Nikki Haley and the role of anger in politics

Charles Krauthammer on Fox News spoke for many when, following Nikki Haley’s response to President Obama’s address on Tuesday, he called it the best such response he could remember. I take no position on this question of history, but I can say that Haley’s talk has turned into the most controversial response in memory.

Robert Costa and Philip Rucker describe the controversy for the Washington Post. There is at least one policy question — immigration — at play, and there is also the matter of presidential politics — specifically, Donald Trump’s candidacy. I’m sympathetic to some of what Haley’s critics say when it comes to immigration and sympathetic to her fans when it comes to Trump.

I want to focus, though, on a different, albeit related, matter — Haley’s anti-anger message. Haley delivered this message mainly through her tone and demeanor. In addition, she said:

Today, we live in a time of threats like few others in recent memory. During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.

There are four approaches a politician can take to the Obama years: (1) one can be angry about them and show it, (2) one can be angry and not show it, (3) one can be not angry but show anger, or (4) one can be not angry and not show anger.

The third approach is a good definition of demagoguery; it is deplorable. I doubt that the fourth approach is available to non-saint conservatives. Given Obama’s ruinous, doctrinaire leftist tenure, nearly every conservative surely feels some anger.

This leaves two approaches for conservative politicians: (1) be angry and show it or (2) be angry and don’t show it. (For bloggers and other commentators, the first option — to one degree or another — seems like the way to go, there being no good reason, other perhaps than aesthetics, to conceal how we feel.)

In most political contexts, option (2) is the better alternative. Anger is not attractive. And although President Obama isn’t popular with the American electorate, neither is a majority angry at him (disappointed, yes).

Historically, moreover, sunny politicians tend to perform better than visibly angry ones. In my lifetime, Richard Nixon is the only visibly angry man to win the presidency. (Ronald Reagan represents a special case. He combined anger with such a high degree of optimism that he appeared sunny.)

On Tuesday night, Nikki Haley delivered her response before a national audience that probably represented a cross-section of the electorate. In this context, it made sense for her to come across as sunny (whether she went too far when she said “no one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country” is another question).

The candidates who seek the GOP presidential nomination operate in a different context (more like the context in which Haley sought political office as Tea Party candidate). Their pitch for the next few months will be to a portion of the electorate that, in the main, is very angry about where Obama has tried (with some notable successes) to take the nation.

Anger works with this audience (including me, up to a point). Thus, there is plenty of incentive to display it. However, nomination-seekers must be mindful that, if successful, they will need to win over a significantly less angry audience later in the year.

Prudence suggests, therefore, that a line should be walked. Candidates like Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, and Chris Christie seem to be trying to walk it. I think Ted Cruz is, as well.

Donald Trump has ignored the line, gambling that anger will propel him to the nomination and beyond. Jeb Bush, hoping to run a “joyous” campaign, didn’t come out of the box angry, and it has cost him. Even now, he seems more angry at Trump and Rubio (his protege) than at Obama.

Speaking of Trump makes me wonder whether he genuinely is angry (option #1 above) or is faking anger (option #3, i.e., demagoguery). Unable, obviously, to get inside of Trump’s head, I can only speculate.

My guess is that, by now, Trump genuinely is quite angry. I wonder, though, how angry he would be had he not run for president and instead remained just a world-class tycoon, living a “tremendous” life and financing candidates from both parties in order to promote his business interests.

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