Misogyny and Violence in Michigan Politics

by Liz Anderson on May 24, 2023

In general, I think the left focuses too much on national politics, when a lot of the action is happening at the state level.  So I want to discuss politics in Michigan, my home state since 1987.   Ann Arbor is even more blue than Detroit, but overall Michigan is basically a 50-50 state.  Trump won here in 2016 by 11,000 votes; Biden won in 2020 by 154,000.  Democrats and Republicans have alternated in the Governor’s seat for decades.  But the Republicans had a lock on the state legislature for 40 years, until it was broken in 2022, when Democrats won both houses and swept all statewide offices.  I’ll explain how that happened in a subsequent post.  Here I want to focus on rising violence within the Michigan GOP and its connections to misogyny.

First, some background on far-right violence in Michigan.  Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols plotted the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing at Nichols’s Michigan farm.  The bombing was ostensibly in revenge for Federal law enforcement killings at Ruby Ridge and Waco.  McVeigh and Nichols were associated with the Michigan Militia.  By 2010, that militia was overshadowed by the Christian nationalist Hutaree militia.  Hutaree members were tried in 2010 for seditious conspiracy to murder police officers, whom they viewed as soldiers for the Antichrist in the coming apocalypse.  They were acquitted by a judge who found insufficient evidence that their anti-government rhetoric (including anti-vax ideas) had ripened into a full-blooded plot, or that the other defendants agreed to go along with the most militant member’s calls for violence.  (If UK terrorism law applied here–which I do not recommend–their stockpiling of weapons and paramilitary exercises along with talk of police killings would likely have led to convictions.)  In April 2020, in what the New York Times called a “dress rehearsal” for Jan. 6, armed members of various militias stormed the state Capitol while the legislature was debating an extension of the Governor’s pandemic emergency powers.  By October 2020, some of those participants, including members of the Wolverine Watchmen militia, were charged with conspiring to kidnap Governor Whitmer.  (Several were convicted of various felonies.)

What does this far-right violence have to do with the Michigan GOP?  Well, former Michigan Senate Majority leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) advised three militias one month before the kidnapping charges, praising members for bleeding “red, white, and blue.”  He denounced as “cowardly” a call by Democratic legislatures to ban guns in the Capitol after a second armed protest there.  Michigan U.S. Senate GOP candidate John James accepted large campaign contributions from, and was photographed with, the organizer of yet another armed Capitol protest (this time, for gun rights) where the Whitmer kidnap conspirators were recruiting members.  Michigan 2022 GOP gubernatorial candidate Ryan Kelley participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection, where he was caught on video rallying others with the cry “This is war, baby!”  (His trial on several Jan. 6 misdemeanor charges is scheduled for July.) Michigan State Senate candidate Mike Detmer told poll workers who suspected fraud to “lock and load” and unplug voting machines.  These people aren’t running for obscure local offices.  They are state party leaders.

The state GOP has been building up to endorsing political violence and allying with militias for some time.  One of my favorite undergraduate students ever once worked for a GOP Michigan state legislator.  That entitled him to attend the state GOP convention (around 2010).  He told me in 2021 that GOP delegates were talking political violence even back then.  (He quit the GOP once he saw how this discourse was normalized within official ranks.)

What does all this have to do with misogyny?  Well, at the May 2020 armed Capitol protest, a man brought an ax along with a naked Barbie doll hanging from a noose, which he said was Gov. Whitmer.  I don’t think he would have brought a naked Ken doll hanging from a noose had the Democratic governor been a man.  State Senator Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) complained that the Governor had emasculated them in refusing to back down over pandemic health measures (a complaint he would repeat).  Shirkey called Whitmer “batshit crazy,” contemplated engaging her in a “fistfight” on the Capitol lawn, and boasted that the GOP-led state legislature had “spanked” her in retaliation by blocking her appointments.

These violent representations expose a certain fragility of masculine status that is worth considering in light of Kate Manne’s account of misogyny as essentially about policing women who stray from servile positions in relation to men.  The dominant theme of Manne’s account is that men demand superior sympathy to women (“himpathy”), and caring labor from them.  Misogyny amounts to policing and punishing women who stray from servile, caring roles.  That’s certainly a key feature of misogyny.  Yet the content of the GOP men’s grievances noted above is not just that Whitmer has strayed from her proper feminine position of caring subordination.  It’s that, in being such a strong leader, she has put them not just in a subordinate position (of which there are many types), but in a specifically feminine position.  (See Manne’s discussion of a similar case on pp. 182-3.)  Their grievance is not that they failed to get more sympathy and care from Whitmer, but that they were denied the superior respect that they think Whitmer, as a woman, owed them.

