Fairness and Fury
On Election Day, I got a text before the rooster crowed on the local farm. Melissa’s opponent was serving as a “challenger” at our polling place. That meant he would sit behind a desk next to our challenger and observe every voter that came in. In a small town like ours, this was a way of keeping tabs on his base and challenging ours. We would later learn that he filed multiple challenges regarding the legitimacy of long-term residents. All were summarily rejected. He also threatened to file a complaint against our municipal chair for greeting friends as they came in to vote.
It was so perfectly in line with his character: hyper-aggressive moves based on some perceived sense of unfairness without regard to whether the move would hurt others, as long as it gave him some form of tactical advantage. This was just a few days after he had sent a deeply dishonest and frankly despicable email to Township residents about Melissa and her running mate.
I needed to vote, and thus I had no choice but to face him. I determined that I was not going to let this opportunity pass without showing him exactly what I thought of him. As I gave my name to the poll workers, with the kind and wonderful spouse of Melissa’s running mate looking on apprehensively, I mustered up the angriest stare I have ever delivered in my 44 years. At first, Melissa’s opponent tried to return my stare. Whatever had happened in my life to that point, that stare-down would not end with me being the first to look away. Eventually he looked down at the ground, where his gaze remained until I left the polling place.
Victory! What a strange victory, the kind that a poet might gently mock in contrasting the obvious silliness of a gesture with the heroic internal monologue of the narrator describing it. I was teeming with real anger, but the gesture had been largely performative. Why did I need so badly for him to know how angry I was at him? How many minutes did I waste on this critical Election Day focused on this moment rather than working on driving turnout in this razor thin election? Upon reflection, wasn’t that a victory for him, not me?
This year, serving as de facto campaign manager for an underdog Democratic campaign in a heavily Republican town changed my life in many ways. I learned that I was capable of running a campaign and doing it well. I made some friends, and unfortunately lots of enemies. But with the clarifying distance of eight weeks of reflection, I realize that the most important result of this election is that it forced me to examine my anger, its sources, and how I can cure myself of this affliction. The triggers of my anger — unexamined privilege, bullying, condescension, being taken for granted, facing unjustified attacks — all were activated during the six months of the campaign. However, in my reflections on this experience, I realize that many of my triggers require me to examine the dark corners of my own soul in a way that has made me uncomfortable my whole life.
I have a problem with anger, and I’ve never been able to resolve it. Indeed, the more I focus on that anger, the more self-loathing I feel about my inability to conquer it, and the sadder I become. I keep cycling between this anger and this sadness as I try to come to grips with losing on November 5 to a man who managed to punch all of those triggers.
On some level, I owe that man — -who I will refer to as Thurston — a debt of gratitude. He forced me to come to grips with a cycle of class-based alienation that both fueled and hampered me throughout my life. But don’t tell him or he would likely send me a bill for royalties.
I grew up in Manville, a town best known for having the world’s largest asbestos plant, for its perennial flooding, and for the time that Howard Stern visited the town’s famous for central Jersey strip club. After second grade, my parents decided that I would be better off attending a Catholic school in a neighboring town than the public schools there. On an academic level, they were certainly right. But on a social level, I spent the next 10 years being the only kid from my hometown in both schools I attended. And people loved to make fun of Manville.
I was bullied extensively, but I had my friends. Or at least I thought I did. One of my closest was Henri (another made up name). As a kid growing up, you trust people inherently and assume the best of their intentions. And when you’re a lonely kid without a lot of friends, you will take the friendship where you can find it. Henri and I were in all of the same honors classes in both grammar school and high school, so we were linked all day, every day for a decade.
Henri would join in when the other kids called me “pig” or pelted me with tennis balls stuffed with metal, and it hurt, but then he would be kind to me in one on one encounters. Was it strange that he was constantly pumping me for information about how I was preparing for one test or my approach on another project? Sure, I suppose, but friends shared that sort of information all the time. And maybe it was odd that he would keep me on the phone for hours not even talking about anything in particular on those nights when I had major work for something due the next day, but he just really just cared about the friendship, I believed. But somehow he only wanted to talk to me in private, as was evident when he snubbed me at dances and shunned me at major social outings. And the fact that he instead chose to pal around with all the people who had been cruel to me? So many obvious signs that I missed.
