As America’s undisputed global dominance ebbs—trimmed by China’s surging economic might, by the European Union’s growing presence as a global player (even given the travails triggered by the recent European debt crisis and the fears of a Greek default dragging the euro zone into a deeper recession), by the United States’ own economic and military overstretch—the rage culture has matured to the point where it is coming to be a dark, and perhaps even a dominant, part of America’s identity.
A stab-in-the-back narrative is being crafted within the world of conservatism: Things were going along just fine for a globally dominant United States (forgetting, conveniently, the depth of anti-American sentiment that developed around the world during President Bush’s tenure, culminating in the financial collapse of 2007-8) until a radical President Obama decided to expand government, shrink the private sector, and traverse the world apologizing for America’s purported past misdeeds. Like the decadent Europeans, guilt-ridden after their centuries of colonial dominance, so Obamians came into power intent on downplaying America’s glory and its exceptionalism, and on talking up its sins.
The stab-in-the-back narrative is a trajectory familiar to students of empire the world over. As the ground shifts under the feet of a dominant power, as the structures supporting dominance start to crack, so the public gets angrier. It looks at past glories and doesn’t understand why the present situation is so much less resplendent. It blames the country’s leadership, or minority groups, or national enemies. It grieves for lost influence, or fears the imminent loss of influence, and it shudders at an increasingly shabby present.
Anger, per se, is nothing new in American politics. As the historian Richard J. Hofstadter detailed in his classic essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” rage politics is as American as apple pie, or as the sunny, simplistic, homogeneous visions of community epitomized by the paintings of Norman Rockwell. But the presence of that anger was always partially mitigated by the apple pie and the Rockwell, by the pervasive optimism that has long been a core part of America’s image. More often, despite episodic spasms of rage, the broader culture has worn a smile rather than a frown. With America ascendant, it was easy for the rage to be largely contained within relatively small subcultures—John Birchers, KKK’ers, the Weather Underground, anti-United Nations fanatics, some of the more extreme black-nationalist groups, and so on. That didn’t mean the rage wasn’t capable of inflicting tremendous hurt on society—witness the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King Jr.—but our Rockwell side did serve to limit the extent to which the culture as a whole could come to be defined as rage-based.
What has happened recently seems to represent something new: The offsets that used to restrict rage’s reach have started to break down; the walls sealing the anger off to a specific community or locale, or around a specific issue, have started to crumble. As a result, rage is becoming an ideology unto itself.
It brings to mind a quote from William Hazlitt’s 1826 essay “On the Pleasure of Hating”: “The pleasure of hating, like a poisonous mineral, eats into the heart of religion, and turns it to rankling spleen and bigotry; it makes patriotism an excuse for carrying fire, pestilence, and famine into other lands: it leaves to virtue nothing but the spirit of censoriousness, and a narrow, jealous, inquisitorial watchfulness over the actions and motives of others.” Cultures that self-identify as victims and come to see their defining historical references as a series of grievances have a tendency to mutate in ways that range from unpleasant to catastrophic. Examples include the American South in the post-Civil War decades, Germany in the post-World War I years, the Soviet Union, post-Yugoslav Serbia, and Rwanda. One could argue, as well, that much of the potency of Islamicism today arises from similar forces, as does some of the extremism of the settler community in Israel and the occupied territories. As cultures, hate movements perform somewhat similarly to feuding families or clans, their raison d’être increasingly defined by violence and fury.
I do believe that American democratic institutions are particularly durable and resilient. But it is at least possible to envision a scenario in which, after years of high unemployment and declining living standards, the Tea Party essentially takes over the GOP. And it is possible to see how, over a series of election cycles, that movement could plant a brand of extremism in the center of American politics that would fundamentally change America’s identity. It would very likely be characterized by a series of negatives: being anti-intellectual, anti-foreign, blustering in its assertion of an increasingly fragile American superiority, unwilling to engage with the rest of the world on environmental policy, nuclear disarmament, or human rights. A tapestry of rage defined by what its practitioners oppose rather than support.