Transformation: Opinion

Empire of resentment

Emotions can be politically transformative; just look at Donald Trump and his supporters.

Lawrence Rosenthal
4 October 2020
Supporters of Donald Trump at a campaign rally at the South Point Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, February 22 2016.
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Wikimedia Commons/Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Emotion - more than ideology or dogma - is the motor force of populism. The classic emotion associated with populist movements is resentment. Resentment is anger directed at those perceived as above oneself or one’s class. The inverse of resentment is contempt. Contempt is anger directed at those people or classes seen as below one’s class. Since Trump’s election America’s liberals have been admonished repeatedly not only for having lost the traditional working-class base of the Democratic Party, but as well for having conveyed contempt for the Americans who have been “left behind.”

Some of the most influential books among liberals have been on-site examinations of the grievances of Tea Party and Trump supporters. Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land offered a deeply empathetic understanding of rural Louisianans who staunchly supported the Tea Party and rejected Democrats despite living in conditions of grotesque environmental damage brought on by the oil and gas industry. In The Politics of Resentment, Katherine J. Cramer investigated the depth of feeling in rural Wisconsin against “urban elites” in a state whose narrow swing to Trump was fundamental to his electoral victory. J.D. Vance’s unflinching first-person account in Hillbilly Elegy highlighted the ingrained social history of Appalachian American that would resonate with Donald Trump’s candidacy.

What is a good deal less well known than the charge of liberal contempt is that among themselves- on social media, on rightwing news sites like Breitbart, on radio talk shows - right-wing populists talk in a way that is a mirror image of this perceived contempt from the left. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is more common in these exchanges than expressions of the stupidity of the liberal world. That the “libtards” are hopelessly unintelligent or imbecilic, naïve, brainwashed, and ultimately laughable - or even mentally ill - is both a taken-for-granted reality and a favored expressive trope when right populists are talking among themselves.

Like many elements of populist thinking, the premise of the stupidity of liberals is a vulgarization of the thinking of conservative intellectuals, both contemporary and historical…In a 2002 column, Charles Krauthammer gave voice to this tradition. “To understand the workings of American politics,” he wrote, “you have to understand this fundamental law: Conservatives think liberals are stupid.” Krauthammer moderates his patronizing view of liberals with noblesse oblige or, as he calls it, “compassionate condescension.” He attributes the intellectual shortcomings of liberals to their philosophical anthropology, or how they look at human nature.

“Liberals tend to be nice, and they believe - here is where they go stupid - that most everybody else is nice too…Liberals believe that human nature is fundamentally good…Liberals suffer incurably from naivete, the stupidity of the good heart.”

In populist vulgarization of this thinking, the good heart has been lost. Looking down on liberals in populist hands is suffused with anger. Compassionate condescension has turned into contempt.

In America, much of the one-up/one-down tally takes place over questions of both intelligence and education. Trump asserts over and over that he and his followers are smarter than his competition - either Democratic or Republican. Of many examples: Trump declared in 2018 “that China has total respect for Donald Trump and for Donald Trump’s very, very large brain.” Earlier that year, he famously tweeted of himself, “I think that would qualify [me] as not smart, but genius…and a very stable genius at that!”

Turning the tables on the educated liberal elite by claiming superior intelligence is a long-established trope on the right among talk-show opinion leaders who have developed extremely loyal followings. Rush Limbaugh, long the master of this medium, regularly offers his listeners (his “dittoheads”) variations on the following:

“Greetings, conversationalists across the fruited plain, this is Rush Limbaugh, the most dangerous man in America, with the largest hypothalamus in North America, serving humanity simply by opening my mouth…doing this show with half my brain tied behind my back just to make it fair because I have talent on loan from…God.”

But this is more than a celebrity trope. One of the dynamics of a populist mobilization - when populism on the right becomes a political force or a political movement or when it has been roused by a demagogue - is that the populists’ sense of resentment is transformed into contempt. The looked-down-upon now collectively feel themselves looking down. The populists together become contemptuous of the elite. This is the social psychological step, the flip-flop, that’s needed to turn populist sentiment into a political mobilization. It is emotionally transformative at both the organizational and individual levels, empowering the movement to act, to cure the pervasive and festering one-down sensitivity that is resentment’s characteristic mood.

