America Descends Into the Politics of Rage

Trump and other practitioners may reap short-term gains, but history suggests they will provoke a fearsome backlash.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Anger has a peculiar power in democracies. Skillfully deployed before the right audience, it cuts straight to the heart of popular politics. It is attention-getting, drowning out the buzz of news cycles. It is inherently personal and thereby hard to refute with arguments of principle; it makes the political personal and the personal political. It feeds on raw emotions with a primal power: fear, pride, hate, humiliation. And it is contagious, investing the like-minded with a sense of holy cause.

In recent weeks, it has grown increasingly ubiquitous in American politics. In Montana this past Thursday, President Donald Trump praised Republican Representative Greg Gianforte, who pleaded guilty to assaulting the Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, saying, “Any guy who can do a body slam … he’s my guy.”

The week before, the Republican candidate for governor in Pennsylvania told his opponent that he was “going to stomp all over [his] face with golf spikes.” On the other side of the political tracks, the former attorney general Eric Holder said, “When they go low, we kick them.” Both men later qualified their statements, noting that they didn’t mean to incite violence. Their purpose—though neither man explicitly said as much—was to use rhetoric to stoke passions and rouse support.

Brett Kavanaugh did much the same during his Senate confirmation hearing. As authentic as his outrage was, he was strategically playing to like-minded supporters. Indeed, the White House counsel Don McGahn advised him to play up his emotions for maximum impact. And it worked—probably beyond his wildest expectations.

Such is the dynamic of politics in the time of Trump. The politics of outrage is fast becoming a political norm, each flare-up lowering the bar of acceptable rhetoric and producing an upswing in belligerent posturing.

But Trump didn’t invent this emotion-laden mode of political warfare. He’s certainly promoting it to an extreme degree, but it has a long and storied history that predates even that notorious poisoner of the political realm, Newt Gingrich. As tempting as it may be to assume that American politics has been an oasis of civility until the semi-recent past, at moments of intense polarization and strife throughout our nation’s checkered history, politicians have appealed to our lowest common denominator, using the power of anger and intimidation to spread their message and get their way.

We often link such outrage with protest, but in truth, political power holders have long used anger, fear, and intimidation to preserve the status quo, bullying their opponents into compliance or silence, and frightening the public into surrendering rights for the sake of security—though with mixed results.

Southern congressmen made masterly use of strategic outrage and intimidation in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, depicting themselves as victims of a campaign of Northern degradation and protecting their interests with the power of their rage.

In some ways, these decades were a heyday of the politics of anger. The rise of organized party politics in the so-called Age of Jackson brought with it an aggressive anger-spiked style of political warfare. The notoriously combative Andrew Jackson led the way in this new kind of politics. The Democratic Party rose to power by celebrating his warlike instincts, battlefield exploits, and epic temper tantrums (his favorite swear words—“by the Eternal”—became a popular catchphrase). It is no coincidence that the rise of this rough-and-tumble politics saw the partial sidelining of women in party politics, allegedly for their own good.

Those same decades saw the intensification of the slavery debate as westward expansion forced the nation to confront slavery’s spread with each new state’s entry to the Union. Thanks to the three-fifths compromise, which gave the South outsize power in Congress by granting representation for three-fifths of its enslaved population, Southerners had long protected their slaveholding regime by dominating national politics—and they felt entitled to that power. And, of course, that regime was itself grounded on anger and entitlement.

The bullying power of Southern entitlement showed its full force in Congress. Whenever anyone dared to denounce slavery, Southerners rose up in a howling chorus of outrage, sometimes storming out of deliberations en masse. An 1842 outburst was typical of many. Representative John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts deliberately tried to put Southerners “in a blaze” over the issue of slavery. “Such a scene I never witnessed,” the abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld told his wife, Angelina, and sister-in-law Sarah Grimké, themselves leading abolitionists. Scores of slaveholders shouted points of order, “every now and then screaming at the top of their voices: ‘That is false.’ ‘I demand, Mr. Speaker, that you put him down.’ ‘What are we to sit here and endure such insults.’” It was for good reason that Adams called such displays “explosions.”

There was real anger in such outbursts. There was also real power. Southerners and Southern-born Westerners routinely used them to bully Northerners and Northern-born Westerners into backing down. When someone dared to attack the institution of slavery, Southerners strategically and dramatically raged and threatened, insisting that they were ready to fight—literally fight—for their rights, hinting at duel challenges or even threatening to cut an offender’s throat. Not only did such displays cow Northern “noncombatants,” as they were called, but they gave Southerners an undeniable advantage in Congress. Many Northerners did their best to avoid such situations, disempowering themselves in the process.

