We keep waiting for the fever to break, but the infection rages on.
Many of us thought a decisive election would be the cure. Many of us thought lifting pandemic restrictions would bring relief. Maybe a second decisive election? Record-low unemployment with slowing inflation? A run of nice weather (at least until Canada caught fire)? Satisfying final seasons of Succession and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel? No, no, no, and no. The fever only worsens. It’s a miracle the patient didn’t die years ago.
The patient, of course, is America. The virus is anger. It inflames our politics, monopolizes our screens, and bloodies the public square. In stores, parks, schools, restaurants, arenas, subway cars, congressional hearings—pretty much anyplace where human beings rub elbows—the banal frictions of everyday life explode into spittle-flecked shouting matches, and worse. Look at our vocabulary: we rage-tweet, we doomscroll, we hate-watch, we weaponize anything we can get our hands on. F*** your feelings. No, f*** your feelings.
You want anecdotal evidence? Just ask any flight attendant. Or any Waffle House employee. Or anyone who relishes social-media videos of airplane mêlées and Waffle House brawls. Or any fan of the 11 different Real Housewives series—longer, director’s-cut versions of airplane mêlées and Waffle House brawls, distinguished, if that is the word, by better jewelry and Spanx.
Just ask the numerous N.B.A. players, among them LeBron James, who have been hit below the waistband during this year’s playoffs. (Mashable headline: The NBA playoffs have been defined by one thing: nut shots.) Just ask the 14 California bicyclists who were deliberately targeted this spring during a “car-dooring” spree on the streets in and around Oakland. Just ask the man in Kentucky whose roommate recently shot him—“in the ass,” according to a police report—because he had eaten their freezer’s last Hot Pocket.
Just ask Winnie-the-Pooh, who, after entering the public domain last year, has this year starred in both a British slasher film—Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey—and a book about how to survive a school shooting, which was distributed to children in Dallas last month. Next to an illustration of the silly old bear cowering in a honey jar, the text reads, “If danger is near, do not fear. Hide like Pooh until police appear.” We know how well that advice worked during the shooting last year in Uvalde, but maybe cops act with more alacrity in our new, improved, more Hobbesian Hundred Acre Wood.
Just ask Rupert Murdoch and Tucker Carlson. Fox News has long profited by keeping its viewers on the boil, but, as revealed by documents released in the Dominion lawsuit, the network panicked when its irate audience revolted after the numbers nerds called the 2020 election for Joe Biden—a plot twist too far, like Daenerys Targaryen’s last-second heel turn on Game of Thrones. “Enragement equals engagement,” as the adage goes, until it blows up in your face.
Just ask Chris Rock. In March, the ratings for the Oscars were up 8 percent compared with last year; was it because this year’s nominees were really more popular—or because viewers were hoping to see another star get clocked? Rock’s recent Netflix special, which climaxed with his thoughts on getting slapped by Will Smith at last year’s ceremony, was titled Selective Outrage. But wouldn’t the better adjective have been Indiscriminate, or Unchecked, or Rampant?
Pandemic, alas, was taken.
Look at our vocabulary: we rage-tweet, we doomscroll, we hate-watch, we weaponize anything we can get our hands on.
If I may offer some sweeping oversimplifications: the 1950s had complacency; the 1960s, love; the 1970s, self-love; the 1980s, greed; and so on. With anger now the defining emotion of our own times, and in splenetic tribute to the previous century’s Roaring 20s, I suggest we dub the current decade the Raging 20s.
Too soon, you demur, since we are only three years in? Maybe. And maybe the 2024 presidential election will be decided by high-minded debates over policy issues, and maybe several hundred million guns will disappear from the country, and Jim Jordan will develop an inside voice, and “Karen” will become just another name, and Mr. Rogers will return from the dead.
Until then, in the real world, we must struggle through a decade that began with the twin curses of Donald Trump defiling the White House, and American democracy in general, and the rest of us locked down in our houses and apartments, thanks to a non-metaphoric virus. Conditions have improved on both fronts, and yet the fury grows. If you will permit me another metaphor: We haven’t even made it to the hangover yet, let alone recovery; the bender continues.
It feels drearily appropriate that as this goes to “press,” red America is newly inflamed over the latest round of Trump indictments while blue America, much of it, is smothered by an orange miasma (also not a metaphor). Eyes are stinging everywhere—one thing that unites us, I suppose.
“Enragement equals engagement,” as the adage goes, until it blows up in your face.
You want hard numbers? There are so many to choose from, the most horrific of which concern our new national pastime of mass shootings. As of June 7, this year has seen 280 such episodes, according to the Gun Violence Archive. (Mass shootings are defined as incidents in which four or more people are wounded or killed; if you and only two friends or family members or classmates or congregants are murdered by a madman with an AR-15, too bad, you don’t have a quorum.)
Two hundred and eighty mass shootings in nearly five months computes to a rate of more than three massacres every two days—so many and so frequent that most don’t make it past the local Eyewitness News. Should we continue at the current clip, America will total 650 mass shootings for the year, falling short of the record of 690, set in 2021, but the pace will likely quicken with summer’s heat and fall’s despair. Second Amendment enthusiasts can take heart that while the year is not yet half over, we have already passed 2014’s puny tally of 272. Record or no, that’s a lot of freedom.
Road-rage shootings are on the rise as well: 554 men, women, and children were wounded or killed last year by drivers with inflexible opinions about lane changes and braking, compared with 246 in 2018, according to Everytown for Gun Safety—an inflation rate of more than 125 percent, one that the N.R.A. can claim as its own.
