We Americans have become an angry bunch. On that Evan Osnos and I agree. Osnos is a staff writer for the New Yorker whose new book, Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury, surveys some of the same territory as my new book, Wrath: America Enraged. But on why we are angry and what it all means, Osnos and I diverge. Osnos sees in contemporary America “the failure of that mythology” that bound us together in “moral commitment, including the rule of law, the force of truth, and the right to pursue a better life.” I see in contemporary America not a failure of myth, but a change in character in which an older culture of self-restraint has given way to forceful expression.
Osnos, whose other works include a flattering campaign biography of Joe Biden, blames ordinary Americans for indulging in a prolonged temper tantrum that has no real justification. My view to the contrary is that ordinary Americans are responding to the emergence of a ruling class whose contempt for them and for American civilization is nearly comprehensive. It is not that faith in “the rule of law, the force of truth, and the right to pursue a better life” has faltered. It is that faithful Americans now face the lawless use of state power, a duplicitous media, and rent-seeking by global elites.
Osnos’ book is woven together of vivid tales of individuals in Greenwich, Connecticut (Osmos’ hometown); Clarksburg, West Virginia (where he had once worked for the local newspaper); and Chicago. He injects into almost all these stories his own disdain for the kinds of people who supported the Tea Party and eventually Donald Trump. The historical arc of Wildland is from the shock of 9/11 to the “insurrection” of January 6. He pauses at one point mid-book to observe:
Trump, the Tea Party, the NRA—they all made use of that rising unease of Americans who could not quite put a name to the anxieties they felt about the disordering of their world, about the puncturing of American invincibility, the browning of America, the vanishing of jobs to automation, the stagnation of their incomes. The language of force gained ground, Sarah Palin, in her appearances at Tea Party rallies and online, made frequent use of metaphors from the Revolutionary War and the world of guns. ‘Don’t retreat, reload,’ she liked to say.
This wraps together in one noose many of the demons haunting Osnos’ America. Those people who can’t quite put a name on their anxieties are the easily manipulated dupes of demagogues such as Palin and Trump. Why are so many Americans furious? Osnos says it is because they are afraid.
That answer is a familiar theme on the American Left, which would like to psychologize away the dissatisfactions of the tens of millions of Americans who comprise the angry Right. As Osnos puts it, those “already stewing in economic or racial resentment,” were not in possession of an ideology but had “a rootlessness of the mind—a loss of purpose, inspiration, and community.” Somehow missing in his 400-page plus account are the words that are seared in the memories of a great many Americans, when in 2016 Hillary pronounced “half” the supporters of Donald Trump to be “a basket of deplorables” characterized by their “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic” views. And before that, in 2008, when Obama had this to say about working-class voters in old industrial towns: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Deplorables and bitter clingers are touchstones for almost every working-class Trump supporter I have ever talked with, and it seems odd that Osnos never mentions those words, despite quoting copiously from Hillary and Obama, and despite his interviewing a fair number of working-class Trump voters. Was he unable to hear how the contempt of these national figures reverberated in the lives of the people they dismissed? Hearing it would cast doubt on the idea that the Tea Party and the populist movement that followed it were rooted in “fear.” The roots of that movement were righteous fury, not baffled distress or unfocused anxiety. People understood perfectly well that a new governing class had arisen determined to overturn democratic norms and our self-governing republic and to replace them with domination by self-serving “experts” and a globalized elite.
The principles of the Declaration and the Constitution still play a large role in the lives of millions of Americans, but not so much in the lives of progressives who, since the time of Woodrow Wilson, have regarded the nation’s founding documents and the principles they embody as obstacles to overcome on their way to a more “efficient” and “just” polity.
Wildland is a book aimed at reassuring the supporters of the new regime that the “fury” of their fellow Americans is an aberration. It was set in motion by the shock of 9/11 and then exploited by leaders who translated the fears of ordinary Americans into a xenophobic rage. Osnos recalls in his opening pages how, when he worked on the newspaper in Clarksburg, he noticed “how fear was reaching into our political life,” and how soon enough “vandals drew the picture of a lynching and the name ‘Jamal’” on a West Virginia mosque. By the end of the book, Osnos is expressing his frustration that Trump’s supporters refused to abandon him even after the January 6 “insurrection.”
The more I asked, the more people dug in. The truth, I knew, was that any real change, if it was to happen, would start in private.
The agonies of 2020 had not snapped Americans out of their divisions; the rifts were too wide and the combatants too entrenched for any easy reconciliation. But the Trump presidency and the Covid pandemic had forced Americans to reckon, more explicitly than at any moment in years, with the costs of inequity, seclusion, and disengagement.
Osnos’ counsel is that, while it will take some time, Americans will outgrow their infatuation with Trump and populism and will settle down to enjoy the normalcy of American life. The normalcy he has in mind, of course, is the dispensation of permanent progressive government.
