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Saturday, May 7, 2016

Anger and Angst in Trumpism

The word Angst has existed since the 8th century, from the Proto-Indo-European root *anghu-, "restraint" from which Old High German angust developed.[5] It is pre-cognate with the Latin angustia, "tensity, tightness" and angor, "choking, clogging"; compare to the Ancient Greek ἄγχω (ankho) "strangle". Wikipedia.

Many recent news articles are discussing the phenomenon of Trump as stimulating and collecting the anger of American people (especially old white males) many of whom are downsized or outsized, without higher education and so feeling disrespected. These old white angry males (OWAMs) are no longer feeling in control. Even the most unsuccessful of them are used to having at least the blacks, latinos, women, and queers below them. But no longer. Highly educated blacks, latinos, women, and queers are taking positions of power. Consider what allowing women and homosexuals in the organizations of dominance through violence (the military, the corporate board room, the priesthood) must mean to those OWAMs brought up to be real men. 

The ultimate insult was the election of an uppity African American as president. A new insult would be the election of a smart, tough woman, especially a feminist which talks back loudly to men. The masculinity of the OWAMs (dominance as symbolized by John Wayne and Rocky Balboa) is threatened. They fear that they are losing their balls. They want to make America (the old America they romanticize) great again. Being great again means being tough, a man, getting back your balls. Asserting dominance through violence is the way to be masculine whether at home or with other nations.

While I think that this is a largely correct analysis of the OWAM movement behind Trumpism, I realize that the OWAMs that I know would disdain this analysis. They would never admit being racist, sexist, or homophobic. How could they? It would be like admitting that they were afraid and so not manly.


Anger, anxiety, anguish, and angst all come from the same etymologic root. Psychologists say that anger is related to the fight or flight instinct of the reptilian brain. It occurs when our boundaries are invaded by hostiles and we feel the need to either run to safety or violently push back. That felt need is fear. It is a sense of personal helplessness, the inability to ex-ist (stand out), to be who you want to be, or angst.

But from an astute political organizer's point of view, it is also a sense of powerlessness, the ability to act to make a difference. And an organizer can use and deploy popular anger in two very divergent ways: populism or movement politics and republicanism or community-based politics. Anger for one is turned to blame, for the other it is turned to solidarity.

1. Populism and movement politics. 

This confuses power with force or dominance. It confuses powerlessness with personal helplessness. For a purpose of course. The purpose is personal control and putting people in their place. People feel personal control through the great leader whom they support and who can use force to maintain proper order and dominance. Here anger turns to blame which ironically gives up responsibility. Think of the testosterone rush that those who identified with Stalin in the KGB and with Hitler in the Gestapo felt as they rounded up Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals to maintain the Aryan race. But at the same time they were not responsible. It was the others' fault.

Many observers are comparing Trump with Mussolini who made the trains run on time by his fiat just as Trump will build the Wall, ban Muslims, and deal from strength with foreign leaders. Mussolini could not do this without the support of the masses and the army who saw in him Il Duce, the Great Leader. And so it will be with Trump, the OWAMs trust. Charismatic leadership is a sign of movement politics and authoritarianism is its consequence.

2. Republicanism and community-based politics.

This recognizes power as the ability to act in concert. Power is a collective phenomenon in which persons gain a sense of meaning and belonging through participation in a public, not through identification with a great charismatic leader. Here anger turns to solidarity. A public like a Hamiltonian "faction" is self-organized. It may have very competent and strong leaders, but they are fully accountable to the group. Unlike a Hamiltonian faction, a public is based on more than self-interest but on a sense of common good and so interacts with other publics for the general welfare. 

De Tocqueville saw democracy in America as consisting of free associations or what we call today civil society. Free association and speech are therefore tantamount to democratic republicanism. And the elimination of violence and force as means of achieving or maintaining power. The more we act in concert, the more power we have personally as well as collectively.


My conclusion as a progressive is that we should recognize the helplessness that the OWAMs are feeling. And to take  their fear as a warning and an opportunity to recommit ourselves to democratic republicanism at the grass roots, locally in our communities, rather than relying on movements that wind up electing our masters no matter how much we identify with them. It also might mean a change in culture, i.e. how we value what it means to be a human, whether masculine, feminine, or transgendered and what norms we choose to define our worth and of those we elect to represent us. I think it also means that politics is more than elections and governance, it is also about taking responsibility for our lives and communities rather than blaming outsiders and others.  

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