That we now have an extended taxonomy of random gun violence is, alas, not a sign of a cool, contented populace. The term “wrong address shootings” entered the national conversation in April after an 84-year-old white man in Kansas City shot a 16-year-old Black boy in the head, critically wounding the teenager after he mistakenly rang the older man’s doorbell, thinking he was at a friend’s house. (In a deduction worthy of Sherlock Holmes, a local prosecutor suspected a “racial element” in the shooting.)
Two days later, a 20-year-old woman was shot and killed in upstate New York after the driver of a car she was in turned into the wrong driveway and the 65-year-old homeowner fired two shots from his porch. (Shooter and victim were both white, so we can’t blame racist paranoia, just paranoia, period.) Three days after that, a pair of high-school cheerleaders, both girls, were wounded in Austin, Texas, after one of them mistakenly opened the door of someone else’s car in a dark parking lot. Halloween is going to be fun.
That we now have an extended taxonomy of random gun violence is, alas, not a sign of a cool, contented populace.
You want nonviolent statistics? The National Customer Rage Survey is an actual thing, dating back to 2003. Its latest iteration, released in March, found “historic” levels of customer rage amid what it calls “the emerging marketplace phenomenon of rude, discourteous, and violent behavior,” which is another way to describe Saturday at the mall.
Among the findings: 63 percent of Americans who had a problem with a product or service “felt rage”; 43 percent “raised their voice to show displeasure” with a customer-service representative; 17 percent confessed to behaving “uncivilly” (i.e., ranting, threatening, cursing); and nearly 1 in 10 tried to extract some kind of “revenge” on businesses they felt had wronged them—triple the number in 2020.
“Have you seen a man in his 60s have a full temper tantrum because we don’t have the expensive imported cheese he wants?” an embattled grocery-store employee told The New York Times last year. “You’re looking at someone and thinking, ‘I don’t think this is about the cheese.’”
What is it about, then? You can’t pin everything on Trump, but you can pin a lot. Large swaths of the country were already angry when he began his run for the presidency in 2015. That anger got him elected, which then pissed off the other half of the country.
And was there ever a sorer winner? Trump’s grievance White House was an accelerant, setting the whole nation on fire—literally, in the summer of 2020. After the networks finally called the election that November, it looked for about five minutes as if we would be rid of him. A survey taken during that brief false spring found that a heroically optimistic 48 percent of adults believed “civility” would be on the upswing now that the election was over.
We haven’t even made it to the hangover yet, let alone recovery; the bender continues.
Then our still-sitting president sparked one of the ugliest days in U.S. history—leading eventually to five deaths, more than 1,000 arrests, and, more immediately, a U.S. Capitol stinking of bear spray and feces. By August 2021, the percentage of adults still expecting an increase in civility had shriveled to 30 percent. I’m not sure how to quantify the credulity of the holdouts’ faith, but I can tell you that more than twice as many Americans believe in angels.
As I said, Trump is only an accelerant. The underlying reasons for America’s rage? Oh, you know, the usual: polarization, income inequality, racism, bigotry, misogyny, people feeling left behind, the media, and algorithms that drive us further apart. It’s probably fair to diagnose the opioid crisis as self-medication on a national scale.
In an Atlantic profile last week, Chris Licht, the soon-to-be-former C.E.O. of CNN, dismissed much of the network’s output under the previous regime as “outrage porn.” Was he right? I don’t know; like most people, I never watch CNN. But Licht was spot-on about so much that does cross my screens. On Twitter, appropriately, a friend wondered if venting outrage “is the only way we feel empowered anymore?” Maybe not the only way, but certainly the easy way. The instantly gratifying way. The ultimately unsatisfying way. The porny, Trumpy way.
Trump’s grievance White House was an accelerant, setting the whole nation on fire.
Meanwhile, it’s not just his age that makes Joe Biden sometimes seem like a milquetoast; it’s the age. Had he been elected in a more equanimous era, he would surely have gone down in history as the saltiest president since Truman. He snaps. He curses. He once told a blowhard, “Will you shut up, man?”—which was well deserved, though still impolite.
Now that same blowhard is running for president a third time, indictments and guilty verdicts only feeding his campaign message of, as he put it during a speech at CPAC, “I am your retribution”—the platform he always runs on, now stated more baldly.
Imagine an alternate time line where Trump conceded the election, however grudgingly, and is now taking victory laps—Hey, whoever thought a real-estate guy from Queens could win even one election?—while touting his new presidential library/resort/casino. But that would not be in keeping with the man, or the times.
I should note that the rage for rage is not strictly an American phenomenon, as anyone reading this in Ukraine, South Sudan, Syria, and too many other nations, coveted territories, and no-man’s lands will attest.
Taiwanese readers pray they are not in the on-deck circle. So do South Koreans. The French, as is their habit, have been waging war among themselves, taking to the barricades over President Emmanuel Macron’s boosting the national retirement age from 62 to 64, though a new round of protests and marches this past week seemed to fizzle, smaller and more decorous than expected. “Finished already?” a waiter in Paris remarked, according to The New York Times, as a thin line of demonstrators disappeared down the Boulevard du Montparnasse, no fires in their wake.
How will the Raging 20s end for Americans, with a fizzle or a bang?Everyone knows how the Roaring 20s wound up—with a total collapse of the nation’s economy—unless teaching about capitalism’s failures is now banned in red-state school districts.
But perhaps the 1850s offer a more apt parallel for the Raging 20s: a poll conducted two years ago for Bright Line Watch, a quixotic academic group formed to “highlight the risks to our system of government,” found that 66 percent of Southern Republicans supported secession, alongside 47 percent of West Coast Democrats.
Perhaps Marjorie Taylor Greene’s daydreams about “a national divorce,” expressed in a patriotic Presidents’ Day tweet, will come rousingly, riotously true.
At some point, the fever will break. The question is whether America breaks first, and what, if anything, our unlucky heirs can build from the rubble.
Bruce Handy is a journalist and the author of Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult