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The Politics of Petulance, From Donald Trump to Boris Johnson

Four decades of relentless there-is-no-alternative propaganda has so many people believing that change is impossible, so you might as well stick your middle finger up at the world instead.

Their petulance is that of the underachieving rich kid who nevertheless manages to snatch power for himself and has only contempt for those who let him get there. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Their petulance is that of the underachieving rich kid who nevertheless manages to snatch power for himself and has only contempt for those who let him get there. (Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

onald Trump’s campaign is selling drinking straws. Plastic drinking straws, naturally. The campaign has raised nearly half a million from sales of packs of fifteen red straws with “TRUMP” branded on them, as an alternative to “liberal paper straws.” 

The premise, of course, is that liberals with their silly ideas about saving the planet and banning plastic straws deserve to be mocked. Paper straws don’t work and neither does liberalism. (Who knows what socialist straws might look like?)

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The straw campaign is so utterly childish, so petty—with a dash of nihilism—that it’s the perfect encapsulation of the real heart of Trumpism. Americans, after all, have long had politicians who used white supremacy as a selling point, from the founders to John C. Calhoun to George Wallace, Nixon’s “Southern strategy” to Ronald Reagan, as the news this week reminded us. We’re used to grandstanding about America being the greatest country in the world—that’s bipartisan foreign policy since before the Monroe Doctrine.

But the politics of petulance is somehow perfect for our current moment. Four decades of relentless there-is-no-alternative propaganda has so many people believing that change is impossible, so they might as well stick their middle finger up at the world instead.

In the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson has ridden a Trump-esque wave of Brexit demagoguery into the prime minister’s office—not through an election but by being chosen by the Conservative party after Theresa May stepped down. He, too, puts this pettiness on display.

The Guardian writer John Harris, citing Fintan O’Toole, thinks Johnson’s appeal is “the spirit of punk, or something like it.” Punk surely had its nihilists, its priests of the rude gesture, those who revelled in wearing swastikas just to shock. And Harris is right that part of the impetus for Brexit is “a collective set of desires akin to the punk-era urge to break things, along with a connected inability to channel resentment into anything more than gestures of self-harm.”

But punk isn’t the right term.

In fact, punk was the last gasp of the age of social democracy. Funded by the dole and educated on free art school in the United Kingdom and cheap Manhattan rents in the United States, it nevertheless screamed its frustration at what it saw as the curdled promise of the peace-and-love generation. 

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When punk itself curdled, it could be nothing but bratty, the demands of a spoiled child. Yet Boris Johnson and Donald Trump are anything but punks. They are the opposite of the downwardly mobile children of the working class who took aim at the institutions of power that Trump and Johnson revel in pretending to control.

The politics of petulance is for those who feel a loss looming but can’t quite put their finger on what it is because they haven’t really lost much of anything yet.

Their petulance is that of the underachieving rich kid who nevertheless manages to snatch power for himself and has only contempt for those who let him get there. They are, as Duncan Thomas noted, in over their heads, unlikely to produce any real solutions. They just hope that if they shout loudly enough, it will mask the obvious fact that they have no idea what they’re doing.

And it’s the middle class driving the politics of petulance. It’s a politics for those who feel a loss looming but can’t quite put their finger on what it is because they haven’t really lost much of anything yet. They cannot envision what that change will look like, so instead they overstate the smallest of slights. A blue passport instead of a burgundy one, a plastic straw instead of a paper one.

But if the planet burns or chokes on plastic, it won’t just be liberals who die. If the United Kingdom crashes out of the European Union without a deal, everyone will feel the consequences. Everyone, that is, except the people who caused the crisis in the first place. The rich will also feel the sting, but they feel it through the insulation of wealth, the princess feeling the pea through her stack of mattresses.

After three years of Trump, the petulance is the only thing his supporters—the ones who don’t thirst for out-and-out blood—have left. The wall has not been built, the factories keep closing, and the coal mines are declaring bankruptcy without paying their workers.

Trump and Johnson will likely be fine, unless the crisis turns bad enough that the followers they placate with rallies of chest-beating bigotry turn on them. Right now, though, there are fifteen-packs of plastic straws. Buy something to express your rage, and all it will do is help destroy your own world a little bit faster.

As Johnny Rotten once asked, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Type Media Center, covering labor, economic justice, social movements, politics, gender, and pop culture. She is the author of the book, Necessary Trouble: America's New Radicals (Nation Books/2016). Follow her on Twitter: @sarahljaffe.

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