“You will govern in the interests of rage…”

This week, Jenni Russell, a columnist for The Times of London offered some language I would like to think further about.  She was writing about Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his electoral strategist, Dominic Cummings, but I think that we are facing these same questions in the U. S.

We face, for instance, “the rage or left-behind…voters.”  We have strategy to win seats by focusing on, inciting, and harnessing rage.  We have the language “not of traditional political disagreement, but of betrayal.  We have a government “under huge pressure to cater to …anger.”

And we face the consequences pointed to in this conclusion: “If you campaign in fury, you will govern in the interests of rage.”  I think that is what caught my attention.  It seems to me that it blows right by a lot of more common American electoral patterns.

The way it used to be

It was once thought, for instance, that “the people” were the best judge of their own interests.  The notion that the people had “interests” and would reward candidates that promised to cater to them was never very high-minded.  These “interests” played, in the electoral system, the role that greed played in the economic system.  It was ugly in each instance, but across the system, it played out to the benefit of all.  That was the idea.

outrage 2Then there came the shift that I associate with Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?  They don’t “vote their own interests,” Frank said, meaning that they don’t vote their “real” (economic) interests.  The response was that they were “values voters” and voted their real—religious and social—interests, not being dissuaded by the economic promises.

We are now, it seems to me, in the next stage.  Religious/social values are “interests,” still.  They are not the ones the first analysts imagined, but they are plausible goals of public policy.  But “inciting and harnessing rage” cannot be kept within that framework.  Rage has its value in its expression, not in its effect.  Rage is not a tool.

It may be authentic or not.  It may be induced or not.  It may be understood or not.  But there is no plausible policy outcome of rage.  Rage validates itself to you as you express it either on the grounds that it feels so good or that it feels so right.  It would be a detour, at this point, to examine just why it feels so good or why the “authenticity” of the rage validates it [1]

Rage is, therefore, not a “position” on the political spectrum, as liberalism and conservatism are and cannot be satisfied by a political response as liberals and conservatives can be.  

On the other hand, given the role that rage plays in keeping the outrageous in power, it is not satisfying it but continually stoking it that the outrageous must do.  And the idea that those who owe their current position to popular outrage must—they have to—has evaded my attention until I read this article.

If a woman were elected president because she was so beautiful and maintained heroutrage 4 power by being beautiful at every public appearance, sooner or later someone would begin to speculate on what it must cost her to have to be beautiful all the time.  There is no way she could present herself as being beautiful in public appearances because she likes being beautiful—that it is, in other words,  a choice she is making because she wants to.  Like this one?

So what happens to President Trump on the day he gets tired of being outrageous?  He attended a World Series game in Washington D. C. this year and was booed.  If it is true, as the “British insider” told Jenni Russell, that “If you campaign in fury, you will govern in the interests of rage,” then I think the answer is that President Trump is forced to elicit rage everywhere he goes.  I think that is why he was booed at the World Series game.

President Trump gives every evidence of enjoying his outrageous behavior, so perhaps he does.  But as with the presidential beauty queen, she may very well enjoy being beautiful, but I am quite sure she does not enjoy being forced to be beautiful all the time.  So let’s say that President Trump does not enjoy being forced to top one daily outrage with yet another and another.  If he must “govern in the interests of rage,” he really doesn’t have a choice.  The daily outrages are required and he must commit them in good spirits or bad. [2]

outrage 5Behaving outrageously when you are outraged must feel pretty good, but being required to behave outrageously no matter how you are feeling, likely does not satisfy anything fundamental.  So we may be, now, in “he who rides the tiger” territory. [3]  Donald Trump climbed on the tiger when he “campaigned in fury,” knowing he could not possibly win.  How he is forced to govern in the interests of rage, because he supporters will eat him alive if he does not.

Notice the transition from “political disagreement” to “betrayal.”  If President Trump is in the business of “stoking resentment and populism;” if he has been presenting “opponents as saboteurs;” if he has been whipping up fury against Washington [Jenni Russell’s article said “Westminster:”] elites, then anything that looked like getting off the tiger could be fraught.

His base is now tuned to “betrayal;” the business of “my honorable opponent will disagree, but….” has been left behind.  The people who oppose the Trump goals or even the Trump tactics can be tarred as “saboteurs.”  In the U. S., the press is severely limited by having been successfully labeled the purveyors of “fake news.”  And an electoral sector like that will not treat signs of moderation kindly.  They will retaliate if the liberal elites will give them room enough to do that.


Jenni Russell offered what I thought was a perceptive look at the dilemma facing Prime Minister Boris Johnson.  I thought that most of the difficulty she foresaw for Johnson was applicable to Mr. Trump.  That was a new perspective on our situation.  And then the notion that, despite President Trump’s apparent relish for outrage, he if were forced to keep on producing it whether he wants to or not—that was the point of the beauty queen metaphor—really intrigued me.

[1]  That is a long and unhappy story with its roots in the Romantic movement of the 18th Century.

[2]  This reminds me of Ida, a Polish movie about a novice who wants to take her orders as a nun, but is sent out to square matters with her family first.  She comes suddenly into quite a bit of money and begins cranking out sins one after another.  These are “sins” as they would appear to a nun and she performs them all with not the slightest flicker of enjoyment, as if she were checking off all the boxes.  Then she walks back to the convent to take her holy orders.

[3]  “He who rides the tiger is afraid to dismount.”

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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