s there any trope in American life more enduring than the “angry white male?” He is a staple of pop culture from Archie Bunker and Taxi Driver in the ’70s to Michael Douglas’s Falling Down in the 1990s to Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino in 2008, and more recently he has been fueling the fever dreams of liberal political pundits. The New York Times’s Gail Collins frets about how Donald Trump has “cornered the anger franchise” while her colleague Frank Bruni calls Trump and Senator Ted Cruz “unabashedly mean.” David Von Drehle, of Time, writes with barely concealed glee that the GOP finds itself “in bed between a bombshell and a kamikaze.”
So dire is the anger of these angry white men that the Canadian writer Stephen Marche even sensed hostility in a Midwestern man’s facial hair. In a piece for The Guardian, he described one white male Trump supporter he spoke to as Angry Mustache: “Angry Mustache quoted a statistic, which I later check and turns out to be bullshit, that all congressmen become millionaires by the time they’ve been in office for a year,” Marche wrote, as if he’s just exposed a terrorism plot.
Angry Mustache isn’t the only one nursing a grievance. A recent Esquire/NBC News poll found that “half of all Americans are angrier today than they were a year ago.” And it isn’t just the men; white women’s reported anger is slightly higher than white men’s (53 percent versus 44 percent). Democrats are angry, too. A recent Rasmussen Report on the “Angry American Voter” concluded: “A lot of voters are angry. Very angry. In fact, a lot of voters have been angry for some time. The phenomenon that we call ‘negative partisanship,’ antipathy on the part of Democratic and Republican voters toward the opposing party and its leaders, has been on the rise since the 1980s, and today it is arguably the most salient feature of the political scene in the United States.”
Nor is anger exclusively an American problem. Writing in Bloomberg View, John Micklethwait notes, “There’s also plenty of evidence that across the Western world, voters are furious with the established parties and choices—and much more willing to consider extreme solutions, especially when put forward by politicians who ‘tell it like it is’ and seem genuine.” The Man of the Moment says so, too. There is “a great anger out there,” quoth Donald Trump. “A lot of people say that my campaign has picked up on that, and I didn’t do that intentionally.”
As always, present-day intensity can blind us to the fact that there is nothing new under the sun. Anger has long had a place in our political life, and this is on balance a good thing. Anger prods politicians to respond to the public mood, which ultimately moves debates on important issues in new directions.
A recent editorial indulged in a standard bit of outrage-peddling by blaming “years of overheated antigovernment statements by right-wing politicians and media figures” for “outbursts” such as the current standoff between local ranchers and law-enforcement agents at a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon.
This is especially true with controversial issues. Announcing his recent executive actions on gun control, President Obama wiped away angry tears as he said of the victims of gun violence, “Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad.” The media swooned; Matt Lauer, of the Today show, praised the president’s “rare display of emotion” and columnist Nicholas Kristof tweeted, “We should all be crying about 32,000 American gun deaths a year.” Obama’s angry tears supposedly placed the president above politics, in the realm of the spirit—and elevated those who admired his display of feeling. “I think any of us who sort of covered that story, any time I think about Sandy Hook, you feel that as well,” said Today’s Willie Geist, thus suggesting that professionals who “covered” the shootings at the school in Connecticut simply felt more deeply about it than the rest of us hoi polloi. “It doesn’t mean his policies are going to fix the gun problem, it doesn’t even mean they’re the right thing, I’m just talking about that emotion right there.”
But when people on the other side of the aisle express anger, it’s not emotionally inspiring. It’s scary. “Anger and alienation have been simmering in Republican ranks since the end of the George W. Bush administration,” the New York Times noted recently (and ominously), while failing to note the similar rise in Democratic anger. A recent editorial indulged in a standard bit of outrage-peddling by blaming “years of overheated antigovernment statements by right-wing politicians and media figures” for “outbursts” such as the current standoff between local ranchers and law-enforcement agents at a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon. Meanwhile, these same observers describe expressions of anger from the left (bullying campus activists, Occupy Wall Street) as righteous manifestations of the fight for justice and treat their excesses like the overenthusiasm of an excitable puppy.
In other words: I’m OK. You’re a rage-a-holic.
It’s an emotional version of what behavioral economists call the “licensing effect.” The term describes a curious human trait: When we do something good, we then give ourselves license to do something bad. One Canadian study found that people who bought environmentally conscious products were more likely later to lie, cheat, and steal, for example. “Purchasing green products may produce the counterintuitive effect of licensing asocial and unethical behaviors by establishing moral credentials,” researchers told CBC News.
Similarly, by pointing out the supposedly irrational and dangerous anger of their political opponents (and thus establishing their “moral credentials”), cultural mandarins of the left can then readily indulge in their own vitriol without ever having to figure out what might be stirring these other people.
Although Trump’s rage against the Republican machine is an easy thing to lampoon, he is tapping into a mistrust of authority and sense of betrayal that is felt among a wide swath of the electorate. The angriest people are middle-aged and middle class. Why? More than half (52 percent) of the people polled by Esquire felt that the American Dream no longer existed; a similar number (54 percent) said, “The U.S. was once the most powerful country but isn’t anymore.” The same percentage felt that they were worse off than they had expected they would be when they were younger. And they aren’t wrong.
But there is an upside to anger. It motivates people. A Rasmussen report analyzing the 2012 elections found “a very strong relationship between political involvement and anger.” Nor is anger always irrational. “Our research indicates that voter anger has a clear rational basis,” the report noted. “To a large extent, this anger appears to be based on ideological disagreement: the greater the disagreement with the opposing party, the greater the anger.”
There is something both brilliantly instrumental and stunningly condescending about the efforts of the self-appointed cultural and media elite to disqualify the emotions of the majority of Americans. In doing so they suggest not only that their opponents are wrong on the facts, but also that they are irrational, immature, and possibly dangerous, like a child having a tantrum. This makes serious conversation—and useful political debate—impossible. And it makes people very, very angry.