This is the kind of masculinity whereby men can express and secure their own status as objects of respect only by putting women down.  It’s not independent of the ways men jockey for position among themselves.  Much male-on-male bullying amounts to putting men in a symbolically feminine position (as I have argued was the case in Oncale v. Sundowner, which the Supreme Court got right in its ruling but not in its reasoning).  Some men can accept such defeats at the hands of men they view as uber-masculine, but are enraged when they suffer any defeat by a woman, or by someone they view as effeminate (e.g., a gay man).  They may be able to accept defeat “like a man” when a man delivers it, but that is practically conceptually impossible for them if a woman delivers it.  There is a short path from there to the resort to physical or symbolic violence against “emasculating” women, as the clearest route to restoring one’s masculine status as entitled to superior respect.

Explanations of the rise of populist authoritarian politics in the U.S. often focus on fear: of immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, BLM protesters, Antifa, etc.  That’s one factor.  But another one, I suspect, is the desire to be feared.  For some men, being feared feels like the best route to getting respect–especially if one feels aggrieved for having lost it.

In the postwar era of the breadwinner wage, most White men could secure what they viewed as respect from the women in their lives due to the latter’s economic dependence on them.  That dependence brought them respect in the wider society as well.  In Michigan, the breadwinner wage was in steep decline for working-class White men in the 1970s, due especially to competition from foreign auto imports and automation in the auto industry.  I suspect that the rise of extremist gun culture–e.g., in the form of open carry–functions as an alternate route to respect for many White men who have lost the social respect they formerly obtained from being the sole breadwinner.  By parading their guns in public, they get to perform a masculine fantasy of being “protectors” of the women and children at home, against the others they imagine are plotting to hurt them. (Never mind that they are far more likely to use their guns to kill family members or themselves than to kill outside assailants.)  And for some, it’s not a downside that their wife and perhaps other women are afraid of them, too, even if that’s not in the official story.  That’s a significant route by which racism, patriarchy, misogyny and violence (whether physical or symbolic) are intertwined in Michigan’s–and the nation’s–GOP politics.


{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }


EB 05.24.23 at 10:43 pm

The desire to be feared is also certainly a part of the massive gun violence in the South and West sides of Chicago, as well. I think that men worldwide are at risk of this dynamic any time they don’t feel that they have the respect they need. And today’s economy heightens that risk, as you point out.


J, not that one 05.24.23 at 11:17 pm

This is a good post.

I tend to think that there’s a common view of “equal respect” that is — in practice — impracticable unless there’s an out-group who isn’t seen as equal. Conflict is perceived by the in-group as disrespect. They’re willing to accept disrespect from a boss or a leader in some situations. But psychologically this is only supportable if they can express disrespect, directly, to someone else. And since they’re (verbally) committed to “equality,” women and non-whites have to be forced to be “naturally unequal.” If the world doesn’t provide them with this psychological comfort, they need to find someone to blame.


Alan White 05.25.23 at 5:51 am

An excellent post indeed. I defy anyone to supply one quote from Trump that truly honors any woman, even his many wives/lovers, and this is the worshipped archetype of the GOP, which unfortunately includes also far too many women and people of color. The psychology thus extends beyond white men to an extent that I simply cannot fathom. But clearly so-called “aggrieved” white men who seek “equality” as meaning only “the superior sex and color” are the base catalyst here. Why they have influence beyond their ken defies my understanding except in some sort of purely emotivism (ala Charles Stevenson) fashion. But then again emotivism defines such nonrational influence, and I think Trump unwittingly has tapped into that.


marcel proust 05.25.23 at 2:31 pm

This is pattern of behavior among males — acceptance of subordination to physically powerful males, unwillingness to be subordinate to any female — is a common organizing theme in the multi-male, multi-female groups that social primates live in: (viz. chimpanzees and baboons). It is not the only pattern (viz. bonobos), but awareness of it probably should condition thinking about remedies for misogyny. I have read that the evolved behavioral differences between chimpanzees and bonobos are thought (hypothesized?) to originate from differences in competition for food with other species, and thus in grazing or gathering behavior. This suggests that misogyny will decline only as & as much as gendered economic roles change and women are guaranteed equal access to material resources. Even then, other social institutions will have to develop, perhaps analogous to the female pair-bonding among bonobos that keeps males in line.