Wrath: America Enraged offers no such reassurances. For one thing, I take what Osnos calls “America’s fury” as the culmination of a much longer and deeper set of developments. Looking back over the whole sweep of American history, we can find lots of eruptions of civic discontent and public anger. The American Revolution and the Civil War are the preeminent examples but hardly a year has gone by in our history without notable disruptions infused with anger. People are always angry, and politics is a prime medium for anger.
But anger isn’t necessarily the same in every circumstance. For much of American history, we can discern exceptionally strong cultural constraints on how and when anger could be displayed. Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton fought a duel. They didn’t step out in front of Fraunces Tavern to throw haymakers at each other. George Washington himself was known to have a volcanic temper and was all the more respected for his success in reining it in. Parents labored hard to teach their children emotional self-control. The very word “tantrum” was an 18th-century coinage that caught on in America in the early 1800s as a way of expressing disapproval of childish outbursts. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women presents Jo’s mother telling her, “You think your temper is the worst in the world, but mine used to be just like it, I have been trying to cure it for forty years, and have only succeeded in controlling it. I am angry every day of my life.”
Americans of generations past knew all about anger, but our heroes were those like the characters portrayed by Gary Cooper who mastered it rather than letting it master them.
That began to change in the 1950s when American elites cottoned to Freudian ideas along the lines that repressing anger would come back at you as neurosis, and French existentialist ideas that expressing rage was the key to a more authentic life. In my writings on the subject (my books A Bee in the Mouth, 2006; and now Wrath) I have tried to trace how, step by step, this new permission to display anger worked its way into the broader culture.
I won’t try to re-tell that story here, but one important observation is that our culture became conspicuously angry well before anger took over our politics. The paradoxical reason for that is politics is always angry, and because it is always ready to descend into unbridled nastiness, we have developed codes and formal courtesies to restrain over-the-top anger in political situations. They sometimes failed, of course, but they continued to maintain some degree of order long after we had collectively let loose in vituperative aggression in music, movies, sports, the arts, and domestic life. But then came the George W. Bush years, in which outright political rage on the Left combined with the accelerant of social media demolished all of the old political protocols. The hate-fest had begun.
This is plainly an entirely different story from the one Osnos offers. I don’t mean to say that 9/11 isn’t a reasonable point to start an account of what has led us to today’s fraught situation, but I think it helps to put these events in the longer perspective. Once upon a time, Americans regarded self-restraint as a key social and personal virtue. By the 1960s, self-expression was well on its way to usurping that older ethic. Out of this came what I call “new anger,” i.e. anger that is proud of itself and that is performed with the expectation of approval or even applause. New anger is show-off anger. It makes the performer feel powerful and real. Donald Trump was and is a master of this kind of performance, which today is a kind of cultural capital.
I write from a somewhat complicated position, in that I regard “new anger” as corrosive to our social and cultural life. But I also regard Trump as having played an immensely valuable role in pushing back against the cultural and social catastrophe of progressive domination. No one else could have done it, and by doing it, he clarified for millions of Americans exactly what we face.
New anger was also an emotional valence better suited to protest movements and those who reject traditional values, so it made sense that an “angry Left” crystallized as a mass phenomenon well before an angry Right came along. I say this perfectly aware that Rush Limbaugh and his imitators had begun to conjure conservative anger in the 1980s and that “the angry white man” was routinely denounced during the Bill Clinton years. These were passing comets compared to the blast furnace of left-wing denunciation that belched forth following the 2000 election.
Somehow, Osnos missed every bit of this in his account of “The Making of America’s Fury.”
He misses as well that the result of the 2020 election and the riot at the Capitol on January 6, are not about a sense among a great many ordinary Americans that they had been caught up in a Trumpian delusion and misled. They don’t believe that the old values of self-government, “moral commitment, including the rule of law, the force of truth, and the right to pursue a better life” were mere mythology, and that Trump’s character flaws, including his anger and his capacity to anger others, ought to send us off to a period of humble repentance, and a renewed submission to the rule of our betters.
Rather, we see a highly questionable election manipulated by those who played on the fear of COVID to allow for highly irregular forms of voting; we see a disorderly but unarmed demonstration in the Capitol wildly labeled as an “insurrection;” we see the instruments of state power such as the FBI and the Justice Department deployed to advance spurious uses of the law; we see the rampant politicization of the military and the deliberate disregard for the nation’s borders; we see gross mismanagement of economy; we see Americans left behind in the shambolic evacuation from Afghanistan; and we see continued efforts by the federal government to provoke fear and hysteria on COVID, climate change, and race, all to the end of further destruction of our civil liberties and self-government.
If one wants truly to understand “the making of America’s fury,” it would be a good idea to take those matters seriously rather than treat them as some kind of psychosis. Whether my own account of how America became enraged will stand the test of time I can’t say. But at least I can say that Osnos’ Wildland provides no insight at all into what is really happening among those of us who see ourselves as opposing a tide of illegitimate cultural authority backed by unfounded state power.