This U.S. presidential election cycle has been filled with anger. Fist-fights in Chicago. Protesters plucked out of rallies by police officers. Hurled accusations: Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” war-tattered refugees as agents of ISIS. Much of the hostility is a function of Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee who has encouraged violence among his supporters and seems to exhale insults and epithets with every breath.
There have been as many explanations given for this phenomenon as there are pundits on the Internet. But way off in the ivory tower of the University of Chicago, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum has developed a different framework for thinking about the rise of Trump: by examining anger as both a motivation and source of moral conflict. In her new book, Anger and Forgiveness, she looks at anger in personal relationships, daily interactions—calls to technical-support centers run by robots, bank visits that last an hour—and in politics. She covers everything from the criminal-justice system to revolutionary movements, with occasional asides like this, in a section on anger and flirting:
Men in particular think that they have achieved something if they can make a woman mad, particularly if she is calm and intellectual. Often, they use the attempt to make you mad as a way of flirting, no doubt thinking that unlocking the pent-up emotions of such a woman is a sexual victory. (And note that they assume these emotions are pent up in general, not merely unavailable to them!) This exceedingly tedious exercise shows that they have few or no interesting resources for flirting (such as humor or imagination), and it really has the opposite effect from the one intended, boring the woman, who has certainly seen this before, and making them look very silly.
I talked with Nussbaum about Trump, mass incarceration, and the way feelings of helplessness shape American politics. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.