People see the Trump flags and the yard signs, the raucous rallies and the truck stop merchandise, and they fear that’s where the country’s energy lies, but what they’re missing is the subterranean rage that’s building like molten lava beneath the surface.
By David Todd McCarty | Monday, October 5, 2020
This article has been edited since it was first posted.
After the 2016 election, the consensus was that the media had largely missed the growing discontent of disenfranchised white working class voters from the heartland. That all the pundits and the elite intellectuals had failed to recognize a fundamental shift in the tectonic plates of the electorate. That the polls had been wrong all along and it was the cry of the economic dispossessed that had fallen on deaf ears. They weren’t racist. They were just frustrated and angry.
Here’s the the thing about probability, it’s not a guarantee. To say Trump’s chances of winning were improbable in 2016 is still accurate, even after he won. The models gave him a 33% chance of winning, which isn’t nothing, just not the most likely scenario. He lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes after all. If not for a skewed electoral college map and a few well placed hundred thousand votes in a few key states, Trump would right now be working on a deal to sell kitchen devices on late-night television, and trying to secure financing for a real estate deal in Bolivia.
As of today, the FiveThirtyEight model has Trump’s odds of winning the election at 19 out of 100, with Biden at 81 out of 100. They ran the election 40,000 times in a computer model, factoring in all sorts of variables. What if this happens? What if that happens? What if he wins this demographic? What if he flips this state?
Math is math. Statistics and probability are not defined by what you think of them. Polling certainly includes a human factor that you must account for, but it’s not entirely unknowable. Predictions have variables and a chance is always a chance, whether it be large or small. A good predictive model knows what you and I know. It assumes that people need to vote in order for a candidate to win. It doesn’t believe in magical thinking.
In the weeks and months leading up to the 2016 election, the conventional wisdom was that Hillary Clinton, with her long pedigree of political life was the odds on favorite to beat her unlikely opponent, a crass, unprincipled real estate tycoon and reality television star, for the most powerful position in the land. It was a good call. She won the popular vote by a significant margin. At the time polling showed her with a significant lead and people since have pondered the idea of the “shy Trump voter.” The idea that people were too embarrassed to tell pollsters that they were actually going to vote for the clown because he was such an improbable bet, and then voted for him anyway.
Four years later, enthusiasm for the clown is at an all time high and all you have to do is look around you all across America to see the signs. Literally, signs everywhere. Flags. T-shirts. Hats. Boat parades. Truck parades. An outpouring of tribal glee for their ridiculous ringleader, garish makeup, ill-fitting suit and all. Even the less effusive members of the clan, the wealthy elite, have tasteful yard signs in their yards and flags on their yachts. This is nothing, if not widespread, unmistakable, heartfelt pride. There is nothing shy about the Trump supporter. It’s not apologetic in the least. If anything, it’s downright defiant.
After what they consider to be his massive success, there is no shyness among Trump supporters. They are more enthusiastic than they were even directly after he was elected when there was a period of a few years where it was unclear how he would actually do. Would he collapse under the strain? Walk away? Be indicted? Impeached? And at each crisis, he thumbed his nose at convention (and the Constitution), and declared victory. Even when it wasn’t warranted. With each newfound victory, his supporters became more and more emboldened. He was their Teflon Don. He was invincible. Now that is a powerful hero to have. The triumphant leader who makes his own rules and for whom anything is possible. It’s messianic.
America has a long history with exceptionalism, this idea that we have been graced by God to receive all of this and more, if only we have faith in his continued providence. It should come as no surprise then when a significant portion of our country decides to bow down to the golden cow. They are already predisposed to believe that God is on their side and if God is with us, surely who can be against us? They prayed for a hero and God gave them Donald Trump. Who are they to quibble over his flaws. Wasn’t Samson flawed? Wasn’t David? For were they not also mere mortal men, chosen by God to fulfill a larger purpose? Indeed.
