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The Grievance Culture

The Grievance Culture     Gerry O'Shea

The Senate hearings for the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh started on September 4th last year. Early on in Mr. Kavanaugh's testimony, he accused his opponents of "a calculated and orchestrated political hit" motivated by people seeking revenge "on behalf of the Clintons."

President Trump supported his nominee's assertion by adding that the liberal billionaire, George Soros, was orchestrating the opposition, including paying the protesters. Senator Charles Grassley, the hearings committee chairman, warned that "we will not be bullied by the screams of paid protesters."

It is difficult to believe that at this stage in our mature democracy these bombastic accusations were given credence during confirmation hearings for a justice of the Supreme Court. The outcries by Kavanaugh, Grassley and Trump have all the marks of a grievance culture, of men convinced, it would seem, that Democrats would stoop to the basest level, including falsely accusing the candidate of rape, in order to stymie the appointment of an honorable conservative nominee.

 More important than any analysis  of the rational arguments  made was the planned emotional impact of mentioning the Clintons and George Soros and arguing in harsh language that the Democrats were engaging in malicious and bullying behavior.  All this emotional rhetoric impacted like mother's milk in rallying the large Trump base in the Republican party.

Many commentators wondered how the political party that controlled all three branches of government could portray themselves somehow as abused outsiders with, for example, Senator Lindsey Graham in a state of red-faced apoplexy accusing the Democratic questioners of talking "crap" and engaging in an "ethical sham."

There have always been outsider groups with political grievances  in America. Today, however, the divisions run deeper and the alienation is more profound than at any time since the end of the Second World War.

A recent Pew study shows that 49% of Republicans would not approve of a family member marrying a Democrat. In the reverse situation negative feelings are also strong with around one-third of Democrats looking askance at a matrimonial alliance with a Republican.

Donald Trump is a brilliant tactician when it comes to eliciting a desired populist and emotional  response from his audience. During his campaign announcement on the steps of Trump Tower in Manhattan, he claimed that America is in the throes of an immigration crisis. He talked about Mexicans trooping across the border, raping women in Texas and rampaging in nearby  communities.

To top it off, he claimed that he had proof that Muslims were openly celebrating the Twin Towers destruction on 9/11, dancing in the streets of some New Jersey town while New York City was trying to deal with the devastation in lower Manhattan.

All  of this poofery and fear-mongering with no basis in reality was designed to appeal to disenchanted voters, people who resent a political system that seems to them uncaring, hostile and highly elitist.

It is easy for Trump to stoke up feelings of paranoia against those "others", for instance, emigrants from Africa and Central America. America First is a great rallying cry. Tough luck on foreigners, especially Muslims. Powerful rhetoric replete with all kinds of grievances!

There is an important economic dimension to this sense of disempowerment felt by many workers, especially in low-paid jobs. The American GDP has more than doubled in the last forty years mainly because of big technological advances with consequent soaring company profits. However, the salaries of the line workers have remained static.

 This unfair situation heightens the sense of understandable victimhood felt by these employees and their families. For many of them the American Dream is seen as a false promise benefiting only elites in places like Hollywood and Wall Street.

Many of these workers showed up at the big Trump rallies. They responded enthusiastically as Trump named their enemies: immigrants, the media and the corrupt Washington establishment. They shamelessly yelled their support for his repugnant demands to actually lock up his Democratic opponent.

 Amazingly, this new revolution of the disenchanted was being led by Donald Trump, a plutocrat who opposes trade union power and said that workers' salaries are too high. But logic is not a major force in guiding voting preferences. The last budget gave massive tax relief to the top 1% of earners and to large corporations with very little for middle-income families. Still, polls show only a slight erosion of support in the Trump base which continues to feed on a feeling of near-tribal paranoia.

Democrats are divided on how to deal with blue collar voters in next year's presidential election. The new diverse wave of leaders,  mostly young women, elected to Congress in the recent mid-term elections is not inclined to devote any special attention to  these disgruntled white voters in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida. They believe that suburban women and young people, radicalized in many cases by the right-wing shenanigans at the Kavanaugh hearings, will carry the Democrats to success in 2020 as they did so convincingly in the mid-terms.

Older heads in the party point to historical arguments showing that winning these important swing states is a prerequisite for dislodging President Trump. They will look to leadership from candidates like Sherrod Brown or Joe Biden, both of whom have real credibility with ordinary workers, to win back voters that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016.

The politics of fear and group estrangement is not confined to the United States. The populist movements in, for instance, Austria, Hungary and Poland are all characterized by a strong sense of alienation from the prevailing liberal culture in Western Europe.  President Trump openly identifies with and strongly encourages their frustrations and fears.

It is very difficult to predict if and when this ethos of resentment and estrangement will recede.


Gerry O'Shea blogs at


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