It once seemed like the #MeToo movement might achieve something extraordinary in our age of social fracturing and political polarization, and unite people across the lines of party and identity for genuine social reform.
That hope is long gone now.
You can see it in the furor over embattled Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who has been accused of sexual assault against a fellow teenager when they were both in high school, and also by a woman who says Kavanaugh exposed himself to her at a party in the 1980s when they were both students at Yale University. What happened between Kavanaugh and his accusers is disputed, and may never be truly known. What is in less doubt, however, is that due in large part to outrageously cynical partisanship Kavanaugh has now supplanted undisputed serial offenders like Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer as the archetypical target of the #MeToo movement — with irreversible implications not just for #MeToo but for our political and sexual culture.
The #MeToo movement is now conclusively coded in the public imagination as a weapon of the political left; as a result, opposing the reshuffling of the social-sexual equilibrium between men and women is now seen by conservatives as strategically essential; and, perhaps most ominously, this opposition has coalesced around an explicit assertion of men's interests and identity against those of women.
Grumbling about a new Puritanism that threatens men's status and well-being has advanced from alt-right message boards to mainstream conservative publications, and now it is de rigeur in response to the Kavanaugh allegations. A representative sentiment was expressed by a Trump administration official explaining why the president would not back down from the nomination: "If somebody can be brought down by accusations like this, then you, me, every man certainly should be worried. We can all be accused of something."
This is the language of masculine solidarity and an emerging men's identity politics. It reveals both a genuine anxiety — a sense of unsettledness, of not knowing where one stands one moment to the next — and a rhetorical strategy — positioning the president as the defender of men's dignity. This strategy is based on two assumptions: that #MeToo anxiety is widely shared by men and, more potently, that men who do not share this anxiety will still feel solidarity with those who do because of their shared identity not just as men, but as victims of what is perceived to be an anti-male culture. It is the photo negative of feminism.
The promise of the #MeToo movement was a new equilibrium between men and women. There was hope that the revelation of widespread abuse and harassment, previously endured privately and silently, would allow the social-sexual "marketplace" to rebalance as men gave up certain privileges they barely realized they had in order to account for this new reality.
Of course, real life doesn't work like an efficient marketplace. #MeToo emerged into a society already roiling with masculine insecurity — some a symptom of interminable adolescence married to patriarchal entitlement, but some also a desperate and understandable reaction to collapses in economic opportunity. The promise of a peaceful transfer of power and privileges was never going to be fulfilled in this climate of apprehension and suspicion.
This does not reflect well on the men of our age. The best aspects of traditional masculine identity are virtues like self-sacrifice, fortitude, and magnanimity, not sexual conquest, interpersonal dominance, and despair at the loss of social privileges. The most authentically masculine response to the #MeToo movement — indeed, the most authentically human response — would be to listen, to empathize, to repent, and to begin the hard work of reforming institutions and building up strict stigmas against abuse by our fellow men.
But the masculine identity being reasserted against #MeToo isn't one of generosity but of fear — fear of a loss of power against which only power can be wielded. It is shorn of whatever vestigial connection it had to traditional religious understandings of virtue and the special regard owed to the weak and vulnerable. And it is now firmly established in the scaffolding of the modern and explicitly revanchist American right.
The Kavanaugh hearings are sealing the pact between the new masculinists and mainstream conservatism. It didn't have to be this way. But in a political climate where every battle takes on eschatological importance, restraint is regarded as malpractice. If everything is on the line, then anything is worth sacrificing — even the fundamental social bond between men and women.