MARCH 1, 2017
HOW ARE BOOKS about Trump already appearing? Are scholars and historians popping Benzedrine like Jack Kerouac, writing through the night to capture the spirit of the moment? This is not the case, thankfully, for the illuminating new book Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra, who explains that he began writing it in 2014, spurred by the rise of ISIS in the Mideast and, in a different register, the upsurge of Hindu nationalism in his home country of India.
On the last page of Age of Anger, we find this harrowing sentence:
And now with the victory of Donald Trump it has become impossible to deny or obscure the great chasm, first explored by Rousseau, between an elite that seizes modernity’s choicest fruits while disdaining older truths and uprooted masses, who, on finding themselves cheated of the same fruits, recoil into cultural supremacism, populism and rancorous brutality.
During these first weeks of Trump’s already disastrous presidency, the commander-in-chief’s name has emanated from cable news programs at high decibels, on the screens of various mobile devices, and — if we have the money for a subscription — on the pages of newspapers and magazines. But a book has the aura of the permanent, perhaps even more so in our age of digital ephemerality.
There will be books and books written about Trump and the nation that gave rise to him, analyzing our many faults and prejudices in harsh new light. Think the present is intolerable? Just wait until Trump becomes a permanent feature of US history. He will explain far more than we would like him to, and the malaise goes beyond his narcissism and self-delusion.
Where does Mishra locate the source of our current political, perhaps even metaphysical, woes? The short answer is the Enlightenment. The more in-depth answer, however, is that the philosophical upheavals of the late 18th century created not only the sources of much of our present anxiety, but also the means for combating them, oftentimes to the death.
The golden boy of the Enlightenment, the man who embodied that movement’s quest to replace God with reason as man’s moral center, was Voltaire.
The son of a lawyer who made a name for himself in the courts and salons of Paris with his quick wit and gift for argument, Voltaire went on to become one of the most renowned men of his time, his books read all across the continent, his ideas debated in every cafe. His achievements were more than simply intellectual, however. He invested the money from his publication royalties into a watchmaking business, amassing a sizable fortune, as well as making a name for himself as an advisor to heads of state, spreading the gospel of reason.
He is a familiar figure from intellectual history, and Mishra doesn’t try to debunk his influence. If anything, he broadens the scope of Voltaire’s standard list of achievements, giving particular attention to his influence on Russian nobles and their efforts, sometimes violent, to modernize backward Russia. Yes, Peter the Great beheaded his enemies, but as Voltaire put it, “I accept that he was a barbarian; but after all, he was a barbarian who had done good to men; he founded cities, he built canals.”
If such justification sounds, well, unreasonable, consider the fact that it’s not unique to its era. Today, the United States offers tremendous financial and technological support to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where women can’t drive and beheadings are commonplace.
Trump has no qualms doing dirty business with unsavory entities, as we’ve seen on a daily basis. But he is not an intellectual by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, Trump operates not by ideas but by emotions, and Mishra’s account of the Enlightenment offers clues as to where these emotions first arose. If Voltaire was the head of the 18th century, then the heart was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and a bitter heart at that. Reading Age of Anger, Trump and his ilk across the globe seem like a combination of the worst aspects of these two figures. Remove all the intellect from Voltaire until you have nothing but the bourgeois businessman, combine it with Rousseau’s penchant for feeling slighted by every aspect of human existence, and you have a Frankenstein’s monster who doesn’t frighten the torch-carrying villagers, but leads them on a rampage to raze everything in sight.
His father was a watchmaker in Geneva, toiling in a factory not unlike the one Voltaire owned. Rousseau led a peripatetic life, working odd jobs across the Continent, before arriving in Paris and making his way, however awkwardly, into salon culture. Rousseau was passionate and forceful, making his mark in the debates of the day, but that very passion and forcefulness set him apart from the rarefied, sometimes aloof atmosphere of salon debates.
Rousseau grew disenchanted with the whole Enlightenment enterprise and came to hate Voltaire on a deeply personal level, locating every fault of the age, from arrogance to coldness to crass materialism, within the great philosophe. Where Voltaire espoused the virtues of the free market and the self-interested individuals who sauntered through it, filling their minds with the latest thoughts and their homes with the newest trinkets, Rousseau located his ideal mode of life in the ancient past. Mishra writes:
Rousseau’s ideal society was Sparta, small, harsh, self-sufficient, fiercely patriotic and defiantly un-cosmopolitan and uncommercial. In this society at least, the corrupting urge to promote oneself over others, and the deceiving of the poor by the rich, could be counterpoised by the surrender of individuality to public service, and the desire to seek pride for community and country.
Were he alive today, Rousseau surely would have adored 300, Zack Snyder and Frank Miller’s action blockbuster about the Spartans’ valiant, doomed battle at the gates of Thermopylae, and he wouldn’t have been alone. Affectless, bored young men from Brooklyn to Bangalore have prostrated themselves before that film’s vision of militant nationalism, longing to erase their individual selves and take on the uniform of a faceless, merciless army.
