The Politics of Rage

I want to talk about the politics of rage.

Let me start with an Interesting factoid – they’ve done catscans of the brain in various states. To see what happens when people think, what parts of the brain light up. And what the sequence of the brains activities are in things like happiness, arousal, anger, sadness, etc.

Want to know something they found? The parts of the brain that light up for anger, are exactly the same ones as for happiness.

Anger is basically happiness-lite. It’s substitute happiness.

Anger is Faux-Happiness.

It’s the same kind of neurological high, except that it’s much easier to trigger, and less lasting.

It’s what they call a response rather than a state.

That explains why some people are so angry all the time, so easily angered. Because neurologically, their anger is fake happiness. They’re addicted.

They’ve become like the rats in those lab experiments with cocaine. You know the ones? The rat presses a lever, and it gets a cocaine pellet. The rat gets so addicted, that all it does is press the lever again and again. It stops eating. It stops drinking. All it wants to do is press the lever. Pressing the lever and getting that pellet of happiness is all the rat wants. Getting that jolt.

That’s what happens with Faux Happiness. You get used to it. Real happiness takes work, takes commitment. You have to do something, you have to be something, you have to meditate, hang out with people, commit to things.

But anger? All you need for Faux Happiness is a trigger. A jolt. So people start jolting fake happiness with a little raging out.

And when the fake happiness fades, you just jolt. They look for something else to make them angry. And jolt. Anger – fake happiness. And jolt again. Any reason to be angry, any reason, no matter what, for that next fix of fake happiness.

They start to love being angry, they start looking for reasons to be angry, looking for people, places, things to take their anger out.

Any time things aren’t going well, jolt some anger. Sadness, tragedy, job loss – jolt some anger.

Girl turned you down, jolt some anger.

Something trivial, a guy taking a knee before a football game, or a couple of Mexican sisters speaking spanish in a corner of Starbucks, or being asked to wear a mask… Jolt that anger.

Because it doesn’t matter what the reason is. What matters is the fake happiness, what matters is the anger. Any reason will do.

Do you know what’s terrifying about being in an abusive relationship, when your spouse is punching you out regularly, screaming at you, abusing you. Here’s the thing. You never know when it’s coming. You turn yourself inside out trying to keep them happy, trying to keep everything calm, trying to avoid the next screaming fit, the next abuse, the next beating. And it never works. Because that anger, that impulse to violence, that’s not something you do to them, that’s not something you cause. They want to be angry, because anger feels so good. They want it, and they’ll just make shit up, be triggered by anything, so that they can feel that delicious fake happiness, that rage, and then it happens.

That’s bad. It’s more than bad enough. It’s miserable that the world is full of assholes, just walking around, looking for an excuse to fly off the handle, at spouses, at co-workers, at relatives, at clerks at coffeeshops. And all too often, it works because not only does it feel good, but their anger lets them get their way.

It’s an equal opportunity thing – used to be that it was just men associated with rage-ahol. But now we’ve got ‘Karen’s coming out of the woodwork.

But that’s not where I want to go. Because I want to talk about the weaponization of anger. Taking Faux-Happiness, refining it, creating addiction, and using that.

Hey, suppose that there was a guy or a lady on the radio or television or in a column, who managed to speak to you, who gave you something to be angry at. A target. A guy who made you angry with something, those goddammed liberals for instance, every broadcast.

Jolt! Jolt! Jolt!

Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Michael Savage, Michelle Malkin, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity. Breitbart! Fox News!

Jolt! Jolt! Jolt!

Supposing that the effect of fake happiness was so strong, so addictive, so all encompassing, that an entire infrastructure of rage and anger was built up, so that an entire culture of rage-aholics could build up, getting their regular daily dose of righteous fury.

Jolt! Jolt! Jolt!