My biggest problem with Henri was that I was still viewing the world with childlike innocence. My motivating principles were to work hard and be kind. Henri was very already thinking and acting in a strategic, cynical manner, with every gesture intended to advance his material advantage. It hurt so much because I couldn’t even understand what was happening until years later when the world had made me hard and cynical enough to understand the truth.
Eventually, we would both set our sights on Princeton as our first choice for college. His father was a well known and respected medical doctor and his mother was a chemist. My parents were both school teachers. I would ultimately be valedictorian of our high school class and he would be salutatorian. Princeton would choose him and reject me. I was devastated. I knew I was smarter, I knew I worked harder, I had excelled in more extracurricular activities and, damn it, I was a nicer person. But they chose him. And to this day, I can see no basis for choosing him over me other than his higher socioeconomic class. He was unsurprisingly cruel about the victory, lording it over me for the remaining few months of our high school careers.
We ended up seeing each other only two more times in our lives. Once, it was a random encounter in a New York City McDonalds, as I watched him hector the employee being paid minimum wage about the acceptable amount of ice to put in his cup. In the least surprising career choice ever, he went on to become an investment banker.
Over the years, I gained some perspective on who he was, and who I was in relation to him. I had the terrible misfortune of encountering a sociopath at a very early age and had mistaken him for my close friend. To encounter a sociopath and consider him a trusted friend at such a vulnerable age rewires you for a lifetime. My friends from Georgetown had the patience of saints to wait out the pathological insecurity and emotional turbulence I displayed almost constantly. I was always expecting to be excluded and assuming the worst intentions of those around me. I saw the world as a battle between good and evil, because all I had experienced was evil: cruelty from classmates and betrayal from friends.
Beer and Pretzels
The Princeton defeat, and my relationship with Henri, also informed my views on class moving forward. My admissions denial became the origin story of Beer and Pretzels, a construct I created to protect myself from alienation and disappointment. There was literally no path through which I was going to be accepted into the school, no matter how smart I was or how hard I worked. Therefore, I postulated, if people weren’t accepting me, it had nothing to do with my own immaturity, insecurity, or other less than desirable traits. Instead, it was a reflection of how this world of privilege was rejecting my blue collar self.
I certainly had the building blocks for this class-based chip on my shoulder in my genes.
I was Irish and Ukrainian, two cultures (only recently nations) which were constantly subjugated and tormented by the British and Russian empires, and as a result their people often came across as paranoid, insecure, and marginalized. They were just expecting the next awful thing to happen because it always did.
Based on my experience with Henri and Princeton, the construct through which I viewed all political and social problems was economic fairness. I was committed to any solution that balanced the scales more fairly between rich and poor: tackling income inequality, campaign finance reform, a fairer tax code. To me, the only reason Princeton could have accepted Henri over me was class. I was so self-righteous and yet the problems on which I was laser focused were exclusively those that my own disappointing experience informed. I was blind to that narcissistic selfishness at the time.
This “beer and pretzels” ethos fueled me. Columbia Journalism and my subsequent life as a print reporter was a natural path for someone who wanted to afflict the comfortable. And my government service before and after my career in journalism was right in line with that approach. The chip on my shoulder softened as I encountered kind, meritocratic peers in law school, at a blue chip law firm that still managed to be welcoming in its values, and in the federal government. But even though my edge had dulled, the Princeton experience still fueled me. I still raged against unfairness, and I still let that single powerful slight push me to be better and work harder. I created a list of those who had wronged me and against whom I would one day exact some form of justice. I recognize how insane it sounds when it isn’t coming out of the mouth of Arya Stark.
