Anger: As American as apple pie

Responsible leaders from left to right are blasting Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim demagoguery as “un-American.”
December 16, 2015

Responsible leaders from left to right are blasting Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim demagoguery as “un-American.” Even in the midst of this “Happy Holiday” season, Trump’s fury seems to be unfairly capitalizing on a burgeoning Age of Rage. Yet, while the bigotry exhibited by the Republican candidate for the presidency offends most Americans’ sensibilities, his ferocity has an all-American pedigree. Populist anger has run throughout American political history like a gusher of underground oil, which clever demagogues, like Trump, have tapped into at opportune moments. 

Donald Trump fits the mold of the classic cranky conservative. He evokes Alabama Gov. George Wallace shouting, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” and Sen. Joseph McCarthy sneering, “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist party?” “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1964 in “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” the classic, post-McCarthyism historical analysis of American anger. Hofstadter chose the word “paranoid” to evoke “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy.” Five decades later, liberals still scorn conservative anger as bullying, demagogic and irrational. Conservatives consider liberal anger totalitarian, self-righteous and irrational.

The history of American anger is complex — and bipartisan. The rage that festers and the demagogues who emerge are not always conservative and not always destructive. A full-throated history of American anger includes America’s “Give me liberty or give me death” revolutionaries; Andrew Jackson’s democratizing populists; the slaveholding racists and righteous abolitionists before the Civil War; and the agrarian Populists of the 1880s and 1890s, whose anti-big business resentments further democratized America. This brief list demonstrates the different roles anger has played as liberator and oppressor, as resentment-generator and reformer. 

America’s founders understood that anger and demagogues flow naturally from free speech and free elections. A strong president would trump “mobocracy,” while term limits would limit demagoguery. In “Federalist 71,” Alexander Hamilton wrote that popular politics do not require “an unqualified complaisance to every sudden breeze of passion.” Knowing they can err, citizens deputize their leaders to “withstand the temporary delusion.” The Constitution choreographed this delicate dance: Democracy trusts leaders and citizens to do their best while relying on checks and balances to limit the damage if they don’t.

Assessing the 20th century, the Great Depression of the 1930s produced some of the United States’ most influential demagogues, including Father Charles E. Coughlin, a media personality who tried converting his fame into political capital by demonizing the least popular religion then, Judaism. At his peak, Coughlin incited 30 million radio listeners weekly. But Coughlin flamed out — as Joe McCarthy later would — by becoming increasingly extreme, then crashing into decent American leaders. Franklin D. Roosevelt undermined Coughlin, Huey Long and the other demagogues who veered left by demanding more shared wealth, while also veering right by flirting with fascism. In 1940, Wendell Willkie, the Republican nominee, made the repudiation bipartisan, saying “I am not enough interested in being president to compromise with my fundamental beliefs.” Fourteen years later, a Boston lawyer named Joseph N. Welch slammed McCarthy, saying, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

The 1960s mixed fun with fury. Partisans raged against racists and civil rights activists, against soldiers in Vietnam and antiwar students opposing the war, against sexists and feminists. 

In the 1970s, the mood was scarier. The despair was defeatist, paralyzing, unlike the good, old-fashioned American anger that often advanced badly needed reforms, from ending slavery to defeating Jim Crow. In a rare moment, Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s dramatic, cinematic, denunciation of the United Nation’s “Zionism is Racism” resolution in November 1975 made him a pop star. His eloquent expression of a constructive politics of patriotic indignation rejected the era’s despondency. 

The history of American anger is complex — and bipartisan. The rage that festers and the demagogues who emerge are not always conservative and not always destructive.

Ronald Reagan won in 1980 by transcending the cranky conservatism of Barry Goldwater and John Birch. Reagan’s “Aw shucks,” Happy Face rebellion against Big Government suited the era’s have-a-nice-day culture wherein, psychiatrists lamented, Americans increasingly frowned on anger. Some therapists believed the focus on violence by the media, as well as spreading street crime, offered needed outlets for so much repressed emotion. 

By 1995, New York Times columnist Russell Baker noted the opposite trend. Rush Limbaugh was leading the shrill talk-radio rebels against then-President Bill Clinton. In April, the homegrown far-right militia terrorist Timothy McVeigh murdered 168 innocent people in Oklahoma City. Baker grumbled that “America is angry at Washington, angry at the press, angry at immigrants, angry at television, angry at traffic, angry at people who are well off and angry at people who are poor, angry at blacks and angry at whites.” Why did life’s inevitable twists evoke such fury amid peace and prosperity? 

The economic uptick was only beginning. Globalization, deindustrialization, limited pay for McJobs, and excessive bonuses for bosses benefited Wall Street while hurting Main Street. Despite a booming 1990s stock market, over the last 30 years, more and more Americans have suffered constant economic stress.

