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Team Mitch and the Weaponization of White Male Awfulness

Bad actors on every part of the political spectrum use young men’s insecurity and toxicity to make them loyal foot soldiers to the cause

Credit: Tom Brenner/Getty Images

TThe photo appeared on social media late this past Monday: a group of white, red-faced, beaming teenage boys in “Team Mitch” T-shirts, clustered around a cardboard cutout of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They were pretending, variously, to kiss her, strangle her, and grope her crotch. The Instagram caption — because, like the geniuses they are, the boys posted this to Instagram — reads “break me off a piece of that.”

So that’s nice. They may be meat-headed, rape-culture-drunk, privileged little shits who are being funneled into a political system wherein male power is measured by the ability to dominate and humiliate women, but at least they can quote Clueless.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the titular “Mitch” whose team these lunkheads seem to have joined, can’t seem to decide whether to deplore the boys or defend them. After AOC publicly questioned their affiliation with McConnell’s Senate re-election campaign — “these young men look like they work for you,” she tweeted Monday — his campaign manager, Kevin Golden, cried foul play, claiming the boys were being unfairly scrutinized. “These young men are not campaign staff, they are high schoolers,” Golden said in a statement, “and it’s incredible that the national media has sought to once again paint a target on their backs.” Golden added, for good measure, that “Team Mitch in no way condones any aggressive, suggestive, or demeaning act toward life-sized cardboard cutouts of any gender.”

But, of course, it would be tactically unwise for McConnell and his staff to disavow these boys too strongly. World politics have always relied on leaders’ ability to catalyze young men’s free-floating misogyny and insecurity into violent devotion to their cause. You can’t build power on the world stage without people willing to kill or die for you. Throughout history, the key to building an army has been teaching boys to see their self-worth as contingent on the ability to harm others — and that training typically begins with training them to hate, hurt, and sexually humiliate women.

The Team Mitch photo is enraging, in part, because of the context in which it emerged. The two people responsible for the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, were white men, as nearly all mass shooters are. The El Paso shooter was explicitly motivated by hatred of Latino immigrants and by his admiration for Donald Trump. The motives of Dayton shooter Connor Betts were more diffuse, and perhaps more common. He belonged to a “pornogrind” band with song titles like “Preteen Daughter Pu$$y Slaughter,” he kept a “rape list” of girls at his school he wanted to sexually assault, and he was aiming for a relative. (Though, of course, toxic masculinity has a long list of targets, not all of them female; early reports indicated that Betts shot his “sister,” but multiple reports on social media have emerged saying that Betts actually shot his brother, a transgender man.)

After these shootings, men emerged — as men always do — to deplore the epidemic of male “loneliness.” Podcast hosts and self-appointed pundits called for legalized sex work. (“Tell me a safe, legal, regulated way for [mass murderers] to get laid wouldn’t solve this problem overnight,” one man wrote.) This is a right-wing talking point, but not everyone pushing it was right-wing: Leftist podcast host Aimee Terese blamed the shootings on “neoliberal atomization,” and Intercept journalist Lee Fang declared that “millennial/young men are the loneliest generation… [and] by far the most violent demographic in America. Not a group that garners a ton of sympathy in the media but the problem demands inquiry.” The implication seems to be that by depriving these men of female company, we’ve taken away their masculinity, and that the only way for them to get it back is to turn violent.

Accordingly, movements and groups are able to recruit young men by presenting them with an opportunity to engage in socially sanctioned violence — to grab their manhood back from the world that supposedly denies it. You can see this indoctrination process at work in many places, most obviously our actual armed forces. Writing in his memoir Eat the Apple, former Marine Matt Young remembers that the Marines had “‘How to Become a Man 101’ down to a science” — a science that was predicated on distrust and domination of women. “I copied from my senior Marines’ hard turns of phrase that relayed disgust of everything feminine, anything vulnerable,” Young writes. “They called our girlfriends Susie Rottencrotch, and told us fictional bull studs back home were having their way with them — women were not to be trusted… [They] joked about raping Iraqi women, so we did too.” It’s not always a joke; rape has a long history as a weapon of war.

Homegrown terrorist movements train their men the same way. The current resurgence of white nationalism in the United States came about partly because neo-Nazis infiltrated and weaponized the ambient anti-woman rage of men in video game chat rooms and pickup artist classes. It wasn’t remotely hard for domestic abusers like Robert Lewis Dear or Omar Mateen to convert their one-on-one violence against women into a punishing rage against Planned Parenthood, or queer men, or anyone they saw as insufficiently manly. We don’t know if the El Paso shooter was motivated by misogyny in the same way Betts, Dear, or Mateen were — but what we do know is that nearly all mass shooters have a history of domestic violence. Nor is it irrelevant that the El Paso shooter was so evidently fascinated by Trump, a man whose appeal to his supporters is founded on a heaping amount of public contempt for women.

You can find similar examples of male radicalization along the political spectrum. It’s true that far-right politics are more explicit about their ethos of dominance, and therefore more attractive to scary, dominance-seeking guys. It’s harder to make sense of Betts and his self-described “leftism.” But not that hard: Even on the left, there are groups like r/stupidpol, where the hatred and denigration of “identity politics” (meaning, lots of the time, hatred and denigration of visibly queer or feminist voices) is posited as a purifying force, a way to make the left properly masculine and tough again. That actual, violent misogynists would be drawn to this message should have been expected.

The unspoken and uncomfortable truth here is that for many of these bad actors, the presence of violently misogynist young men among their supporter base is not just predictable — it’s desirable. Kings need armies, and violent movements cannot exist without attracting violent men. “Lone wolves” are never really lonely; most often, they are pawns in a wider game of stochastic terrorism. If you demonize any enemy long enough and loudly enough, sooner or later, you will reach someone who is prepared to act on that hatred.

Many of the responses to these men seem to convey not an interest in alleviating their loneliness or insecurity, but an eagerness to exploit it. There’s a sense that we ought to be the ones tapping all that productive desperation, not our enemies, and that we need to palliate young men’s toxic and abusive tendencies as a way of getting them to join our team. We’ve spent so many centuries building power in this specific way that we don’t know how to imagine what power looks like without it; we are hooked into a vision of young men dominating women, and older men dominating younger men, and men at large dominating the world. What we fail to do is to imagine the other possibilities: what power might look like if we rejected the idea that men can regain their lost manhood by dominating women, or that manhood has any special value at all.

So we come back to Team Mitch, and those grinning little nitwits in the Instagram photo. They’re not the most violent young men of their moment, nor do they necessarily have the most extreme politics. Yet they are among the most depressing examples, precisely because they stand at the threshold of all this violence, about to enter in. The indoctrination that begins in that photo — the ability to bond with other men through shared hatred of a female target, the sense of power gained through common sexual humiliation of a woman, the idea that political participation is about finding a woman you’re allowed to hurt or hate and going to town on her — will end in another mass shooting, somewhere soon, even if none of these boys are directly responsible. Republicans won’t disavow it, because the ugliness we’ve instilled in those boys’ souls is crucial to their power, and to the functioning of the world as we know it. So those boys stand at the beginning of the process that routinely turns young men into monsters. They’ve got the uniform, and they’ve got the training, and soon they will be out in the world, practicing what they’ve learned. The rest of us will have to live with it. Or die of it, as the case may be.

Author of “Trainwreck” (Melville House, ‘16) and “Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers” (Melville House, ‘19). Columns published far and wide across the Internet.

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