How Facebook Envy Fuels Donald Trump

How Facebook Envy Fuels Donald Trump

Never before have so many historically well-off people felt themselves so economically deprived.
Tom Nichols
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I blame a lot of people for Donald Trump. (Mostly, I blame Donald Trump.) “Trumpism,” insofar as we can call it a movement, is the product of many social forces. Some of the anger that propels Trump is a reaction to political correctness and elitist condescension; some an irrational, even racist, fear of changing demographics; some understandable rage at the painful and disparate impact of globalization. And some of it is just the lousy luck that 16 other Republicans, including a batch of no-hopers, all decided to run when Trump did.

But look past Trump’s public monkeyshines, and find one emotion that especially motivates his supporters: envy. Or, to use a more evocative French term, it is ressentiment, the need to blame others for one’s own frustration and circumstances.

Trump plays on this feeling, every day, promising to avenge the millions wronged by “the establishment,” whoever that is. (Trump, a stalwart of New York Democratic politics and a man who has made a career out of fleecing the gullible while impoverishing workers, is counting on the fact that his fans have no sense of irony.) Bernie Sanders uses the same shtick. In his party, too, it’s a winner.

We Want More Faster

Talk to Trump supporters anywhere and it comes out almost immediately, this measuring of one’s life against others that feeds a constant sense of injury. So much of what seems to bother them is not the actual condition of their lives, but the relative condition of their lives. I personally know people who, with only a high-school education, own their homes, drive expensive vehicles, and have children who’ve completed college. Without hesitation, they will say they’re supporting Trump—apparently because he’s going to change all that.

So much of what seems to bother them is not the actual condition of their lives, but the relative condition of their lives.

In other words, Trump (and Sanders) have convinced people that the same socioeconomic arrangements that once benefitted them are actually screwing them, mostly on the premise that it’s not benefitting them enough.

No one factor explains Trump, but this underlying resentment is at least in part a result of the Information Age, which is spurring one of the biggest experiments in relative deprivation in human history. People who once had little idea how others outside of their social circle lived now constantly compare themselves not just to their neighbors, but to the wealthy, and even to the super-wealthy. They are not just keeping up with the Joneses next door, but via the Internet and cable they’re keeping up with the Reeds down the street, the Browns in the next town, the Smiths in the next state, and the Kardashians all the way across the country.

As one wag on Twitter put it, call it the “HGTV Effect.”

We’re So Close and So Far Apart

This is only possible because of new technology. When I was a kid growing up in a working-class home in the 1960s and 1970s, I knew there were people who were far better off than we were. I didn’t really know any of them, and I had no real idea how they lived. I rarely found myself in a house or apartment that was far nicer than my own. Everyone I knew was working-class or poorer. The rich didn’t live in my neighborhood.

Today, Americans live—at least in a virtual sense—in other people’s homes every day.

Today, Americans live—at least in a virtual sense—in other people’s homes every day. They stay connected on social media, constantly inundating each other with pictures of vacations, graduations, and other life achievements and trophies. This occurs despite the fact, as Charles Murray recently pointed out, that people of different classes spend less actual time around each other in real life than ever before. The actual gulf among classes is wider, but the distance between them online is nonexistent.

This preoccupation with other people’s lives isn’t healthy. We know it isn’t healthy, not just because it’s common sense, but because it’s actually been studied. Frequent Facebook users, for example, who tended to compare their own lives to those of their friends “experienced feelings of envy” and “were more likely to identify with statements corresponding to depression.” Well, of course they do: social media is like that.

I’m Just as Good as You Are

As if this weren’t bad enough, the faux egalitarianism at the center of post-1960s liberalism has created a sense of entitlement that is drowning every social class in America. It is especially toxic when wedded to our therapeutic culture, in which human failings mean nothing. If you’re not as rich as the guy you friended, it’s not because you’re untalented, it’s because things are unfair. If that house on the Internet isn’t yours, it’s because some “elitist” rigged the game. If you can’t get it, someone has to pay.

If you’re not as rich as the guy you friended, it’s not because you’re untalented, it’s because things are unfair.

And what’s Donald Trump about, if not making people pay? Trump promises revenge for every imagined slight or insult, and nothing is more insulting than losing out to your virtual neighbors. People who love Trump love him because if they had his money, they’d be Trump: leveling the playing field literally and figuratively with lawsuits and wrecking balls, getting even with everyone who prevented their obviously deserved success. (Sanders wants to do the same thing. He just wants to do it with the tax code.)

Yes, people are hurting. The U.S. economy has changed, irrevocably, and cheap manufacturing has gone overseas. Those jobs are not coming back, no matter what Trump or any other fantasist promises. A better government than the one we have now would find faster ways to clear the debris of big-state liberalism and spur job creation, while doing more to cushion the impact of global changes in the economy.

Life’s Not Fair

But that’s not what’s driving Trump’s ugliest supporters, the ones posting on Twitter and Facebook about how they’re finally going to get their way against everyone else. For most of them, things have gone their way more than they will ever acknowledge. These are not, after all, Appalachia’s children sending stupid memes about Muslims and Mexicans around the Internet all day. These are people tapping out on expensive laptops and smartphones angry messages about how deprived they feel.

These are people tapping out on expensive laptops and smartphones angry messages about how deprived they feel.

They are tormented by seeing every day on their screens friends and neighbors whose lives seem better than theirs. Of course, celebrities—whom they feel they know as peers because of the false intimacy of the Internet—clearly live better than they do. Coached by liberalism and taunted by technology, otherwise sensible people embrace the angry rationalization that these electronically sanitized lifestyles are just out of their reach only because of some hidden unfairness.

This unreasonable, insecure resentment has never had a better champion than one of the most unreasonable and insecure human beings ever to pollute American public life: Donald J. Trump.

There are decent, hard-working people in America right now who are scared, and for good reason. The world’s changing fast. They want someone to reflect those fears and to acknowledge them. If they’d turn down Trump’s angry bellow, they might realize that there are other candidates who will speak for them.

Whether Trump wins or loses, however, maybe we can start recovering a bit of our civic virtue by closing Facebook and counting our own blessings, however meager they might be at any moment. Resentment might win an election, but it can never sustain a country.

Tom Nichols is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct professor in the Harvard Extension School. Views expressed here are his own. Follow him on Twitter, @RadioFreeTom.
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