Every once in a while, as I wade through the onslaught of emails, newsletters, solicitations and media transmissions that clog my daily in-box, I’m brought up short by a sentence that seems profound. (Granted, the degree of profundity often varies with the amount of sleep I had the night before…) The most recent such experience was triggered by an Atlantic newsletter from Tom Nichols, who wrote that “resentment is perhaps the most powerful political force in the modern world.”
The context of that observation was in the newsletter’s lede
On October 7, the Republican House Judiciary Committee cryptically tweeted, “Kanye. Elon. Trump.” The tweet was, predictably, ridiculed—especially after Ye (as Kanye West is now known), just days later, threatened “death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE” on Twitter. But, intentionally or not, the committee had hit upon a basic truth: The three are alike.
What unites these successful men—and, yes, Trump is successful—is their seething resentment toward a world that has rewarded them money and influence, but that still refuses to grant them the respect they think is their due. And if we should have learned anything since 2016, it is that resentment is perhaps the most powerful political force in the modern world.
Nichols writes that the movements that historically motivated large numbers of people have dwindled, while today, it is “social and cultural resentment” that is driving millions of people into what he describes as a kind of mass psychosis.
I will leave aside Ye, who has his own unique problems (although I will note that his early career was marked by his anger at being shut out, as he saw it, from hip-hop and then the fashion world). Prominent and wealthy Americans such as Trump and Musk, along with the former White House guru Steve Bannon and the investor Peter Thiel, are at war not so much with the American political system, whose institutions they are trying to capture, but with a dominant culture that they seem to believe is withholding its respect from them. Politics is merely the instrument of revenge.
As Nichols reminds us, Trump has spent his life “with his nose pressed to the windows of midtown Manhattan, wondering why no one wants him there. He claims to hate The New York Times but follows it obsessively and courts its approval.” Elon Musk, who has put people in space and who claims to be a free speech purist, has blocked and suspended twitter users who made fun of him. “As one Twitter wag noted, Musk’s acquisition of Twitter is like Elmer Fudd buying a platform full of Bugs Bunnies.”
The great irony is that Musk’s other achievements might have vaulted him past perceptions that he’s a spoiled, rich doofus, but buying Twitter and making (and then deleting) jokes about self-gratification while telling people to vote Republican has pretty much obliterated that possibility.
Nichols is absolutely correct when he notes that the people who do support Trump are people with whom he would never, ever want to associate.
He is also correct when he notes that the people most likely to act out their resentments aren’t the poor–they are the “comfortably off populist voters” who were “never invited into the” top universities, the biggest firms, the major corporations.”
The January 6 rioters were, by and large, not the dispossessed; they were real-estate agents and chiropractors. These citizens think that the disconnect between material success and their perceived lack of status must be punished, and if that means voting for election deniers and conspiracy theorists, so be it…
And finally, look at the Republican campaigns across the nation. Few are about kitchen-table issues; many are seizing on resentment. Resentment sells. The GOP is running a slew of candidates who are promising that “we” will make sure “they” never steal an election again, that “we” will stop “them” from making your kids pee in litter boxes, that “we” will finally get even with “them.”
Voters in the United States and many other developed countries can lie to themselves and pretend that a one-year hike in the price of eggs is worth handing power to such a movement. Human beings need rationalizations, and we all make them. But voting as responsible citizens requires being honest with ourselves, and I suspect that we will soon learn that more of us are gripped by this kind of sour social irritation than we are by the price of gas.
Nichol’s essay is well worth reading in its entirety, and I encourage you to click through. I think his diagnosis is absolutely correct.
The problem is, he neglects to prescribe a remedy. And I can’t come up with one.