Plus he threw in massive tax breaks for the rich and a whole new group of people to hate for the working poor. As Lyndon Johnson famously said, “If you can convince the lowest white man, he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
Trump has always been an isolationist at heart, so he’s managed to bring America’s enemies even closer to home. They are us. It’s Joseph McCarthy all over again, trying to worry everyone that American is under threat from within. So what started as Mexican rapists and the caravan hoards has become BLM and Antifa. Instead of Roy Cohn we have Stephen Miller. Instead of communists, we should now fear socialists.
We like to say that history repeats itself but it’s never really the case. Not exactly anyway. We can see the parallels but after a time we begin to see the contrasting differences. To begin with, Joe Biden is not Hillary Clinton.
In an Atlantic article from January 2019, Charles Duhigg dug into the issue of anger and its affects on American politics. He wrote,
America has always been an angry nation. We are a country born of revolution. Combat—on battlefields, in newspapers, at the ballot box—has been with us from the start. American history is punctuated by episodes in which aggrieved parties have settled their differences not through conversation, but with guns. And yet our political system was cleverly designed to maximize the beneficial effects of anger. The Bill of Rights guarantees that we can argue with one another in the public square, through a free press, and in open court. The separation of powers forces our representatives in government to arrive at policy through disagreement, negotiation, and accommodation. Even the country’s mythology is rooted in anger: The American dream is, in a sense, an optimistic reframing of the discontent felt by people unwilling to accept the circumstances life has handed them.1
But this anger tended to be periodic and released regularly. Trump was simply someone who recognized that he could harness this anger for his own purposes. In 2016 as he was beginning his unlikely march to Washington he told a reporter, “I’m angry, and a lot of other people are angry, too, at how incompetently our country is being run. As far as I am concerned, anger is okay. Anger and energy is what this country needs.”1
So we got Trump, not because their anger had been harnessed and released, but because of a perfect storm of institutional failures on the part of the democratic system in America. But regardless of why it happened, the result was an affirmation of the power of anger, so Trump did what any aspirational despot would do, and that’s throw fuel on the fire. In order for Trump to maintain that fire he needed to constantly provide the fuel to keep it burning. The fuel being an ever growing cabal of villains, an ever expanding list of insults and indignities, an escalation of the things we must fear. Without an active and vindictive enemy, there is nothing from which to protect his loyal followers. This is why he is never going to denounce the QAnon fallacy. It’s doubtful he even understands what they want or want they’re doing, but he knows at their core they provide him with an endless supply of evil to fight, all the better that the evil doesn’t even exist. QAnon’s fantasy enables Trump to tilt with windmills with no real consequences for him. It’s not like pushing North Korea or Iran to the brink. Fighting a mysterious cabal of degenerate pedophiles operating a child-sex ring out of pizza parlors, especially when it fits the narrative that he never even has to mention it, is perfect for him. It does all the work for him. He need only be seen as fighting someone, for the strategy to be effective.
The anger has not been without consequences. We have gone beyond base political disagreement and have allowed our partisan differences to become tribal, with no basis in ideology or theology. It is merely us versus them and as Duhigg found in his article, “Without the release of catharsis, our anger has built within us, exerting an unwanted pressure that can have a dark consequence: the desire not merely to be heard, but to hurt those we believe have wronged us.”
We are seeing that anger spill out in numerous ways, from an increase in physical altercations and threats of violence to actual murder. The rise of militias, armed civilians patrolling the streets looking for someone to fight. Boat parades and caravans of pickup trucks. What was once possibly a demonstration of respectable pride, has turned instead to a symbol of anger and hostility. The Trump flag, MAGA hat, or bumper sticker has been turned into a symbol of that anger, to be used against the enemy to inflict pain. It’s not mere free speech they hope to wield with these objects, but intimidation and brute force. It’s a symbol that proclaims their alliance with a powerful force and promises quick and deliberate retribution for anyone that dares cross them.
The Nazi comparisons are certainly a well-worn and potentially harmful correlation to make, but they’re not without merit. The parallels are hard to mistake as each incursion on democratic norms in favor of authoritarian rule, sectarian violence, and the demonization of those outside the group are shown to us daily on an endless loop, as we doom-scroll through a nefarious device we keep in our pocket.
