Welcome to 2019. There’s a government shutdown going on, and federal employees ― from cafeteria workers to janitors to research scientists ― are cut off from their income for a second week. The resolution of this dispute depends on hundreds of representatives and senators and a recalcitrant, rageful president agreeing on funding for a wall, or perhaps, according to The New York Times, on what the definition of a “wall” even is.
Amid this profoundly dysfunctional existential wrangling over the fulfillment of a campaign slogan, speculation about the 2020 presidential election has begun in earnest.
There’s already polling on potential Democratic candidates. Elizabeth Warren announced the formation of an exploratory committee for the presidency in a fiery, graph-laden video. A sour if somewhat half-hearted factional dispute has already begun between those who have pledged their allegiance to Beto O’Rourke and those who are ready to tender fealty to Bernie Sanders. Joe Biden keeps making irascible, avuncular statements about his own credentials, which he deems impeccable.
But perhaps most strikingly, 60 percent of those surveyed said they preferred “someone entirely new” to take up the blue banner in the new decade.
It’s possible that the prospect of well-worn faces duking it out in the extended, wrenching cable-news kayfabe that is a U.S. presidential election campaign merely induces fatigue in would-be voters. It’s also possible, though, that the desire for someone entirely new represents a desire for new and more nimble tactics or a way to cut through the greasy film of grim spectacle extruding from the White House at all times.
“It’s possible that the desire for someone entirely new represents a desire for new and more nimble tactics.”
To the potential Democratic candidates of 2020 and their army of political strategists and consultants, I offer a humble, four-letter suggestion of which tactic to employ: rage.
There’s a lot for a liberal to be angry about in the Trump era. There’s a blizzard of offenses, both the brazen and the subtle, all going on at once, a kind of acid snow of bewildering, anger-inducing initiatives that bombards anyone who seeks to stay informed. There’s the quiet rollback of environmental regulations at dizzying scale, which is slowly sickening entire populations. There are the party rental tents at Mar-a-Lago for which taxpayers are footing the $54,000 bill. There are children dying in the custody of Border Patrol and a sprawling camp for teenage migrants hastily assembled in the Texas desert. And far more. And it’s constant.
Trump induces visceral reactions in many, but the causes for rage extend beyond him, and even beyond the damage his administration is actively doing. There are preconditions that allowed him to rise, that allowed the Republican Party to lie supine before him and to embrace him so fully. There is a sickness in this country that allowed this carbuncular president to swell to the surface, and it calls for more than the Democrats’ signature bloodless, incremental technocracy to fix.
The plain fact of the matter is that for a lot of Americans, life simply sucks and isn’t getting better.
“The plain fact of the matter is that for a lot of Americans, life simply sucks and isn’t getting better.”
It’s measurable: Our life expectancy has shortened for the second year in a row, the first multiyear drop since 1963. The top 1 percent of Americans haven’t controlled this much wealth since the 1920s, after decades of increasingly dramatic stratification. Nearly half the country would find its finances crippled by a $400 emergency expense. Some 72,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2017, amid a doubling of such deaths over the past decade; graphs of the trend soar sharply up, like a tilted needle.
In this environment of despair and stagnation, Republicans have taken full advantage of the power of rage. Trump’s campaign and his presidency have sought to shunt American rage outward, blaming other nations all over the globe for the precipitous decline in American fortunes, and straining alliances with bellicose rhetoric. More viscerally, his campaign and those of Republicans in the 2018 midterms took advantage of a tried and tested means of eliciting fear and anger: stoking the flames of xenophobia and racism. It sufficed to hold the Senate.
Blaming a dark-skinned other for one’s misfortune is an old and redoubtable tactic in American politicking, but the current administration has embraced it with passion. The wall that caused the government shutdown embodies this well: As a promise, it’s a baldly phallic, ultimately grotesque monument to the desire to close America off to its southern neighbors. The crude prototype the president posted to Twitter is spiky, dense and, in its crude way, potently symbolic.
