The Role of Anger in Public Discourse

Anger has a place in the public arena when it is the appropriate emotional response to horrific events.

Anger has a place in the public arena when it is the appropriate emotional response to horrific events.

Donald Trump’s campaign speeches were often filled with fury in contrast to the muted, almost professorial pronouncements by Barack Obama. Trump vents through tweets. Obama has Luther, a comic “anger translator.”

Michael Grunwald, a senior writer for Politico Magazine, says the “cool-headed” Obama’s biggest failure during his presidency was not being angrier. The price, Grunwald suggests, was the election of the “ultimate anti-Obama” – an almost always angry Donald Trump.

Grunwald’s article lays out numerous examples of how Obama responded calmly to provocations, from ISIS beheadings to congressional obduracy to conduct a hearing on his Supreme Court nominee. The “hyper-rational” Obama,” Grunwald wrote, :is not comfortable fulminating of tweet-ranting or shaking his fists for the cameras. His rhetorical weapons of choice against Democratic critics as well as Republican opponents have been logic, dry sarcasm and persistent whining.”

And, Grunwald adds, it didn’t work.

The larger point is that emotions need to match circumstances. When dealing with a crisis, people expect an appropriate emotional response. If you a spokesperson announcing layoffs, people don’t want to see you smirk.

This suggests there can be a role in public discourse for anger. As Grunwald observes, “Trump obviously enjoys starting verbal brawls that fire up his base.” The president-elect may not be the role model others should emulate. That might fall to some of the targets of Trump’s tweets who responded vigorously and emotionally to his criticism. Their anger seemed justified and apropos.

Police chiefs often convey constrained anger when issuing statements in the wake of horrific crimes. We applaud their pledge to bring perpetrators to justice. We empathize with victims of accidents who express anger over the loss of loved ones or the belongings it took them a lifetime to accumulate. We understand the strong feelings of men or women who have been wronged through theft, deception or discrimination.

These anger points can become sparks that ignite legal, regulatory or legislative actions. They can inspire fundraising for victims or acts of kindness and care. They can raise awareness of an issue that has been hidden in the shadows and galvanize activists to pursue a solution.

Anger translates well into satirical comedy. Minority stand-up comedians have channeled the simmering anger of their core audiences by making fun of the stereotypes that make them angry.  All in the Family and the Colbert Report spoofed what angered many Americans, providing a cathartic release and a knowing eye.

Using anger constructively is not always easy.  And an angry response can misfire or backfire. Sometimes in the face of ridicule, it is best to be able the fray and turn the other cheek. But not always.

Anger has a place in public discourse. Trump has demonstrated how to cultivate public anger. Others have profited by doing the same thing. But unleashing anger can result in uncontrollable circumstances.

One lesson to take from Obama is the value of an anger translator. Keegan-Michael Key served that role for Obama. He translated the President’s typically understated defense of the free press at a DC event into a rant about the media over-hyping the Ebola outbreak and Congress ignoring climate change while throwing snowballs. For a moment, Obama broke into an angry screed. “Whoa,” Luther interjected. “Have you ever seen Obama look or sound that angry?”

Reserve your public anger for when it is the gunpowder you need to deliver your point, especially to an audience that is mad and wants to know the cause of their anger makes your blood boil, too.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.