My first column back after the San Diego Free Press holiday hiatus comes in the wake of all the usual end-of-the-year media ruminations on the significance of 2017, most of which focused on a notable person, seminal event, a list of significant trends, etc. While there were many astute observations to be found, the one thing that stood out to me as definitive of 2017 was not a person, place, or thing, but the phenomenon of generalized rage.
In his most recent book, Requiem for the American Dream: The Ten Principles of the Concentration of Wealth and Power Noam Chomsky describes the phenomenon that more than anything else defines the Age of Trump:
So take Donald Trump. For many years, I have been writing and speaking about the danger of the rise of an honest and charismatic ideologue in the United States, someone who could exploit the fear and anger that has long been boiling in much of the society, and who could direct it away from the actual agents of malaise to vulnerable targets … [Trump] got huge support from people who are angry at everything. Every time Trump makes some comment about whoever, his popularity goes up. Because it is based on hate and fear.
The phenomenon that we are seeing here is “generalized rage.” Mostly white, working class, lower middle-class people, who have been cast by the wayside during the neoliberal period. They’ve lived through a generation of stagnation and decline. And a decline in the functioning of democracy. Even their own elected representatives barely reflect their interests and concerns. Everything has been taken away from them. There is no economic growth for them, there is for other people. The institutions are all against them. They have serious contempt for institutions, especially Congress. They have a deep concern that they are losing their country because a “generalized they” are taking it away from them.
That kind of scapegoating of those who are even more vulnerable and oppressed, along with illusions about how they are being coddled by the “liberal elites,” is all too familiar, along with the bitter outcomes. And it’s important to bear in mind that the genuine fears and concerns can be addressed by serious and constructive policies. Many of the Trump supporters voted for Obama in 2008 believing the message of “hope and change.” They saw little of either, and now in their disillusionment they are seduced by a con man offering a different message of hope and change—which could lead to a very ugly reaction when the imagery collapses. But the outcomes could be far more hopeful if there is a real and meaningful program that genuinely inspires hope and does promise seriously to bring about badly needed change. The response instead is generalized anger at everything.
Chomsky goes on to note that the political use of generalized rage effectively erodes all the bonds of solidarity that hold society together because this kind of unfocused, flailing anger is deeply corrosive, not just of social and political institutions, but of human empathy itself. The kind of society this will produce is, Chomsky argues, one consistent with Adam Smith’s vile maxim of “All for ourselves, nothing for anyone else” that destroys any efforts at mutual support in the service of an ugly society driven only by the principle of selfishness.
Building on Chomsky’s diagnosis of Trump’s America as we survey the wreckage wrought by the last year of rage we see a pattern quite consistent with his analysis. Now, however, it is not generalized rage as a campaign tactic, but generalized rage as a governing strategy.
Thus the attacks on immigrants, women, people of color, the press, the courts, Congress, nearly every agency of the government, Trump’s personal and political enemies, and even his once closest allies are all part of an unfocused machine gun assault that serves little other than the President’s narcissism and the greed of his elite enablers. Destroy the institutions of American democracy and civil society, rape the earth, bang the nuclear war drums, pit neighbor against neighbor in a Social Darwinist cage fight, all because, well, fuck you! Fuck everything.
Other than being the dark twin of death by opioid addiction, it is governmental drunken road rage, a kind of political, economic, and environmental wilding.
And though I agree with the main thrust of Chomsky’s economic argument, I would suggest that once unleashed, the generalized rage now at play in the country transcends the economic. In our fundamentally alienated, radically atomized social sphere where unseen trolls lurk and molest online and in other realms in the dark forest of our social Id, anything is possible. In the universe of mean Tweets where real people recede and become targets like those in a violent video game, it’s easy to go for the kill.
2017 was when we became the country where you go to Las Vegas and in a fit of fear and loathing at nothing and everything–including yourself–you just open fire with automatic weapons from your personal arsenal and slaughter people for no discernable reason, kill yourself before you can be captured, and leave it to the survivors to figure out why.
Fuck them to death.
Because when your operating principle is generalized rage, there are no limits, nobody to tell you what to do or who to care about. There is nothing at your core.
This is the world we’re living in now.