This is the American right wing. They’re not logical any more. They’re not rational. The entire right wing is a self perpetuating, self feeding, multi-dimensional circle jerk. It’s not just that they live in a bubble cut off from everything else, except their own self serving information sources. If that was all it was, you could get through the bubble. You could introduce new information. You could exploit the gaps, the inherent contradictions and inconsistencies. The American Right Wing is not just a self contained information system, or misinformation system. It is that, but that’s simply the levers of manipulation, it’s the steering wheel that sends things off in one direction or the other. But it’s not the whole. It’s not the engine that powers the thing.

Rather, the American Right Wing has evolved into this gigantic, comprehensive, addiction machine. It is designed to almost continuously trigger those contained within it with jolts of anger, jolts of fake happiness, constantly jolting, constantly fading, constantly jolting again, until it literally leaves its members in a near constant state of fury. Maybe they’re not mad all the time. But they’re mad a lot.

2004. I know it’s a while back, but I remember George W. Bush’s second Election Campaign. And I remember the most extraordinary thing. George W. Bush was President, the Republicans dominated the Senate, the Republicans dominated the House, in the face of two successful wars, the Democrats were entirely submissinve. But Bush’s campaign was dominated by rage. “We’re not going to take this anymore!” Bush followers raged. In their minds, they were the victims, the outsiders, the hard done by, and the shat upon, and they were fed up…. except that they were in complete control. They literally owned the country. Who were they rebelling against? Who was their oppressor? What the hell was going on?

That wasn’t rational anger. That should have been satisfaction. But instead, the fury against the Liberals, the Blacks, the Immigrants, the Urbanites, the Coast ramped up to new heights. People in power, the dominant constituencies, continued to see themselves as victims and they were mad as hell.

How do you placate that kind of anger? You can’t. They’ll always find something to be angry about. No effort at conciliation, no outreach, no gesture of submission, not even complete surrender will resolve these grievances. Because the grievances are the key to anger, and anger is the jolt of fake happiness that their neural wiring requires. They’re like any other addict, constantly craving the next hit, doing whatever it takes to get it.

It was a world of irrationality and confusion. When you’re angry, you just feel. It’s not a matter of thinking things through. It’s a matter of being right because you’re righteous. The Libtards are out to destroy you. Global warming is a thirty year hoax by an international cabal of thousands of scientists…. for the grant money. Obama’s not even an American. Toxic anger congeals into deep seated hatred. Insane conspiracy theories are continually reinforced, inconsistent information is excluded as some liberal plot.

Make no mistake, these people are not good people, they are addicts.

But they believe fervently that they are good people, because anger conveys righteousness and certainty.

So we come to the modern era, and the complete breakdown of communication. It is extraordinarily difficult to have a conversation with a Trump supporter, without them becoming angry. I’ve never succeeded in having one. Usually, they blow up within seconds, denouncing you as a communist, socialist, race baiter etc. But even the ones that control themselves can’t do it for long, minutes at most.

Trump himself is about anger. He’s the perfect representative of the rage machine. Prior politicians, prior influencers like the Koch brothers, the corporate fossil fuel industry, the global warming deniers, etc., all approached with an element of manipulation.

They liked upset and angry people, because they could point those people where they wanted. There was a symbiosis. Rage-aholics needed, wanted to be triggered into anger, for that jolt of feel good Faux Happiness. And the owners of the right wing noise machine were happy to trigger them, jolting them again and again.

What’s distinctive about Trump, is the breakdown of the agenda. Trump is all about anger for the sake of anger. His followers are about nothing but anger. The jolting has gone into overdrive. Trump has no ideas, only invective. No impulses except his own grandiosity, and unrelenting hatred for anyone and anything that crosses him.

Political scientists have been disturbed by the consistency of Trump’s support. He’s around 42%. Sometimes a couple of points up, sometimes a couple of points down. But it barely wavers. This isn’t something we’ve seen with America, where typically politicians support can climb high and sink to lows, depending on circumstances and performance.

