Photo: Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images
Photo: Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images
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Two Kinds of Hatred in the Age of Trump

The trap of pleasurable loathing

Paul Berman
January 28, 2019
Photo: Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images
Photo: Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

There is a spider crawling along the floor mat, William Hazlitt tells us (in an immortal essay from 1826 called “On the Pleasure of Hating”), and he hates it. Hatred does not lead him to violence. He is an evolved and superior creature, in that regard, or so he says. Lesser persons—“a child, a woman, a clown, or a moralist a century ago” (Hazlitt does want to be noticed)—would crush the bug. But his own impulse is to lift the mat and generously allow the insect to scurry away. He is proud of himself. And yet, he does hate the creepy little thing. He acknowledges a satisfaction or pleasure in hating it, too. The acknowledgment leads him to observe that he does not mind indulging a few other hatreds, as well. Finally he recognizes that hatred is an abiding hunger, stronger and more reliable than love, and its gaping maw demands to be fed, and it will be fed.

This was an immortal observation because Hazlitt did not blame the spider. Nor did he attribute the hatred he felt to the devil, or to social conditions, or to theological error, or to some horrible disfigurement of soul. He attributed it merely to his own normal and natural human quality, which was an observation that, so far as I know, nobody had ever offered so clearly and purely in the past (though I might be wrong about that). In later years, the study of hatred may have undergone a few advances, culminating, as I see it, in 1946 in a brilliant essay by Sartre called Reflections on the Jewish Question, or Anti-Semite and Jew. Sartre’s big discovery bore on the sources of racist hatred. In his interpretation, hatred does not begin with the object of hatred. It begins with the hater, who, for reasons of his own, finds a satisfaction in hating. Anti-Semitism is not about the Jew; it is about the anti-Semite. But the road that led to Sartre’s insight began with Hazlitt and his spider.

Does anything in these ruminations shed a light on Donald Trump and his wall? Trump himself invokes common sense on behalf of his wall, or, at least, he pretends to do so. But there is a reason why, judging from the polls, a significant number of people seem to have concluded that policies more sophisticated than a wall might do a better job of coping with whatever problems are worrying the president. Drug smuggling, for instance, might best be dealt with at places where drugs actually enter the country, which is the official entry ports. And why crack down at all on people who overstay their visas?

The wall, then—what is it about? It is about hatred. Hatred has the unique quality, among the emotions, of being discursive. You can be happy or melancholy or heartbroken without saying so. But to hate is to vent. We could hire all the customs inspectors and immigration agents in the world and fit them out with high-tech gadgets capable of detecting every last nefarious thing that attempts to slink across the border, but the hires and the gadgetry would not say anything. Therefore a policy of hiring and technology will not satisfy. The wall, by contrast, will satisfy. It will speak. It will say “fuck you” to two cactus plants and a parcel of dry earth on the other side. And this will bring about a wave of joy. “Strength at last,” Trump’s supporters will exclaim.

The pleasures of hatred have been at the heart of Trump’s movement for three years by now. Crowds who chant “Build the wall!” are happy crowds. It must be wonderful to be in one of those crowds. The call-and-response chants must be more wonderful yet. “Who will pay for it?” says the president of the United States. The assembled citizens respond, “Mexico!” Trump again: “Who will pay for it?” “Mexico!”—which is tantamount to saying, “Death to spiders!”

It is true that, under the right circumstances, the Democrats could always say, “Go ahead, build the damn wall. It won’t do any harm, and it will provide an economic stimulus, even if a better stimulus could be had by building a highway.” But the wall will, in fact, do a harm. It will pervert the political culture. It will be a giant new Confederate statue—which would not be a problem, except that, as we have discovered, people enjoy the Confederate statues, and their enjoyment is absolutely a problem.

As for the rest of us, we Democrats and stalwarts of the resistance and everyone else—is it possible that we, too, find something enjoyable in our loathings? Do we, too, experience the pleasure of hatred? I confess that I feel a satisfying shiver of virtue merely in asking the question. It is so open-minded of me!—so courageously honest! The right answer should be, of course, we do. But I am not convinced that we do. Oh, maybe a little we do. But not every hatred is the same.

I am struck by the realization that Trump, with his rallies and chants and slogans and entertaining insults, has created an artistic spectacle, theatrical, choral, colorful, witty, venomous, and energetic; and the anti-Trump resistance has created no such thing. It is true that all kinds of talented loathers of Trump have created their own individual presentations—so many presentations that, by now, it is possible to catalog the approaches. These are, to wit, brutal and focused (as in a marvelous monologue by Robert De Niro, back in 2016: “He’s a punk, he’s a dog, he’s a pig”); or are sophisticated and encyclopedic (as in a book just now called The Trumpiad, with lively limericks by Evan Eisenberg and caricatures by Steve Brodner, depicting the president as King Kong, a snake, a Latin American dictator, a cat, a sleepy lion, a caveman, a Nazi, a puppet, and a dancing fool); or are cleverly rueful about the difficulty in offering any comment at all (as in a witty dialogue in The New Yorker last summer by Colin Nissan); or are somehow genial, in the style of the television comedians.

But the individual presentations do not add up to a collective expression. They speak to the anti-Trump public. But they do not speak on the public’s behalf. The anti-Trump public speaks scarcely at all, and it takes no pleasure in its own sentiments. There may be any number of people who, along with De Niro, mutter to themselves, “I’d like to punch him in the face.” But they are not enjoying themselves when they mutter those words—not the way that other people, Trump’s supporters, enjoy themselves when they shout “Mexico!”

What accounts for the difference between the Trump emotions and the anti-Trump emotions? I think that Hazlitt is only halfway right. There are two kinds of hatred, not one. There is a hatred that rests on the desire for pleasure, and a hatred that does not. Sartre speaks about anti-Semites on one side, and about the enemies of anti-Semitism on the other, whom he calls the liberals. In his analysis, the hatred of the anti-Semite for the Jew (which rests on the satisfactions of hating) is not the same as the hatred of the liberal for the anti-Semite (which rests on no such satisfactions). The same observation can be made from a different angle, using Hazlitt’s language. The spider is not to blame for the first kind of hatred (which is the hatred that springs up spontaneously and pleasurably from within the hater). But the spider, being loathsome, is entirely to blame for the second kind (which is the hatred that is aroused by something hateful). The first kind of hatred expresses a psychological ugliness; the second kind condemns a psychological ugliness.


To read more of Paul Berman’s political and cultural criticism for Tablet, click here.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.