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Rob Henderson

Online influencer Rob Henderson is the academic and psychologist framing a conservative future for disaffected young men talks to Fred Skulthorp

Should disaffected young men seek help for their problems online? In the age of murderous incels and Andrew Tate the answer might be a quiet no. For those who worry about young men online, the fear that they might become a violent misogynist is second only to the idea of them turning into a thoughtful young conservative.

One of the great curios of our age is that the intellectual tradition to benefit most from the communications revolution of the internet is conservatism. Set with its eyes on the dark side of modernity, liberalism and technology, its new advocates have harnessed the transgressive energy of the grumpy disaffected male like no others. In any other age Jordan Peterson might have laid his tortured intellect to rest on the therapist’s couch. Instead, he became a YouTube sensation.

One of those men who watched his videos is Rob Henderson. When I meet him in an empty cafe in Cambridge, I find a quiet and unassuming young academic. No indication of the totemic online persona that has followed in the footsteps of Peterson himself. Henderson has a healthy following of 120,000 on Twitter and a 40,000 strong set of subscribers on Substack, where he writes through the lens of psychology on everything from hookup culture to Jungian archetypes.

He has already coined the widely used phrase “luxury beliefs”, to denote the way in which elite members of society signify their status by adopting trendy liberal values without experiencing their negative consequences. Next year, he will release his much-anticipated memoir, which has received endorsements from everyone from US Senators to Jordan Peterson himself. He is, by virtue of both his online reach and the breadth of his thought, one of the more impressive products of the online conservative revolution.

None of this should have happened. Henderson was three when he was given up for adoption before descending into the Dickensian pits of lower-class America. Broken marriages, drugs, and dead-end towns stalked him through a string of foster homes and a failed high school education. At the age of seventeen, he was saved when he enlisted in the United States Air Force. He credited a YouTube video of a “muppet-voiced psychology professor” as the reason for taking a PhD in the discipline. He is the composite Peterson success story. One of discipline and an almost mystical self-belief, now capable of attacking liberal pieties not from internecine conflict of the culture wars but from the dark heart of broken America itself.

Asking Henderson for his thoughts on how to solve the “man problem” is a bit like asking Einstein to explain the origins of the universe. Unsurprisingly given his background, it’s a theme that has driven his writing in many directions. He describes the topic as “unfashionable”, though arguably he himself has done a lot to change this. Henderson has made a name in the pages of the New York Times for pulling up the most uncomfortable research about the modern male in the 21st century and trying to understand what’s going on. One in six American men between the ages of 25 and 54 is unemployed, a number that has doubled since the 1970s. As early as kindergarten, girls start to outperform boys in tests. “Conservatives seem to do a very good job of highlighting the problems,” he tells me with a wry smile.

The real problem, however, is what to do. For a start, Henderson is more than happy to embrace the legacy of Peterson. “A criticism he receives a lot,” he says, “is that he’s not saying anything new, that these are platitudes.” However, Henderson believes this is not the point. He describes Peterson as possessing a “unique superpower” in being able to communicate timeless bits of wisdom. “A way of reintroducing romance to the struggles of everyday life: cleaning your room, getting a job, treating your loved ones well.” These are messages, he insists, that young men are not effectively receiving anywhere else.

A belief much closer to Henderson’s heart is the importance of a stable two-parent family. He has previously written that his “skin crawls” when his early life is used as an example of a person who can “shoulder the burdens of a non-traditional upbringing and succeed.” He is eager to point out that childhood instability has a much stronger impact on future outcomes than parental income. Rich kids in unstable homes are far more likely to abuse drugs than those in poorer ones. This instability also appears to have a stronger effect on the personalities of boys than girls.
Stable family, self-discipline, self-improvement. Has the online conservative revolution had an impact in filtering these values beyond the screen? Are young boys making their beds and dreaming of a happy, stable family? This, Henderson, admits, is a difficult question to answer. “It took a while to get where we are. It’ll take a while to reverse it.” He has good reason to be cautious. In a speech at the recent National Conservatism Conference, which Henderson attended, the Conservative MP Danny Kruger came under fire for extolling the virtues of the traditional family. “The normative family held together by marriage, by mother and father sticking together for the sake of the children,” he told the conference, “…is the only possible basis for a safe and successful society.” A government spokesperson later distanced the prime minister from Kruger’s statement.

“I think without a doubt there is less trust and confidence in politicians – but for a good reason, is the point I’m making.”

Which begs the question: are Henderson’s ideas ultimately too unpalatable for a future that seems overwhelmingly liberal? Millennials, research shows, are becoming less conservative while the UK is now one of the most socially liberal countries in the world when it comes to divorce and casual sex. Henderson is eager to point out that the great liberal turn is not necessarily making us happier. His own research and writing on modern dating underpins this realisation. “Women aren’t going to be happy if men are dropping out, not interested in relationships, not interested in work, commitments and self-improvement,” he says.

It’s this symbiosis between men and women, flourishing through mutual dependence on each other, that appears to give him optimism for the future. Henderson seems to be on a mission, more focused on his first-hand experience of men than he is on the culture war abstractions that rage around the debate on how to deal with the modern male. One asset of being an internet influencer is his insight into the online male psyche: “I talk to a lot of guys in their 20s and 30s who say they had a bunch of sex partners but never had a real girlfriend. They don’t like that.”

He appears better tapped into an understanding of male woe than many of his establishment contemporaries who operate in the pages of broadsheets, government reports and social media bubbles. When I ask what he would do if he were the government’s “Men’s Tsar” he quite seriously suggests that young men be exposed to more of the positive male influences that exist online – from former Navy Seals to Peterson himself.

Perhaps this would kill the very mystique that has made Henderson and others like him successful. But it clearly comes from a place of sincerity. One of his pieces recalls the advice he received as a young man: “Three years ago as I was preparing to depart for England to start graduate school… my adoptive mother gave me a file containing reports from judges, social workers, doctors, teachers and psychologists. This thick manila envelope was a memento of all the sterile interactions I’d had with the endless stream of adults in the system.”

And herein lies the appeal. Challenging and controversial Henderson and his ilk may be in the age of liberal hegemony; sterile they are not. As long as they occupy that transgressive online space that lends itself to the wandering, disaffected male mind I suspect they will prosper. Just
as Peterson inspired Henderson, there are others out there waiting to start their own journey through the mind of Rob Henderson.

Fred Skulthorp is a freelance writer and journalist

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August / September 2023, People

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