Perhaps the greatest fictional depiction of my type of class-based rage and the fuel it provides is found in the character of Bobby Axelrod from “Billions.” Early in the show’s first season, his takedown of the family that had fired him from his job as a golf course caddy as a teen is a case study in slow-burning revenge against the moneyed classes who don’t bring anything of value into the world. And someday when I had power and well… money.. I would gain my revenge on all of those who had wronged me, from Henri right through today.
The classic arc of the hero, even in his own mind, is an early defeat that informs him and leads to a victory in the story’s final showdown. Shortly after we moved to Mendham Township, one of the most affluent towns in the country, a surprising series of events made me believe that the long-awaited climax of my story had arrived.
Upon moving to Mendham, I immediately felt like the young boy in a school with no one else from his town. Manville was only about 40 minutes away from Mendham, but it might as well have been a continent away. The estate style tracts in the township meant that neighbors were far away geographically and interpersonally. I immediately felt out of place, and all those insecurities flooded back up.
The local Democratic Party smartly asked Melissa to run for Township Committee and she accepted this challenge. The long odds have been well-documented elsewhere: a 2–1 voter registration advantage for Republicans, only one Democrat elected ever, and it being Chris Christie’s hometown that went 70–30 for Romney over President Obama in 2012. It would be a tall order, but I loved an uphill fight.
Now we got involved in local politics in order to make friends, but I quickly started accumulating enemies. I saw every disagreement through the prism of class. My internal monologue was constantly shouting “Are you looking down on me?” It made routine disagreements spiral out of control. To be clear, I was treated very badly on numerous occasions, but my reaction only made things worse. Seeing everything through the prism of my own insecurities and biases only served to cement those insecurities and biases, providing just another round of validation for the narrative I’d created in my head. People could be jerks, but I didn’t need to rise to their bait.
Enter Thurston, Melissa’s election opponent. He had a reputation around town for being incredibly aggressive and nasty. Every interaction demonstrated this to be true. Not only that, his campaign style revealed him to be deeply condescending and self-aggrandizing. My triggers were on high alert. He was rich white male privilege in human form.
The strangest part was that, despite all that privilege, he was so very angry. Almost as angry as I was at him.
The stakes were set. Defeating Thurston in this election, on a playing field so much like the one I’d faced against Henri 25 years earlier, would right that wrong and close this cycle. We were going to compete for entry into an economically elite institution and prove ourselves more worthy than our opponent, even though that opponent had every possible advantage going in. So I drove around the town in my beat up old Mazda 3 amidst a cavalcade of BMWs and Porsches, never feeling like I belonged, journeying from one mountaintop mansion to the next. I kept driving because my anger drove me. The Mazda 3 took as many nicks and bruises navigating the town as my ego as we weathered the constant storm of the campaign together.
Yet, somehow we were succeeding. Our strategy was better than theirs. Our ideas were more pragmatic. We used facts and reason to disembowel their disingenuous, pandering platform. We worked harder. We did everything right. We were successful enough that we got on the radar of the governor’s office, leading to the First Lady coming in to campaign for Melissa and her running mate during the final weekend of the campaign.
The whole time, I viewed my efforts here as a redemption story. Thurston was Henri reborn, and my chance to right that wrong. So he drove me. If I needed to work for hours in the evening on this volunteer effort, I would. If I had to push myself to knock on hundreds of doors in a week, I would not stop. I would give up sleep, I would give up family time, I would give up peace- all in the name of righting this quarter century old wrong. I didn’t get into Princeton, but Melissa would get onto the Mendham Township Committee.
Instead, history repeated itself. As his final act of the campaign Thurston channeled the angry, dishonest, grievance politics of Trump and it paid off. One of the cagiest tricks of Trumpism has been to use faux victimhood as a shield before going on the attack. Melissa had campaigned on building a more welcoming community in Mendham, and I supported that campaign pledge deeply and personally based on our own experience moving to town. To cite one perfect example, our across the street neighbors never introduced themselves to us when we moved in. In fact, my first recognition that they were aware of our existence was when they put up five campaign signs for our opponents. There had also been terrible incidents that were far more troubling than unfriendly neighbors. Anyone could see this town could do a better job of welcoming new people in order to build demand and improve our plummeting home values. That was our point, and it was a good one, given the warm reception it received from voters.
