What Can We Do About the Politics of Resentment?

For months now, this is the way Josh Marshall has been describing Trump’s appeal to his supporters:

People continue to marvel how a city-bred, godless libertine who was born to great wealth could become and remain the political avatar of small town and rural voters of middling means. The answer is simple. Despite all their differences, Trump meets his voters in a common perception (real or not) of being shunned, ignored and disrespected by ‘elites’. In short, his politics and his connection with his core voters is based on grievance. This is a profound and enduring connection.

I have found that to be a helpful way of understanding what is happening that avoids the divisive back-and-forth about whether this election was about identity politics or economic insecurity. Trump has lived his life feeling aggrieved by the Manhattanites. He was able to use that to appeal to the grievances of enough white people in small town and rural America to win the election.

That is basically the case Jay Bookman makes.

Policy differences, ideology and even narrow-minded self-interest cannot explain the deep and growing divide in American politics. Nor can it explain the popularity of Donald Trump in some quarters. The only way to explain or understand these phenomena is to attribute it to a bone-deep cultural resentment that probably does not originate in politics, but that finds its outlet and expression in politics.

Here is how that was exploited by Trump:

He understood when no else did that loyalty to that ideology was an inch deep among the GOP base, and that the true unifying force was resentment. Even now, with the incompetence of the Trump administration on full display, and after a clear betrayal of his anti-elitist campaign promises, he retains significant conservative support based on his unrivaled ability to outrage liberals.

As Bookman goes on to point out, the problem with this is that there is no government policy that can “fix” resentment or grievance, which is probably what draws so many liberals to the idea that this is all about economic anxiety. At least that formulation gives you policy solutions to apply as a remedy.

If Bookman is right and this is more of a cultural resentment that finds its expression in politics, it can be tied to recent studies pointing to the rise in mortality rates for whites. That is why I found this article by Billy Baker to be so important. Here’s the money quote:

Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general of the United States, has said many times in recent years that the most prevalent health issue in the country is not cancer or heart disease or obesity. It is isolation.

My friends who are political scientists and/or pundits will hate that connection because it doesn’t speak to policy or even necessarily a political solution. But it is the very real phenomenon we are dealing with. I am reminded of how Derrick Jensen described the similarities between corporations and hate groups in his book, “The Culture of Make Believe.”

He said, “They’re cousins.”
I just listened.
“Nobody talks about this,” he said, “but they’re branches from the same tree, different forms of the same cultural imperative…”
“Which is?”
“To rob the world of its subjectivity.”
“Wait – ” I said.
“Or to put this another way,” he continued, “to turn everyone and everything into objects.”

Here is how David Simon, creator of The Wire, talked about it:

The Wire is certainly an angry show. It’s about the idea that we are worth less. And that is an unreasonable thing to contemplate for all of us. It is unacceptable. And none of us wants to be part of a world that is going to do that to human beings. If we don’t exert on behalf of human dignity at the expense of profit and capitalism and greed, which are inevitabilities, and if we can’t modulate them in some way that is a framework for an intelligent society, we are doomed.

I’ll provide one more. This time from Pope Francis.

When at the center of the system there is not anymore man but money, when money becomes an idol, men and women are reduced and simply instruments of a social system and an economy characterized, indeed dominated by deep imbalances.

Of course, the answers to this problem are as cultural and spiritual (not religious!) as they are political. There is a South African word that captures what we’re missing: Ubuntu. I am reminded of what President Obama said about Nelson Mandela at his memorial service.

Mandela understood the ties that bind the human spirit. There is a word in South Africa- Ubuntu – that describes his greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us…He not only embodied Ubuntu; he taught millions to find that truth within themselves. It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailor as well; to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion, generosity and truth. He changed laws, but also hearts.

Politics can only change laws — not hearts. But when it comes to the politics of resentment, there are some hearts that need mending with a good dose of Ubuntu.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.