I didn’t find much time to write over the holiday, so I’ve dredged up an oldie from the summer of 2021. This was well before we ever heard the word “angertainment,” a portmanteau just now entering the language. While it’s easy to apply such a word to the nutso antics of a Marjorie Taylor Greene or a Lauren Boebert, there is, as I wrote back then, something much more basic — and insidious — at work in the cynical manipulation of anger. Please excuse the references to events that were current then, but seem almost quaint now.
Anger has long played a key role in authoritarian regimes.
Since before Julius Caesar, slick propagandists with fascist agendas have routinely used the anger of the downtrodden to market lies and distract attention.
The Republican party, taking full advantage of the ignorance and poor education of its constituency, has learned well how to gull the gullible into ignoring their own interests and focusing instead on their anger.
Not that the anger isn’t real. It roils in the gut of people who sense they’ve been screwed, but who aren’t sure how, why, or by whom. They just feel messed with, and in the absence of coherent explanations they look for someone to be angry at.
Right-wing media is, of course, happy to provide. In that airtight, fact-free bubble, there’s never a shortage of “other” people to blame for everything wrong in their lives: Blacks, women, immigrants, the deep state, Muslims, Jews, queer folk of every stripe, and most of all, Democrats. The anger is always on simmer, and can always be turned up.
With this in mind, I refer you to the breakthrough research of economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, which reveals the long and disturbing rise of what they’ve called “deaths of despair” among middle-aged white Americans.
In combing through demographic data, Case and Deaton discovered, hiding in plain sight, a silent epidemic of self-inflicted deaths. Startling numbers of older, less-educated people were dying early, mostly through drugs, alcohol-related diseases, suicide — or often enough, all three.
This epidemic has fallen hardest on people whose way of life has been undermined by economic and political forces beyond either their control or their understanding. They’ve seen their livelihoods disappear, followed by the slow erosions of their towns, their families, their sense of community, and their dignity. It leads them to depression, in both the economic and psychological sense. And yes, they’re angry about it.
Typically living in places where the industrial base has either been eliminated or moved overseas, these people, Case and Deaton argue, are the real-life victims of the ever-widening economic inequality that has plagued the nation for half a century. They live in poorer, very red states — Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, West Virginia — and would benefit immensely from government action to reduce that inequality. Instead, they’ve been systematically misled into compounding it.
Is it any wonder that appalling numbers of these victims have turned to self-destructive behavior? That they’d seek relief from the depression? That they’d look, at least subconsciously, for ways out?
Depression, it’s been said, is anger turned inward, anger directed at oneself. Perhaps the converse is also true, that anger is depression turned outward. Either way, anger and depression are intertwined and deeply corrosive. They surely play a significant role in those so-called deaths of despair. In manipulating anger so cynically, Republicans are in effect killing off their own voters.
We can think of anger as the operating system of fascism. It underlies and runs the elaborate software needed to seize and wield power. Bigotry, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, religious fanaticism, and the whole authoritarian playbook are all modules that run on that operating system. All are established programs, upgraded frequently, written in code that can accommodate new lies on a moment’s notice. And all are rooted in a seething anger that’s infinitely malleable.
One of the programs currently in vogue is the anti-vaccination hoax, and you can feel the anger building around it. Just like with face masks last year, anti-vax anger is being fed by the likes of Tucker Carlson in ways that are literally life-threatening.
This is a tricky one for Republicans. The Covid delta variant is out to tank the economy yet again, hitting their donor class of billionaires squarely in the wallet. The business world doesn't need this. It has enough to worry about — extreme heat, out-of-control wildfires, flash floods, and other obvious market hazards — without a totally avoidable Covid surge.
So in an effort to stuff Pandora back in the box, some Republicans — and some Fox shows — have been carefully walking back the anti-vax thing. It might be too late. The pent-up anger they’ve so cynically fueled is already costing the lives of Covid deniers. Not that they care about that. Only when it costs their donors serious money does it get their attention.
There are, of course, other programs running on the anger operating system. “Critical Race Theory” is the latest tweak to the ever-popular racism program, and it’s amazing how much anger it can create in people who have no idea what it is. Likewise, “Election Integrity” and “Stop the Steal” are little more than quick-and-dirty upgrades of the voter suppression routines Republicans have been running for decades.
One could make the case that anger is all they have going for them. From the top of the Republican party to the most imbecilic Trump voter, anger has taken the place not just of policy and political discourse, but also of reason, self-interest, and even self-preservation. Not to mention reality.
With so many angry people, so many of them already prone to the abuse of drugs, alcohol, and guns, more deaths of despair are inevitable. Especially when you add Covid denial into that mix.
That these people are being deliberately manipulated and misinformed raises the level of volatility, and the likelihood of violence and destruction. We’ve already seen it result in an obscene rash of mass shootings and at least one insurrection. Surely we can expect more of the same.
It’s enough to make a person angry.
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