Georgie Anne Geyer: The politics of resentment
Looking around America today, you can see and feel many things. The dysfunction of some of our institutions, confusion about our principles and values, and a country perhaps slipping beyond our grasp.
Sometimes I feel I can barely breathe; the grievances and the complaints — topped by the guilt we are expected to feel — come so fast as to seem almost overwhelming.
When I pause and try to figure things out, I keep coming back to one word: resentment. American women are resentful against American men. The men are nursing their own anger. African-Americans remind everyone they will never forget slavery. Latinos hate the immigration laws. Southerners cling to their Confederate statues. And if a candidate for office dares to make even one statement that offends some poor fellow’s tender sensibility, he is denounced and demeaned into silence.
Meanwhile, our whole country was being held hostage by two “leaders” acting more like nasty children who would poison their own parents if it served to amuse them. Yes, I speak of our president and of Nancy Pelosi.
Now, I confess to being a woman never given to bad language or bawdy descriptions — our superb English language is simply too precious to me — but please allow me to flip for a moment and focus on their fight over “the wall.” This has, of course, become a fight-to-the-death, the destruction of one over the other, and might be best looked upon as two mangy old snarling dogs fighting to be the first one to piss on a fireplug.
This spectacle is not waged over an issue. The wall? There is already a wall, 700 miles of it, along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico. I wrote about it in the ’90s. A real immigration policy? That never comes up. A compromise? Good Lord, call it a fence, call it a barrier, call it a welcome marker, but exchange it for DACA and a real immigration policy!
House Speaker Pelosi says a wall is “immoral.” And here you have, writ large, the problem Joe Biden addressed so brilliantly in his speech at the funeral of John McCain: Our political engagement has become not confronting the politics of the opposition, but attacking his or her motives. Compromise with evil? Never!
We know by now that Donald J. Trump’s entire existence has been fueled by resentment. It started when he was a boy and his father instilled in him the idea that there were two kinds of men: winners and killers. Not hard to choose. He was raised feeling never good enough for the Fifth Avenue real estate men, and you can just imagine how much they liked him.
This resentment has also spread across the country. Part of it is that there is no moral ruling class anymore for Americans to look up to. Part of it is that our corporate culture has become a casino in place of the original Protestant ethic culture of cooperative capitalism. Part of it is that the once quintessentially American everyman now finds his heartbroken expression in the vulgarities of the president — and the eternal expressions of resentment.
This syndrome of resentment is, unfortunately, also international. Vladimir Putin is an angry walking symptom of Soviet-Russian jealousy of the West. Hungary, Poland and too many Third World countries join him. China’s increasingly autocratic President Xi Jinping says repeatedly that China is energized by a century of humiliation by colonialism.
The simple fact is that leaders inspired by resentment are almost universally unsuccessful — and often, dangerous. The best leaders are secure in themselves. (Think Lincoln, FDR, JFK, Bush 41, Lee Kuan Yew, Angela Merkel, you get the idea.) Their policies and their leadership work because their minds are free to balance all sides of the questions.
So here are some initial suggestions. Let us, as Americans, watch closely the formative periods of the leaders we choose, and vote for solid temperaments. Let us prod psychiatrists to analyze candidates publicly before elections. Let us not allow the resentful to make us feel guilty about things we never even thought of. Finally, let us support the most accurate conveyors of news and information about ourselves.
And let us together defeat professional resentment. For in the end, it is only a tool for our control.
Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years.