May 2, 2016
bee in the mouth is always bad.” I swiped this bit of wisdom—overheard from a construction worker to an agitated colleague—for the title of my recent book on anger in America. It argues that Americans used to view habitual anger as a weakness, something to be contained, and the angry man as a dangerous fool. We now view it as empowering—something to be publicly performed and praised.
A very public instance of this performative anger occurred as the book was in press. Donald Trump got into a round of competitive sneering with Rosie O’Donnell, then co-host of ABC’s “The View,” over Trump’s decision not to fire Tara Conner, Miss Teen USA in 2006, after Connor tested positive for cocaine, heroin, and crystal meth. Rosie lit into him saying, inter alia, that he was "a snake-oil salesman on Little House on the Prairie." Trump replied that Rosie was “a real loser” and “a woman out of control.” Following these pleasantries, the two got down to personal remarks.
Some critics thought my claims in Bee in the Mouth exaggerated. There was nothing especially new about American anger: Burr shot Hamilton; the Civil War drenched the nation in blood; labor has battled angrily with big business since the Pullman strike of 1894. Vituperation is as American as cherry pie. But though anger itself is as old as Adam (or at least Cain), the way we regard it varies tremendously over time. For centuries, Americans took pride in being people who could put a lid on it. George Washington—to the surprise of those who know him only as the stiff figure of schoolbooks—was known for his hot temper, and all the more respected for his mastery of it. Until the 1950s, the figure of the strong, silent American who kept his anger in check was our prevailing ideal.
That began to change after World War II. The popularization of psychoanalysis was one factor: people learnt to believe that repressing anger was bad for their mental health. But the 1950s planted other seeds of dissatisfaction with our old ethic of self-mastery, preparing the way for the new one of self-expression, which became the ideal defining the 1960s. Reconfiguring the emotional character of a nation, however, isn’t something that happens in a cultural blink. It takes decades, during which changes in child-rearing, family patterns, schools, mass communications, entertainment, and politics all played a part.
Politics is, in fact, downstream of the other developments. We couldn’t have had our current presidential campaign season 50 years ago, or even 10. To be sure, there have been plenty of angry voters going back to the Jefferson vs. Adams election of 1800. And William Jennings Bryan’s pro-inflation “Cross of Gold” speech to the 1896 Democratic National Convention was oratory at its hottest.
But the anger in those elections was summoned and deployed for a political goal. What we have now is different: an election in which anger is its own goal. Points are awarded to candidates for the best sneers and put-downs. Back in the sixties the prescient Bob Dylan wrote about men—“crossed-eyed pirates” actually—“shooting tin cans with a sawed-off shotgun,” which cheered the lookers-on: “And the neighbors they clap.” Reality has finally caught up to this surrealist image.
It is not that the public is short of issues on which to be angry. Trump has tapped genuine anger about illegal immigrants and the threat from radical Muslims; Bernie Sanders has tapped genuine anger about economic inequality and Hillary Clinton’s misfeasance. Those resentments are real, but Trump and Sanders are simply making use of what comes to hand. They are performing to the music, like ice-skaters who have chosen different scores for long programs. Their real skill is projecting anger in a believable way. Trump is clearly the master of this. Those tin cans don’t have a chance.
These angry performances are, when all is said and done, a form of comic acting. But I’m not laughing. A bee in the mouth is always bad.