The Seven Deadly Sins of American Politics: Wrath

The Seven Deadly Sins of American Politics: Wrath

Why you should care

Because, as Will Rogers put it, “People who fly into a rage always make a bad landing.”

Part of “The Seven Deadly Sins of American Politics,” a special series in which OZY’s Sean Braswell examines the literal and metaphorical vices that grease the rails of American government. Get caught up with an exploration of gluttony, lust, pride, envy, wrath, greed and sloth.

The crowds had gathered outside the White House gates and were chanting “Jail to the chief” as Richard M. Nixon announced he would resign the presidency at noon the following day. And so, on the morning of Aug. 9, 1974, the disgraced president bid an emotional farewell to his staff and Cabinet, delivering an impromptu speech — an “elegy of anguish” as Henry Kissinger called it in his memoirs. “[A]lways remember, others may hate you,” Nixon reflected, “but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”

Nixon’s valediction remains a compelling lesson for politicians on the destructive power of anger, his stunning fall embodying the consequences of political wrath. “It was the hate,” as legendary journalist Bob Woodward recently put it in The Washington Post’s Presidential podcast, “that was the poison that destroyed him and his presidency, and at that moment, to his credit, he understood it.” Feuds, vindictiveness and petty squabbles may seem to swamp the government landscape at times, but for some, the temptation to lash out at political foes becomes an all-consuming mission — and one that too often consumes their careers as well.

The Presidential Temperament

Thanks to Republican nominee Donald Trump, and his preternatural ability to vilify opponents, protesters and reporters alike, the issue of presidential temperament has taken center stage in this election as never before. As psychologist Dan P. McAdams writes in The Atlantic, anger “lies at the heart of Trump’s charisma. And anger permeates his political rhetoric.”

Anger has also permeated the billionaire’s life and career. In The Art of the Deal, Trump brags he has always been aggressive — even punching his second-grade music teacher in the face. But even if the Donald resonates with so-called angry white voters, history has shown that Americans tend not to elect angry presidents. Nixon aside, our modern, media-friendly presidents — from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush to “No Drama” Obama — are notable for their calm demeanors and sunny optimism. Public anger and outrage get deployed in a limited, strategic fashion to condemn America’s enemies, from terrorists to communists to mass murderers.

To find a presidential temperament similar to Trump’s, one would need to go all the way back to Andrew Jackson. Thomas Jefferson once described Jackson, who fought in at least 14 duels, as “one of the most unfit men I know of” to be president, a man whose “passions are terrible” and who frequently cannot speak because he “choke[s] with rage.” But the hotheaded leader cleverly harnessed his anger, riding a wave of populist resentment of the Washington establishment to political power. “He almost always used his anger, rather than letting his anger use him,” H.W. Brands writes in Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times. And sometimes it’s what you do with that anger that defines you as a politician.

Anger Leads to Hate, Hate Leads to …

Anger blinds us to reason, and vindictive people, including politicians, often make poor decisions. In politics, “hatred leads to enemies lists, and enemies lists lead to scandals,” says Claremont McKenna College professor, and political Jedi, John J. Pitney, “and both Trump and Clinton have to guard against such tendencies.”

It’s hard not to act on hard feelings, especially when you have the power to deal a return blow.

Trump may appear to have more obvious anger issues, but, in some ways, Hillary Clinton does a better Nixon impression. When she lost to Barack Obama in 2008, Clinton’s team, as The Hill reported, compiled a “hit list” — not unlike Nixon’s infamous “enemies list” — which painstakingly documented the political traitors, haters and waiters who surfaced during the Clinton-Obama contest. For the most part, says Pitney, the Clintons have managed to channel their wrath toward politically useful purposes throughout their decades in politics, while one of the clearest examples of a politician being undone by the sin was actually a Clinton foe, Newt Gingrich.

In November 1995, the former House speaker famously told a New York Daily News reporter that he’d force a government shutdown because Bill Clinton hadn’t spoken to him during a 25-hour round-trip flight on Air Force One — leading to the even more famous cartoon of a diaper-clad Gingrich pitching a fit. It’s hard not to act on hard feelings, especially when you have the power to deal a return blow — just ask Ted Cruz, who, after snubbing Trump at this year’s Republican National Convention, admitted to reporters that he refused to be a “servile puppy dog” for a man who had been “maligning my wife and maligning my father.”

2016: The Anger Election

If this year’s election has provided any anger management lessons beyond those derived from the Cruz-Trump fisticuffs, it is a reminder that anger permeates the American electorate. And whether it’s liberal anger at a “rigged economy” marshaled by Bernie Sanders, resentment of outsiders and immigrants exploited by Trump, or contempt for the establishment felt on both sides of the political spectrum, it is unlikely to evaporate after this tumultuous election cycle has passed. The American public, despite its relative privilege, has a long history with anger — an anger that has fomented revolution, civil war and human rights demonstrations. The question is how it gets harnessed, and whether an angry populace, like an angry politician, will make dumb decisions.

What did the Watergate break-in represent for Nixon? Woodward asks. “It was that hate. He went after anyone that was an opponent, and wound up attacking the electoral system we have in this country.” And if we let hate govern how we treat our political opponents, then we too will be attacking our own system of government, right before we destroy ourselves.

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