News & Politics

Toxic White Masculinity: The Killer That Haunts American Life

Joseph Nickell’s murderous rampage last weekend in Kentucky was not exceptional. That’s the terrifying part.

Texas, where you may need to shoot someone at any moment.
Photo Credit: Twitter/@MomsDemand

Over and over again in America, it is revealed that whiteness is the complexion for the protection. Toxic white masculinity has proven itself to be lethal once again.

On Feb. 10, a man named Joseph Nickell went on a lethal rampage in rural Kentucky, killing his parents, his girlfriend and her mother, before turning the gun on himself. Many reports have suggested that Nickell had a substance abuse problem and had previously been arrested for domestic violence, public drunkenness and fleeing the police. By his own description, Nickell was a "conservative Christian," who posted standard right-wing memes on his Facebook page, including a post that read, "I stand for the flag and kneel for the cross." Unconfirmed reports have also suggested that he was a strong supporter of Donald Trump and a gun fetishist who held anti-Islamic views, none of which would be remotely surprising.

As I have highlighted here at Salon and elsewhere, when white men who hold "conservative" views engage in mass shootings and other acts of spectacular violence, a basic and obvious public script is followed.

Nickell is "mentally ill" and a "lone wolf." The violence has nothing to do with politics. It especially has nothing to do with America's lack of any serious restrictions on handguns or assault weapons.

Moreover, to discuss Nickell's race, gender and reputed political views is imagined by too many as being untoward, impolite or otherwise outside the limits of approved public discourse.

There will be no moral panics about whether white conservatives have become possessed by radical, right-wing Christian zealotry and driven to kill their spouses, children, neighbors, co-workers, acquaintances or random strangers. President Trump will not issue menacing threats and edicts about violent acts committed by men who look like him, voted for him and share his political values and beliefs. The right-wing media will not whip their viewers into a frenzy about the newest outrage and threat of the day.

There will be no questions echoing throughout America's public discourse about where a white conservative like Joseph Nickell became "radicalized." What was being taught in his church? How did he get such easy access to a gun? Why did his community not sound the alarm about him? What news programs, websites and other media did he consume? No one will ask those things.

Most certainly, few will dare to ask in public: What is wrong with conservative white men like Joseph Nickell? Should they be barred from entering the United States or placed on a special watch list?

These are the interrogations of cause and motive and context which, in America, are only applied to nonwhites. In a country that has been ethically and morally scarred by a state of perpetual vengeance, paranoia and war ever since the 9/11 attacks more than 16 years ago, such interrogations are almost uniquely directed at Muslims.

In America, the horrible acts of mass gun violence committed by Joseph Nickell and other white men are treated as something inevitable and outside of human control, like gravity or the weather. They are rarely viewed as the inevitable result of a pathological gun culture, a mental health crisis, radical religion, political sociopathy and toxic white masculinity.

These values are distilled in the form of Trumpism. Donald Trump's rise to power has only intensified them as he piles more firewood under a cauldron of violence, bigotry and cruelty.

In many ways, toxic white masculinity has created a state of amnesia, along with the intentional denial and collective forgetting that characterizes much of white America. Unfortunately, as in the case of Joseph Nickell -- and too many other examples to count -- this willful amnesia does not make toxic white masculinity any less lethal.

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Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can be found at He hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Follow him on Twitter.