A Turning Tide
Even though every tide is different, the ebb and flow is constant and predictable, governed by the gravitational pull of a planetary satellite dragging its weight across the depths our reality. What goes up must eventually come down and while we find ourselves at a low point, the moon is approaching full and with it a tide that threatens to overwhelm the current beachhead. What’s missing in this cycle, the defining factor of this season of our discontent, is the misunderstanding of where the anger now lies.
When it comes to things like sports, we like to think of winners as rising above the field because of inherent strengths and losers as failing for previously unforeseen weaknesses. We rarely give luck it’s due. The reason so many teams find it so difficult to come back after a winning a championship has nothing to do with free agency, injures, peak player performance or any other incidental factor. The reason it’s nearly impossible for a team to repeat is because winning the championship was so improbable in the first place. A million things had to go their way.
There might be tens of thousands of actors, musicians and athletes that dream of making it big, finding fame and fortune, and becoming one of the improbably elite. We hear the stories of those who persevered, who toiled and sweat through the years of training and obscurity, only to finally achieve that break through moment where they burst on the scene and were rewarded with a pile of gold and a late-night talk show spot with one of the Jimmy’s.
What we don’t hear are the stories of those who suffered and never made it. Who never realized their dreams, or got their big break. This is the problem with a culture where everyone thinks they have a shot at the brass ring. If you ever watched those early shows in American Idol where despondent contestants, without a lick of talent, were crushed to find out they weren’t great and would not be beloved. They skipped the usual long haul of rejection and decided to jump right to the end where the decision was brutal and final. They were likely still eventually delighted to find themselves on television and told themselves they were simply misunderstood and underrated. You can take everything from a person, but you can’t take a dream from someone who refuses to give it up. They will die believing.
Just like with sports teams, we like to think that cream always rises to the top, and the best man always wins. It’s too scary to think about the amount of chance involved when lives are on the line. But even representational democracy is messy business and elections are wildly unpredictable, much to the chagrin of political strategists. Donald Trump was the darkest of horses in 2016 and came back to squeak out a win. Just last February, in the midst of a chaotic primary season, Joe Biden’s campaign had been written off as dead, when he won the South Carolina primary. He went on to practically run the table and become the Democratic nominee. Momentum certainly has something to do with it, and a bit of self-fulfilling prophesy in the minds of voters, urged along by news stories and inexact media coverage. It’s a messy business.
Unlike with sports franchises, political incumbents actually enjoy a huge advantage. Over 90% of House incumbents seeking reelection win, and over 75% of Senate incumbents seeking reelection win.2 That’s an enormous advantage. The reasons are complicated but involve factors such as the ability to raise money, natural name recognition and the ability to be highly visible, but also extend to gerrymandered districts and the general lack primary challengers for an incumbent.
If you’ve ever watched a highlight reel for a championship season, you can hardly ignore the feeling of destiny in the many upsets, unbelievable plays, near misses and timely wins. It’s truly as if God himself intended for our to win. How else could they have achieved such greatness against such improbable odds? It’s the reason we don’t make highlight reels about losing seasons. They are entirely predictable, obvious and inevitable. Of course they would lose.
The last president to lose re-election was George H.W. Bush, with the next three presidents being granted full eight-year terms. Generally presidents have a huge incumbent advantage because voters don’t have to imagine what they will be like in a job no one can prepare for. The devil you know looms large.
Donald Trump had what they often refer to as a Cinderella season, only it was even less likely than the charming princess who was plucked from obscurity after getting a little help with her fashion options and mode of transportation, and more like one of the mice in the attic ended up becoming king. It was that improbable. But unlike a traditional president, regardless of party, Trump was uniquely unqualified for the job. He didn’t just fail to perform the job required of him, he seemed to revel in his failure. We began tentatively, allowing himself to be reprimanded and chided for his delusions of grandeur or his base instincts to operate with impunity regardless of social norm or rule of law. But eventually he tired of the restraints of those around him, as they tried to corral him, and he was left with only those who would support him regardless of how outrageous his behavior. Even now, Republican leaders are at best sheepish concerning his tweets and claims, either offering up alternative theories about they think he might have meant, or going all in with their support, despite how stupid it makes them look. They’ve learned that the trick to winning in Trump’s rigged arena is that his followers don’t care what they do, be it unethical, criminal or merely hypocritical or idiotic.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has hovered pretty consistently around the 40% approval mark nationally, not enough to engineer a win, regardless of how favorable the electoral college might be. Trump barely won in 2016, squeaking out his improbably win with a perfect storm of electoral math, a run he looks unlikely to repeat. He needed to be building his support into a more traditional base and has instead seen it erode in both demographic and geographic areas. He has lost support among non-college educated white women and suburban women of all stripes. His support remains strong among white evangelicals, social conservatives, rural working class and wealthy elites, who each see the savior they desire in the person of Donald Trump.