The Trump-led furor over a migrant caravan that formed a superheated prelude to the midterm elections was an expression of visceral rage, of fear, of a terrible anger to which Trump’s supporters have responded eagerly at his legions of rallies. A DHS memo on the Christmas Eve death of a Guatemalan 8-year-old in custody that used the word “illegal” five separate times offered more of the same fear-mongering rhetoric, claiming that migrants are “harboring illness.”
All over the government, all throughout the conservative movement, rage and the fulfillment of its impulses peals like a cracked, sick bell, tolling a note that resonates profoundly with its adherents.
The truth is that being angry often feels good. It’s a release, a molten carapace to put up against the continual indignities of lives lived paycheck-to-paycheck or in the shadow of old age or even merely in the knowledge that others are richer and stronger than you are. It’s easy, then, to turn on others who are poorer and weaker, or who are unfamiliar, who can be turned into dangerous specters whose banishment would change your life completely for the better.
But this kind of rage is a bad pill, a fleeting tonic against deeper ills, like an Oxycontin dropped into a life devoid of hope. It isn’t working because it doesn’t work. No wall can protect from despair or a dropping bank balance or a sick kid or a lost job.
There are other kinds of rage, though, and other uses for it. “Anger is loaded with information and energy,” wrote Audre Lorde in a 1981 address titled “The Uses of Anger.” “I have suckled the wolf’s lip of anger and I have used it for illumination, laughter, protection, fire in places where there was no light, no food, no sisters, no quarter.”
Lorde’s speech eloquently addresses how anger can be used to fight back against racism, how anger is a means of survival. While her speech is drawn from a profoundly personal experience of marginalization, the notion of anger as a survival tactic ― as a source of power that can be harnessed for good purpose and to great ends ― is a useful guiding principle for those who desperately seek progress in their lives and in the world around them.
The uses of rage have been eloquently addressed in three separate books by female authors this year: Rebecca Traister, Soraya Chemaly and Brittney Cooper, in their works lauding the fearsome power of rage among women, tapped the seething seam of anger that is echoing through the electorate on all sides of the aisle.
“The notion of anger as a survival tactic ― as a source of power that can be harnessed for good purpose and to great ends ― is a useful guiding principle.”
The core promise of a political campaign ― often betrayed, sometimes ignored ― is the simple idea that your life doesn’t have to be like this. Things are bad and they don’t have to be. Barack Obama’s tremendously galvanizing 2008 campaign was premised around a core of hope, the hope for transformative change that could erase smallness and stagnation and travail. In these uglier times, rage may be a better motivator.
The world, after all, doesn’t have to be like this, and our lives don’t have to be so cramped and so fearful. All but the very richest of us know that one bad biopsy could shatter any hope of financial security we have. This year we have been ravaged as a country by fire and flood, and such events are set only to escalate, jeopardizing a future for our children and theirs. 113 million Americans have a loved one who is incarcerated; every day, 118 of us die of a drug overdose; every day, the CEO of Goldman Sachs makes $65,000; over 30,000 of us die of gun violence annually; and while we live, most of us are treading water so hard we don’t have time to draw breath.
There is a kind of holy rage, a rage at what is and its profound paucities, that can lead to visionary ideas. This is a rage that can be channeled into a yearning to break open stagnant and foul systems and replace them with better ones, a rage born of pain and empathetic pain, a rage at the suffering of the world ― the terrible things happening around us that Fyodor Dostoevsky once called “unavenged tears.”
To build greatly in America, one must recognize with the appropriate and unsparing fury the quiet horrors unfolding in suburban houses and on street corners and apartment buildings and rural towns within it. To build greatly, one must bank a great reserve of rage in one’s chest, ready to harness it to break what must be broken, and to build good out of the wreck.
When Americans say they are ready for someone new in 2020, perhaps what they need, what they want, is someone capable of inspiring a new and necessary fire in their bellies. Perhaps there is someone capable of surveying the sagging, leech-coated mass of government as it is and imagining what it could be instead. And not the small, petty and ineffectual rage of racism, whose cynical uses improve not a single life, but the bigger and more powerful rage that can carry a polity from sorrow to something better, something entirely new.
Talia Lavin is a writer and researcher based in Brooklyn.