But performance has nothing to do with Trump’s cult. We approach 200,000 dead in America in a COVID-19 epidemic which could have been avoided, and was mismanaged from day one. That doesn’t make a difference. Pointing it out just gets you rage. Trump’s world is not one of policies, it’s not one of performance or achievement. It’s narcissism and rage.

How do you maintain a country, a society, a democracy in the face of that, when 40% of the population is perpetually addicted to their own rage, seeking continous triggering for any reason whatsoever… Like Obama wearing a tan suit, on one memorable occasion. 40% steeped in its own righteousness, immune to reason, contemptuous of argument, utterly dismissive of facts and perpetually embracing its own illogic and conspiracy theories. These are people who have politicised wearing masks, and yet see nothing wrong with armed men acting out at the legislature.

There are signs of hope. You hear stories of younger people slyly interrupting access to Fox news and other rage outlets, and they find that relations with their parents or older relatives return to normal. The rage goes away. Things get positive.

But mostly, what I see is the anger continously ramping up. Alex Jones and Infowars, Steve Bannon and Breitbart. This is typical, as addiction progresses, the addict becomes more and more consumed by their vice, they seek it out, they demand more intensity, bigger jolts more often. Anyone sane who watches Alex Jones has to be astonished at just how crazed he is, railing about crisis actors at faked school shootings, announcing he’ll murder and eat his neighbors, and so forth. I don’t have any assurance that he’s a genuine outlier, or even that he’s the end of a process.

Which brings us back to the problem: This isn’t going away. The infrastructure, the feedback loops, the misinformation networks, the demagoguery is too ingrained, too ferocious. Fox News could shut down tomorrow, and if it did, a dozen crazier institutions would replace it. Hell, Fox News has lost control, it’s occasional attempts at moderation or fairness or even sanity now trigger rage outs and denunciations. The Rage-aholics are wedded to their addiction, and if Fox News tried to turn it off, they’d burn it to the ground and go looking elsewhere. The thing is self perpetuating and out of anyone’s control, a perfect rough beast for increasingly repellent demagogues to ride, for mass shooters, for triggermen and terrorists to be incited.

So what happens next?

1 thought on “The Politics of Rage”

  1. A cogent, if terrifying argument.
    I’ll add another couple of elements: Relgion, which supplies both righteousness for the angry and easily identified targets for its outlet…that one is obvious, as we often refer to the religious right.
    But the other foundational aspect is education. The school system (not it’s content–the medium’s the message here) has spent three generations telling everyone that education was the key to success and life goals. Turns out, that’s fundamentally unsound as we’ve known since the research of Bowels and Gintis “Schooling in Capitalist America” in the 1970s pointed out that the purpose of schooling was to (a) reproduce the current social order/class system, but also (b) socialize everyone in the system that schools were fair (because everyone went to the same schools and had the same opportunities) and objective (as in objective testing…which of course are biased as hell). So…three generations later, 40% of the population are the guys working at the mall because they failed the tests at school and had to accept that they did not deserve to be bank manager because they got a ‘C’ and Joe the bank manager got an ‘A’. They have been forced to accept that they are inferior to the suits. Being told you are a loser that way is certainly grounds for anger. Even the few people from those families who got education found that didn’t help anyway, because of credential inflation–you got a university degree–but this other guy got a masters so we’re hiring him instead, and it’s back to selling shoes at the mall for you. I got a PhD, but this other guy got his PhD from Harvard. Harvard’s better right? You can’t win because the rich can always afford another or a better degree than you can, but having that piece of paper means they get it all, and you get nothing. Only, lacking any kind of economic understanding of how the 1% has continually transferred the wealth of the nation from the public to themselves, they are led like lambs to blame whatever scapegoats they are pointed at. Those damn Ecuadorians are after my job at 7-11! But thinking, should Jeff Bezo have more money than, say, the entire economy of Ecador, is not a question they even formulate …

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