But this man decided to take that very reasonable position and transform it through a cynical lie to drive Republican turnout. He claimed that Melissa and her running mate had called him and his supporters were called racist and homophobic. I won’t use the euphemisms the New York Times does every time that Trump destroys the truth. This was an intentional, ugly lie.
He also went on in the same email to call Melissa and her running mate woefully unprepared to govern. Yes, these women with the MD, MBA, and MS among them, apparently only lacking the one true qualification in Thurston’s mind: male genitalia. Thurston went on to say that Melissa and her running mate had no history as residents of this “special town.” Make no mistake: Thurston was saying we didn’t belong here. He put all of this in writing. Imagine what he said to people in person?
There are times in life when your most incendiary beliefs- — the ones that you secretly hope aren’t true- — are proven correct. But there’s no victory lap when the result of being right is knowing that, at least among half the voting population of your town, you are not welcome and you are “the other.”
This rancid email undoubtedly was key in driving turnout among the Republican base and pushing Thurston to a 16 vote victory. His running mate won the other seat, finishing a few votes further ahead. It’s an embarrassingly small victory in a town where there are about 1,000 more Republicans than Democrats, but it was a victory nonetheless. For the next three years, I would have to see his face in the newspaper, on the township’s website, at community events, each time a reminder that the worst is rewarded and Trumpism remains ascendant. And already, with every car that drives by the house as I’m outside walking the dog or chopping some wood, I wonder if the driver is someone who hates me because of the campaign. That’s not exactly the best feeling in your new hometown.
As I reflected on a defeat that I took incredibly personally, I thought about Thurston’’s anger. The fact that a man that privileged felt entitled to be angry about anything was one of the things that made me the angriest. He had every advantage in life and yet he portrayed himself as wronged. How dare he be challenged for his rightful position on the Committee! Who do these people think they are coming into his town and challenging his worldview? He was positively Trumpian in his self-pitying, raging grievance. And he made me angry like no one had since Henri.
Thurston wasn’t alone in making me angry, though. There was the new resident who called Melissa and her running mate “nutty” in a public social media post despite never having met them. There was the new assemblywoman who used a nativist Trump slogan to congratulate Thurston and his running mate on their victory. There were the letters to the editor in which Republicans who clearly knew Thurston’s character nonetheless lined up behind him. And of course, Thurston’s much less personally odious running mate signed his name to every word of invective that Thurston delivered. It reminded me of Mitt Romney’s dinner with Trump after the election.
And that was just the normal political back and forth. I still pulsate with anger thinking about the older white gentleman who looked at me with contempt upon learning that I canvassing his house to support a Democrat. You, a Donald Trump supporter, have the delusional sense of self to look with contempt upon anyone else for their political beliefs? Even friendly fire was frequent, and those wounds hurt the most.It was incomparably infuriating and depressing, and it all came from this blinding privilege, I thought..
I considered how much Trump and the party that had bent its knee to him triggered me over these last few years. They controlled the world and every institution catered to their whims, and yet they had convinced themselves they were oppressed. What had once seemed like two separate sects — one of the rich acted out of naked self interest and the other of working class whites acting out of various resentments — turned out to be one merged coalition. They demanded that the world revolve around their desires because that’s the world they imagine once existed and that they were promised. Whenever anyone else sought a piece of that pie, it was a direct affront to their rightful inheritance. The grievance and oppression they felt as they continued to crush and marginalize others seemed insane to me, but it was perfectly logical from their perspective. Of course, in many cases, the grievance was performative to rile up a perennially angry base (see the absurd dispute this week about Trump’s cameo in Home Alone 2) but what’s real and what’s fake has often stopped mattering.
