Democracy, said the witty and ill-tempered writer H.L. Mencken, “is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” Considering Bob Woodward’s new book on President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus and racial unrest, one of a slew of recent books cataloging our president’s many failings, one might say we Americans also want rage good and hard. Whatever these books tell us about our chief executive, their popularity also tells us something unflattering about ourselves and our culture.
The Democratic Party has already devoured Woodward’s depiction of how “the president dismantled any semblance of collegial national security decision making.” Then the leftist mainstream media expedited the delivery of the book’s anger-eliciting content to the nation. Their response was much the same when Trump’s niece Mary recently published an account of how her family “created the world’s most dangerous man.” Or consider the response of the multiple books on his impeachment trial, incensing those who wanted him removed from office.
Yet it’s not just liberal politicians and media that gobble this stuff up. So do the American public, presumably those of a left-leaning or “Never Trump” inclination. Mary Trump’s book sold almost 1 million copies in pre-orders. “Rage,” Woodward’s book, is currently No. 1 on Amazon and will doubtlessly be a best-seller. So too is the Washington Post fact-checker staff’s June release: “Donald Trump and His Assault on Truth: The President’s Falsehoods, Misleading Claims and Flat-Out Lies.”
A Descent Into the Echo Chamber
Perhaps a few Americans out there, either because they have somehow entirely tuned out the news or are unreservedly steadfast in their love of Trump, believe our current president is of the highest moral character and incapable of falsehood or failure. One doubts that such people would either buy these books or be persuaded by their arguments.
For the rest of the nation, neither the content nor the commentary in these books is particularly earth-shattering. Our celebrity president is prone to exaggeration, fibs, and shameless self-promotion? Leftist pundits and journalists believe his many flaws and failures represent an existential threat to democracy? No kidding. Didn’t the Washington Post change its slogan to “Democracy Dies in Darkness” the very month after Trump’s inauguration? This has been war from day one.
Why, then, are so many leftists eager to read entire books about what they already believe? Who really wants to read a whole book that is nothing but example after example of Trump’s falsehoods? If you already believe the Orange Man is the worst thing for American politics, do you really need to read yet another book that confirms that opinion? To make an analogy to our chief executive’s hometown, this would be akin to someone who hates the Yankees — as all non-New Yorker baseball fans should — reading book after book about the evil Bronx Bombers.
America’s Rage Addiction
This amounts to a sort of addiction. It is not oriented toward the typical things we think of that give pleasure, however, such as alcohol, drugs, sex, and entertainment. Rather, it is a malformed pleasure in rage.
Many Americans have effectively become addicted to rage. Indeed, anger is an actual addiction, and endorphins and rage are linked. Addicted people, habituated through time and practice, become dependent on getting riled up, in this case about Trump.
This rage addiction is aggravated by a kind of secular apocalypticism that decrees the old America to be irredeemably racist, corrupt, and in need of revolutionary revision. As Angelo M. Codevilla recently observed at the Claremont Review of Books, a millenarian mob mentality is becoming commonplace on the American left, manifested in attempts to usher in a revolutionary reckoning with our country’s politics and culture, in public art, criminal justice, and education curricula, among other things. The Donald and his alleged totalitarian tendencies thus represent a direct challenge to this essential political project. This, too, is enraging.
Of course, if we are honest, we must acknowledge this rage addiction is not unique to the left. Only a few years ago, many books were written seeking to elicit anger and fear regarding former President Barack Obama (although, notably, none sold even half as well as the anti-Trump literature). There was and remains a whole cottage industry of texts rousing rage against the Clintons. Indeed, Bill and Donald share many of the same difficulties with truth and women.
Poison for the Soul
Rage is thus a problematic phenomenon on both the left and the right. We must ask, however, whether such emotions are good, both for us as individuals and for the broader body politic. “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured,” observed Mark Twain. “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil,” said the Psalmist.
There’s good reason for these cautions: Rage fosters bitterness and hatred, and it inclines us toward distrust. A nation addicted to rage will manifest these same destructive qualities, making civil discourse impossible.
Many, perhaps even most conservatives, will acknowledge Trump’s behavior is often off-color. Many, if not most of those conservatives will still vote for him for numerous reasons, many of which will not be affected by yet another book describing in devastating detail his failings.
For those on the left who already despise him, reading hundreds if not thousands of pages confirming their anti-Trump opinions will do little but harm the soul. Reading the daily headlines of the Washington Post and The New York Times is more than enough to feed the beast.
Rage is bad for the heart and the mind. It is bad for our culture, and it is bad for self-government. We are all susceptible to it, and many of us are guilty of perpetuating or feeding it. If we desire a nation that can survive this election cycle, we must not let the sun go down on our anger.