U.S. Vs Them, How Rage is Devolving Democracy / by Dan Mayer

I could see my breath in the morning chill as I stood there next to the smashed window of our car. My wife found it first, came in and woke me up early to see what had happened. Someone had picked up a 30 pound granite tile from the neighbor's driveway, carried it 10 yards, done their senseless damage, and left. Nothing was stolen. They hadn't even gone through the glovebox. This was most likely a crime of malice. I had that feeling in my limbs, a tension, a desire to do something physical that might somehow flatten out this weird, violent little wrinkle in our universe. I had questions.

What should I do about it? Who do I call first? But the most urgent question, and ultimately the most useless, was not about logistics. It was about rage. My ardent longing to have someone to blame was all consuming. I could feel my fingers curling up in my pockets, palms hot with sweat. Who had done this?

Not an unnatural response. But the shameful part came next, as the collection of possible suspects spun through my thoughts: a drunk frat boy, a maniac I chased out of the bar where I work, half-a-dozen nameless suspects, faces concealed by shadow. None of it was satisfying because all of it was non-specific. It is one thing to be mad at an individual. It's another, deeply frustrating experience to feel that way about an imagined class of humanity, grouped together by whatever factors your unconscious resentments might call upon. When we are hurting, we want to hurt someone back.

Rage lives in the body, subtler than we give it credit for. It waits for its moment, lies dormant, concealed until it sees a chance. Until then it nestles in your gut, leaking slowly into the surrounding tissues, subtly shading your perception of the world. It spreads itself out so smoothly, so thin, that you hardly register its presence. But it’s always there.

Rage can ignite in a second or gradually boil over, but either way it channels itself down the shortest route to expression. It wants to be free of you, to leave your body, to be broadcast through your voice, to be projected by the violent kinetics of your fists. If someone in your sphere of perception — a demagogue, say — offers a quick, easy route, the rage will leap to respond. It will never wait for reason to reveal a more constructive truth. It will surge in the direction of release. Rage is cheap that way.

The fact that all of this is true demonstrates a flaw in how our minds work, how our bodies express the baffling mess of our emotions. It exposes the awkward cultural strongboxes we devise to contain those impulses. It is, from a moral, humanist perspective, simply wrong that we should let this part of who we are play such a powerful role in our lives.

But we do. The mechanics of rage have become central to how we govern ourselves.

I am not wholly different from the rust belt metalworker that allows himself to believe that an immigrant took his job, or that the cost of his health coverage has increased solely because Obamacare is looking out for the needs of the undeserving. That metalworker might be feeling boxed in by commitments, family, finances, and a sense that his important decisions have proven both disastrous and irreversible. These are universal concerns. It might be that I am only separated from that set of beliefs by a membrane of luck and circumstance.

What would I think about the world if I lost my job and didn’t have any prospects? What if I lived in a community where that situation was common, and the life I’d managed to build for myself was revealed to be sitting at the edge a sink-hole? I wonder how solid my grasp on reason would be, and how long I could maintain it. The rage that nestles in my body like a parasite might get the better of me more rapidly than I’d like to think.

From here in my coastal university town, it looks like half the country has developed a type of Stockholm Syndrome. They laud the base venality of a person who has betrayed everything they believed was worth working for. The president-elect is an apex predator of the drain-and-discard economics that define the worst parts of both capitalism and human relationships, but he has the feral cunning to tap into the weak spots many of us have in common. Greed is one. Rage is another. They combine to generate a dangerous, exploitable burst of energy, and then leave us depleted and resigned.

The president-elect knows how to pinch a raw nerve until he gets what he wants. He has capitalized on the repressed anger that inhabits the hearts of people who can’t accept that they were sold a false bill of goods, or who are unable, for whatever reason, to back away from their own problems and look at the broader truths of this moment. The genie has escaped, as it periodically does, and it is loud and red-faced like a toddler in a tantrum. Rage. I felt it the other morning as I looked at my smashed car window and leapt for whatever irrational explanation my brain could spontaneously mash together. What I came up with was despicable and certainly inaccurate. Truth is complicated.

I’m part of a network of people who pay attention to the subtext of political discourse, who question most of what we are told. We are a self-reinforcing group, and that helps to keep some of my base instincts in check. It’s good for people to question each other’s assumptions about the culture we live in. It’s catastrophic when we don’t.

That’s the risk our new government will be taking as they attempt to set the political clock back to 1969. None of this works if there isn’t a Them for the Us to resent, the way Nixon-era conservatives resented the Democrats who scolded them at every turn. Some variables have changed since then, but the basic equation is the same. We must have a focal point for our rage, both to tap into its limitless power and to obscure our view of who truly benefits from its expression. 

**

When I was finished sweeping glass off the sidewalk, I went back inside to get a cup of coffee and talk to my wife. She was focused less on who broke our window and more on how to deal with it. She guessed the perpetrator was just “some stupid kid,” and that reminded me of something.

When I was sixteen I had a friend with a chop-top VW. We used to drive it up into the hills, where the wealthy people had their ostentatious Greek-columned mansions and their BMWs. I don’t remember what I was mad about, but some combination of teenage angst and financial anxiety trickled down from my parents was enough to set me off. My friend would drive and I would lean over the passenger door with a baseball bat, or a sledge hammer, and we’d cruise around until we’d broken a few windshields. I was an ignorant little punk, acting out because I needed to. I wasn’t going to change anybody’s worldview by breaking a window. It was transgression for its own sake, and I thought it was all I had.

We break windows. We vote against our own interests, betray ourselves in moments of desperation, and go all-caps on Twitter when people disagree with our explanations of why we did it. Why we had to. The rage always comes out, because it will destroy us if we don’t let it. The fact that we might destroy someone else when we do is often just a guilty afterthought.