The political possibilities of this moment are different than anything we have ever experienced. We possess a once in a lifetime opportunity to make the United States a more humane country. But if we fail to seize it, we will face mortal danger from the right.
That’s not hyperbole. The anger of Americans, once they figure out what’s being done to them right now, is going to be volcanic. The fallout from 9/11 and the great recession of 2007-2010 will be imperceptible in comparison.
Not long from now, almost everyone will have a family member or friend who died of Covid-19, many of them suffocating in isolation wards with insufficient treatment, perhaps deprived of a ventilator that would have saved their lives. Huge swaths of the country are plummeting into desperate penury, even as they witness large corporations unlock the U.S. Treasury and help themselves to everything inside.
John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel “The Grapes of Wrath” describes a similar moment during the Great Depression, when people starved even as orchards of fruit were burned to make the food that remained more profitable: “Men with hoses squirt kerosene on the oranges, and they are angry at the crime, angry at the people who have come to take the fruit. … There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. … In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”
We’re about to live this again, in more sophisticated ways. Then it was fruit being incinerated so no one could eat it. Now it’s cheap ventilators that were never built because a company called Covidien worried they would compete with their more expensive models. It’s N95 masks that were not available because President Donald Trump delayed invoking the Defense Production Act in order to protect corporate power. It’s tens of thousands of hospital beds being eliminated in New York and New Jersey because the surplus capacity cost money; some of those hospitals were turned into luxury condos. Now, as it was 85 years ago, human beings are being offered as a blood sacrifice to profit. Now as then, the resulting wrath will be towering.
What we know from history is that someone always shows up to harvest this level of ambient rage — but it can go in two directions. If people can be made “angry at the crime,” as Steinbeck wrote, there can be huge positive political changes. During the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt and unions organized the anger and used it to create the New Deal and the largest middle class in history. In unluckier countries, like Germany, Italy and Japan, the political left failed. The fury was organized by fascists, and directed at innocents.
It’s tough to be optimistic that today’s liberals can replicate Roosevelt’s success. The corporate-managerial-legal class that operates the Democratic Party fears anger and sees it as illegitimate as the basis for action. Having beaten back the threat of the Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren presidential candidacies, both fueled by strong populist emotion, they dream of a technocratic politics purified of messy, fickle human feelings.
But the American right specializes in the politics of anger. If the Democrats refuse to harness the legitimate rage of Americans and direct it at those responsible for our predicament, the right will make this anger its own and will win.
To understand the stakes, briefly imagine two possible versions of America one year from today, with two different uses of anger. Let’s start with the anger we need, the kind that clarifies and motivates, and underlies all effective politics.
The Democratic candidate — likely Joe Biden, but we know anything can happen in U.S. politics — beat Donald Trump going away.
The winning Democrat’s slogan was “Fighting Mad.” And that was the core of his or her campaign — both the unabashedly mad part and the demonstrated willingness to fight based on that anger.
The Democrat began the convention address — either in Milwaukee or from his or her basement with no one within 6 feet — by saying: “I’m running for president because I’m angry. And if you’re angry too, there’s nothing wrong with that. ‘Anger’ comes from an Old Norse word that means ‘sorrow.’ Every single one of us has known sorrow because of the thieves and incompetents who’ve been running this country. If you’re angry, then join me and together we’ll take that trash out to the curb.”
The Democrat told the truth without truckling about who exactly was to blame for what had befallen them. The overall Democratic story could be understood by regular people because it included what every story needs: villains to be angry at, and heroes to root for. And unlike the right’s stories, this story was true.
“We’re all in this together,” the Democrat declared. “And what that means is that the people who’re out for themselves are going to pay the price. When I’m president, we’re going to put all the president’s daily briefs online so everybody can see exactly how Trump screwed us. Politicians who made money off inside information on the coronavirus and profiteers who hoarded medical supplies are going to spend the rest of their lives in jail.”
Mobilized anger at the healthcare industry terrified Congress into passing Medicare for All.
