Ressentiment

 

{One of my blog buddies, Lisa Palmer, made the following comments in response to something I said on her blog. It rang a small bell and inspired me to go back to find a previous post where I addressed her concerns; it expands the brief response I made to her comment, which I thought well worth thinking about and hope my response is appropriate and helpful.}

Most of the Trump supporters I have actually had conversations with (not anonymous internet interactions, which are rarely productive) honestly seem to believe he is a savior of sorts. They all seem to buy into this elaborate conspiracy theory where Trump (sometimes working with a hidden military shadow government) is trying to take down the elite. When confronted with the actual wrongs he has done that affect them negatively, they respond with certainty that “it’s all part of the plan!” Any day now, arrests are going to start occurring and all of the corrupted evil-doers in government and business (including all of the liberals and democrats who are the worst offenders) will be taken down. Once his “job” is accomplished, Trump will resign, and the hidden military shadow government will take over, dismantling the Federal Reserve and the banking system, and resetting things in favor of the middle class…

The story is sadly consistent. When I try to discuss specific wrongs he has/is doing, I am told immediately that none of it is true; it’s all part of the liberal press’ agenda to villianize Trump because the elite are so afraid of him. When I ask why no progress appears to be being made, as the “soon” they discuss has never wavered, they tell me that the liberal fascists keep fighting him, but he’s almost got everything ready.

Most of them agree he is a terrible person, “but he’s the only one who could get the job done!” And the saddest/scariest part for me, is that the number of Trump supporters (those who believe some version of this tale) are growing, or at least growing more vocal…

Despite the fact that I swore never to read or write about this man out of my very genuine concern that it raises my blood pressure, I do think it worth a moment’s reflection. I suggest that it is what the French saw in the eighteenth century as they experienced the reign of terror that was their revolution, a time when the rise of what they called “sansculottism” — an extreme form of republicanism* that roused the very poor against the aristocracy and the wealthy who refused to pay their way in France, shifting the entire financial burden onto the shoulders of the poor and disenfranchised, thereby making them and their country weak and sickly. The word used to describe the mind-set of those who rose against the power-mongers is the French word “ressentiment,” which we loosely translate as “resentment.”

Ressentiment is an ugly beast and it grows and festers within the heart of those who see around them others who have what they think they ought to have. It is not simply jealousy, though it is certainly akin to that most ugly passion. It breeds a form of hatred that is directed against those around them who have the power and the wealth and seem to lord it over those who are not in their privileged position. The French aristocracy knew the country was on the brink of starvation and insurrection and that an increase in their own pathetically small tax burden — which was a joke — might bring about some sort of balance or at least quiet down the growing unrest among those who suffered deprivation. But they refused and the resentment grew until it finally erupted in the reign of terror directed against those with wealth and position who remained in France — those who had not already fled in fear.

Clearly, there is no exact parallel between the French in the eighteenth century and today’s Americans. But there are broad areas of resemblance as those who regard themselves as deprived of power see around them wealthy men and women who ignore them and who refuse to bear any of the political burden, except in so far as it increases their own wealth and prestige. Indeed, the power-brokers seem to find new ways to shift that burden to the shoulders  of those who can least afford it while at the same time increasing their own wealth. And in this atmosphere there appears a man who is full of bloat and rhetoric, but who seems somehow different — like them, a womanizer, a crass fellow with bluster who promises them a piece of the pie that has been denied them for so long. The things this man does that horrifies many of those around him endear him to those who would be like him, arrogant, proud, domineering those around him, and abusing those who differ from him. He is their savior.

In a word, one might have expected something like what we are at present living through if we had thought about it a bit. It is really not all that surprising and it will not end until or unless those who have been denied access to the halls of power can somehow find themselves within those halls and portioned at least a small share of that power. This is the only way they can possibly gain some semblance of self-respect and cool down the passion of ressentiment that festers within their hearts.

It is doubtful, though certainly possible, that a revolution will be the alternative; the passion doesn’t seem to have reached a fever pitch (though the embers smolder there), but there will be continued attacks on liberals, the intelligent, the wealthy, those who seem to have what others lack, and those who pull the strings of power that makes life a burden for so many who are chronically deprived. And folks like Our Leader will continue to bask in the glow of popularity cast by those who see him as The Answer, one of Them, one who will lead them out of the mud that surrounds them.

 

*[the ideology which at that time sought the establishment of a true Republic as opposed to an Aristocracy] 

 

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18 thoughts on “Ressentiment

  1. Hugh, it is quite amazing what people can be led to believe. This story is pretty incredible, but I guess there is a thirst for leadership that the thirsty can be convinced of anything.

