All you really need to know about the current state of American politics, and America itself, was laid out more than 40 ago in a movie called “Network.” The movie begins with Howard Beale, a fictional TV anchor on the verge of being fired for poor ratings, announcing suicide on his farewell broadcast.
Instead of calling for a white jacket, however, his network exploits his breakdown and rebrands him as a mad prophet, denouncing the evils of society and urging his audience to vent its own anger in what becomes his signature line, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” The line touches a popular nerve, and the film shows people opening their windows in real time to yell it into the night with him.
The “this” Beale’s followers won’t take is undefined. It’s a sense of general grievance compounded of fear, alienation and powerlessness in a world run by unseen fiscal and commercial monopolies that have fixed everything to their advantage and reduced democracy to a cynical charade.
After World War II, America enjoyed geopolitical dominance, having restructured international capitalism and spanned the globe with “alliances” designed to ensure its hegemony. With the Vietnam War and the civil rights revolution testing the foundations of the country’s own institutions, the country entered the 1970s, a period notoriously characterized by Jimmy Carter as one of “malaise.” The problems were real enough — other economies had begun to challenge America’s, while Arab states acquired a stranglehold on industry by jacking up the cost of oil. What had been a rising standard of living suddenly fell, while the ripple effect of oil prices pushed inflation. The general effect acquired a name: stagflation. Wages fell, unions crumbled and Americans feared for their future as they hadn’t since the Great Depression.
Fast forward to 2020: inflation has been “controlled” at the expense of job and wage growth, unless you happen to need insulin, education or affordable housing. Politicians have sold the country a bill of slogans, from Ronald Reagan’s “It’s morning in America” to Barack Obama’s “Change you can believe in.” Meanwhile, living standards have continued a decades-long descent for most, climaxing in the financial crash of 2008. Poverty has risen, the middle class — a brief phenomenon in American life — has been hollowed out, and even life expectancy has fallen. At the same time, wealth has accumulated at obscene levels at the top. Under both Democratic and Republican administrations, the one constant has been a rising gap between the haves and have-nots, with half the population having negative assets and nearly four out of five going without the resources to meet an emergency of only a few hundred dollars.
You thought “Network”’s yokels were mad as hell? Welcome to 2020.
The dystopia painted in “Network” had three salient features. First, the modern economy had only one line, the bottom one. Capitalism was a completely amoral system that sorted out only winners and losers, with the arbiters — those who controlled capital — holding all the cards. That meant that the rich would get richer, and the poor poorer: case closed.
Second, the losers would get more and more frustrated, raising social tensions until they threatened to boil over.
Third, these losers — the general public — having been infantilized by television, had lost the capacity to understand the true nature of their plight, and hence to challenge it. Television fed them their reality, and whoever controlled its content could manipulate what they saw and therefore thought.
Has anything changed from then till now? No, except that “Network”’s predictions have all been borne out in an increasingly polarized society. Social media is far more ubiquitous now, but in even fewer hands as giant monopolies control content and distribution. Ideology is less important because cynicism is more rampant, and platforms such as Facebook are happy to peddle lies for profit since the distinction between truth and falsity no longer matters: They are just commodities that fetch a price.
Which brings us to Donald Trump, the man of the hour.
Trump doesn’t know much. He thinks George Washington won our war of Independence with the help of an air force. He had no idea what had happened at Pearl Harbor when he visited it as president. But he does know one thing — being an angry man himself, he senses anger when he sees it. And that has served him both as a campaign strategy and a governing philosophy: Keep the yokels mad, and make yourself the battery that stokes their rage.
Trump both is and isn’t a threat to the status quo. He doesn’t lead a movement because he has absolutely no interest in his followers. They’re losers by definition, and Trump cares only for winners. He says so, in one way or another, just about daily.
Other demagogues have had contempt for their followers, but they seem to be aware that they must at least feed them scraps from time to time. Trump’s tariff wars have hurt the Midwestern farmers who voted for him. His cuts to food stamps have left the most vulnerable parts of his base hungry. His phantom job promises have produced nothing for coal miners.
All of this doesn’t faze Trump himself. Losers are losers; it’s the law of nature. Trump enjoys his Nuremberg-style rallies. They feed both his ego and his anger, while his followers find their own anger recharged and their egos vicariously gratified in his. The exchange is symbolic but psychologically real. The base may be broke, but it feels woke.
Across the political spectrum, there is only one figure who remotely resembles Trump. The Democratic establishment just managed to fend off the insurgent outsider Bernie Sanders in 2016, as Republicans were unable to do with Trump. Sanders too has a tenaciously loyal base, one that has grown not only at the expense of the centrist candidate, Joe Biden, but of Elizabeth Warren, his progressive rival. Of course, Sanders is a deeply principled man and as morally and intellectually different from Trump as possible.
They do, however, share one characteristic. Both are angry men, and in both anger is a palpable, politically communicative quality. Needless to say, Trump’s anger springs from a personality disorder that spills over into his politics but is essentially divorced from it, while Sanders’, whatever basis it may have in character, clearly reflects the life course of a progressive navigating an era of reaction.
What does this mean for the politics of the moment? The received wisdom of the establishment that beat Sanders back four years ago is that only a centrist candidate can defeat Trump and that what the electorate wants after four years of him is temperance and civility, not radical innovation. But the populist rage that made Trump president has not subsided; it is, if anything, more intense than ever. The antidote to his vindictive anger may be a righteous one that focuses on objectively urgent needs that can only be met by tackling entrenched interests: universal health care; a living wage; an all-hands-on-deck approach to the climate crisis.
After all, if we were mad as hell 40 years ago, how mad do we need to be now?