is the first step of setting up a rule-bound society.
There are very few things we can say humankind has done to its credit. The social contract, though, is one of them. By alienating our natural prerogative to use violence, and by transferring that prerogative to a state ruled by law, we make possible a safe, sane community of citizens. Rape need not rule our procreative relationships, just as extortion, theft and murder need not rule agriculture and commerce.
But make no mistake about the foundation of the social contract: it is a fiction. It only holds up if almost all of us agree to abide by it and treat it as an unquestionable article of faith. Strip away the trumped-up consensus behind it and we are back to the hard truths of the natural world, a world red in tooth and claw.
America has reached a point today where our reactionaries ache for a return to hard realities. America is white. It has borders. Its military is supreme. Money is our goal. We are a meritocracy, not a welfare agency. We carry guns and Stand Our Ground. If you feel threatened by these realities, buck up. The world is what it is. Believing in a rights-based utopia inevitably cedes advantages to the unfit. Mercy, charity, indeed all of morality, is a fool’s game.
America’s reactionaries today feel deeply put upon by all the advantage-ceding we’ve been doing in recent decades. We let the UN push us around. The Paris Climate Accord tries to tell us what to do with our smokestacks.
Animating this resentment is the feeling that the liberal order has emboldened an army of free riders, ranged insolently against us and laughing at our weakness. Chinese industrialists out-produce us by polluting at will. Petro-states ridicule us as they drill without restraint. The President of the Philippines just kills drug dealers, smirking at our enslavement to courts and due process. Iran captures and humiliates our sailors because they know how desperately we want(ed) the nuke deal to work. The list goes on. The whole world is laughing at us.
The reactionary wonders, where did we begin to buckle under to the effete madness of the liberal order? If you trace the constraints imposed by rule-bound society all the way back to their theoretical origins, you find the culprit.
The original, and arch free rider is the woman. Note bene: all the 20th century’s fascist strong men have thirsted to re-subjugate women and drive them back toward the state of nature, where they depend for their safety and well-being on the man’s willingness to restrain his natural prerogatives. Is this simply because fascists are unpleasant people? Let’s look at a good example of one and try to work it out.
Hitler outlined the first step back toward better, more natural times in these terms:
In the really good times of German life, the German woman had no need to emancipate herself. She possessed exactly what nature had given her to administer and preserve; just as the man in his good times had no need to fear that he would be ousted from his position in relation to the woman. If the man’s world is said to be the State, his struggle, his readiness to devote his powers to the service of the community, then it may perhaps be said that the woman’s is a smaller world. For her world is her husband, her family, her children, and her home.
Hitler cribbed this idea from Nietzsche, who (disingenuously) said that the main purpose of women was to produce warriors. The man’s happiness is “I will;” he rhapsodized; the woman’s, “He wills.”
When Belinsky raged against polite values that were “at odds with reality,” he was attacking, among other things, the “artificiality” of the idea that men must hold themselves back from assaulting and subduing women. Look around you: the animal kingdom shows us plainly that males are patriarchs and predators. Why pretend otherwise?
Male supremacy is the natural endpoint of the reactionary’s longing for a return to the good old days. Today’s MAGA nostalgist is no less defined by men’s resentment at their loss of original power than were Hitler, Mussolini, D’Annunzio, Belinsky, and Savarkan.
Until I read Mishra, I had always considered Donald Trump’s contempt for women to be an accidental side effect of his predominant cloddishness. The fact that he told Howard Stern his ideal date was “a great piece of ass” was a crass but honest admission of casual misogyny–merely the least savory part of his unlovely personality.
But through Mishra’s expose and the political genius of Steve Bannon, I learned that Trump’s attitude toward women is much more than that. It is a broad, deep indicator of national mood here in America. It is part of a wave of resentment among ordinary Americans who feel put upon and disadvantaged by polite society.
Bannon revealed this part of us to ourselves in July 2016. When the grab-them-by-the-pussy tape surfaced, Donald Trump’s closest advisors counseled him that his political run was over and he should quit the presidential race. Trump’s smirking boast of sexual assault, they calculated, was beyond the pale.
