The Politics of Resentment

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In the aftermath of Richard Nixon’s electoral victory in 1968, George McGovern, a Democratic senator from South Dakota, was appointed chair of a committee charged with rethinking the Democrats’ political strategy. Union members, the mainstay of the party since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, were already on a path that would convert many of them into Reagan Democrats. It was essential to find other core constituencies.

The committee’s answer was identity politics. The party would turn its attention away from the working class to focus on the political aspirations of African-Americans, Hispanics and other people of color, gays and lesbians, feminists and immigrants. The concerns of the working class, especially white, blue-collar men who lacked a college education, were pushed to the periphery.

A straight line can be drawn from this fateful decision to Donald Trump’s victory. Alone among all the candidates, he grasped the bitter resentment that this political privileging of minorities would produce.

Trump understands resentment because he feels it himself. Having come from a privileged background (his father was a multimillionaire real-estate developer), he nevertheless suffered the embarrassment of four successive bankruptcies. Rising again from this debacle to become a multibillionaire and television celebrity, he discovered that this success was insufficient to persuade either Republican Party power-brokers or the upper east side Manhattanites whose social acceptance he so desperately yearned for to take him seriously. The famous roasting he received at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner by President Barack Obama and comedian Seth Meyers, in front of many of the very people whose approval he sought, left him feeling deeply humiliated. Many commentators have suggested that this public drubbing contributed to his decision to run for president.

Resentment is driven by a deep sense of unfairness accompanied by feelings of powerlessness. Simmering among the white working class since 1968, it began to build during the mid-1990s as they found themselves excluded from the prosperity of the dot-com revolution. Wages in manufacturing sectors were stagnant and jobs were moving overseas. It continued to grow through the dot-com bust, 9/11, the Great Recession and the rise of the tea party.

Trump not only grasped early on the momentous importance of this deeply negative electoral mood, he amplified it. When he declared to his supporters, “ I am your voice,” he was for once speaking the truth. Waving his arms, constantly interrupting his opponents, he hurled insults at the elite and at the very groups — minorities, feminists, women in power and, especially, immigrants — to whom the Democrats had given pride of place, loudly mocking the political correctness associated with them.

Political resentment is not of course exclusive to the United States. Widespread manifestations of it can be seen in Europe, too. Brexit was driven by northern England’s rustbelt, where blue-collar workers who barely profited from globalization saw immigration as a further economic threat. Marine Le Pen’s National Front party in France, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands and the Alternative for Germany party have all taken similar anti-immigration stances. In each case, we see the economically disadvantaged turning sourly against those who are still more disadvantaged — immigrants from the Middle East.

Many on the left believe that Trump’s triumph will be short-lived. Surely he will be unable to bring the jobs back, seal off our borders and produce 4 percent annual economic growth. But any hopes that this will put the Democrats back in power by 2020 are unlikely to be easily realized. Resentment is peculiar in that those who experience it are more concerned with punishing or ridiculing the objects of their fury than they are with advancing their own cause, a fact to which the popular rural bumpersnicker, “My border collie is more intelligent than your honors student” attests all too well.

So Trump doesn’t actually have to deliver. He just has to keep on stirring up resentment among his supporters, something at which he’s masterful. His appointment of Stephen Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, as his chief strategist confirms this.

W.H. Auden’s “Age of Anxiety,” published in 1947 at the dawn of the nuclear age, seems to have given place to a new “Age of Resentment.” Those who feel unseen, ignored and victimized by globalization have finally found their voice. By electing Donald Trump as president, they have helped usher in a new political order with, as we are already seeing, deeply disturbing consequences.

(Note: a version of this post appeared on the op-ed page of the Bangor Daily News, 12-21-16. Cartoon by George Danby | BDN.)

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