Resentment Is A Modern Problem

Everyone remembers the day.

On January 6, 2021, rioters roiled by Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 U.S Presidential election stormed the nation’s Capitol, tearing through barricades and building security, and sending death chants echoing through the hallowed halls of Congress. More than 140 people were injured in the assault. Five people died, including police officer Brian Sicknick, who suffered two strokes after engaging with protestors.

Shortly thereafter, barriers were erected around my workplace, the Hawai’i State Capitol. I serve as the chief of staff for Rep. Jeanné Kapela, one of the islands’ most progressive legislators. We are magnets for regressive vitriol. As we witnessed in January, people whose social and economic privilege is predicated on stifling dissent will police society’s margins with a combative and, at times, murderous aggression.

Such outrage was not confined to Washington, D.C. This winter, the Federal Bureau of Investigation warned all 50 states that armed demonstrations were being planned at their seats of government. Thankfully, in the Aloha State, incidents of violence were few and far between. Several protesters unsuccessfully attempted to breach the temporary barricades that encircled Hawai’i’s legislative center. While they were easily blocked from entering, they could not be prevented from exercising their First Amendment right to shout obscenities at legislative staff members and, on at least one occasion, gestured menacingly toward a Capitol employee in a manner that may have involved a concealed weapon.

It has become cliché to denounce these violent outbursts as the actions of individuals fighting for a racialized past. There is undoubtedly a lot of truth to that sentiment. Largely (though by no means entirely) uneducated Caucasian men and women propelled Trump to the presidency because of disenchantment with the seemingly inevitable downfall of their perceived superiority. While people of color have fiercely and fearlessly demonstrated the structural inequality that still stymies America’s long march toward freedom, members of the alt-right and their sympathizers have simultaneously advanced a political agenda based on economic and ethnic nationalism, attempting to reclaim a pre-World War II era that silenced minorities’ dissent by any means necessary.

Yet, social resentment isn’t just a matter of the past. Construing it as merely atavistic misunderstands its relation to and acceleration by political modernity. The mob that celebrated the new year by crooning for the deaths of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Vice President Mike Pence fetishized an executive administration that sowed racial, sexual, and class division within the complex forces of globalization to amplify its power. Hate crimes spiked under Trump’s rule because extremist groups felt empowered by his rhetoric and shielded by his actions, which cast immigrants and ethnic minorities as adversaries to provincial white dominion.

Like its religious counterpart, however, political dominionism is as much a product of modernity as a reaction to it. Adherents of dominion theology–who overlap heavily with supporters of political dominionism–seek to institute a government founded on Christian fundamentalism, whereby all public structures and discourses are redirected toward the consecration of Biblical law. They don’t just want to recapture the time of Moses. Rather, Christian dominionists believe that restructuring government in the image of Jesus Christ is essential to preventing contemporary society from slipping further into postmodern sin.

In a similar way, political dominionists are not simply premodern. While they promote a disingenuous and prejudicial version of history to prop up their power grabs, those gestures are made within the field of current class conflicts. As the Economic Policy Institute has stated, decades of accelerating wealth inequality in the U.S. have left working families unable to meet their basic needs. Even during the pandemic, the nation’s top earners added literal trillions to their bank accounts, while lower-income employees lost their jobs and, as eviction moratoriums expired, their homes.

Anti-democratic hardliners, like Trump, exploit the social alienation caused by this widening economic chasm to concoct a populist narrative filled with imaginary threats, often backed by evangelical sermons that sanctify resentment as a righteous expression of God’s will. Instead of being loved by their neighbors, immigrants seeking asylum from human rights violations are cast as job stealers and drug kingpins. Black and indigenous people calling for police reform are decried as criminals intent on destabilizing communal order. LGBTQ+ individuals demanding anti-discrimination protections are denounced as child predators. Frustrated by politicians who prioritize stock market wealth over their constituents’ well-being, many working class citizens have fallen into desperation, seeking material solutions that never arrive and succumbing to the rhetorical gimmicks of opportunistic fear-mongers.

Virulent white nationalism and Christian puritanism have been intertwined with U.S. history since the country’s founding, as numerous historians have reminded us. No matter how one feels about the New York Times’s 1619 Project, it is an incontrovertible fact that the roots of American democracy and economic hegemony are planted in capital extraction that has disproportionately harmed non-white and non-male people, from blacks held in bondage under chattel slavery to native people dispossessed of their ancestral lands to women whose unpaid care work facilitates male fortunes. As American capitalism has evolved, its discriminatory underpinnings have adapted with it.