    The US President is not a leader by any definition of the word. He does not unite, he divides. He does not shoot straight with people, he lies far more than he does not. He does not show empathy for those in need and bullies.

    Trump acts more like a pathetic little man than a leader. He has sued people like his followers out of business. Why people like his followers support this man is beyond me. The military who these folks say are behind him are realizing what he is. John McCain called it correctly and more of his sycophants need to do so as well.

    It is will not be a surprise for him to blame others when the stock market retrenches and the economy stalls next year as economists predict. Keith

  2. I think we are witnessing very scary times to come. This caravan that trump plans to send the military to take care of and what does that really mean? Killing?
    Then the Midterms and the truly unknown of what the consequences will be regardless of the outcome.
    Then comes 2020 after an extreme amount of damage is further done and he wins again?

    I think we are going to see a repeat of WWII Germany but worse.
    People don’t realize what’s really at stake here and the threat that is very real.

    His base is lost to any semblance of reality and decency. They are a lost cause at this point.

    • His minions assuredly suffer from group delusion. It is worrisome, indeed. If the Democrats win in November he is already hinted that he will claim “foul” and I fully expect him to refuse to accept the results. Where will this lead us? Heaven knows. These are the times that trouble men’s souls.

  3. Yes, your explanation makes as much sense as any, more than most. But there is still far too much I do not understand about his followers. For example, their up-down-up-down support. Today he is great, tomorrow maybe not so much so (but for god’s sake, don’t tell that to a liberal). I liked Obama. I thought he was trying hard, despite immense odds, to do the right thing for the people of this country. That said, sometimes I didn’t approve of something he did, but it didn’t mean I suddenly disapproved of his entire presidency. Trump’s approval ratings are like a bad kindergarten drawing, up-down-up-down.

    I have not had a conversation such as that Lisa describes … which is a good thing, else I would be in jail today for assault and battery. But the convos I have are always more like this:

    Me: Tell me which of his policies you support
    She: All of them
    Me: But, what do you think he can do for this nation?
    She: Make it better
    Me: How so? What would be ‘better’?
    She: You know what? It’s none of your [expletive deleted] business! You’re just trying to trip me up with your almighty ‘facts’, and I’m not falling for it!
    End of conversation.

    Take care of that blood pressure, my friend … stay away from stuff like this … it’ll suck you into the rabbit hole … I know.

  4. Well said, Hugh. I think your comparison to the French Revolution has some validity. I don’t think that many people in the States are wrong to want real change – but to see Trump as the agent of that change is downright scary. To blindly believe his lies and claim that everything else is diabolical falsehoods of the liberals is horrifying. It is irrational. Here in Canada, I’m praying for a big blue wave in the US Midterms.

  5. The concept of ressentiment is intriguing, especially when applied to our current circumstance.

    Nietzsche’s (pre-postmodern) claim was that morality is defined and established by the powerful and inflicted upon those whom they dominate. He further argues that new moral regimes can emerge out of a process of ressentiment, wherein those who are viewed as social inferiors by the powerful, and who have come to view themselves as socially inferior, develop a resentful hatred against those they view as elites — their “betters”. Ressentiment is not about class consciousness; it is about the revenge of the unworthy.

    Ressentiment is characterized, in part, by a thoroughgoing refusal to accept conventional definitions of good, bad, and evil. Further, according to Nietzsche, ressentiment bears within it, implicitly at first, a new definition of good, bad, and evil. As ressentiment spreads throughout the populace, a populist revaluation becomes more explicit, more refined, and more powerful. If the morality of the extant elites is displaced, then a new moral order emerges to reflect the new social order that gives rise to it.

    Nietzsche does not claim that the new moral order will be better or more virtuous than the pre-existing order, only that it will be chronologically newer. (The contrast to theological, cultural evolutionary and Marxist notions of historically emergent moral orders is clear, as is the similarity to Pareto’s theory of elites.)

    Though I seldom turn to Nietzsche for philosophical insight, what intrigues me about the notion of ressentiment are (1) the parallels between Nietzsche’s concept and our current political situation and (2) the possible morality that might emerge from it. I offer four points to this discussion.

    First, the self-perception of disempowerment and cultural displacement, not economic insecurity, are driving forces behind support for Trump’s campaign and his presidency. This takes several forms, often overlapping: (1) White ressentiment at being culturally displaced by non-whites; (2) Male fear of being politically and economically displaced by women or of falsely being accused of sexually insulting or assaulting women; (3) Christian evangelical fear of being culturally displaced by non-Christians and non-believers.

