“But the more interesting argument Nietzsche puts forward is that resentment was at the base of many of the West’s egalitarian philosophies.”
“These worm-eaten physiological casualties are all men of ressentiment, a whole, vibrating realm of subterranean revenge, inexhaustible and insatiable in its eruptions against the happy, and likewise in masquerades of revenge and pretexts for revenge: when will they actually achieve their ultimate, finest, most sublime triumph of revenge? Doubtless if they succeeded in shoving their own misery, in fact all misery, on to the conscience of the happy: so that the latter eventually start to be ashamed of their happiness and perhaps say to one another: ‘It’s a disgrace to be happy! There is too much misery!’…But there could be no greater or more disastrous misunderstanding than for the happy, the successful, those powerful in body and soul to begin to doubt their right to happiness in this way.”
Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals
One of the most consistent accusations leveled against the contemporary left is that it is driven by resentment. People accuse progressives of wanting to punish success and those who have made something with their life. Or, these critics claim that many on the Left are ungrateful for what they have and instead choose constantly to dissect the minute sins of their culture and society. Many of these sentiments have their roots in Nietzsche’s pioneering examination of resentment—or ressentiment—in his classic 1887 work On the Genealogy of Morality. This where Nietzsche argued that resentment has long played a deep and important role in human life, which is often underestimated. Resentment isn’t just jealousy of another—but a kind of deep sickness which can covet revenge for one’s subordination or even the pain inherent in all of human existence. This sickness can manifest itself in a variety of different ways. For some, it takes the form of an impotent desire to dominate others to make up for one’s own frail inadequacies. But the more interesting argument Nietzsche puts forward is that resentment was at the base of many of the West’s egalitarian philosophies. The most important was the Christian claim that the meek would ultimately inherit the earth through overcoming the worldly dominion of power. This evolved in a religious outlook that stressed humility, pity, and, in Nietzsche’s mind, weakness. Even if people increasingly ceased to believe in God, Nietzsche felt this Christian worldview hadn’t truly faded. Instead, it became secularized and banalized in liberalism and socialism, both of which continued to emphasize the fundamental dignity of all—and strove to improve the lot of the least fortunate. This led them to attack the powerful and aristocratic, under the auspices of bringing to fruition the principle that all are created equal and should, therefore, remain equal.
Iterations of this critique have carried forward in a variety of forms through conservative media. Yet one of the more interesting phenomena witnessed recently is how many post-modern conservatives and right-leaning people display similar forms of resentment. This is displayed in a number of ways. Perhaps the most curious is the identification of the political right and its base with a victimized identity. In the United States, many Republicans believe that Christians are more discriminated against than certain ethnic minority groups. The President of the United States has adopted the language of “woke” culture to claim that, despite inheriting millions of dollars and occupying the most powerful position in the land, he is, nevertheless, constantly undermined by liberal elites and is even the victim of “Presidential harassment.” Trump-friendly intellectuals are no more immunized, whether they are describing their personal victimization or persecution of conservatives more generally. Whether it is Dinesh D’Souza claiming he was the victim of politicized criminal prosecution while admitting he committed a crime, or Stefan Molyneux relentlessly discussing how he is marginalized and silenced by the Left (while also somehow being the “most influential” modern philosopher), Trumpian intellectuals are very willing to play the victim card. Perhaps no one expressed the disposition better than Michael Anton before the 2016 election, when he wrote an initially pseudonymous article “The Flight 93 Election” calling on “Never Trumpers” to rally around Trump or face catastrophe. While describing the “tsunami of leftism,” Anton goes on to describe all the ways leftists have and will continue to marginalize conservatives, particularly if Clinton were to win the election:
“It will be coupled with a level of vindictive persecution against resistance and dissent hitherto seen in the supposedly liberal West only in the most ‘advanced’ Scandinavian countries and the most leftist corners of Germany and England. We see this already in the censorship practiced by the Davoisie’s social media enablers; in the shameless propaganda tidal wave of the mainstream media; and in the personal destruction campaigns—operated through the former and aided by the latter—of the Social Justice Warriors. We see it in Obama’s flagrant use of the IRS to torment political opponents, the gaslighting denial by the media, and the collective shrug by everyone else.”
How can it be possible for a conservative, whose ideological disposition should be to “conserve,” abruptly to start to call for fundamental and immediate change?
What is remarkable about Anton’s essay is the degree to which his characterization of conservatives as victims is combined with a deep resentment towards the world generally. In between describing how the country is “doomed” and will “suffer” the consequences of its descent into liberal-leftism. In Anton’s worldview, conservatives have effectively been losers for the last few decades, utterly unable to combat an apparently ensuing tide of leftist cultural change. Remarkably for a conservative, this leads him to the conclusion that “fundamental” and “immediate” change is needed to “avoid the cliff.” How can it be possible for a conservative, whose ideological disposition should be to “conserve,” abruptly to start to call for fundamental and immediate change? The answer is that Trumpian post-modern conservatism is an antagonistic philosophy which is not about preserving what one has—so much as a reactionary desire to return to a fantasized past where disorder was non-existent and the social identity we all shared was unchallenged. There never was such a period, of course. Throughout the 20th century, American society was wracked by tremendous social change. This is true whether one thinks of the Depression, the agonies of the Second World War, the trials of McCarthyism, the agitation of the 1960’s, the transition to neoliberalism in the 1970’s, or the dismantling of the “Great Society” in the 1980’s. But figures such as Anton project their idealized image of the past onto a hypothetical future because this helps solidify their political identity in the present. It is as a figure victimized and opposed by leftists, who are apparently both degenerate and yet somehow potentially on the “cusp of a permanent victory.” This simultaneous hatred for and fascination with a figure of power is the very essence of resentment and frames the post-modern conservatives inability to define themselves except in relation to what they oppose.
In her excellent new book In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, the critical theorist Wendy Brown touches on many of these themes and notes how unusual the resentment of the Trumpians is. It is not, as Nietzsche might have predicted, the resentment of the fundamentally weak and disadvantaged against the aristocrats. Instead, it is resentment of traditionally powerful groups against those who seek a more egalitarian and fair political order. Men’s rights movements express disdain for feminist calls for equality, seeing them as subversively attacking masculinity and undermining its authority. Religious fundamentalists resent the transition of the United States towards a more pluralistic society, and they demand their faith be given special significance in politics since America must remain a “Christian country.” Ethnic nationalists claim that “their” country is being taken away by tides of immigrants seeking a better life. In each of these instances, one sees a once powerful group infuriated that its authority is being challenged and its privileges are being democratized. This belies the claims of Trumpians to be a populist movement standing up for the underdog. The now-dispossessed belong to groups, which had long been elevated over others, and it is well past time to establish a more fair polity.
Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at email@example.com or added on Twitter via @MattPolProf.