For Ressentiment: An Alternative to Trumpism
Donald Trump’s campaign of anger may have jumped the shark this past week, and I am afraid that may lead my friends on the Left (whether you like Bernie, Jill, or Hillary) to mistake the lessons of this electoral cycle. It is tempting to believe that the collapsing Trump campaign signals something larger, a triumph of optimism over fear, but that is precisely the lesson we should not draw. Trump’s successes draw on the well of despair and rage in the American voter, but his failure would not mean that despair and rage have lost their political salience. It is high time we on the Left learned to embrace instead of reject ressentiment — the feeling of impotence that leads to anger directed against enemies we blame for our suffering — as a means of mobilizing voters. Ressentiment is a potent political weapon, as Friedrich Nietzsche knew so well, but for the last forty years it has been almost the exclusive provenance of the Right. It’s time for that to change.
First some context: despite Trump’s unprecedented series of offensive, treasonous, and ignorant gaffes, this election is not over yet. Second, we should face up to this ugly political reality: regardless of Trump’s failure, the House and Senate are likely to remain in Republican hands. But third, and even more importantly: another liberal president will do little to alter the Republican dominance — I use that word not just for emphasis — of state legislatures and governorships, where Republicans hold approximately a 2:1 advantage. Yes, you read that number right. 
The Right’s tapping into ressentiment, of which Trump is merely the symptom of rather than the cause, is one very powerful reason for this profound electoral success. We of the Left need to start thinking more creatively about the upside of anger in politics if we want a more enduring Left coalition, because the sad truth is that America in 2016 has already chosen the path of ressentiment. And it did it a long time ago. You may want to think of this as the era of Obama/Clinton, but the numbers say otherwise.
What Trump and the right wing “resonance machine” (as political theorist William Connolly has sagely termed it) have done so well, is to craft a mythic story that is broadly appealing to large numbers of American voters. This story goes thusly: you, the American citizen, are entitled to a life of freedom, comfort and safety, but your entitlement has been stolen from you. The thieves are many — government bureaucrats, Mexican immigrants, terrorists, “race hustlers,” feminists, Muslims, China, big business — but all are united by their efforts to undermine the American Dream.
Is this narrative true? Not particularly. And the patent falsehoods and disavowals of this narrative have led us on the Left to try (and try, and try), to reveal the lies underlying this story of America. We have become a tribe of fact-checkers and myth debunkers, always ready with our handy copy of Thomas Piketty or Michelle Alexander, to try to reveal the facts to those gulled by these lies. But as political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler have convincingly shown, trying to fact-check errors in others, even when those errors are indeed demonstrably false, typically only reinforces the mistaken belief.
So what if we just stopped trying?
I don’t mean we should stop the political struggle. Instead, I suggest that we retool some of our efforts, to move away from a “politics of truth,” and instead embrace the politics of ressentiment.
As political thinkers like Connolly, Wendy Brown, and Lauren Berlant have argued, the American economy is a ressentiment generating machine par excellence — relentlessly distributing hardships unequally while maintaining, at the same time, that the American Dream is achievable by all — resulting in a strong cognitive desire to find an enemy who is “really” to blame for your individual failures. When everyone is supposed to be able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, but you in Canton or Indianapolis can’t, it’s not surprising that you direct your rage at whatever targets can be plausibly linked with your suffering.
But instead of finding suitable outlets for rage (though Bernie’s campaign and Black Lives Matter made a start of it, and Hillary is now clueing into the Trump/Putin bromance as another opportune target ), we on the Left have relied on reason, empathy, and hope to inspire and mobilize. And theorists on the Left have been diametrically opposed to cultivating ressentiment, following Nietzsche in his belief that such a disposition poisons the soul.
You know what? Nietzsche may have been right. But in a world that runs off of ressentiment, it seems a tad utopian to abjure its use. Did America swear off tanks, because the Germans used them in the Blitzkrieg?
My worry, in a nutshell, is that we on the Left have misunderstood the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. By focusing too much on ushering in Martin Luther King’s “beloved community,” where love triumphs over hate, we have lost sight of the most basic of political wisdom. We have instead thought that since “another world is possible,” that it is somehow immoral to use the tools of THIS world to get there (and we forget how much rage was cultivated by the Left in the 1960s). And when we have been taken to the woodshed (electorally speaking), we have comforted ourselves with our good intentions and the purity of our political tactics, as if that somehow excuses our very real failures. You know how on those days when you think everyone is a jerk, it’s usually you that’s being the idiot? Same rule applies in politics. It’s a bad idea to think that the entire world is wrong, and that you have the secret keys to the new kingdom.
The upshot of this shift, from fact-checking to myth-creating, might be more profound than meets the eye. Consider that one of the common complaints by those in “middle America” is that they don’t like being lectured to by “pointy-headed intellectuals” about their beliefs, their tastes, their choices. In effect, they think we think they’re stupid. And, well, judging by my Facebook feed, they’re largely right about that. But embracing ressentiment, as I suggest, might loosen this divide between the supposedly knowing and the assumed ignorant.
If we stop seeing ourselves, for just a moment, as the fact-tellers to the world, but instead as blinkered ressentiment-laden subjects who are just as eager to find enemies to blame as the “ignorant,” then maybe, just maybe we can start again to make common cause. And if I’m suggesting that we use ressentiment as a tool of manipulation (I am), it’s not out of any sense that we’re superior or somehow immune to it. In fact quite the opposite — we are all the subjects of Queen Ressentiment, and we’d be smarter political actors if we stopped thinking otherwise.
What I am suggesting is not that we can overcome our ressentiment, but that we can make better use of it. Instead of the white hot rage that erupts in us, when we see the latest video of Trump supporters chanting racist slogans (and they do this, no doubt), perhaps instead of thinking of them as the enemy who needs to be lectured, we can shift our focus a little.
See the rage in them. And feel the rage in yourself. And give in to it… and give in (a little) to theirs. And then see if you can find a target that both of you can aim that rage at, instead of fantasizing about lecturing them on their stupidity.
In other words: don’t give them more truth; give them a better villain.
The world is full of enemies — a veritable cornicopia! — so let’s go find some useful bad guys. Putin is one good candidate. But he won’t do entirely, since what is really needed is a villain responsible for the current suffering across the Rust Belt, etc. While “the 1%” is also a good target, I would suggest yet more refinement of that label — something that focuses attention on those who become wealthy not by “hard work” but by feeding like parasites off of the labor of “real” Americans. And if the story has a whiff of conspiracy, and tales of licentious excesses by the conspirators… well then, even better. Is someone getting their rocks off, while Appalachia suffers? That’s where to look. Marx liked vampire-imagery to describe capitalism, so there is good precedent for this rhetorical pivot to parasitism by the Left — we just need a more sustained campaign against specifically identified robbers of the American Dream, if we ever want Congress or the States out of Republican hands.
This is less satisfying, in some ways, than our preferred Left political-economic story, because we have to give up a little of our own moral superiority. We’re not inherently more rational, or more righteous. We don’t own a “spiritual discipline against resentment” (to quote Reinhold Niebuhr) that our opponents lack. But if we don’t want a bloodbath in the 2018 midterm elections to erase whatever crumbs of liberalism come to us in 2016, we had better find a way to overcome our distaste, and just “embrace the bitter.”