The nation is angry, say the people and the pundits, and it generally appears to be true. There are many shades of anger, however, which perhaps most significantly can be constructive or destructive in nature.
There are two prominent angry presidential candidates this election year, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. (Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush strive for anger but they come across as peevish and petulant, respectively.) Senator Sanders and Mr. Trump have come to symbolize the differences between anger that is constructive and destructive.
In his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, the Vermont senator's anger is directed at the growing wealth disparity in America that is causing the slow evaporation of what used to constitute the middle class. It is justifiable anger targeted at a loophole-riddled tax system that benefits the rich and at a Wall Street that cratered the economy several years ago and eluded both punishment and meaningful reform while greedily accepting a bailout from a federal government it then went back to criticizing for supposed over-regulation.
The senator's righteous anger is shared by many, which is why his insurgent candidacy has made him a serious challenger to establishment candidate Hillary Clinton. Senator Sanders is a socialist, which carries with it irrelevant but still powerful Cold War-era connotations of Mao and Khrushchev, but the Vermonter's socialism is about providing a level playing field and fair rules for all.
Senator Sanders' constructive anger translates to tangible proposals. He proposes higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations, pay equity for women, an increase in the federal minimum wage, and a jobs program to rebuild the nation's crumbling infrastructure. One can dispute the details or the funding mechanisms, but his ideas are grounded in reality and would translate to a better, more equitable nation.
In contrast, Mr. Trump's anger is of the destructive kind. All Muslims are portrayed as evil because of the actions of a few. His ideas are not grounded in reality, with his insistence that he will deport 12 million illegal immigrants and build a border wall to be paid for by Mexico serving as an excellent example. It resonates with Americans who, largely because of the divisive tactics of Mr. Trump and others on the far right, don't know who their real enemy is.
Mr. Trump won't be calling out Wall Street any time soon. He has gamed the system so well that he emerged as wealthy as ever after four of his companies filed for bankruptcy. Debtors who had to accept pennies on the dollar didn't fare as well as the Donald. Mr. Trump is the personification of the Republican strategy to persuade Americans to vote against their economic interests by selling fear — usually of minorities.
Mr. Trump invaded Sanders territory Thursday with typically amusing results. The candidate claimed that 25,000 people showed up for his speech in Burlington, although the police chief estimated the crowd at 2,000. The 1,400-seat Flynn Center was nonetheless too small to accommodate the waiting ground, so organizers demanded that attendees express their loyalty to the great man to gain admittance. Protesters got in anyway, some of whom loudly proclaimed their support of Senator Sanders before being escorted out.
The destructive anger of Mr. Trump will continue to resonate, but Senator Sanders risks becoming a one-trick pony. Larry David's "Saturday Night Live" impression of the blustering senator resonates for reasons that go beyond the comedian's gift for mimicry. He needs to vary his tone and talk more about the environment and foreign policy.
If the senator becomes a self-caricature, his candidacy will suffer, and that would be unfortunate. Senator Sanders has a message that resonates, solutions that are workable, and an impressive record as a long-serving public official. His presence elevates a presidential campaign in desperate need of a higher tone.