NB: This is not meant to repeat the naturalistic fallacy of a typical faux evo-psych ex recto argument along the lines of “When we evolved on the savanna… therefore such behavior is good, right & appropriate.” Rather it is an attempt to understand the limitations of humans as we have evolved so that we can more efficiently and satisfactorily address them. In this case, it is about developing an understanding the roots of misogyny that (in an amateurish way) parallels Mercier and Sperber’s hypothesis about the roots of rationality so as to better recognize its strengths and weaknesses (see here, here, or here). The Marxian dichotomy of the technological and materialistic substructure vs. the political and cultural superstructure extended to evolution and evolved human behavior, if you will.


steven t johnson 05.25.23 at 2:37 pm

So much of this seems to be sensible even inarguable. But the presumption there is no issue with contempt for people who don’t make that much money or don’t have a high status job or don’t own a nice car or house/condo struck me as needing a little justification. If contempt for the losers really is a thing, though, is the hatefulness of failed men due to the rot in the loser souls? Or, could actual indoctrination by political and social institutions and practices play a major role? Having read Crooked Timber recently the first man to come to mind is Elon Musk, who isn’t a loser but somehow to me seems to be one part of the problem.


Aardvark Cheeselog 05.25.23 at 2:54 pm

Plausibly someone should update the sidebar to add this “LIZ ANDERSON” to the list of contributors. I’m guessing this is the person?


marcel proust 05.25.23 at 3:04 pm

Addendum to my previous comment: For more about the possibility of changing primates’ apparently natural behavior, see the links here. If baboons can do it, surely humans can, although the tale told in these (same) links recall the story of Lysistrata which is probably not the direction we want to go in.


marcel proust 05.25.23 at 3:15 pm

Addendum to previous addendum: or the tale of those links may bring to mind a statement attributed to Barbara Bergmann (which I cannot now locate), that the opening to women of many fields and careers (though not pay parity) in the post-war Soviet Union owed much to the extremely high mortality rates of men during the war. She went on to hope that similar measures would not be required in the US.


JPL 05.25.23 at 10:47 pm

marcel proust @4:

No doubt that conventional male mentality of misogyny and violent response to practical problems has been around since a time when there were only baboons, and now centuries of Christian religion and European culture have failed to promote any evolution, or “make a dent”, but the point is that the Republican Party did not used to make a positive appeal to that mentality a central part of their political pitch. Probably a pivotal moment was the decision to implement Lee Atwater’s “Southern strategy” as a response to the civil rights law realignments. Any political party governed by an ethically grounded pragmatism would not have been able to make that choice; but the GOP was, and then later they could not demand that Trump produce his tax returns. So what kind of general principles is that party governed by? Was conservatism a “soaked leopard” that shook itself and dried itself off and revealed its true carnivorous nature?


JPL 05.25.23 at 11:23 pm

PS: (Maybe the mild folks of Bloomfield Hills and Grand Rapids thought they were feeding a kitty-cat.)


MisterMr 05.26.23 at 11:33 am

My opinion, after reading the OP and the comments so far:

There are 3 different layers in this story, the first is male tendence to aggression/dominance (that I believe really exists), the second is the social situation that pushes this kind of aggressivity to the forefront, the thirds is the political use of this.

I think the most important part is the social situation, and the other two are an underlying constant and a consequence respectively.

So I think that this, like other situations, would be better framed as an economic problem (increased insecurity in a certain statum of the population), while certainly mantaining that the way these people manifest their problems is wrong and likely to be counterproductive for them too.


Ray Vinmad 05.26.23 at 6:09 pm

J, Not That One

I do’t get why you would think it’s a universal thing.

What you describe is a feature of white racism. This is all learned.

Equality is impracticable unless there’s an outgroup one can look down on?

What do people at the bottom do?

This is a set up in certain systems perhaps to make people comfortable with oppression. A white man can step on a white woman but he the. claims he is there to protect her from Black men, whom he will murder for her. So he’s making his unjust treatment the price she pays and in exchange, she can use her race over people who aren’t white, which we see demonstrated in various videos.

However, this system isn’t inevitable. And some people don’t participate in it either because they don’t have those identities or because they otherwise don’t grt the psychic and social benefits..

Most societies have some social hierarchy and virtually all societies have gender oppression but are constructed differently. We don’t know if we ‘have to’ have it though. Obviously some groups manage psychically without having anyone to kick because they themselves are kicked, etc. It’s not a universal human need or anything and could easily be an artifact of social structure not an inevitable aspect of social structure.