Still, the era’s shrill attacks on Bill and Hillary Clinton; the daily left-right yelling on CNN’s “Crossfire”; an uptick in Congressional gridlock; hysterical headlines; Smashing Pumpkins singing, “Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage”; the continuing violence on screens and in the streets all suggested the crisis was existential, more so than economic. “Good news …,” Baker lamented, “does not sell papers or keep millions glued to radios and TV screens.” 

America’s soul hurt. Young people often fell into the perpetual poverty set by traps of excessive drug use, teen pregnancy and dropping out of school. Their parents were often distracted, over-programmed, underfunded, deeply dissatisfied and surprisingly insecure. Assessing the nasty edge to a growing “clueless” culture of “whatever,” “chill out,” “so is your face” and “eat my shorts,” Czech president Václav Havel would urge Harvard University graduates in June, 1995: “We must recollect our original spiritual and moral substance.”

A media-dominated, increasingly Internet-addicted America was becoming a Borderline Nation, exhibiting the collective traits of borderline personality disorder. This “emotional hemophilia” makes people reactive, angry, irresponsible. Engulfed by constant media-fueled controversies, among them the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, the O. J. Simpson murder trial marathon, the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals, Americans repeatedly suffered from collective whiplash. This Borderline culture staggered from fad to fad, from mass impulse to mass impulse, from collective vulgarity to collective vulgarity. With basic identity and values questions up for grabs, surges of emotional distress ensued. 

All this occurred in the happier Age of Clinton. Now, after 9/11, the Iraq and Afghanistan fiascoes and the 2008 meltdown, contemporary anger makes more sense. Today’s world scares many Americans. On the left, university professors and students alike squelch free speech and free thought, as writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates become superstars by preaching a New American Nihilism, warning African Americans they will always be “the below,” and mocking “The Dream.” On the right, Tea Partiers and Fox News feed demagogues mourning the closing of America’s great frontiers. And in that fetid swamp where right meets left, the Islamofascist murderers of ISIS and al-Qaida recruit young Westerners by exploiting a grab bag of economic, cultural, social and religious frustrations. Meanwhile, America’s president channels “Star Trek’s” Mr. Spock, resisting calling terrorism “terrorist,” not realizing that his own reticence helps make hysterics look like truth-tellers.

Beyond politics, our litigious society, confrontational culture, no-holds-barred popular vulgarities, shrill blogosphere, economic flaccidity and imploding families in this age of disposable relationships further the despair and rage. 

After millennia of oppression, Jews are particularly fearful of such furies, understandably. Demagogic hatred usually spills over into anti-Semitism. In America, Jews remain religious bigots’ favorite target by far, according to the FBI, with 58.2 percent of religious hate crimes in 2014 being anti-Jewish and 16.3 percent “anti-Islamic (Muslim).” On campuses, with hostility to Israel not just an obsession but an identity marker for the politically correct, a Cohen Center of Brandeis University report discovered that “nearly three-quarters” of Jewish students last year experienced some form of Jew hatred. This epidemic of macro-aggressions attracts minimal attention in a university environment obsessed with “micro-aggressions” against other minorities. Rather than a particularistic, self-involved, woe-is-me response, we need an expansive, altruistic, widespread zero-tolerance-for-intolerance.

Yet despite all the anger, life in America is no longer nasty, brutish and short, but cushy, safe and long. We take for granted our medical miracles, our technological wonders, our remarkable political stability. Amid culture wars and political battles, momentary traumas and persistent worries, most Americans lead orderly, good, healthy, moral, ever-improving lives. 

Moreover, while demagogic anger scapegoating groups is toxic, a politics with some well-channeled, tempered patriotic indignation can be tonic. Martin Luther King Jr. endorsed “creative extremism” because mass passion has the ability to liberate us, not just derail us.

The challenge remains one of tone and balance. Just as in “Harry Potter,” “boggarts … take the shape of whatever it thinks will frighten us most,” Donald Trump and other demagogues emphasize whatever they think will frighten most of us most. In J.K. Rowling’s world, laughing them off, with the spell “Riddikulus,” works. In the real world, they’re harder to dismiss. Clever demagogues exploit real fears, masquerading their noxious fury behind this historic framework of a cleansing anger, not just their poofy hair and brash Queens charm.

Ultimately, decency and democracy will trump Trump. But the process will require heroic leaders and idealistic citizens to resist, as Roosevelt, Willkie and Welch did, understanding that democracies such as ours, for all our historic stability, are still fragile flowers relying on what Abraham Lincoln called, “the better angels of our nature,” not our dark side.

Gil Troy is the author of “The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s,” just published by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press, as well as nine other books on American history. He is professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar this fall at the Brookings Institution. Follow him on Twitter @GilTroy or giltroy.com

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