The Anger Election of 2016: How Will We Handle Our Anger?

Anger: While it can be a propellant endlessly regenerating itself, anger can blind us and, as Shakespeare tell us, make us deaf---to compromise, nuance, specificity; we now disparage the motivation and character of our political opposites.
02/15/2016 10:49 am ET Updated Feb 15, 2017

With the outsized victories of outliers Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the New Hampshire primary, the essence of 2016 becomes clear: This election is about anger. Trump is riding a dangerous xenophobic anger among Republicans, while Sanders is riding a righteous anger among Democrats at a "rigged economy."

Both kinds of anger--the xenophobic kind against outsiders, the righteous kind against money-power--are broad-based, as New Hampshire confirms: Those supporting Trump and Sanders span from young to old; from working-class to middle-class to the wealthy; men and women. That anger is white-hot (the New York Times uses the word "fury"). And that fury is anti-establishment: Burning at the far ends of the political spectrum, this fury scorns the Republican and Democratic powers-that-be perceived to be responsible for the present chaos.

The bombshell news of the death of Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia last Saturday raises the stakes of this election even further, along with the thermostat, if that evening's Republican presidential debate is any sign: After bowing their heads in silence for Scalia, the candidates lit into each other with new levels of viciousness. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell demands President Obama hold off naming Scalia's replacement; Mr. Obama pledges to proceed per his Constitutional duty. We now have an electoral and a Constitutional battle; the anger will scale even higher.

An angry public is a volatile one. Historically, anger has fuelled revolutions; it is the "change agent" without peer. Prime example: our own American Revolution. But, mishandled, anger can also blind and end in more chaos, even civil war.

We can manage the volatility, as historically Americans have shown. But a happy outcome depends on wise handling of the anger and on the understanding--on the part of the presidential candidates and the electorate--that we are playing with fire. This isn't just another "watershed" election; this one involves the fire brigade.

More than the usual partisan tug-of-war for the White House, this election coalesces around forces building for a long time and now bubbling to the fore.

Trump's campaign theme--"Make America great again"--reflects the anger of those who see America in decline in recent decades, both in the world and at home ("We don't win anymore"). The caricature of a capitalist, he observes the workings of the marketplace, democracy, and international relations and sees winners and losers. This message is a siren call especially to white middle- and working-class Americans who are angry at losing their jobs to globalization, seeing their demographic role shrinking, and whose mortality rates are accelerating vis-à-vis other groups.

But rather than honestly addressing our myriad problems and seeking to repair them ourselves, Trump points the finger at others: immigrants, refugees, Muslims, ISIS, China, Japan, Mexico. Forget self-examination, flex muscle. In his New Hampshire victory speech, Trump promised to "rebuild our military" ("It's going to be so big, so strong, so powerful, nobody will mess with us"), "build the wall" (between the U.S. and Mexico), and "start winning again" ("We're going to win so much, you are going to be so happy, we are going to make America so great again, maybe greater than ever before"). Trump also promises to "bomb the [expletive deleted] out of ISIS."

It's the mentality of a profoundly insecure individual. But it also appeals to a profoundly insecure country at present. Trump proposes to make America great again by doubling down on a bully's tactics--insults, scorched-earth policy, playing by his own rules, employing tactics like "roughing up" and waterboarding "or worse" (torture).

It must be noted that Trump is capitalizing on an angry brew stoked by the GOP for some time now, as traced by a number of observers, including E.J. Dionne in his new book, Why the Right Went Wrong. As the Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes:

"Over the decades [the Republicans] pried open a Pandora's box, a toxic politics of fear and resentment, sometimes brewed with a tinge of racial animus, and they could never satisfy the unrealistic expectations that they nurtured among supporters."

Sanders' theory of the case--a moral theory--that the economy is rigged in favor of the millionaires and billionaires, who buy the politics they need through unlimited campaign contributions, is having an equally profound impact, especially among those Americans struggling since the 2008 Wall Street-generated financial crash. Seeing the 1 percent reap almost all the rewards in the so-called "recovery," while their own wages remain stagnant, makes Sanders supporters see red.