Mishra sees Voltaire versus Rousseau as the ultimate antagonists: the cosmopolitan versus the provincial. Their positions — both sociologically and intellectually — are inherent in the project of the Enlightenment. Voltaire was no democrat, after all; he believed reason should be wielded by the men (only men) with the capacity for complex, dispassionate thought. Let the masses be led by their betters: not kings, but philosophers.
But kings were kings because God placed them there. Who gave the philosophers their power? None other but themselves and their merits. The sons of farmers could become statesmen, provided they had the gifts. But what of those farmers’ sons who didn’t rise up in the world? Was it their fault, and no one else’s, that they lacked merit?
This is the experience that Mishra, following the lead of Hannah Arendt, terms ressentiment, and he places it at the center of modern experience in the wake of the Enlightenment. We see its shadow — if not its very form — in the presidential election of 2016:
An existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness, ressentiment, as it lingers and deepens, poisons civil society and undermines political liberty, and is presently making for a global turn to authoritarianism and toxic forms of chauvinism.
Mishra’s point here is that Enlightenment ideals didn’t simply create this particular form of resentment as they spread across the globe, but that resentment was inherent in those ideals from the very beginning. Voltaire and Rousseau were two faces of the same coin, and as this new form of currency conquered a different market every season, consumers were presented with only these two choices when it came to responding to the changes in their environment.
As Mishra tracks the influence of Enlightenment ideals on vastly different cultures, a pattern emerges. Once a given culture becomes aware of the wealth and sophistication wielded by the winners in this classically liberal free market, a generation of disaffected young men, caught between the elites and the masses, latches onto the Rousseauvian stance of resentful antagonism.
In virtually every instance, these angry young men examine the history of their respective cultures, now besieged by modernity on every front, in order to discover their own personal Sparta, a manly society untainted by fey commercialism. Whether it’s German intellectuals finding a lost sense of purity in the Volk or Hindu nationalists touting the strength of their national myths against the encroaching conformity of British imperialism, the ideological move is nearly identical. Locate a lost Eden in one’s own culture — or, failing that, invent one — and weaponize it, valorizing humble roots against cosmopolitan decadence. Mishra writes, “Each ‘wounded’ people defined their unmediated sense of belonging unreservedly in terms of their own ‘people,’ religious community or ethnic group.”
Much of Age of Anger works like an old-fashioned reception history, following these initial ideas and styles as they travel across boundaries and cross-pollinate with local traditions. Indeed, this story of reaction against modernity is an intensely literary one, as many of the soldiers in this cultural war are writers and poets, making myths and composing marching songs for defenders of the homeland. Typical are figures like Gabriele D’Annunzio of Italy and Yukio Mishima of Japan, militant nationalists who composed works that mourned the lost glories of their respective homelands and tried to regain them in gloriously futile campaigns of violence: a failed attempt to found an independent state in D’Annunzio’s case, ritual seppuku in Mishima’s.
Perhaps the most pointed example of militants misappropriating elements of their native cultures come from the Middle East. The standard line from the “war on terror” is that Islam is inherently hostile to modernity, and any instance where the former meets the latter will end in violence. Mishra disabuses this notion. If anything, violent campaigns such as ISIS are hostile to modernity to the extent that they are divorced from standard Islamic practice. Modernity severs cultures from their roots, and Muslims have been no different. The Frankenstein religion that ISIS espouses is “Islamic” to roughly the same degree that the Ku Klux Klan is “Christian.”
So how did we get from Rousseau to Trump? The final leg of such a wayward progression is, understandably, implied more than laid out. If there is a weakness to Age of Anger, it’s that Mishra only glances at the events of the 20th century as he tracks the course of anti-modern reaction. The ideological struggle of the past century was, after all, much more nationalized and writ large than the bickering salons of the 1800s. There was the democratic capitalism of the United States on one side and the communism of the Soviet Union on the other. But we can still extrapolate from Mishra’s model to sketch out a quick progression.
The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 announced, as Francis Fukuyama naïvely put it, “the end of history,” meaning that now there was only one viable solution when it came to politics: the free-market democracy of the developed world, particularly the United States’s version of it. Indeed, the US regarded capitalism almost like a spouse, one who had now vowed to remain ever faithful to the motherland. But in the following 25 years, capitalism proved itself extraordinarily promiscuous, jetting off to the hot young markets of East Asia to sow its oats. And like a jilted spouse, the United States fumed around the house, pining after better times, when white men were in charge and the blacks and the Mexicans knew their place.
Voltaire has left the United States behind, and its citizens, filled to the brim with ressentiment, have nowhere else to turn to but Rousseau. It’s a familiar path, paved with boastful jingoism and military uniforms. The pessimist in me sees Trump not as the on-ramp to this progression, but rather the point of no return.