Beyond losing actual support due to a combination of abrasive style, failed promises, and failure to act in the face of a global pandemic and the resulting economic turmoil, he is losing to significant demographic shifts beyond his control.
Four years ago, Donald Trump was able to win with an unprecedented 37-point margin among non-college educated white voters, especially important in the upper Midwest that gave him a razor-thin margin of victory in the electoral college. In the time since, the country has shifted beneath him with non-college whites dropping from 46% of the population to 43%, while college-educated voters who are increasingly Democratic voters now make up 25% from 24% of the population. In addition, ethnic minorities that traditionally vote reliably Democratic, now make up 32% of the population up from 30%.3
According to the Cook Political Report, if you simply took the 2016 turnout and support rates and applied them to today’s demographic realities, Trump would lose Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. He would also lose the popular vote by four points, double his 2016 deficit.3
An Elusive Rage
Without any caveats, you have to give Donald Trump credit for achieving one thing the Democratic Party has rarely been able to achieve. That is to inspire both fear and loathing, resentment and rage across such a wide cross section of political ideologies, sectarian loyalties and cultural divides. He has united the Democratic Party in a way that has seemed almost impossible in modern times as the coalition that they rely on has become even more diverse and fractured in its identity. A common enemy has caused millions to rally around a candidate almost no one is excited about because of his unexciting character. If a candidate such as Bernie would have been an effort to fight fire with fire, Biden is closer to fighting fire with a warm blanket. It’s altogether likely that we will look back on this as pure providence in that a blanket that smothered the inferno might have been our only way out without this country being burned to the ground, both sides throwing gas on the fire.
But underneath this warm blanket of paternalistic normalcy, there burns an anger to rival anything Republicans harnessed in 2016. It’s not built on decades of blind loyalty, nebulous racism or mythical enemies, but on a visceral hatred of both the current President and all who follow him.
Never before have you seen so many normally peaceful people admit in anguish how they’ve never felt such hatred in their hearts as they do for President Trump and his allies. The money that has been pouring into even statewide campaigns for Democratic challengers such as Jamie Harrison and Amy McGrath are not coming from well-funded super pacs, but from angry voters. They are donating $20 at a time for a race in a state they don’t even live in.
This is the thing many political pundits and journalists in the media are missing. They are not following the money. It’s not just that Democrats are raising more money than Republicans, especially in smaller amounts. It’s that the donations of grassroots activists on the Left are the flags of dissent.
It’s probably fair to say that Democrats don’t believe in any one thing. There are few issues that everyone who calls themselves a Democrat can agree on. But the one premise that you might argue is true, is that they believe that ideas matter. Maybe too often that has been too internalized, taken too intellectually and not often enough in public action.
The reawakening of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the callous murder of George Floyd galvanized liberals in a way that nothing else had to this point. As eyes were opened to the institutional racism and atrocities committed became more apparent to a broader coalition of the population, the tipping point for activism turned from protests in traditional hot spots, to small protests of people of conscience everywhere. Soccer moms and children. Farmers and factory workers. Catholics and Amish alike. This was not longer a tribal issue, no longer an ethnic issue. It was a moral issue and it was an American issue.
Americans haven’t been this awake politically since the turbulent years of the 1960’s when the country was torn apart by protests of an unpopular war, the fight for civil rights and women’s rights, a cultural awakening of what it meant to be free, and ultimately the assignation of political and cultural leaders.