    The way Trump has manipulated and magnified these fears has been nothing short of masterful. It matters little that this reveals less about his mastery of politics than it does about his own pathological narcissism. What matters is that he has turned ressentiment into a political weapon, a political strategy, and a form of political governance – all at the same time.

    Second, an emergent morality comprehensively dismissive of previous norms of moral conduct emerges out of this populist ressentiment, guided, of course, by those who stoke the fires of fear and who dismiss conventional notions of good, bad, evil – and even truth. It does little good to appeal to so-called “common morality” in response to the anti-morality, anti-truth dispositions of populist ressentiment. Any attempt at reasoning, be it logical or moral, will be dismissed. Any attempt to counter unfounded claims will be disregarded as false, a priori.

    The parallel between Nietzsche’s conception of populist ressentiment and Trump’s dismissal of any truth, fact, or morality other than his own could not be clearer.

    Third, a key element of the replacement of the old moral order is the extent to which significant portions of the existing elite accommodate to the values that emerge from popular ressentiment. What appears clear is that the wealthy and powerful, for the most part, are willing to accept Trump-guided ressentiment as a political framework if they get what they want: power and money.
    Every successful fascist regime has made peace with the wealthy and the powerful. They are useful.

    Some members of this country’s elite will feel they can moderate and manipulate Trump. Others will accommodate to Trump in the pursuit of specific policies consistent with their interests, all the while holding their noses. Some will actively support and endorse Trumpism. Finally, some will actively oppose it. The relative balance of these different segments of the political and economic elite can be of decisive importance to the consolidation of the new regime of Trumpian anti-morality and anti-truth.

    Thus far, the wealthy and the powerful have received more than they could have hoped for: a rubber-stamp Republican Party; a president who wants, to a pathetically obvious degree, to be accepted by them; a federal judiciary and Supreme Court that are increasingly pro-corporate at every turn; an insanely expensive and profitable permanent war economy; a decreasingly problematic (for them) regulatory system; a government increasingly insulated from the policy risks of potentially democratic influences upon government decision-making, legislation and regulation.

    Fourth, the outlines of a new morality become clear. The morality of Trumpism is based upon a number of premises that counter traditional morality and knowledge:

    (1) There is no truth other than the truth of the powerful. Any truth other than that of the powerful is not only false and fake; it is evil. The Leader is the source of Truth.

    (2) Bigotry in defense of white supremacy is good. Non-white people are inferior. Social equality between races and religions is a dangerous lie.

    (3) Nationalism, nativism and authoritarianism are good. Globalism, cosmopolitanism, and intellectualism are forms of weakness.

    (4) Men are superior to women.

    (5) Christians are superior to non-Christians.

    (6) Real Americans, that is white Americans, are superior to all others.

    (7) Strength is better than weakness. Military and economic strength are all important. Diplomacy and cooperation are signs of weakness.

    (8) The strong are morally worthy; the weak are morally unworthy.

    (9) Leadership is action for its own sake. Destruction is better than reform. Intelligence and policy analyses are unnecessary. all that is required is the will to act decisively and to prevail — in Trump’s words, to be a winner.

    (10) Ignorance is virtue; intellect is vice.

    The extent to which Nietzsche would agree with these anti-moral premises is not the issue (though it is likely he would agree with several). What matters here is whether Nietzsche’s concept of “ressentiment” is relevant to an understanding of the current situation in this country.

    Sadly, I agree with Professor Curtler that it is.

    Even more sadly, we have heard this all before.

      • I am grateful that you liked this comment and more than flattered that you would like to post it. Please feel free to do so, unless your better judgement leads you to change your mind.

        Respects and regards,

        Jerry Stark

      • I worked through Rediscovering Values yesterday, which was well worth the read. Good book.

        I smiled when I saw some familiar names mentioned in your book. Calvin Schrag (Philosophy, Purdue) was on my doctoral committee and I also did coursework on modern European philosophy with him, as well.

        Having Professor Schrag on my dissertation committee along with three sociologists made for an interesting and enlightening experience, to say the least. 🙂

        I also knew Fred Dallmayr (Political Science, Purdue), whom I met through seminars, guest lectures, conference presentations, and the Sears Lecture Series which he administered in the late 70s.

        Professor Dallmayr welcomed and supported my interest in the work of Jurgen Habermas. He generously assisted me above and beyond the call of duty by reviewing the initial draft of my translation of one of Habermas’ early works. He also introduced me to Hans Georg Gadamer and to Jurgen Habermas, each of whom spoke as part of the Sears lecture series. Heady times for a young grad student; I am still catching my breath.

        Small world. Good memories.

        Thanks both for writing Rediscovering Values and for the memories it evoked.

        Respects and regards…

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