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American Hate

"Never underestimate the significance of American hate," a friend said to me a few weeks ago, the morning after Donald Trump's decisive primary victory in Indiana. My friend is black, and an immigrant--a double fault in the world of racial profiling and citizen vigilantism.
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"Never underestimate the significance of American hate," a friend said to me a few weeks ago, the morning after Donald Trump's decisive primary victory in Indiana. My friend is black, and an immigrant--a double fault in the world of racial profiling and citizen vigilantism. We have heard a lot this election season about American anger: anger at politicians, anger at Wall Street; anger at the establishment. We have not, however, until very recently at least, heard much about American hate. Just now, with Trump's comments about judges with Mexican or Muslim backgrounds, are we starting to get a handle on hate in this election cycle.

Anger and hate are related, but they are not synonyms. Yet, throughout this election season Americans and the American press have been quite willing to misconstrue hate as anger. Rewind to a video shown on Fox and posted on the New York Times a few weeks ago of Ted Cruz arguing with Trump supporters in Indiana. Two bearded white men in dark wrap-around sunglasses, holding Trump signs, stand but an arm's length from Cruz as he tries to argue with them that Trump would never go out of his way to talk to his opponent's supporters. One of the men replies with a smirk, "You'll find out tomorrow, Indiana don't want you." Cruz retorts, "Sir, America is a better country," before the man calmly interjects, "without you." "A question everyone should ask," Cruz goes on to say, but the second dark-glassed man dryly interrupts, "Are you Canadian?"

For all we have heard about the anger of the white working class man this elections cycle, there was, in fact, little anger in the words or faces of these Trump supporters. This was hate. And while hate may become furious in its expression, or anger may lead to hate, hate is different from anger.

Consider this:

Anger may leave me feeling confused, unfocused, and rash. Hate will likely leave me feeling focused. I may even feel calm.

Anger is complex, but hate is singular.

Anger comes and goes, but hate lasts.

Anger can be aroused, but hate can be taught.

Most of all, whereas anger is rooted in a sense of being hurt or wronged in some particular way, hate is rooted in a belief that the object of my hatred is worthy of hatred just for being who they are.

As Aristotle once wrote, "Anger is always concerned with particulars, . . . while hate is directed also at types." For Aristotle, this meant that anger is curable, but hate is hard to cure, if only because it is directed not against particulars, but against types.

Given that hate is focused on categories of people, it is not surprising that hate has been a far more effective political feeling than anger. Because hate is focused on abstractions, it can more easily be directed toward laws, walls, and institutions. And because hate is targeted at general types rather than specific wrongs, it has the power to focus and direct a diverse group of people into concerted collective action, even action that does not look in the least bit angry, like voting.

Historically speaking, American hate has been a more powerful a political and social force than American anger. American hate has been tied to a sense of American righteousness. Communication scholar Jeremy David Engels has described this as the American propensity for "enemyship," creating enemies in order to justify righteous causes, and dates it back to the revolutionary period itself. This is the quality of American hate that Lincoln referenced in his Second Inaugural Address when speaking of the North and the South, "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other."

And this gives American hate a second distinctive feature, its proximity to law. Americans, in fact, have never been able to keep "evil" out by walls--the country is too big and diverse for that. They have instead relied on boundaries established by legal codes. Jim Crow laws are but one blatant example of the ways in which Americans have channeled their hate into law, seeking to sanction as not only legal, but legitimate and good, their enmity toward the "other." But we don't need Jim Crow laws to see the ways in which our hate has been legislated: think only of mandatory sentencing laws, zoning laws, immigration courts, drug laws, education policy, and numerous other ways in which a hatred of "types" get codified into law and policy.

And this is connected to a third feature of American hate: our proximity to the "other." For all the ways in which Americans, especially white Americans, have historically been energized by abstract fears rooted in stereotypes, the fact is that most Americans meet and interact with real, living human beings that, if abstracted, would fit the type they hate. This is why hate is such a destructive, lasting, and complex force in American politics. Many groups in history have organized themselves into bands or clans that hate an enemy "out there." Americans, to be sure, have had, and still have, their enemies out there, but more often than not American hate has focused on the type that lives next door, down the street, or over the tracks.

There is plenty of political anger out there at present. The globalization of financial and commodity markets have severely disrupted the American economy, enriching few and threatening the livelihoods of millions. Unprecedented global migration is making itself felt in the United States, putting an end to the cultural hegemony of white America. So people are angry out there. But what we are seeing in Trump, Trump followers, and indeed in other sectors of the American electorate, including on the Left, is more than anger. We are seeing the politics of hate, American hate, and indeed its significance should not be underestimated.