In the wake of Trump’s election, there’s an awful lot of Monday-morning quarterbacking going on—from Hillary Clinton’s own memoir to articles and books full of information about how this travesty fits into a pattern. And yet, none of these alleged patterns was called out before November 9. Could it be that Trump was simply the missing jigsaw piece that suddenly made the whole picture clear? Or maybe we all saw the signs. We just didn’t believe it could get to this final level of absurdity, so we didn’t ring the alarm bells too loudly. The Berners kept up their childish idealism, the Clinton haters pretended that it was a contest between two evils. And Clinton herself may have grown too confident: her election, many people thought, was a fait accompli. When I expressed my anxiety to a friend last October, he looked at me with a shocking sense of calm. “I’m not worried,” he said. Like many, he believed Clinton would be elected because the alternative was unthinkable. And it was all moving like a well-oiled machine: people looked upon her campaign with the same sense of pride as shipmakers waving a proud farewell to the Titanic as it left port in Southampton.
Despite all the theories that have been bouncing around lately, I keep looking for an explanation that resonates. So far, Pankaj Mishra’s stimulating book, Age of Anger: A History of the Present, is as close as I’ve found to one. In fact, it explains a great deal about our contemporary world. What I especially like is the fact that Mishra focuses less on ideology than on notions of disempowerment, thereby drawing a line that connects insurgent movements from the French Revolution to ISIS to Donald Trump. He traces the phenomenon back to the 18th century. Many people point to the Enlightenment as the primary dividing mark of history, the moment when modernism (the rights of man, the death of God) began. And there’s a lot to be said for that, of course. But it was a cultural shift that didn’t bring everyone along, and still hasn’t. The crime, perhaps, is that it never has affected enough people. The freedoms unleashed by the Enlightenment were accessible primarily to elites—whether financial or intellectual—and it has remained difficult for people who aren’t blessed with money, talent, or education to get to the same point. Our failure to educate all of our people is largely at fault. If people are empowered, as they are in a democracy, they need to know what they’re doing.
Mishra doesn’t let the disempowered off the hook, though. He delves into the psychological process that’s at play here. In a word, ressentiment, Kierkegaard’s term for a combination of envy and hatred whereby one debases the very thing one wishes to become. This is the motivation of the schoolyard bully who beats up the kid with good grades, the Nazi who executes Jews, the social loser who kills pretty women who won’t sleep with him. It’s Mohammed Atta going to a strip club before he crashes a plane into a building for Allah. It’s Donald Trump berating the New York Times just to see his name in the paper he allegedly reviles.
Sadly, Mishra offers no way out. His book is an analysis of what brought us to the current moment. It doesn’t offer a convenient process for solving the problem: that’s not his point, and it would probably lessen the impact of the book. It’s for someone else to pick up the baton and figure a way out. Mishra does offer examples from the past, particularly through the dialectic of countries like France and Germany, whose histories veered so much from one end of the scale to the other over time.
But this time it may be different, because this time the problem seems to be ubiquitous. And arguably, the United States is dealing with this phenomenon for the first time in its history, at least to this degree and at this scope: Donald Trump is not the governor of Alabama, standing in a school doorway.
Mishra’s done a great job of showing us the road behind. Now all we have to do is figure out which way to go from here.