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Political Pundits, Apply the "Resentment" Label with Caution

Although former President Donald Trump's 2024 campaign frequently references his own resentments, is that emotion driving his supporters?

If someone ever managed to copyright the word “resentment,” the owner would enjoy a steady stream of revenue, especially from columnists and opinion writers. Take those of the venerable  New York Times. “The Resentment Fueling the Republican Party is Not Coming from the Suburbs,” reads the headline of a Thomas Edsall column from earlier this year. (January 25, 2023)  Just a day later, Edsall’s Times colleague Paul Krugman declared, “Rural resentment has become a fact of American politics.” (January 26, 2023). Earlier that month, Bret Stephens wrote, in a colloquy with David Brooks, “The problem is that Trump turned the [Republican] party into a single-purpose vehicle for cultural resentments,” adding: “It doesn’t help that coastal elites do so much on their own to feed those resentments.” (Jan. 15, 2023) And in August of last year, Jamelle Bouie struck the same chord: “Republicans would like to offer you some resentment.” (August 22, 2022)

Given these assertions, it is no surprise to discover that the rush to evoke resentment coincided with the election of Trump in 2016. It quickly became an off-the-shelf explanation for a political phenomenon that defied all rational expectations. David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, vilified the victorious candidate as a “slick performer” who essentially duped his followers by being “more than willing to assume their resentments, their fury, their sense of a new world that conspired against their interests.” And days after the election, Leon Wieseltier, writing in the Washington Post, seized upon it as the apt word to describe the present moment: “Resentment, even when it has a basis in experience, is one of the ugliest political emotions, and it has been the source of horrors,” he declared. Others followed suit.

What are we to make of the place of “resentment” in the echo chamber of a significant segment of the commentariat? Does its frequent, casual, sometimes unthinking deployment really offer any insight into the motivations and values of the millions of Americans who voted the former president into office and support him still? It’s like inflation: when we use something too frequently its value is diminished. Might it be time to place a moratorium on “resentment?”

Perhaps not. But we might at least become more aware of its potential meanings and implications, especially those that risk overshooting the mark of what commentators intend to convey.

We might recall, for example, that at least since Friedrich Nietzsche it has usually been understood as a profoundly demeaning characterization of people convinced of their unjust victimization, consumed by bitterness and envy, governed by a twisted sense of the reasons for their fate. “Nothing on earth consumes a man more quickly than the passion of resentment,” he wrote in Ecce Homo. And in The Genealogy of Morality, where he cast the emotion as fundamental to the debased morality of the slaves, he says of the resentful man, “His soul squints.”

In more recent times, commentators have usually defined this psychological disposition in similar terms.  It is the “villain of the passions,” according to the philosopher of emotions Robert Solomon. It poisons “the whole of subjectivity with its venom… maintaining its keen and vicious focus on each of the myriad of petty offenses it senses against itself.”  One doesn’t have to embrace this rather Nietzschean view to appreciate that resentment is an emotion that few people are eager to “own.” 

Or we might also realize that resentment has often been used to delegitimize people who merely exhibit a profound dissatisfaction with the status quo, who insist that they are being denied their just desserts.  The literary scholar Frederic Jameson sees recourse to resentment in explaining protestors’ motivations as “little more than an expression of annoyance at seemingly gratuitous lower-class agitation, at the apparently quite unnecessary rocking of the social boat.” Too often, to fixate on resentment is to ignore or underplay the real grievances that stand behind this usually unappealing emotional state. It is to mistake the symptom for the cause.

On the other hand, we might consider that there are different modes of resentment, some indeed not so much a function of envy, or bitterness, or feeling cheated by fate, but rather righteous indications of an injustice that must not be ignored.  And here it is precisely the irritating, clamorous tone of resentment that serves this purpose. “In the midst of the world’s silence, our resentment holds its finger raised,” wrote the Auschwitz survivor Jean Améry in 1966: his lonely protest against the blithe alacrity of his contemporaries to put the past behind them, especially when it came to the Shoah. In the face of this tendency, he writes, “I ‘stuck out’…I persevered in my resentments.” 

The moral philosopher Amélie Oksenberg Rorty warned that if we slight or ignore expressions of resentment, we are like the physician who dismisses the symptoms of a suffering patient.  And in the experience of various “Truth and Reconciliation Tribunals” around the world, it has often been former victims’ insistent expressions of resentment that have called a temporary halt to the proceedings—which almost always aimed at achieving the “closure” of forgiveness—until their grievances were adequately acknowledged.

Finally, those quick to brand others with the label of resentment ought to think again whether they are so immune from the same ascription.  One thing that distinguishes resentment from other kindred emotions, such as anger, bitterness, or enervating envy, is that it usually signals a moral injury—a conviction that you have been wronged in a way that contravenes some basic notions or standards that should normally govern what people expect for themselves and from others. In our current climate, the tendency is to think of resentment as the farthest thing from “moral”—often, given some of its uglier manifestations, with justification. But anyone with a sense of self-worth has to be at least prone to the kind of moral aggrievement which gives rise to resentment.  

I am not arguing for banishing “resentment” from our current lexicon. It’s clearly useful in illuminating the passions and grievances that animate many people in the US and elsewhere, especially on the right. But let’s deploy it less as a means of reproach and more in the quest for insight, perhaps even empathy.