Corporations haven’t embraced a post-pandemic ethos of redistribution, despite the massive social investments that have been required to keep the nation’s economy afloat and its people alive. With the Delta variant spreading more quickly than ever before, plutocrats have resisted calls for reinstating restrictions to prevent future infections. Never have the fatal consequences of continuing to engage in “business as usual” been more apparent, but CEOs have dismissed warnings about rushing to reopen as big government alarmism. In Hawai’i, nearly 25 percent of new COVID cases involve children. The state’s education department does not have a metric to guide school safety decision-making, however, because campus closures would force parents to find alternative forms of childcare and, possibly, stay home from work. Don’t expect the Chamber of Commerce to sponsor legislation to provide universal childcare to female employees, though, since that would require the creation of new public funding streams that might eat away ever so slightly at corporate bottom lines.

Instead of participating in deliberations about economic justice, the private sector is spending millions of dollars to co-opt movements that are demanding structural reform. Diversity training has become an $8 billion industry that allows business leaders to perform an anti-racist skit on the world stage, while those same executives flood the campaign war chests of political candidates who oppose the policies and regulations that would genuinely uplift BIPOC people, like a living wage, universal healthcare, or rent control. According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report, the Paris Accord’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels is in serious danger because of our collective failure to decarbonize our economy. Don’t tell that to Big Oil, however, which is doing all it can to keep fossil fuels flowing through “sustainable” pipelines that are powered by environmentally racist carbon capture technologies. Hastening our planet’s transition to a clean economy is derided by these companies as quixotically anti-capitalist. For Wall Street speculators, if a solution isn’t market-based, then it has no value. They only worry about one shade of green.

As the sea level rises, working families are getting crushed in waves of debt. Nevertheless, pointing out the ideological bankruptcy of corporatism does nothing to remove the material barriers that leave people on the cusp of eviction. When orange prices are soaring faster than cost of living increases, we shouldn’t scoff at low-wage employees who scarf down Egg McMuffins for breakfast. They’re only trying to survive in a hyper-competitive, increasingly automated work environment that’s leaving them behind. If public officials don’t provide the safety net that workers need to modulate an undulating economy, then the social distortions connected to financial deprivation will only worsen, leaving our democracy susceptible to strongman-sponsored political violence.

Friedrich Nietsche, perhaps the foremost philosopher of ressentiment, theorized that resentment is an egoistic reassignment of perceived inferiority to an external scapegoat, whereby the ego creates the illusion of an enemy that can be blamed for one’s failures and labeled “evil.” The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard expanded upon this framing to argue that resentment metastasizes in a “reflective, passionless age,” during which the populace replaces creativity with conformity to maintain a status quo that enables their own sense of superiority.

In both cases, resentment is a reactionary position undertaken to rationalize one’s own socioeconomic debasement by dehumanizing the Other, so that encounters with people who are different than oneself–racially, sexually, culturally, or in any other manner that can be socially constructed as a opposing signifier–are always already hostile. Morality, itself, becomes less about articulating a coherent set of values than a process of devaluating strangers as uncivilized barbarians, a fiction that is easy to brand as fact in a society that forces its citizens to spar like gladiators in an irrational marketplace for a share of the abundance that they see advertised daily on their virtual streams.

To evade further social decay, we should redirect our democracy toward care, not competition. We should cultivate an economy that strengthens people, not profit. Hard as it may be, we should respond to anger with empathy. And we should realize that the only way to “bring us closer together,” as the election phrase goes, is to center the struggle to overcome inequality in every political decision we make.

The Flame of Racial Violence Must Be Extinguished

02 El Paso shooting IPA TT

I’m heartbroken. Again.

Yesterday, Patrick Crusius, a connoisseur of MAGA-style anti-immigrant bigotry, walked into a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and opened fire. At the end of his murderous rage, Crusius had killed at least 20 people and injured 26 others, including an infant child.

An infant child, who hadn’t been captured by the radical racism that’s ascended to this country’s presidency. Whose life is instead snuffed out by it.

