Ressentiment

The French have a word for it: ressentiment. It describes a concept that has been widely discussed by a number of philosophers including Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Max Scheler even wrote an entire book about this emotion, its power and the various ways it can surface and motivate people. It has to do with the phenomenon discussed by J.D. Vance which I posted recently by way of understanding the mind-set of the followers of Donald Trump. How could so many people be taken in by a charlatan who sells them snake oil which can only make them sick?

Vance gives us a very interesting picture of the sense of ressentiment that so many people feel in our society where they are looked down upon while the good things seem to be going to others and life is passing them by. They are hungry and outside a posh restaurant; through the window they see many a fat cat sitting down to a gourmet meal while they can only look on. That they are on the outside and not inside eating their fill is not their fault. And those who are in there are so by accident or subterfuge. Resentment can easily give rise to hatred. Trump invites them into the restaurant. It matters not what he says or how many lies he tells when he says what he says. What matters is that he promises them some sense of self which is otherwise lacking. This they firmly believe: they are hungry, tired of eating grits, and they are grasping at straws. Moreover, the internet and the evening news are filled with a confusing mass of misinformation disguised as “facts” and they have no idea what is true and what is false.

To take a quick peek at the philosophical discussion of the concept of ressentiment, I give some general information, borrowed from the always reliable Wikipedia (in this case trustworthy) and then quote first Kierkegaard and then Nietzsche:

Ressentiment is a reassignment of the pain that accompanies a sense of one’s own inferiority/failure onto an external scapegoat. The ego creates the illusion of an enemy, a cause that can be “blamed” for one’s own inferiority/failure. Thus, one was thwarted not by a failure in oneself, but rather by an external “evil.”
According to Kierkegaard, ressentiment occurs in a “reflective, passionless age”, in which the populace stifles creativity and passion in passionate individuals. Kierkegaard argues that individuals who do not conform to the masses are made scapegoats and objects of ridicule by the masses, in order to maintain status quo and to instill into the masses their own sense of superiority.
Ressentiment, for Nietzsche, comes from reactiveness: the weaker someone is, the less their capability to suppress reaction. According to Nietzsche, the more a person is active, strong-willed, and dynamic, the less place and time is left for contemplating all that is done to them, and their reactions (like imagining they are actually better) become less compulsive.

One of the reasons I myself have had difficulty in coming to grips with the mindset of the minions who follow Trump blindly is my own status as one inside the restaurant. I have been unable to envision a world where ressentiment reigns supreme. I am not rich by any means, but I live comfortably and I am an educated person who thinks as well as feels. I eat three square meals each day. I have my insecurities and even feel ressentiment at times, though it does not possess my soul. For many who are stepping forth these days at the urging of the Trumpet, ressentiment is all-consuming: it possesses them and drives them toward irrational behavior that is directed against those inside the restaurant. Please note that those in the restaurant are regarded as “enemies”; they are “evil” and somehow they must be dealt with. They are filling their bellies while those outside go hungry.

The minions themselves, like Trump, are totally without fault. Of course. When things go bad it cannot be their fault. The feeling of ressentiment, according to those who have studied the emotion, is very powerful indeed. Those outside the restaurant want some of the rich food; they suspect that those inside cheated their way in and are no “better” than they themselves; and they look to the man with the funny hair, the incoherent speech, and the tiny hands to take them in and pay for their meals. He has promised them that much. That promise they understand and they are becoming increasingly agitated and hopeful. Their disappointment, when it comes, will assuredly have consequences for all of those who are within the restaurant — whether they are eating filet mignon or merely hamburger.

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Most Interesting

As one who has pondered the question why so many would follow a figure like Donald Trump I found this analysis most interesting and pass it along for your consideration. It is important, I think, for us to understand the “Trump Phenomenon” as I have called it, since it seems we are now playing a totally different political game. The rules have changed and new players have emerged, many of them rather frightening.

In June, not long after Donald Trump wrapped up the Republican nomination, an unusual book by a first-time author named J.D. Vance entered the national conversation. Hillbilly Elegy was, in part, a captivating memoir — of an Appalachian childhood in an impoverished family he describes (with some exceptions) as shiftless and dysfunctional, and his improbable escape to Yale Law School and a business career in Silicon Valley. But it was also an exercise in explaining the milieu in which he was raised to the people who were now his peers — to whom a poor white boy from Kentucky is a being almost as exotic as (and considerably less sympathetic than) a Somali herdsman or a Bolivian peasant. And as one result, Vance has become the go-to source to answer the question that has echoed at cocktail parties all year from East Hampton to West Hollywood: What do those people see in Donald Trump?

And the answer is, they see a reflection of their own rage at a privileged world that is leaving them behind, that sneers at their parochial loyalties, their lack of education and refusal to take part in the global rat race. Disputing much of the commentary on the 2016 election, Vance told Yahoo News, “I resist the idea that this is a reaction to economic dislocation. What’s really going on is if you take rising rates of divorce and the heroin epidemic and everything else, there’s this sense of malaise. … Trump is the first person to recognize that there’s a lot of opportunity to exploit people’s frustration and sense of alienation.”

This message defies traditional left-right analysis: Vance is equally dismissive of the economic determinism of liberals and the “culture of poverty” rhetoric from the right, usually directed at minority families in big cities. Trump, Vance has written, brings out the worst in both sides; he “inflames the tribalism of the Right” and “encourages the worst impulses of the Left.”

“My sense is that most of the people that are voting for him at this point — it’s not really about him, it’s [a] cultural protest vote,” he told Yahoo in mid-October. “At the end of the day, we really have two cultures: the culture that I grew up in and the culture I encountered when I went to Yale Law School. My sympathetic view to where I grew up is that it’s not totally unjustified to say the elites of the country are really disconnected from or condescending to the pejorative ‘flyover country.’ It doesn’t give a lot of room for people to switch their vote to Hillary Clinton.” — By Jerry Adler

With all due respect to Mr. Vance there may be a sound reason why the “elites” (among whom I must include myself) have looked down on the “other culture.” They are not only angry and frustrated, they are also armed and dangerous. But, in the end, it is imperative that we try to understand one another if we are to live together and in this regard I thank Mr. Vance for this insight into another world.