Mark Tapson is the Shillman Fellow on Popular Culture for the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
One thing Americans can presumably all agree on in our current cold civil war is that civility, mutual if grudging respect, and rational if testy debate in our political discourse have all been replaced by a hair-trigger performative outrage, the scorched-earth warfare of cancel culture, and even occasional violence. It’s difficult to remember that there was a time when even acerbic antagonists like William Buckley and Gore Vidal could trade barbs onstage without hurling chairs at each other and inciting nationwide rioting. What has happened to us? How did we come to this point? And is this state of rage destined to be a permanent feature of our cultural and political landscape?
Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars and author of the essential 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project, has addressed these questions incisively in a must-read, brand new book titled Wrath: America Enraged. He agreed to answer some questions about the book.
Mark Tapson: Mr. Wood, what is the “new anger,” and what is the difference between anger and wrath in a political context?
Peter Wood: “New anger” is show-off anger, the display of someone who expects to be admired for the performance or to boast about it afterwards: anger mixed with self-delight. New anger contrasts to the older ethic of trying to master your anger and not to let it master you. Through much of American history, giving free vent to anger was regarded as a sign of weakness and immaturity. We admired the man or woman who, when provoked, found ways to handle the situation without descending into rage. Of course, that kind of self-control often failed, at which point brawls erupted. Those who brawled in public or in private, however, were not regarded as good people. Those who turned to anger too quickly or too often were shamed.
“New anger” became a recognizable force in American life in the 1950s, though it was at first a trend confined to avant garde parts of society: the beat generation, early adepts of Freudian psychoanalysis, and people reading French existentialist novels. From these seeds grew the counterculture of the sixties, and then the disillusioned anger of the Big Chill 1970s. I am collapsing a lot of history into a few sentences. The breakdown of the older ideals of emotional self-control and their replacement by a new ethic of emotional expressiveness didn’t happen overnight or all at once or equally in all sectors of society. Fifteen years ago I spent a whole book (A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now) to describe the slow progression of new anger into the position it now has of cultural dominance. I’m mindful that whole generations have grown up for whom there is nothing “new” about “new anger.” It is all they have ever experienced unless they have been immersed in the world of Turner Classic Movies, where you can glimpse a world ruled by different emotional norms.
But you ask me “what is the difference between anger and wrath in a political context?” The political left, going all the way back to the 1950s and even earlier upheld the view that American society is so unjust that people should indeed feel righteous indignation and anger at our institutions. The form of this leftist anger, of course, shifted with other changes in the national temperament. A Woody Guthrie protest song of the Dust Bowl years expressed leftist anger in a vivid way but it was meant to rally people and it had a good-humored element to it. As new anger emerged in the 1950s, leftist anger began to take on a darker tone. The Beat poet Allen Ginsberg wrote a poem in 1956 titled “America,” in which he told the country, “Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.” The shock of a line like that has dissipated over the years as vulgarity has become common, but it was a pretty big step at the time, and it opened a rhetorical arms race on the left. Finding ever newer and more offensive ways to express anger became a competition among leftist artists, intellectuals, and self-styled rebels.
I won’t recite that long chain of developments either, but it eventually landed us in the 24-hour sneerfest of Facebook and Twitter, and the perverse joy of Antifa and BLM rioters. Anger for the left is not a response to provocation. It is rather a settled way of life, a lifestyle in which emotional satisfaction comes from vituperation and sometimes naked aggression and vandalism. Anger does indeed make people feel powerful, at least for a while, and the left has developed ways of excusing the perpetrators of it as people driven to violence because of the oppression they suffer.
Both the anger and the excuses for it are a distinct characteristic of the political left. The political right has its own long history of anger too, but it is anger of a very different character. It might be called reluctant anger because it is anger always at odds with other values which block it or complicate it. William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale (1951) was an angry book at some level, but on the surface it is cool and restrained. There were episodes in the ensuing decades such as the “hardhat riot” on Wall Street in May 1970. But it took the rise of talk radio in the 1980s for American conservatives to discover a more expressive angry style of their own, and it was generally one of mockery and disdain for the left. Donald Trump ultimately became the master of this style. But that doesn’t get us all the way to “wrath.”
I’m using the word to capture that moment of emotional impasse in which the person has been angered beyond endurance and sees no way ahead. All the exits have been blocked and the places where emotional expression could be channeled into political or legal action seem to be out of reach. Wrath is collective despair suddenly torn free of all (or at least most) restraints because the other side has chosen to rule by foce and intimidation, not by the consent of the governed.
MT: How has anger become such a dominant factor in American politics?