And justifiably so: As Sanders often declares, a founding principle of the American project is the principle of fairness. And basic economic and financial fairness by no means applies at this moment. Americans are singular in world history in their insistence on fairness (even while acknowledging that life itself is not always fair).

But in their anger, neither Sanders nor his supporters have mapped out a viable path to that New Day of fairness, income equity, universal healthcare, free public college. Raising the minimum wage to $15 goes only so far; the tax system must be addressed, with major tax hikes required, but Sanders is vague on specifics, other than calling for a "political revolution." The Republican response, should Sanders become the nominee, is predictable: "Seventy-four-year old socialist revolutionary wants to raise your taxes sky-high."

Hillary Clinton, who lost resoundingly to Sanders in New Hampshire (38 percent to 60 percent) would be well-advised to address this underlying anger of Sanders supporters--about fairness--and then provide the map to that New Day. If she instead attacks Sanders himself, as she occasionally does, rather than addressing the very American demand for fairness, she will alienate his supporters and, should she become the nominee, in their anger they could sit out the election.

Making America great again by invoking first principles like fairness, rather than stoking populist anger: It's the way to go, I believe, but will we?

Worryingly, on the Republican side, Trump's successes have pushed the rest of the field further to the right, with all of them fanning the populist anger, each trying to be tougher than the other. Even the more moderate John Kasich, who placed second in New Hampshire, advocates building a U.S.-Mexico wall. At least Kasich tries to modulate the anger, by asking Americans to listen to each other more.

On the Democratic side, it all depends on Sanders getting more specific, Clinton getting statesmanlike, and both managing, not stoking, liberal anger. It was encouraging to see in the first post-New Hampshire Democratic debate, two days after her loss, Clinton attacking the issues while also mapping out specifics; Sanders, though, remains unspecific. Both would do well to address the angry helplessness that supporters of the GOP candidates feel at America appearing to lose its place in the world.

As to the anger in the body politic, various commentators (here and here) warn against making too much of it, arguing such anger is "self-indulgent" and that, compared with the rest of the world, America is doing quite well economically. Maintaining this comparative perspective as the presidential campaign heats up further will be a test. It remains the case, however, that, in absolute terms, many Americans are suffering, thus the appeal of the messages of Sanders and Trump and the anger they variously invoke. Will the general election sort all this out?

As to anger in a President: Temperament is not often cited as a quality voters consider in a President, but an angry Donald Trump in the White House would be catastrophic and only accelerate America's decline, especially in the capacity of Commander-in-Chief, brandishing the sword in a tinderbox world. The way to an American Renaissance is through a new Enlightenment, not anger and bombast.

Here I salute President Obama, who has been the model of temperance in office on all fronts. Perhaps the Republican fury at him stems from their not being able to knock him off his even keel? That his hair has turned grey in office may bespeak what it takes to hang on to one's keel. That temperance will be tested in the nomination fight over Justice Scalia's seat. History will judge Mr. Obama highly.

Back to the angry present: We can take heart at the record turnout in Iowa and New Hampshire, also at the record turnout of young people at a time when their anger at a scanty jobs market and crushing college debt might have muted them.

Anger: While it can be a propellant endlessly regenerating itself, anger can blind us and, as Shakespeare tell us, make us deaf---to compromise, nuance, specificity; we now disparage the motivation and character of our political opposites. Homer tells of Achilles, whose anger ultimately led to his downfall, anger being his Achilles' heel.

With the establishments of both parties sidelined, the onus for handling our anger---at a declining America, at the abrogation of the American principle of fairness---is on the presidential candidates and on us, We the People. If we mind and manage our anger, we could mature as a people and reverse our decline.

For my earlier post, "The Speech Hillary Clinton Should Give to the 1 Percent on Capitalism and Income Inequality," see here.

Carla Seaquist's latest book, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality," is now out. An earlier book is titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she published "Two Plays of Life and Death," which include "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and "Kate and Kafka," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."