When it came to congressional combat, Northerners weren’t fighting men of the same sort as Southerners. Which isn’t to say that the antebellum North wasn’t violent. Riots were a Northern specialty, erupting in city streets with alarming regularity; nativist riots were a particular favorite. But Northerners were less comfortable with man-to-man showdowns than Southerners were, and by the 1830s they considered dueling a barbaric Southern custom. So both for their own sake and to avoid offending their constituents, backing away from Southern fury was often the course they chose.

The Ohio abolitionist Joshua Giddings noticed this imbalance of power upon assuming his seat in the House in 1837, and it shocked him. “I think we have no Northern man who dares boldly and fearlessly declare his abhorrence of slavery and the slave-trade,” he wrote in his diary in 1838. “That kind of fear I never experienced, nor shall I submit to it now … I would rather lose my election at home than suffer the insolence of these Southerners.” Following that logic, Giddings took on Southerners, standing them down to advance his cause. By mocking their bluster and scorning their threats, he exposed their bullying to the American public for what it was. He also paid a price; during his 22 years in the House, Giddings was physically attacked at least seven times.

There were other ways to stand down Southern bullies. John Parker Hale of New Hampshire used humor. When confronted by raging Southerners, he responded with good-natured jokes and gibes, deflating Southern bravado with laughter. His flawless comic timing was apparent in 1848 when he asked for a dictionary to find an insult’s meaning; playing up the comedy of the moment, he brought down the house. John Quincy Adams used his parliamentary prowess and the weight of his authority to cow Southerners, outsmarting and out-bullying them when they were on the attack. Congressional peers were well aware of his “sledgehammer” eloquence.

Still, the bullying went on—not least because it paid dividends back home. The nation was watching, and it mattered. In an age when many congressmen were one-term wonders, Southern “fighting men” often were reelected, their constituents clearly approving of their aggressive tactics. And in time, that logic spread. The intensification of the nation’s ongoing slavery crisis fueled a spike in Southern bullying in Congress, and that anger proved contagious.

Technological innovations spread that contagion. The telegraph circulated news from Washington with remarkable speed, confronting increasing numbers of Americans with images of raging slaveholders holding dominion in Congress. In the face of such evidence, and with the slavery crisis peaking, Northerners began urging their representatives to fight back, sometimes even sending them weapons.

By the late 1850s, Northern congressmen were defending themselves and their interests with a new power, using not only harsh words, but occasionally fists and guns as well. Southerners fought all the harder in response.

This fighting wasn’t just for show. By the late 1850s, most congressmen were armed; as early as 1850, some congressmen guessed that roughly 30 percent of the House carried weapons, and those numbers increased over the course of that eventful decade. Eager to protect the interests of their party, state, and section; worried about constituent approval; and all too aware of the high stakes of the battle over slavery’s future, congressmen warred within the walls of the Capitol, stoking rage inside and outside Congress in the process.

Thus did Southern bullying pave the road to civil war. Rage begat rage, and Northern noncombatants became fighting men, making cross-sectional discourse ever more difficult. As one Northerner put it, given the ongoing Southern “threats and menaces” in Congress, cooperating with Southerners “would destroy their position at home” by suggesting that they had voted “under the influence of these belligerent taunts.” Anger, entitlement, manhood, and politics: This potent brew shaped the nation’s sectional crisis.

Now it is shaping our current crisis. Emotions are rising every day, with social media leading the way. Within the past few weeks alone, Rand Paul voiced concern that someone will get killed, and Jerry Falwell Jr. took to Twitter to urge the election of fighting men to beat “the liberal fascists Dems.” “Conservatives & Christians need to stop electing ‘nice guys,’” he tweeted on September 28. “They might make great Christian leaders, but the US needs street fighters like @realDonaldTrump at every level of government … & many Repub leaders are a bunch of wimps!” The echo of the 1850s is deafening; the implications are alarming. Politics is becoming war by other means.

Such is the impact of a politics of anger. For a time, it attracts followers and cements loyalties, breeding a spiraling mass of dangerous passions, inspiring some Americans to cast their opponents as a dangerous “other,” dividing the nation, and linking manhood with authority in rhetoric as well as fact.

But bullying power holders often pay a price, fueling a backlash through the contagion of rage. It happened in the 1850s. And recent weeks have suggested much the same. Kavanaugh’s howling outrage enraged women. Even before his hearing, they were running for office in remarkably high numbers, driven by their anger over the current direction of national politics and their hope to accomplish something better. Now their impulse is fast becoming more of a cause. Trump’s threats against the press have had a similar impact, inspiring outrage from his opposition and heightened calls to action.

Republican outrage is enraging and empowering resistance. But it’s important to note: Resistance and violence aren’t one and the same. Channeled properly and put to purpose, outrage can prove formative, inspiring civic engagement, political involvement, and organized protest, thereby leading to reform and change. And in a democratic politics, it is assertive, heartfelt, organized resistance—not brute violence—that best brings positive outcomes.