Barry 05.26.23 at 6:59 pm

Those people thought that they controlled the nuts.


J, not that one 05.27.23 at 4:47 pm

It’s ironic (and I admit did it myself) that a post about focusing more on local politics generated so much comment that moves well past the national to the fully abstract.

Is the bigger issue that that the Michigan GOP is violent, or is it that they represent a segment of society that can’t abide a female leader? (Presumably, the point is not that a closer look would reveal that the women are worse than the men.) In two-thirds blue Massachusetts, the last major state-wide elected office held by a woman, before Elizabeth Warren, was in the early sixties, and the woman in question was a Republican and I believe had quasi-inherited the office from her late husband. I assume the solution is not to stop electing women, so the men won’t feel bad.

Ray Vinmad: I don’t know what you’re replying to, but it isn’t what I wrote. My point was that we see a lot of “I only care about equality, and women would be OK if they just assumed they’d be treated equally and stopped seeing discrimination everywhere.”

steven johnson: I don’t see why the OP would be read as implying “there’s no issue with contempt” for any other group. What is the connection supposed to be? Just because focusing on one thing takes away energy from focusing on another?


JPL 05.27.23 at 11:09 pm

A minor point, and this turn of phrase, which seems to be playing a key role here, may be clarified in Kate Manne’s account of misogyny, which I am not familiar with, but I found the expressions “men demand superior sympathy to women” and “superior respect” (as something coming from women to men) unfamiliar and difficult to interpret. These expressions seem to indicate an inequality in the conditions governing the social practices of sympathy and respect, but, logically, the “male/female” distinction, just by itself, is irrelevant to questions of the proper (valid, appropriate, etc.) conditions for one person to offer another person sympathy or respect. The “male/female” distinction is also irrelevant for the role of deity or messiah or legitimate political authority, or the regulation of potential power imbalances in the household, although one might not understand these logical facts if all one had were the myths of European and (conventionalized) Christian culture. Conservative political ideology, on the other hand, (held in the first instance by the elite) seems to insist on the admissibility of violating fundamental principles of equivalence, such as the equivalence in value of all ethical agents and affected others wrt the application of ethical principles. An ethically grounded pragmatism would not accept the idea of fundamental inequivalences, and would take a different (non-exploiting) approach to the manifestations of popular bad behavior. So my puzzled Q is, when a man is demanding “superior sympathy to” a woman, what is happening in that situation? (And is “caring labor” not reciprocated?) (The demanding and the controlling and the punishing are all power-plays.)


Robert Weston 05.28.23 at 3:14 pm

Prof. Anderson, your point on the “desire to be feared” is key. I fully expect the political expression of said desire will look as follows: White men traveling to “blue” areas, big cities, neighborhoods with larges African-American or LGBTQ+ populations for the thrill of intimidating or, in a few cases, shooting at anyone they don’t like. Of course, all this will happen with tacit police support. ?

As a result, I suspect the political battles of tomorrow will be fought not in Congress or State Legislatures, nor even in courts. Rather, they will take place in the streets – by which I mean, large crowds of people confronting armed white men. Not protestors, not Antifa-type street fighters, but simply unarmed people standing up to the bullies, united by the firm belief that the worst thing you can do is show the adversary you are scared of them. Therefore, said battles will turn on the readiness of one site to withstand terrible, even lethal violence, in the face of the willingness of the other side to inflict it. ?

In other words, such battles will look very much like those of the Civil Rights era. One difference is that whereas the protest marches of the fifties and sixties took took place in the South, tomorrow’s battles may be fought largely in “blue” areas. In addition, I suspect black women will be doing much of the heavy lifting.


TM 05.31.23 at 7:39 am

Misogyny has always played a key role in fascist radicalization. Are you familiar with Klaus Theweleit’s work?


William Berry 05.31.23 at 3:43 pm

@“J NTO”:

Your comment reminded me of something Nietzsche said (paraphrase from memory, so): “We resent familiarity from our superiors because it cannot be reciprocated”.

Psychologically, that’s the flip side of the dynamic you discuss. One can’t put their arm around the boss’s shoulders, or pat them on the back, but one can give their Hispanic or AA yard worker a cold glass of lemonade and let them drink it in the relative cool of an open garage.

One does that for oneself, not for the “other”.

The “other”understands this as well. They’ll say “thank you” while thinking (likely entirely correctly) of what a privileged asshole the homeowner is!


Dave 06.02.23 at 9:37 pm

Thank you for this post and looking forward to more. I’ll be interested to see if Gov Whitmer has national ambitions.

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