But not Bannon. He knew better. He alone saw the winning strategy, which was: Ignore the tape. It doesn’t matter. And he was right.
What did Bannon know about the American people that no one else knew? For starters, that we were sick and tired of twisting ourselves into pretzels over political correctness. The college boys telling us what was right and wrong were the same class that produced Bill Clinton. Fair enough, but still, how could Bannon have gauged how far we had gone, that we were actually ready for an outspoken enthusiast of sexual assault to helm the nation? This insight was a real, almost Nietzschean, flash of brilliance.
It all comes down to Trump’s fear of being laughed at, which turns out to be our fear of being laughed at. Take any issue you like on which Trump has made a strong stand–border security, immigration, trade, corporate taxation. His policy ideas on all these issues reduce to the idea that America, the strongest country on earth, has given away its power and ceded a crucial advantage to some weaker party who is now in a position to laugh at our self-handicap.
Well, in a way, Trump is right. The advance of liberal humanism over the last 300 years is largely a history of powerful parties agreeing to limit their own ability to coerce and subjugate weaker parties. That’s the whole point of the social contract, which I just mentioned.
Generally speaking, liberalism is not a static idea, but a form of political activism that seeks to empower disadvantaged communities with new rights. The ending of slavery, to take one example, actively limited the coercive power of southern planters, producing a more just and prosperous society, which no decent person would reject today.
But Trump’s natural reflex is to view the liberal surrender of power in microeconomic terms–from the enslaver’s point of view, so to speak. Forget the long view of macroeconomics, or the mamby-pamby talk of history arcing toward justice. If I’m competing against someone in my line of business, and he has not alienated certain advantage-giving powers which I have alienated, that person has an undeniable edge over me, at least in the short run.
This kind of thinking is Trump’s entry point into every collective political cause from environmental protection to gay marriage to, yes, women’s rights. Every time we dream up some new law to advance the rights of a hitherto weaker party, we shoot ourselves in the foot. That is, we shoot ourselves in the big male, straight, white, Christian, capitalist foot. Meanwhile, what of our more tribal competitors who have not given in to such self-handicap? They’re laughing at us.
What does this have to do with the provocative claim in the title of my essay? This: If you trace the liberal project of advantage-ceding back to its theoretical origin, you arrive at the deeply discomfiting fact I mentioned in connection with the social contract. As beasts, we are a male-dominant species. The man’s resort to physical superiority is the ultimate guarantee of access to sex, the thing he is biologically determined to value above all else.
As social beings, though, we pursue what Thomas Hobbes, the discoverer of the social contract, termed a more “commodious life” than the one afforded by rape, murder and pillage. The paradox of this better life, though, is that we really do have to twist ourselves into pretzels to accommodate new rights-giving moral norms. That’s the price of morality. Someone really does pay a price for the spread of fairness and decency, and in a species that must have begun with males according all the original advantages to themselves, it is the predatory, patriarchal male who will inevitably witness his power flowing to others as civilization expands.
So, I am not saying that all Trumpists are (necessarily) misogynists. But I am saying they’re playing with fire. Roll back the liberal assault on “traditional” values too far, and you will return to the brute male supremacy of the jungle. If you doubt this warning, take note of how many nostalgic, authoritarian strongmen hated women, as I’ve tried to indicate here. It’s no accident. Read Mishra, and this conclusion will stare you full in the face.
Every time Trump mocks, insults, demeans or otherwise objectifies a woman, he is voicing a sadistic reminder that women’s equality is a fragile civilizational fiction, which can be violently revoked at any time by any sufficiently pissed off man. This is the meaning of sexual assault. Men may have lost the war for gender supremacy, but the true Trumpist believes an endless rearguard action to demoralize and immiserate uppity women is nonetheless a desirable state of affairs. If we were to recognize that women are truly, irrevocably equal with men, the next thing you know, they’d be laughing at us.