According to media reports, Crusius, who claims to have been inspired by the Christchurch shootings in New Zealand that left 51 dead, published a “manifesto” online, in which he detailed his hatred of immigrants and parroted white nationalist fear-mongering about “ethnic displacement” and “race mixing.” Crusius also maintained a Twitter account that included posts that contained a “BuildTheWall” hashtag, as well as photos of guns used to spell out the name “Trump.”

Sadly, the El Paso attack was just the day’s nightmarish opening salvo. Just a few hours later, another white man gunned down at least 25 people in Dayton, Ohio, slaughtering 9 and wounding 16. It’s the new normal in our nation. There have been more mass shootings in the United States, in 2019, than there have been days in the year: 251 shootings in 215 days.

Yesterday’s Texas killing is the second racially-motivated massacre in a week, coming on the heels of a white supremacist shooting spree at the Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California that left three dead. This is homegrown terrorism. It’s tearing the fabric of our nation into broken threads.

Yet, as prior atrocities have proven, Congress will fail to respond to this tragedy with compassionate legislation because the Republican Party is a wholly owned subsidiary of the terrorist organization known as the National Rifle Association. Nevermind that most NRA members support sensible gun regulations, like comprehensive background checks. Nothing will be done because those who speak for the NRA talk loudly and carry a big, gas-operated Kalashnikov. Probably more than one.

And because the murders are the fulfillment of the modern GOP’s grotesque agenda.

Sure, that’s a bold statement to make. When the President of the United States engages in eliminationist rhetoric on an almost daily basis, though, we shouldn’t be surprised that his most disillusioned and delusional followers act out the brutality of his words as if they are a political prophecy. Trump’s claim to the Oval Office has always been predicated upon stoking racial resentment for electoral gain, as if he’s attempting to undo over a century of cosmopolitan progress. His presidency, itself, reveals how phantasmic that progress has been for tens of millions of Americans, who remain hold fast to the fantasy that a slavelike society can be resurrected.

Millions of Americans supported Trump’s racist questioning of President Obama’s birth certificate, a thinly veiled accusation that Obama was not “one of us.” Millions of Americans cheered when Trump called for ending birthright citizenship via executive fiat. Millions of Americans believe that the country would be better if minorities went “back to where they came from,” meaning not just places beyond U.S. borders, but spaces of social inferiority, where protests about discrimination and abuse can be easily silenced.

Back to the poor side of town, they mean. Back to segregated schools. Back to the plantations.

Toxic white patriarchy is traumatizing our national community, from sea to blood soaked sea. As Jenifer Wright wrote for Harpers Bazaar in February of 2018, “We live in a culture that worships men with guns. You can probably think of many off the top of your head–John Wayne, Indiana Jones or James Bond come immediately to mind. They’re all men who get what they want.”

Young white men who commit mass murder seem to believe that the world hasn’t given them the benefits to which they feel entitled–status, money, sexual gratification. Now, however, that umbrage has been given a scapegoat: the other of color, who crosses the border or stalks the neighborhood to steal the macho pleasures that bigoted barbarians covet. These aren’t prizes to be won, according to the budding racist. They’re rights of citizenship being taken by non-citizens, by aliens, by those who are targets of Trump’s totalitarian taunts.

Our federal institutions are too paralyzed by corporate cronyism to protect our safety. That doesn’t mean we can’t take matters into our own hands. We can lobby for gun control at our local legislatures and city councils. We can organize our neighborhoods to counteract the influence of big gun money in local elections, putting up pro-safety candidates against Second Amendment fetishists.

We can advocate for civic education initiatives that empower students to become agents of change. We can call out school curricula that downplay struggles to overcome minority suppression. For that matter, we can better educate ourselves on the legacy of those struggles–from the Black Codes and Jim Crow to Stonewall and the battle to overturn quota systems and barriers to Dreamer success–so that we can more easily see the humanity in our neighbors and build continuums of care for one another.

We can cast a ballot against anyone who campaigns by fanning centuries-old flames of hatred and fear, which have burned the soul of America since the founding of the nation.

We must not read more victims than necessary into our heart of darkness. We’ve already sacrificed far too much. Ending the bloodshed will require grappling with hurtful truths. Living the changes needed to secure a ceasefire may be hard. But the opportunity to heal a country that is once again reeling from the mindless menace of violence is, as ever, within our grasp.