By Tiberiu Dianu
Many of us live with the impression that recently, more precisely starting from 2016, during and after Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, American society has become too negativistic when it burst into repeated fits of rage.
Is rage essentially a negative phenomenon? Is rage a recent phenomenon? Is rage predetermined by the current president? Let’s try to find some answers to these questions.
Rage, a negative phenomenon?
Psychology studies show us that rage is a very dense form of communication, and that it contains, more quickly, more information than many other types of emotions.
Many episodes of rage take the form of restricted conversations that rarely degenerate into physical altercations. They tend to improve the negative situations, by solving them later, not by exacerbation.
In many cases, the same studies show, the expression of rage makes the conflicting parties more likely to listen to one another, to discuss more sincerely and to accommodate, as far as possible, the problems of the other.
Many people, in a ratio of three to one, declared themselves happier after releasing their negative energies on other people, in the sense that they felt more energetic and optimistic about their future. Also, their target persons, in a ratio of two to one, agreed that anger attacks helped them to understand the signals to listen more carefully in the future and, eventually, to change their behavior.
Subsequent studies have found other benefits. Rage motivates us to solve difficult tasks. We become more creative when we are angry because anger helps us to reinforce the solutions we have ignored.
Rage, a recent phenomenon?
America has always been an angry nation. We are a country born of revolution. American history is constantly marked by episodes in which the aggrieved parties have settled their differences with weapons, not through conversation.
We can say, therefore, that there is a “social rage” in society, as a component of the nation’s genetic code. Cultural, political and economic changes engender tensions that produce mutations in the social environment. As a result, there are just as many forms of public rage generated and accentuated by the new target conditions.
(a) Conservative rage, related to traditional and moral-biblical values. In an earlier period, rage was unleashed by actions of state secession (Civil War of 1861-1865), triggered by the southern democrats.
President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated for being considered a “traitor to his race.” Then, the feeling of rage was manifested through anti-Darwinist demonstrations in schools. Later on, it continued in the 1960s, with anti-communist activism on university campuses, during the Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater’s election campaigns, and with Rush Limbaugh’s broadcasts from the mid-1980s. Specific reasons included: segregation, traditional marriage and anti-abortion.
(b) Liberal rage, related to social and cultural values. In the beginning, liberal rage poured into the “original sin” of slavery (from a Christian perspective). In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe published her anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But modern liberals have become almost exclusively secular. The secular liberal rage, also generated by the Western European atheistic political culture, spilled over into American society in the 1960s. Specific reasons included: women’s emancipation, anti-war sentiment, racism, and environmental pollution. Also, the rage of modern liberals tends to enclave itself in marginal, elite, causes such as animal protection and transgenderism. All these reasons are considered by liberals as causes or effects of institutionalized injustice.
(c) Populist rage, related to economic values. Some analysts (especially, the left-oriented ones) argue that the anger of an affluent post-industrial society, like the American one, is inextricably linked to cultural identity, which would be more intense than economic dissatisfaction. They are among those who are still wondering how Trump’s victory was possible in the 2016 election. But they forget that populist anger about economic values was the catalyst that sparked the American Revolution in 1776. In 1773, American patriots in Boston destroyed a whole load of tea from China to protest against the taxes imposed by the British Empire.
Then, in the nineteenth century, populist rage related to economic reasons cemented itself in the American prairie among farmers. Those farmers were angered by foreign and impersonal forces that required the rapid industrialization of the economy, and the modification of their patriarchal society (e.g., the expansion of the railway networks, and banking system that kept farmers captive through loan schemes). Later, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the economically determined populist rage manifested itself to the blue-collar workers from small towns, laid off from industry and mining.
Also, it expanded to some white-collar workers, fired from large companies like IBM, Microsoft or Boeing, as a result of outsourcing the software programming and engineering jobs to countries like Russia and India. Eventually, these “forgotten people” from the “flyover states” secured Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election.
Rage, a predetermined phenomenon?
The year 2016 and years that followed have brought some new features in the mass psychology.
(a) Donald Trump, an angry Conservative President. During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump detached himself from the other Republican candidates by a specific, extremely aggressive attitude, disdained not so much by his opponents in the Democratic Party, but by many of his colleagues in the Republican Party. “Well, I think […] I’m angry,” Trump told CNN. “I’m angry, and a lot of other people are angry, too, at how incompetently our country is being run.”
He continued, “As far as I’m concerned, anger is okay. Anger and energy is what this country needs.” As it turned out, the future president understood anger well, and he was going to make his voters feel fantastic and keep them energized.
(b) Antifa, an angry leftist-anarchist movement. The main characteristic of these autonomous groups and individuals is the direct action, through conflicts triggered both online and in real life. Antifa rose to prominence in 2017. The Antifa groups engage in a variety of protest tactics, which include digital activism, property damage, physical violence, and harassment against those whom they identify as fascist, racist, or on the far-right, perceived to be, generally, the Trump’s supporters. As self-declared anti-capitalists, they focus on far-right and white supremacist ideologies directly, rather than through electoral means.
The social rage of today’s America often betrays the impatience and ingratitude of an overly spoiled society. Countless clashes of anger between religious conservatives and secular liberals seem to be permanent. On the other hand, the partisan energy of the American electorate can be viewed as a positive development.
In any case, the proverbial American pragmatism would not allow so much energy to be wasted if there were not for a satisfactory possibility of reward. After all, America’s efficiency lies also in the practical use of a so negatively perceived feeling, such as rage.