PW: My long answer above covers most of this, but I’ll add that politics by its nature involves opposition, and opposition always has the potential to summon anger. The elaborate codes of diplomacy and protocol that are (or were) part of Constitutional government are meant to keep the underlying anger in check. They have generally worked pretty well, though history provides plenty of examples where they failed. American politics was not the place where “new anger” first found its home in our national life. In fact it was among the last places to be conquered, probably because it has so many built-in safeguards. We had angry songs, angry movies, angry sports, and angry feminists long before we had truly angry politics. The political scene first became seriously angry with during the presidency of George W. Bush, which featured incessant attacks from the “angry left.” Anger became the dominant factor in our politics because once it is introduced, it naturally crowds out other emotional tones. Flamboyant expressions of hatred for the other side set in motion a dynamic in which that hatred will be returned. And it spirals into reprisals on both sides, people discover its excitements. Anger, rightly understood, is a pleasurable experience. People get addicted to it, and it becomes a way of motivating your side to give money, to attend rallies, to vote, and–unfortunately–to cut corners and to cheat, the discovery of which breeds still more anger.
MT: You argue that some wrath is justified, especially that of the populists with whom you identify and sympathize, and who are being marginalized by the Progressive elites. How has the media contributed to stoking their anger?
PW: Every time the media dismisses statements about irregularities in the 2020 election as “lies,” or “disproven,” or “groundless,” it stokes the anger of many millions of Americans who see plenty of evidence of such irregularities and who have been frustrated by the unwillingness of legal authorities and the courts to take action. The absence of “proof,” of course, follows from the unwillingness to examine the evidence that does exist and the determination of authorities to prevent the gathering of more and perhaps determinative evidence. Every time the press refers to the events of January 6 as an “insurrection,” millions of Americans grow angrier at what they see is gross exaggeration of what happened. When the press amplifies the idea that the non-vaxed pose a mortal anger to their neighbors, still more people grow angry. When the press continues to downplay as “mostly peaceful protest” the 2020 riots which killed two dozen people and resulted in billions of dollars in property damage, it incenses ordinary Americans. When the press veers away from covering the travesty of our retreat from Afghanistan to focus instead on COVID, Americans grew angier still. The press’s failure to treat seriously our crisis on the Mexican border follows suit. And the shamelessness of the press in overlooking the dementia of President Biden and our being ruled by a de facto regime of unnamed puppet masters seals the anger as deep contempt both for those who currently hold power and for the lapdog press that assists them.
MT: You assert that the dynamics of anger in America right now include an “asymmetrical racial division.” Can you elaborate on that?
PW: We are faced with a situation in which an openly racist black power movement seeks to use its self-described victim status as a tool to intimidate and shame other Americans. The asymmetry is that no one else is attempting to use race to claim privileges and immunities, or to intimidate or to seize power.
MT: In the preface to Wrath, you state that you hope to teach readers “how to put some righteous anger to good use in the effort to save our country and our civilization from an approaching barbarism.” How can our anger be directed strategically – and peacefully – to push back?
PW: The simplest answer is a spontaneous decision by the majority not to cooperate with manifestly unjust and arbitrary rules. The agencies of some of the key powers of the government have discredited themselves by extending their power far beyond their legal warrant. The best answer to such usurpation is to decline to go along with it. That doesn’t work if it is pursued by only a handful, but it is tremendously effective if it is pursued by the many. This is a form of civil disobedience. It has costs. Our thuggish government will unjustly imprison, harass, or find other ways to torment some of us. We’ll have to expect that. But a collective “No!” to the FBI when it shows up at a school board meeting to arrest citizens who are exercising their Constitutional right to speak out will soon put that compromised agency back on its heels.
MT: Is there any hope that we can recover the virtues of self-restraint and civility in our cultural and political discourse, or is performative anger here to stay?
PW: I have hope but not for a quick cure. Emotional temperament is set in childhood, most importantly by parents who have a clear idea that they want their children to have the benefits of emotional self-control. Right now we have schools across the country that are colonizing the new area of “social and emotional learning,” meaning that they want to displace the role of parents in setting the emotional temper of children and take that role for teachers. The teachers, of course, are generally trained in leftist teacher colleges and fully buy into the expressivist, “liberating” view of education. Any long-term hope of changing our emotional dynamics for the better depends on restoring the authority of the family. That is further complicated by the American epidemic of fatherlessness. A child raised without a father is in peril of some degree of emotional deprivation. We all know this, though it is very hard to talk about for fear of offending people who did not choose this fate. The fatherless child is a child who is destined to have problems with anger. But that’s another topic.