Resentment does not fade away - it abides, especially as a feeling on the individual level; but now resentment sits alongside contempt, an effervescent feeling that arises especially in group situations. Here is how Marine Le Pen expressed this on December 7, 2015, when, in the first round of regional elections, France’s Trump-like National Front scored an historic electoral breakthrough, outpolling both of the established conservative and socialist parties.

“I believe that the National Front’s incredible results are the revolt of the people against the elite. The people no longer support the disdain they have been [subjected to] for years by a political class defending its own interests.”

At times, Trump makes explicit this feeling of flipping the populists’ relation to the “elite” from one down to one up. This often takes place at his political rallies where Trump and his most ardent populist supporters participate in a call-and-response that energizes both leader and followers…

The Tea Party began as an organized movement in February 2009, merely a month after Barack Obama’s inauguration as president. The prequel to the Tea Party’s populism was the 2008 vice-presidential campaign of Sarah Palin. In retrospect, Palin’s impact was extraordinary, given the brevity of her candidacy: she was introduced as John McCain’s running mate just before the Republican convention in early September and was on the campaign trail only two months. Palin’s rallies prefigured Donald Trump’s rallies both as a candidate and as president. Palin rallies were raucous occasions, where attendees evoked a devotion to the candidate nowhere to be found at rallies for John McCain at the head of the ticket.

Palin as a speaker, like Trump, had a stream-of-consciousness style that evoked a fervid call-and-response among the rally-goers. She swiftly became a lightning rod in the populist dance of resentment and contempt, a stature that would remain with her for years to come. (Maher, on birtherism in 2009: “I’ll show you Obama’s birth certificate when you show me Sarah Palin’s high school diploma.”) Tea Party websites never tired of recalling with resentment a 2008 remark then-candidate Obama uttered at a fundraiser in that most liberal quarter of the United States, San Francisco, to characterize what happened to people in deindustrialized small towns in America: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or antitrade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

…What Palin had ushered in in 2008 was an inverted version of conventional identity politics, a version that would ramify and establish itself as the core of the Tea Party movement, and would then become radicalized as the core of the Trump movement and racialized by the alt-right in its rallying around both the Trump campaign and his presidency. For the Trump movement, the Other would be immigrants. For the Tea Party it would be the “undeserving.” For the alt-right it would be the nonwhite population. In each case, the Other was seen as backed by the liberal establishment and their pro-multicultural and pro-feminist “politically correct” elites.

The Tea Party, the Trump movement, and the alt-right are all identity movements. The difference between the traditional identity movements and these identity movements is the difference between deprivation and dispossession. While the traditional identity movements felt themselves deprived of a seat at the table, these new movements feel themselves dispossessed of their seat at the table. Tea Partiers objected to how the new-fangled presence of the Other at the table made them feel - that they and their values had become marginalized; that they had lost their long-established seat at the table, and lost those seats to people who were not “real Americans.” The Tea Party’s most enduring expression of their political mission, which also prefigured Trumpism and the alt-right, was “taking our country back.”

The resentment that feeds these movements is far more acid than what has motivated conventional identity politics. The anger is fiercer and more directly vectored - the force that has taken their place is plain to see; it is the Other. Back in early sixteenth-century Florence, in The Prince, Machiavelli warned that the most murderous political enemy the ruler can make is one whose patrimony he has stolen.

“…but above all [the Prince] must abstain from taking the property of others, for men forget more easily the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.”

In politics, patrimony can be about status as well as property. A central element in the national debate about the Tea Party, Trumpism, and the alt-right has focused on whether the movements are a response to economic displacement or cultural displacement. Studies like Identity Crisis have convincingly demonstrated the primacy of cultural displacement. The fierceness of the new identity movements is more about status lost than property lost. It is a loss so profoundly felt that it has generated a fierceness powerful enough to transform U.S. politics - and much of world politics - into a new era.

Lawrence Rosenthal’s new book is Empire of Resentment: Populism’s Toxic Embrace of Nationalism.

Copyright © 2020 by Lawrence Rosenthal. This excerpt originally appeared in Empire of Resentment: Populism’s Toxic Embrace of Nationalism, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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