Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic senate hopeful who came up just short in his improbable run against Republican incumbent Ted Cruz in Texas, snatched one more viral campaign moment from the jaws of his concession. He did so by dropping an “F-bomb” on live TV. But while many of us were using such language in anger that night, O’Rourke uttered it with love. Praising the many staffers, volunteers and supporters who made for a competitive campaign, he bellowed, “I’m so fucking proud of you guys!”
Not long afterward, #Beto2020 was trending, with a considerable swath of Democrats ready to embrace him as the party’s standard-bearer and their best chance to beat Trump in the next presidential contest. The speech had shown him to be passionate, grateful and unafraid to wear his emotions on his sleeve. But something was missing.
Rage is all the rage right now, if you hadn’t noticed. Trump’s pique is on display every day, and is likely to worsen if he faces mounting pressure from Robert Mueller or the newly divided Congress. You can tell he’s fuming not just from the tone of his unhinged tweets but the projection in them — it’s the “left-wing mob,” he says, that’s truly mad. Trump supporters, naturally, get mad at his enemies on his behalf, and their seething resentment, the furious energy of their rallies, helped him eke out a win in 2016. This anger is among the most predictive of voter emotions. It can make all the difference.
Liberals are understandably furious as well. But they’re also exhausted, depressed, frequently pessimistic and trapped in a years-long argument about whether it’s okay to shout at a scumstain like Mitch McConnell whenever he dares to show his scrotal face in public. On top of that, while GOP leaders are frothily grandstanding over each perceived insult to their side, Democratic leaders keep promising “bipartisanship” and preaching “civility.”
Prominent men in the party are especially guilty of this. They have every right to get testy but always rein it in. They could give a unified voice to the popular wrath on the left, but they don’t. Obama implied that low voter turnout is a character problem, not an institutional one. When O’Rourke attacked Cruz for trying to take away health care, it sounded like a plea for a return to common sense — not a message to inflame those hurt by the GOP. Joe Biden wants us to be more polite, even dignified. Sen. Chuck Schumer thinks both sides are too radical and chastised fellow Democrat Rep. Maxine Waters for encouraging voters to forcefully speak their minds.
Waters appears to have the stomach for the bruising fight that these white guys want to avoid, and that’s no accident. She is routinely forced to go on the offensive in the course of basic procedure (recall her famous “reclaiming my time” exchange) despite the often racist blowback to her “incivility.” And while O’Rourke’s farewell on Tuesday night was more of a safe and cuddly “see ya later,” Stacey Abrams, the Democrats’ gubernatorial candidate in Georgia — who sought to become the first black woman governor in U.S. history — delivered a “fiery” speech, refusing to concede a race too close to call and blasting the injustice of a election infrastructure set up to erode civil rights for voters of color. As black women, these politicians have had to contend with both racism and sexism, meeting systemic obstacles head-on, and they don’t shy away from righteous anger when they feel it.
To take another blistering example, look at M.J. Hegar, the decorated combat veteran who ran a long-shot campaign for a House seat in Texas and — when her male opponent likened the race to a “war” — cut an ad with the line “You don’t know shit about war.”
If Democratic men seem a bit spineless in comparison to these women, that could be down to liberal norms. The left-leaning male politician is supposed to be gentle and empathetic where his Republican colleague is bellicose and uncharitable, in touch with his softer side, averse to hypermasculine displays. He is meant to be a man of practical ideas and understanding, not a vector of mass fury.
The bitter irony is that when leftist women step up to vent this loathing, they’re dismissed as unstable or out of control, but a right-wing ghoul like Brett Kavanaugh can yell and cry his way through a confirmation hearing without losing credibility or authority, at least in the eyes of the craven senators who waved him through to the Supreme Court.
The Democratic man, meanwhile, sees his chivalrous demeanor as essential to his politics, and he can afford to be friendly with the enemy because the stakes of government are lowest for him, a white American dude. No need to take it so personally, right? Isn’t it more important to keep disagreement polite?
Of course not, and that’s why these guys need to start going for the jugular when it counts. What else is going to galvanize the suppressed majority looking for a leader to speak their revulsion at the status quo?
When it comes to 2020, I’m hoping to get behind someone as pissed off as I am — not a blandly pleasant suit who likes to talk about compromise. Republicans re-elected congressmen facing indictment, an asshole who panders to Nazis and an anger-management case who body-slammed a reporter. Please feel free to check your manners at the door when challenging this tide of idiots. I promise the moderates will forgive you, and the left will cheer you on.
The alternative is to keep on seeking some fabled post-masculine aura of total calm — as if nothing is really wrong or rotten in this dying country — while the right continues to hoard the persuasive power of rage, chiding us for the mildest examples of disrespect. I’ll be pretty fucking proud of any Democrat who refuses to play that game anymore.