Politics & Policy

Donald Trump and the Weak Man’s Vanity

(Darren McCollester/Getty

Donald Trump is the angry man of the hour. He joins a long list of people who in the last half century have made their mark by bursting the confines of civility to say aggressively rude and obnoxious things. Vein-popping, vitriolic anger displayed in public is an art form — of sorts. It is a performance art, and it is a new thing — new, at least, in the yardstick of lifetimes and centuries. Donald Trump’s antics would have been unthinkable in the era of Eisenhower, let alone FDR.

It was not that people in such past generations didn’t get angry, didn’t sometimes express their anger in awkward ways, or didn’t sometimes become publicly known for their bluster. We’ve had our Huey Long–style politicians who have made pyrotechnic anger their trademark. But beginning in the aftermath of World War II, the nation began a transition from believing that an easy or too frequent resort to anger is a weakness to a belief that anger is empowering and that expressing it vigorously is healthy and good.

The shift from self-control to self-expression didn’t happen all at once, and at first it was confined to artists, writers, and intellectuals. Think of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1955) as one of the early expressions of self-actualizing rage. But Ginsberg was howling in a beat dive in San Francisco. How did we get from there to Mr. Trump howling on stage?

Essentially by persuading ourselves that authenticity to oneself is more important than respect for others. We are living in the midst of what I call “new anger,” the anger of people who are proud of being angry and congratulate themselves on it. Compare Mr. Trump with the episode in 1968 when William F. Buckley Jr. responded to a taunt by Gore Vidal on ABC in televised commentary on the Democratic Convention in Chicago. The famous exchange — Vidal calls Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” and Buckley responds by calling Vidal a “queer” — is receiving fresh attention in the documentary Best of Enemies. Buckley, in the words of Hendrik Hertzberg writing in The New Yorker, “immediately regretted” the slur, “and eventually wrote that he had returned to his dressing room in a state of despair.” But “Vidal had no such regrets about calling his opponent a crypto-Nazi. He knew he had triumphed.”

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Buckley, the man of traditional values, despairs because his flash of verbal anger is a failure of self-control. Vidal, a man of the new era, exults because his taunt succeeded in breaking his opponent’s reserve. Today, Trump plays the part of Vidal, sneering at those over whom he would triumph.

We are living in the midst of what I call ‘new anger,’ the anger of people who are proud of being angry and congratulate themselves on it.

Part of the great change is in the behavior of individuals. Most of us now lack the settled habits of keeping our angry impulses under lock and key. We resort to anger quickly and seldom have even the capacity to feel ashamed afterwards. But a larger part of the change is in the behavior of the public. Far too many of us love the spectacle of other people’s anger. Perhaps we started to love it back in the 1970s when the bad-tempered John McEnroe began to throw on-court tantrums in the staid sport of tennis. Americans were definitely entertained by the over-the-top “mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” anger in the 1976 movie Network. But the new, celebratory, high-performance anger really took off in the 1980s. Talk radio first gave it a voice, and by the time we reached the Internet, many Americans had learned to wallpaper their lives with anger. We live in an age sporting anger-management specialists precisely because we have made anger, for many people, unmanageable.

Before Donald Trump, we had the 2004 Dean Scream, in which then-Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean let out a barbaric yelp to his supporters in Iowa. It may not have been truly angry — but then again, many expressions of “new anger” are more about outward display than inner feeling. Yet it marked Dean out as someone of questionable temperament. Trump has, of course, marked himself out in that way too, but he seems to have found a responsive chord in a significant segment of Republican primary voters.

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Jim Geraghty has written a sober essay pondering how conservatives should speak to Trump’s supporters: Criticize their foolishness? Allow that they have good reasons to be angry? Geraghty settles on criticism and cites my 2006 book, A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now, by way of explaining the spread of angri-culture across the political spectrum. Conservatives are not immune. Check.

#related#Is there anything that we can do about the triumph of rude anger in the public square? Anger is entertaining. It’s innately theatrical. It is vulgar in an age that revels in vulgarity. Can we escape?

Offering examples of upright men and women who don’t succumb to the temptation to respond in kind seems weak. The howling mob wants more tell-it-like-it-is histrionics. It isn’t going to switch to tai-chi–like composure on cue from “the elite” it has come to despise. The Trump phenomenon, like a forest fire, will have to burn itself out. That won’t happen soon enough for many conservatives, but it will indeed happen. For even anger, after a while, becomes tiresome for the audience. Donald Trump himself is unlikely ever to feel ashamed. But new anger is a performance, and for every performance there is eventually a curtain, if not a final bow.

— Peter Wood is the president of the National Association of Scholars.



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