Mobilized anger at the country’s poisoning by Fox News led to a congressional investigation of whether the network had knowingly misled Americans about the dangers of Covid-19. The documentation uncovered became the basis for lawsuits that bankrupted and neutered Fox.
Mobilized anger created a sea change in U.S. culture. The taboo against being honest about the anguish and failure all humans experience was shattered. Suddenly Americans realized they were surrounded by suffering just like their own, and much of it was the fault of political choices, rather than them individually being losers.
The example from the top made an entire young, tragedy-stricken generation see that being a liberal politician can mean being a normal, angry human being instead of a technocrat built in a Stanford lab. Suddenly new potential candidates were showing up from unions and grassroots activists rather than elite law schools.
More than anything else, the liberal embrace of anger in 2021 transformed progressive politics into a movement that was serious about power. If there were no people who were truly dangerous, who were hurting us and rightfully deserved our fury, why bother getting out of bed to get power in the first place? And why wield it to vanquish your foes if we’re all on the same team in the end? Anger finally unlocked a liberal capacity to tell the truth.
Donald Trump was reelected. What stunned the Democrats, CNN, and the New York Times even more than Trump’s victory is that he ran on the slogan “Healing America” — even as voluminous, exquisitely researched media output demonstrated that his catastrophic mismanagement helped the coronavirus kill a million surplus Americans.
Yet it somehow didn’t matter. Trump and the GOP’s mighty Wurlitzer settled on a suite of hazy stories, all of which the party’s base fervently believed even though they were mutually contradictory.
Such as, there had been mass deaths but they were the fault of Hunter Biden’s friends in China. Simultaneously, they argued that barely anyone had died and the numbers had been wildly exaggerated by the media to hurt Trump. The suffocation of the country’s small businesses could be blamed on Nancy Pelosi’s bailout of big business and Wall Street. Big business and Wall Street had valiantly kept us alive despite the Democratic hate for free enterprise. At the bottom of the right’s food chain, there were constant whispers that brown people from New York had streamed out of their warrens to purposefully infect the heartland.
What the stories had in common was that they featured someone to blame, someone who could be the target of valid but misplaced rage. By contrast, the stories told by the Democratic candidate and the corporate press were accurate but had no villains and no heroes, and hence were not stories in the normal sense at all, just a complicated conglomeration of facts that looked good on a blackboard but had no heart.
The Democratic candidate’s quiet campaign refused to get exercised about much of anything. When the candidate was asked whether he or she would investigate Trump’s dilatory response to the coronavirus at the beginning of 2020, the Democrat said no, because “I know Donald loves this country and even out of office we’ll need his shoulder at the wheel to beat this thing.” What about prosecuting senators for insider trading? No, the candidate explained, because “when I’m president the country will all pull together.”
With a terrifying resurgence of Covid-19 in the fall, and the Democrats failing to secure universal vote by mail, that November saw the lowest turnout ever in a presidential election. The Democratic base — confused, demoralized, and frightened — didn’t show up. Trump declared his modest win to be “the greatest landslide in history.”
The Republican base became even more rage-filled and vindictive in victory. “The Washington Post is trying to destroy America,” Sean Hannity began to declare each week. “Someone’s got to shut it down.” Two days later, a gunman infiltrated Post headquarters and was stopped just before he could open fire.
Trump was now free of all restraints, and he commenced an enormous bombing campaign against Iran. Protests were outlawed for public safety. Large numbers of Americans continued to die from the coronavirus, although no one was sure exactly how many because the government no longer released statistics on it. Fox began quietly, and then more and more loudly, claiming that opponents of the war were importing “biological bombers” from Iran to spread the disease. The stage was set for the classic collapse into authoritarianism, with the official outside enemies purportedly collaborating with the enemies on the inside.
No one knows today which path the U.S. will take. But it’s going to be one or the other: The right or the left will emerge as the champion of the coming American rage. All we can do now is try to make the anger and its consequences rational, based on an accurate understanding of the world and the unnecessary sorrow we experience. We need to make people angry at the crime.