Why Outrage Is So Important

There is a growing movement, among the smarmier class, to say that we have no right to be outraged at the many horrid, outrageous things President-elect Donald Trump has done. The outrage “burning up social media,” as one put it, is distracting from more substantive aspects of disagreeing with Trump’s policies. “He will use these incidents to cement his reputation as a political outsider with his voters,” the argument goes, so therefore we should abandon outrage.

This is false, alarmingly so.

For starters, Trump does not have policies. He never has. As I explained with his racist attacks against Muslims, the starting point for him (on that issue, anyway) is his bigotry and the bigotry of his inner circle. The policies that flow from that are vague, shapeshifting, and impossible to nail down because the policy for him is immaterial: his bigotry is what drives it.

The principle applies more broadly, too. Is there a reason he appointed a billionaire heiress who has never attended a public school (nor did she allow her children to attend), who has a direct financial stake in the charter school industry, whose own state has suffered terribly from her privatization efforts, and whose think tank has advocated child labor in coal mines, to run the Department of Education? Yes. And that is because Trump does not have an education policy — he has stated, plainly, that he wants to destroy the Department of Education (and the EPA). And his followers cheered for this! So he appointed a person who he thinks will do just that.

You could make, I suppose, the argument that wanting to destroy education (especially for poor people, since they cannot simply up and attend a private school) is a policy of sorts, but I think that does damage to the term. Wanting to simply light the government on fire and make as much cash while it burns — again, his team has been quite open about this — is not a policy so much as it is nihilism.

It is this shameless nihilism that seems to drive Trump’s incipient government. Normally, a sense of shame and propriety governs how Presidents structure their staff and behavior — Trump has neither. His followers think this is a good thing (“he speaks his mind”), but the effect is that he behaves in a patently outrageous way constantly. When you have no shame, and you believe in nothing, why would you bother to adhere to any standard of conduct?

The reality of the American presidency is that most of what we consider to be constraints on the office are really norms — norms that have ebbed and flowed over time (the expansion of executive orders as a workaround for the Republican do-nothing Congress is one), but are nevertheless not codified in any real way. Trump has systematically attacked and weakened those norms. Releasing one’s tax returns so the voters can be sure there are no financial conflicts of interest is not written into law anywhere: it is a norm. Not whipping up frustrated white people in the midwest into a racist and misogynist frenzy is not a law or anything, it is a norm that people of good faith simply don’t break.

So what do you do when the President lacks good faith? This is where outrage comes into play. Arguing policy against a man and an administration that eschews policy is nonsense. It is like arguing with a sandwich. The one thing Trump is responsive to is his image — he is hypersensitive to how he is perceived. As we saw when the cast of Hamilton meekly asked Vice President Mike Pence to look out for their own interests (a request Pence ignored, because he will not look out for them), Trump’s ego simply does not permit public shaming and direct expressions of outrage about his outrageous behavior.

On point after point, the only sort of pressure Trump seems to respond to is outrage. Why would we in opposition to him unilaterally disarm the only effective tool we have for constraining his behavior?

There is a bigger issue at play as well. Trump is shaping up to be an autocrat. No, that is not an exaggeration: from how he is trying to delegitimize his own election (somehow?) by baselessly alleging millions of fraudulent votes, to the way he has promised to crack down on Muslims and queer people, to the way he will live in his golden tower like a king while deigning to visit the actual White House for a shortened work week, to the way he is positioning himself to primarily enrich his family and his business interests globally, Donald Trump is positioned to be precisely the autocrat our laws allow (since, again, most of the things we think constrain the presidency are really norms and not laws).

Outrage is how autocrats are reminded, again and again, that they lack legitimacy. Outrage is how we keep perspective about the endless stream of outrageous ideas that stream from Trump’s minions, from Kellyann Conway’s suggestion that investigating Hillary Clinton is conditional on the recount, to his proxies floating the idea of internment on Fox News, to Trump defunding climate research, to everything else about his rule that is profoundly not normal.

Outrage keeps the flame alive. It is fundamental to how you resist the urge to passively accept the reduced rights, the impoverishment, the crackdowns that inevitably accompany a slide into autocracy. Outrage is our starting point, it is that fundamental declaration that this is not normal that lets us shape and determine everything afterward.

So why would anyone want to give that up? To abandon outrage is madness. It is an acquiescence to Trump’s supposed “right” to strip mine our country and sell it in pieces to his billionaire friends. Outrage is the only thing that works, and it is the only way we can keep holding Trump’s feet to the fire whenever he descends into his fever dream twitter rants about the world. It is how we will organize support for legislative opposition, and it is how we will attract new members to the opposition, by channeling the upset and frustration his broken rule will impose on us all.

So don’t let some moral preening by the commentariat tell you to not be outraged. Outrage is vital to survival. Embrace it. And never let them make Donald Trump’s presidency normal.

joshua.foust
Joshua Foust is a writer and analyst who studies foreign policy.