The more activist, progressive side of the Democratic Party is certainly its most vocal, and does everything in its considerable power to push the party back to the left after years of allowing the center to be moved to the right by Republicans. The Overton window has moved dangerously to the right, and only with a hard and persistent pull to the left will we avoid careening towards fascism and authoritarian theocratic rule.
But this is also a group of people who believe at their core, that empathy is a strength not a weakness, that listening is as valuable as preaching, that equality is not a zero sum game, and that liberty is a dream we can all enjoy. So despite the Right’s efforts to paint those who would oppose fascism as ruthless, anarchist thugs, is not only laughable but deeply troubling as it undermines what most activists are fighting for.
According to Duhigg, in 2012, political scientists at Emory University found that fewer than half of voters said they were “deeply angry at the other party’s presidential nominee.” In 2016, almost 70 percent of Americans were.4
“The thing people forget is that the political left were really the ones who perfected the politics of anger,” says Marshall Ganz, an early community organizer in California who now teaches at Harvard. “It’s the progressives who figured out that by helping people see injustice, rather than just economics, we become strong. Movements don’t emerge from small acrimonies. They require a sense that it isn’t just an individual who wronged us, but a system that must be reformed. If you can make it a moral crusade, you can win.”4
Ganz believes that moral outrage has to be managed or it will do more hard than good. That stoking emotion is easy, but channeling into something useful is much harder. For anger to be productive, it eventually has to turn to something else.
“You have to know how to arouse passions to fuel the fight, and then how to cool everyone down so they’ll accept the deal on the table,” Ganz said.4
Right now there is no deal on the table. In fact, it’s not even clear there still is a table. But that will be the job of those who choose to govern should the left become victorious. Right now there is only fear and the fear is powerful.
Fear of the alternative has often been used to motivate voters. Fear of the other. Fear of the unknown. But Democrats are not in the dark as to what the manifestation of their fear might be. They’ve seen it with their own two eyes. They’ve watched it so quickly and easily trample the institutions of democracy they took for granted and forced the world to recognize just how vulnerable the whole thing was. It’s an evil they can see and hear on television each night, on the pages of the newspapers and the twitter feed in their pocket. It’s not a hypothetical fear of a theoretical enemy, but a man made of flesh and blood, albeit one wearing pancake makeup and a blond combover, but a mere mortal just the same.
The Mask Of Outrage
Historically, a nationwide crisis of one form or another, has been used by politicians on either side to bring the country together. But Donald Trump made it clear early on that he had no intention of acting as the President of the United States, or even the leader of the Republican Party, but rather he would be the Dear Leader of the people who adored him. He would be the leader of his own cult, and everyone else could go pound sand.
But really Trump’s only constituency is himself, so when the potential of a strange new virus from Asia appeared his first thought was how it would affect his re-election if it were to do anything to disrupt his economic winning streak. When it didn’t go his way, and he had no one to blame but himself for his inaction, he did the only thing he knows how to do, he blamed everyone else. The Chinese. The Democrats. Political correctness. The symbol of his rage? The mask.
So while millions quarantined in their homes, lost jobs and loved ones, forfeited their freedom for the good of the whole, Trump and his wonton band of enablers treated the whole crisis as a myth, a hoax made up to discredit and bring down the President. Trump refused to wear a mask, insisting that whole thing would magically disappear, long after it was clear that wasn’t the case. His Republican hoard followed suit and refused to call for shutdowns, even as their citizens got sick and died. Their response, “We all have to die at some point.”
So on top of the terror of a deadly virus operating free and clear in America, we had a federal response that was not only nearly non-existent but chaotic, confusing and contradictory. Trump constantly contradicted his own experts, put political pressure on the scientific community to alter or suppress reports and recommendations, and he did it all for the sole purpose of political gamesmanship.
To make matters worse, if that was possible, the President openly ridiculed Democratic governors and Congressmen from so-called Blue states, refusing them federal help and calling their actions political whining.
The fact that most early outbreaks were restricted to Democratic-controlled states was just fine for Trump and his allies. Let the elitist liberals deal with it. What’s a few Democratic voters to deal with?
