The Anger of the American People

A philosopher dissects the outrage that has fueled Trump and more in U.S. politics.

A Trump supporter waits in line for a rally in Bridgeport, Connecticut. (Michael Dwyer / AP)

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.

Emma Green: What is anger?

Martha Nussbaum: A good place to begin is Aristotle’s famous definition. The basic ingredients of anger are:

(1) You think you’ve been wronged,
(2) The damage was wrongfully inflicted, and
(3) It was serious damage to something you care about.

Aristotle also thinks the damage is always a kind of insult—what he calls a down-ranking, or a kind of slighting that puts you lower in the scheme of things. I ended up saying that’s not always the case. However, I think that’s an important ingredient in a lot of anger that people have.

The last thing—and this is the crucial one, I think: Aristotle, and every other philosopher known to me who writes about anger, says that part of anger itself is a desire for payback. Without that desire, it’s not really anger—it’s something else.

Green: When you look at this year’s campaign—something like a Trump rally, for example—do you see a kind of collective anger?

Nussbaum: Oh, absolutely. Often, we feel helpless in lots of situations in our lives. The way anger gets a grip on us is it seems to be a way to extricate ourselves from helplessness. People—and I think this is particularly true of Americans—don’t like to be passive. They like to seize control. I think what Trump has found, and very cleverly so, is that there’s a lot of helplessness out there in the middle of America: People who feel they’re not doing as well as they want; people who aren’t doing as well as their parents did. Jobs are going to China; jobs are going to other countries. He makes them feel that if they turn their helplessness into rage, they will accomplish something.

Of course, they won’t. People have this illusion that if they strike out they’ll accomplish something, but of course they won’t. They only accomplish something by having a smart idea about direction and policy. The violence that’s being fomented is not helping to formulate smart economic policies. It’s just unleashing dangerous rage in a way that might do great damage to the American people in the long run.

“What Trump has found is that there’s a lot of helplessness out there in the middle of America.”

Green: How should policymakers think about helplessness?

Nussbaum: I think you have to give people a sense of the future, and a sense of hope. President Obama has been obsessed with that question, ever since before he started to run for office. The whole reason he called his second book The Audacity of Hope is that he knows that’s the key.

Green: Yet, here we are at the end of the Obama administration, and we’re seeing a lot of collective frustration and anger—from the Trump movement on one side to the Black Lives Matter movement on the other. Does that warrant a degree of cynicism about the power of “hope”?

Nussbaum: No, I really don’t think so. I do think there’s a lot of frustration, but also, at a local level, there’s a lot of hope, and I think America is so big and heterogeneous that you really shouldn’t look for hope only at the national level. I do feel in Chicago, the very fact that the whole corrupt police structure has been torn down, and an African American chief has been chosen to lead this kind of reform—the Black Lives Matter Movement brought that about. The fact that people had a voice, and their voice mattered—that was huge. I think all around the country you see things like that.

Green: You talk about anger being rooted in a lack of control. Do you think people who commit crimes who lack control over their circumstances should be held less responsible for their actions?

Nussbaum: In terms of moral judgment, probably there is a diminished responsibility in that kind of case. Whether we should put that into law is a different question, because law sends messages and gives incentives, and doesn’t just respond to the right take on what’s happened.

But the biggest lesson to take away is that punishment is too late. Garden-variety crimes are the result of hopelessness at a much earlier level. People don’t have enough family love; they don’t have nutrition; they don’t have good enough education; they don’t have employment opportunities. There are all these things we need to do before the crime takes place, and that is what we’re not doing.

I think people find it very easy to say, “Oh, crime. Let’s throw them in jail!” But by now we have seen that mass incarceration does no good. It’s not even cost effective, but it certainly has not reduced crime.

“The biggest lesson is that punishment is too late.”

Green: You seem to be going one step beyond this kind of rationale against mass incarceration, though. You’re arguing that anger—which motivates this impulse to crack down on crime—is itself morally bad. Why are you making this argument?

Nussbaum: For thousands of years, people have asked, “What spirit should the criminal-justice system embody?” One side of it says it should focus on retribution and payback. The second says it should focus on doing whatever is useful for the future. The third says it should focus on reform. And of course, two and three go together, because one of the things that might be useful for the future is reform.

The trouble is that Americans love payback. They have a conception of masculinity that makes [a future-oriented approach] seem weak and feminine. It’s very hard, when a whole society has this frontier mentality, to get the more rational view off the ground.

Green: On the one hand, you seem to take anger seriously as an emotion that motivates people. But you seem to be calling on people to rationally overcome their anger to reach better outcomes in their relationships or on a social level.

Do you think this is a superhuman expectation?

Nussbaum: Our culture in particular gives anger fuel from the very moment children are young—somewhat more to males than to females. There’s a lot of research showing that when little boys express anger they’re encouraged, and when little girls express it they’re discouraged. It would be better to start early to discourage it. When we’re dealing with people who are already in the middle of life, it’s very hard, and I’m not saying that just a one-shot rational argument can do it. I’m saying that once you see the argument, you get motives to work on yourself. The Stoics thought that you have to engage in meditative exercises for many years.

With lots of things—say, having good health, or having a fit body—we think it’s worth working on that everyday. But somehow, we give ourselves a pass when it comes to anger.

“With good health, or having a fit body, we think it’s worth working on. Somehow, we give ourselves a pass when it comes to anger.”

Green: How do men and women express anger differently, and how is it cultivated different in men and women?

Nussbaum: I suppose you’re too young to remember Michael Dukakis’s failed campaign for president. He had furloughed certain prisoners, and one of them raped someone while on parole. He was asked, “What if this Willie Horton raped your wife?” And he thought about it, and he gave a very rational reply, about how he thought the policy was, on the whole, well thought-out, and that this was an unfortunate consequence. That was not what the American public wanted. They wanted him to get really, really angry, and to display the rage of a man defending his wife. That was one of the major reasons he lost the election.

There is also a tendency in parts of the feminist movement to think that women have been supine, women have put up with abuse—and, of course, all of that is true. But they think the right response is that women should claim their anger.

I think the two alternatives are not the only two. You can be dignified, you can protest, you can say this is outrageous, but you don’t have to do it in a way that is angry or seeks payback.

Green: You use a lot of examples from your own life—under the somewhat thinly disguised alter ego “Louise”—to explore anger: at a colleague who failed to turn in a paper for a conference, for example, or a scholar at another institution who rudely demanded first-class airfare for himself and his wife for an event. Why do you use your own life as a case study of day-to-day moral interactions?

Nussbaum: In the history of philosophy, there have been several different approaches to how you get the material on the table in a detailed and vivid way. One approach is that you write a dialogue; you invent characters. The other approach is to use a certain construct of yourself as a character, and use material that’s probably from your own life, though of course the reader can’t tell. One should never assume it’s just pouring out everything you think. If you did that, it would be stupid, because that’s not philosophy.

Proust once said his novel was kind of a magnifying lens through which people could look at their own emotions—that’s basically my goal. By making myself quite ridiculous, I urge people to see the comedy in their own daily interactions.

Green: Do you think your colleagues will be a little nervous about going to dinner parties with you, just in case they end up in your next book?

Nussbaum: The three people I pick out are all notorious in one way or another. So it wouldn’t be any surprise at all that these things are imputed to them. The only one who’s a real friend, I say these things to him all the time—he really shouldn’t behave that way.

I wouldn’t express anything without being very thoughtful.