ostmodernism was coined at a time when cars, planes and skyscrapers made mere modern insufficient. If modernism meant electricity, water, better medicine and the lifting of superstition, the postmodern was about life in that new (and ostensibly better) state. Freud and his rivals shifted the human focus from mere survival to the complications of self. Irony displaced wit. Nuclear weapons together with the Holocaust introduced absurdity. Only a species capable of annihilating millions of its own would then concoct weapons capable of annihilating itself in the name of self-defense.
But the shape of postmodern anger was never clear. What sort of shared animus could tempt the affluent and informed mind?
The answer may be rage as a noble aspect of character. Fueled in part by theatrical mass media, the willingness and ability to express resentment is important in social interaction. To seethe is cool. To hold immoveable, aggressive even vindictive views exalts self and social worth. To introduce hostility into disagreement gives postmodern character a leg up on reflection. Anger is action.
Freed from visceral fears of the Communist menace, rage is means to express if not redress any and all personal wrongs. The snarl once collectively associated with the alienated and its populist spokesmen now infects the Coliseum arena. A crate of political demagogues — Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace, Donald Duke among them — can now add Donald Trump, but what the sneering Trump taps into is no longer just blue collar irritation.
His themes — racial and ethnic prejudice, “us vs. them” fear of change, resistance to anything perceived as alien, a wish to return to purer (if fictitiously simpler) times, deep dislike of an entitled governing class, promises of better economic times — excite those embarrassed by the decline of once-great nation, if only that nation’s life standards weren’t among the best on the inhabited planet.
This is not original thunder. What has changed is the extent to which many Americans see themselves as existentially unhappy, and hell-bent on using the national political forum to express deep anxiety and sentimental disappointment. Theirs is a rowdy pessimism shaped by the world-gone-mad futility peddled daily by 24-hour mass media. Conservative values matter less than an intimate desire for simple, securing solutions of the kind a loud father might bring to a troubled family. It is a rage that seeks an end to the relative formulations that any successful secular culture has at its core. “Democracy is messy,” President Barack Obama once told a crowd in Kenya. “Democracy means someone is always complaining about something.” Postmodern anger resents that mess and wants others to share in that resentment, forging a bond from shared if vague anger. Life in the “greatest country in the world” should be more satisfying. The resulting objection makes near-impossible demands, namely that a “chosen” citizenry be given ways of feeling better about itself, whether that means wringing China’s neck or repealing social entitlements. Soaked in the metrics of sports, some Americans now feel they have an inalienable right to a winning streak. “We don’t win anymore, folks,” says Trump.
“We are gonna start winning like you’ve never seen anything win before. We have all the cards. We have the cards!”
Cards rudely played gives put upon postmodernists a sense of participating in an upheaval unapologetically vulgar enough to rival the loathed “Yes We Can” of 2008. Raging at the machine is gives personal grievances a national context. Shouts have echoes. Echoes make waves.
What is postmodern anger? It is a tantrum. It is social behavior through fits. It is gleefully infantile. The biggest beneficiaries of such fits are usually those most capable of articulating alarm in the same way children do when vexed. Children seek to break, not fix. Compromise means nothing to them. Disdain is its own reward, along with a desire to “do something” as opposed to “doing nothing,” with anything in the middle set aside as submissive. Children win because they invent the rules.
This lurch forms part of chaotic notion that suggests America’s perceived domestic and international injuries needs a daddy as loud and irresponsible as his own children. It ironically prizes bossiness of the kind that Vladimir Putin, a Mafia don become national leader, advertises as a central leadership trait (one some American secretly envy).
The affluent and semi-affluent societies of the West, America’s in particular, yearn for a wrecking ball healer, the convulsive antithesis of the careful and largely cautious leader now completing his eighth year in office.
If only such immature convulsions weren’t their own worst enemy. They are not cathartic. They resolve nothing. Instead, infantile anger becomes the lone expression of “true” belief, setting civil society back centuries. Confrontation becomes the key to belonging.
So it is that animus makes inroads well beyond the presidential hopes of one Donald Trump.