I’ve read and reviewed a lot of books on (mostly American) politics over the past few years, and one point that keeps coming up is anger. To be sure, anger has long been a key component in politics. It was in 1976 that Howard Beale (in the movie Network) gave his live rant about how people should scream from the windows that they were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. This famous line would be adopted by Dominic Sandbrook for the title of his political history Mad as Hell: The Crisis of the 1970s and the Rise of the Populist Right. So the 1970s seem like as good a place as any to locate when temperatures started to rise.
Gerald F. Seib picks up the story a little later on, tracking the genealogy of anger “from Reagan to Trump” in We Should Have Seen It Coming. He sources the main fount of anger, however, to the Tea Party movement, which launched in 2009 (kicking off with another live rant on television, this time not fictional). The Tea Party, in Seib’s account, “was the first political movement born on social media, and the first to show that anger was the special rocket fuel that could propel such a movement. It would not be the last.”
Before the Tea Party, however, Gavin Esler had described the 1990s as the seedbed of today’s angry politics in his survey of The United State of Anger. A very prescient take on what was coming down the pipe, and one with a precise and correct diagnosis of what was driving it. Remember the Angry White Males? They were much talked about at the time, and never went away.
In books about the Trump phenomenon there has been a lot of talk about anger. Obviously Trump himself is a very angry person, which made him the perfect vehicle for what a large segment of the population was feeling. Alexander Zaitchik’s The Gilded Rage being a good on-the-ground account of what Trump was tapping into.
I find the historical analysis fascinating because it reflects what I’ve been witnessing happening first-hand. There is a lot of anger out there. I can’t recall a time when there’s been so much of it. I sit across from it at restaurants, see it when I go out shopping, and even encounter it when walking in the park. I have sat and been a sounding board far too many times in the past few years for someone venting about their family, their job, or just the world in general. We are living, as Pankaj Mishra puts it, in The Age of Anger (a must-read for these times).
A couple of observations that I’ve made before but that I’ll repeat here.
(1) The anger is not exclusive to white males without a college education, or those “left behind” by the new economy. Far from it. Many of the angriest people I know are wealthy, successful professionals or businesspeople. Not all of them are young. Many are older, and enjoying comfortable retirements. Many are women. Anger also possesses both the political left and right. It is, in short, not limited to any one demographic. In Twilight of Democracy Anne Applebaum makes the same point when describing former friends who have embraced populist politics. They are not losers but an elite. This has not, however, made them immune to anger. Is anger then part of, or connected in some way to the so-called “narcissism epidemic,” a condition where the whole world is not enough to feed our egos? The example of Trump suggests there may be something to this.
(2) The main factors that are pushing our individual and collective needles into the red are, in my opinion, growing economic inequality and social media. With regard to the former, I’ve written before about how the COVID-19 pandemic is only going to make things worse (and people angrier). With regard to the latter, Seib ends his book by interviewing Eric Cantor, a former House Majority Leader who lost his seat to a populist uprising. When Seib asks Cantor what has fed and spread the anger that eventually took him down he answers by pulling out his smartphone. Enough said.
Broader factors contributing to a politics of anger would include the fact that people find politicians and parties increasingly unrepresentative and unresponsive, as well as a more general sense of the world being outside their control and indifferent to their feelings. In any event, if I’m right about the role being played by inequality and technology it’s hard to come up with an optimistic prognosis. Economic inequality is going to get worse, perhaps much worse. Social media is not going to bring us together because it makes money out of triggering rage. Anger will grow, tempting more politicians to ride the tiger. Who can believe this will end well?