So fast forward seven months and you’ve been working from home, furloughed or laid off. You haven’t seen your friends or family in ages. You scurry about the grocery store, terrorized by Trump followers who think wearing a mask infringes on their Constitutional right to be assholes. You are ridiculed, or assaulted for the temerity to protect the health of you and your family while it’s made clear that the President doesn’t care if you live or die. So yeah, you’re a little angry about the whole thing which is a lie because you are furious—beside yourself livid.
The Target Of Our Rage
Fear when given a face, and the ability to conquer it, quickly turns to anger. Where the Democratic Party has failed time and again to stoke righteous anger over wonky policy issues they’ve failed to distill into marketable benefits to a disengaged electorate, Donald Trump and his circus of illegitimate henchmen have done an epic job. He’s a carnival barker who’s been whipping the tigers and throwing peanuts to the crowd as his clowns pile into cars and drive through the freak show. Even the pacifists are questioning just how far they might be willing to go to defeat this existential threat. If they can’t absolve themselves of taking a life, what about just beating someone within an inch of it? What will it take to make the madness end, and never return? How far do we have to go, because this is simply not sustainable.
It’s hard to defeat an idea, but it’s nothing to take down a man. Defeating Trumpism will not end with the defeat of Donald Trump, and like any cult leader, he would like nothing more than for his followers to believe that he alone can save them, that without them, all is lost. It’s entirely possible that the only thing that has kept America from destroying itself in this crisis is just how stupendously stupid the President really is, and how easily manipulated the American public actually are. But in order to defeat the idea, first you have to tear down the idol of their affection. When David slew Goliath, the giant’s army ran in fear and hid.
Donald Trump is at his heart a bully, and like all true bullies is no more than a coward ruled by fear. He is also not unique in this pattern of calling out others for his own shortcomings. He is overly sensitive with notoriously thin skin, but he claims it’s the liberal snowflakes that are crying over nothing. He is profoundly ignorant so he claims no one really knows anything. He has failed at nearly everything he has ever attempted, so he pushes a narrative whereby he is a uncontested success. Everything he does is tremendous, perfect and beautiful. Donald Trump is a big believer in positive thinking. Saying it makes it true.
If Donald Trump was merely stupid, Democrats would be trying to unseat him, and they might even be theoretically fearful about a future with an idiot in charge, but they wouldn’t be so angry about it. They might even be empathetic for the slow-witted boy who could never find his father’s love. But Donald Trump is uniquely cruel and the combination of cruelty and hubris is simply too much for liberals to bear. He hurts people, seems to actually enjoy doing so, and then has the audacity to actually be proud of it. The fact that our friends and family, neighbors and co-workers seem pleased by this is a horror that simply cannot be. It’s a bridge too far.
Democrats are going to win this election, not because they want it more than the Republicans, but because they feel like they have no other alternative. Their backs are against the wall. This isn’t a fight for power, but for survival. Not just of their own survival, but their loved ones as well. They’re not worried about something as trivial or abstract as a way of life, but their very lives. This isn’t a hypothetical threat, but an existential one. It’s literally life and death and the Republicans think it’s a big joke. This will be their undoing.
Empathy is seen by authoritarians as weakness, but it’s a misguided understanding of empathy as an emotional response. Mistake liberal values as weakness at your own peril. Mistake it as getting all warm and fuzzy for a furry animal, and not the consequences for you should you make the mistake of arousing the attention of the beast. Republicans think they are the big bad hunters and Democrats are the frightened, defenseless animals. It’s accurate that Democrats are worried about who the Republicans are hunting with impunity and laughter, who they have in their sights with their weapons of greed and hate. But what Republicans don’t understand is that they have just gotten in between a mother bear and her cubs and that is a dangerous place to be. When it comes to empathy you see, we are all mothers, those are all our cubs, and we are frightened and angry.
There is nothing more dangerous, and you simply do not have enough firepower to withstand the attack that is about to take place. This is where we stand right now, at this moment in time in America. There is no where to run, no tree to climb and the attack will not be over until the threat is eliminated. There is no turning back. We must see it through till the end. Pray that it’s over quickly.