Looking in the Mirror
One day during this long post-election malaise, I thought a little deeper about this problem. I, too, was a white man, I had risen to the upper middle class, and that was in no small part due to having been raised in a stable family and having attended great schools. I scrapped and fought and I worked hard, but my life was free of crippling challenges or miserable tragedies. Even my work ethic was a product of my advantages. Indeed, on some level, the 26 year old grievance I harbored about an admissions decision was its own form of Trumpian self- pity. My “loss” resulted in going to Georgetown, for goodness sake.
Perhaps I was so angry at Henri and Thurston for their angry, unearned grievance because of my own angry, unearned grievance? There were almost certainly others who viewed my life as undeservedly fortunate. Was I Henri or a Thurston for someone out there?
That realization was a gut punch. What if my anger is no more justified than theirs? Life isn’t fair, but it’s almost impossible to perceive its relative unfairness accurately behind the blinders of your own privilege. I reflected on all of my triggers. When I found someone condescending, was I revealing my own insecurities about my abilities? When I faced bullying and it made me angry, was I overcompensating for not standing up to similar folks when I should have 25 years ago? When I perceived my work as unappreciated, was I simply reliving the same Princeton rejection that had animated so many of my choices over the past quarter century? Was I the hero, or just another villain?
I came back to that moment in the polling place. My angry look at Thurston was not a moment of strength, even if many outsiders given to the tribal warfare of our time might have seen it as a victory. Why did I need for Thurston to know my feelings? Showing those feelings made me vulnerable and weakened, and it let him know that he could get inside of me. He probably laughed about the moment. It certainly wasn’t the first time I lashed out due to some feeling of unfairness. I even found ways to launder garden variety disputes through this prism of class so they more neatly fit the narrative where I was the hero. I managed to make a basketball game between Duke and Georgetown into a clash of fairness. What were the stakes, which group of fans had sharper cuffs on their salmon-colored pants? Innocent, even playful disagreements become blood feuds when you turn people into archetypes.
It’s easy to root for Bobby Axelrod from “Billions” as he takes old money gasbags down a peg, but a closer look reveals him to be a terrifying villain. This is a man who was so consumed by his hatred of those that wronged him that his soul has become more focused on vengeance than righteousness. In the show’s most recent season, the way that Axelrod turns on his girlfriend is a terrifying exploration of a complete loss of perspective and decency when you let anger rule you. Perhaps the best known example of these two paths is the Jedi/Sith dichotomy.
The hard reality is that anger works. Axelord becomes a billionaire. Thurston’s angry screed wins him the election. Trump rage tweets his way to the presidency and likely re-election. Indeed, part of our relative success in the election was due to the fuel of my anger, as thoughts of Henri and Thurston merged into a single cause and pushed me beyond my boundaries in ways that otherwise would not have been possible. Proving adversaries wrong has always been the source of some of my most potent fuel, perhaps even my superpower. Having Thurston as a foil made me perform at a higher level than I ever could have otherwise. As a campaign aide said to the titular character in the recently Netflix show “The Politician,” “that fire defines you.”
As I described above, the election seemed to be my chance to correct the wrong that the Princeton defeat had been. I would be able to show that hard work, decency, and intelligence would be rewarded. I would reverse the dread I felt these past three years that I was leaving a world for my children that was worse than the one my parents had left for me.
As it turns out, the election was really meant to close an arc, but in a very different way than I’d imagined. It was time for me to surrender the grievance, the self- pity, and the list of all who had wronged me. I would win by letting go. Indeed, I would differentiate myself from them not by winning in the coliseum of their choosing but by moving my own character and temperament as far away from theirs as possible.
Letting go of Henri and Thurston also means letting go off the byproducts of their arc of resentment. Coming out of this experience, my goals are to abandon my anger and, even when that fails, to better control my emotions. Of course, my anger is not only a byproduct of class resentments or political disputes. There are friendships that have ended in abandonment or betrayal, and I have taken those very personally as well. This election taught, if nothing else, that I have an incredible core of loyal, wonderful friends and those lost are just not worth the anger.
