Other than the massively elaborate practical joke candidacy gone wild by Donald Trump, the clearest discernible theme to this election is voter anger.
In some ways, there is always voter anger in every election, just as there is in any household where things are generally OK, except there’s always someone who forgot to call the plumber or clean the cat box.
Trump is angry. Sen. Bernie Sanders is angry. Sen. Ted Cruz is angry. Sen. Marco Rubio is angry. Gov. Chris Christie is angry. Former Gov. Jeb Bush is angry because he’s punted a fortune and his legacy. If Dr. Ben Carson were to somehow awake from his slumber, he’d be angry when he woke up.
Anger is working for some of these candidates. The non-angry candidates are either vulnerable or probably going to lose. They’re probably angry about that.
What are voters angry about? Some of that anger clearly is not misplaced. Wall Street bankers are still eating porterhouses at Tavern on the Green. We still have boots on the ground in Afghanistan. Lots of American working families are barely getting by. There’s always something to be angry about.
The question is, what do we do with that anger that’s constructive?
Think about your own anger for a moment: When you’re angry with your loved ones or colleagues, and you throw your shoe at them and the other shoe at the dog. How does that work out for you?
The targets think you’re immature or a jerk. Your anger isn’t channeled. If you worked on being a better husband, wife, employee or friend and kept your shoes on, things tend to be better.
Voter anger this year is vaguely unfocused, unlike, say, during the 1932 election, when the United States was looking down the barrel of 25 percent unemployment. In 1968, there was a lot of voter anger, and we elected an angry man as president.
We wound up so angry with him that we drove him out of office.
Americans tend to get better presidents when they choose aspirational candidates, instead of the screamers and the shoe throwers. FDR chose inspiration and rejected fear. JFK called for thinking about the future, and Ronald Reagan ran a pretty optimistic campaign considering he genially channeled voter anger.
This year, you can spend a lot of time waiting for a candidate to speak to your dreams. Watching the GOP debates reveals a bunch of constipated, purple-faced guys who look like they’re at a casting call for the role of Archie Bunker.
Trump’s anger pitch to angry voters seems canned at times, as he lacks a genuine bone in his body. The only time he registers genuine anger is when someone personally criticizes him. Same with Cruz; his anger is an affectation, his debate club naked ambition barely masked.
On the Democrats’ side, Sanders is gaining ground because he seems genial and grandfatherly while articulating the anger he’s capitalizing on. He lays out his case like a professor: OK, here’s the data, here are the numbers, write this down and spit it back on the midterm.
Clinton doesn’t seem to be channeling much anger, as much as exasperation: “How could this be happening to me, again?”
She goes from town hall to town hall registering disbelief, like a mom who has discovered that you stayed out late again and left your McDonald’s bags and beer cans in her just-cleaned minivan. Her husband, a master of political campaigning, seems low-key and not angry at all, almost like he’s phoning it in.
Voter anger is real. It is sometimes OK to get angry.
But usually it’s better to keep your shoes on.
Ask your dog.