It’s time to let it go. As Bruce Springsteen said best in describing the Promised Land:
Blow away the dreams that tear you apart
Blow away the dreams that break your heart
Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted
It’s just after Festivus, and I still have a lot of grievances about the election. Many of the grievances still regularly hit me with blinding, pulsating anger. It has consumed me on and off over the past eight weeks. Even given my revelation about this arc of fairness and fury, I know objectively that I was treated badly in many ways. In the past, my response would have been to add the perpetrators to my list and then use them as fuel in pushing myself to some future success.
No one on the list has ever been punished, however, only its author. My future success has value in and of itself, and apart from any past wrongs. The possibility of providing a good life for my family, succeeding at my job, and making the world a better place can and should provide the fuel I need. Moreover, revealing the rawness of my emotions only gives power to those who were able to draw them out of me. Getting rid of my anger has both therapeutic and tactical value.
Beyond my resentment arc, this year has taught me that there are other land mines of anger to avoid. The organizing principle of Trumpism is the pro wrestling concept of cheap heat, where a villain yells out banal insults solely to aggravate the crowd. What Trumpists know is that not only does anger motivate their base, it paralyzes the opposition into reacting emotionally rather than strategically. The more time we spend getting mad at the latest outrage, the less time we spend organizing and strategizing for change.
Therefore, one complete waste of time is getting angry at people that don’t share my values. It turns out that over half the voting population in this town wants a guy like Thurston to represent them. Persuasion is dead. By any fair measure, we ran the stronger campaign. The fact that our policy argument victories did not lead to an electoral victory makes me viscerally angry, but it’s a completely pointless emotion. The same is true when I get mad that someone in my life works for or supports Trump.
I have since realized that a lot of this anger came from a frustration that these folks were abandoning shared values. But the truth is there are not shared values left in this country, and there’s no point in getting angry about it anymore. Ultimately, the choices that people and institutions make reflect their values. Princeton chose Henri because he better reflected its values as an institution. Republican voters in Mendham Township selected Thurston because he was aligned with their values. Getting angry about people selecting others who share their values to join or lead their community is folly.
The Values Jar
So this last day of 2019, I’m deleting my vengeance list. I’m letting Henri go, I’m letting the
Thurston go, and I’m letting my rage towards the perpetrators of Trump era cheap heat go.
Every time I find myself getting mad about the latest outrage, I’m going to redirect my feelings constructively. I’m going to think about the time I would have wasted angry over this inconsequential outage, and I’m going to write down that amount of time on a piece of paper and put it into my new Values Jar. And I’m going to pledge that every minute that I would have spent in anger about the latest outrage will instead be spent positively promoting my values. That could be volunteering on a presidential, state, or local campaign, mentoring, going to church, or volunteering for some worthy cause. But I’m going to live my values rather than watching them go up in flames. I’m much more likely to create a fairer world by working for it than by raging against the unfairness.
I will aim to apply this standard to all of the unnecessary anger in my life. I will examine the source of it, try to make sense of it, and in any event try to let it go as quickly as possible. The thing about anger is that it is a multiplier, and even the most righteous sources of anger can extend unfairly and create innocent collateral damage. This path of self-reflection, and my commitment to devote time to promoting my values rather than getting angry, has to cut across all aspects of my life or it will be meaningless.
This process won’t be linear or tidy. I know you’ll catch me relapsing. But I hope you’ll point me back towards the light when that happens. A longer process will be looking back on my experience in 2019 and finding good in it. My children didn’t receive the attention they deserved. I made more enemies than friends. I lost hope in the power of persuasion as a political tool. I watched a person who does not share my values win over two good people, and it made me realize that Trump has a better than even chance of getting reelected next year. It will take a long time to heal my soul of its predisposition towards anger. But it’s a process that must start this year.
Hate motivates, but love elevates. And we could all use some elevation of our lives and our national spirit in 2020. Happy New Year.