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The nihilism meme is off and running in this (to quote Leon Panetta) “very screwy” presidential election, and UD follows with great interest the progress of that old warhorse down its latest track.

“Nihilism, American-Style,” Allan Bloom titled one of the chapters in The Closing of the American Mind, but he had something very specific in mind – the infiltration of high-level Nietzschean negation (of religion, values, meaning, knowledge) into the teaching of undergraduates in our universities. What people seem to have in mind when more and more of them, every day, refer to the nihilism to which Trump appeals, or which his personality and rhetoric have evoked in Americans, is something far more down-home – a visceral disgust with the current social/political scene – a disgust so intense it makes people simply want to destroy everything, and therefore makes poopoo-spewing Trump the avatar of choice.

What drives their loyalty to Trump — if not the person, at least the idea of Trump — is a sort of nihilism. As a close friend put it to me this week, “I don’t care whether Trump wins or not, I just want him to f— things up as long as he can.” … The Trump supporters have seen plenty of politicians with important agendas, but few with the zeal to push them through; at this late date, they would apparently prefer zeal without agendas to agendas without zeal.


[T]he voter nihilism that Trump both reflects and stimulates is a symptom of political decay. “He’s not perfect, but anyone would be better than this corrupt bunch,” is the sort of thing many Italians said, once upon a time, about Silvio Berlusconi, or Russians about Vladi­mir Putin, or Venezuelans about Hugo Chávez.

Let’s end the historical analogizing there; it’s enough to show how often the cry of “blow the system to hell” has gone up among peoples living in freedom and democracy, sometimes just before they lost both.


[Consider] Trump’s outrageous accusations of the press, his chronic lying, his glorification of political dictators and strongmen, and his repeated racist/sexist statements, triumphantly delivered at his rallies. These are not meant as arguments in a national debate about serious issues, these are acts of political vandalism delivered with glee and impunity. This is a political performance with the implicit message: See how far I dare to go! This is political behavior that comes straight out of the manual of the Russian nihilist Dmitri Pisarev, the one time inspiration for Lenin: “What can be smashed must be smashed; whatever will stand the blow is sound, what flies into smithereens is rubbish; at any rate, hit out right and left, no harm will or can come of it.”

[Recall Trump’s comment yesterday about some of the speakers at the Democratic National Convention: “You know what, I wanted to hit a couple of those speakers so hard. I would have hit them — no, no — I was gonna hit them… I was gonna hit one guy in particular, a very little guy. I was gonna hit this guy so hard, his head would spin. He wouldn’t know what the hell happened… I was going to hit a number of those speakers so hard, their heads would spin, they’d never recover. And that’s what I did with a lot of people — that’s why I still don’t have certain people endorsing me. They still haven’t recovered, okay, you know?”]

Just smash the reigning order. It’s all a “jolly laugh” for the nihilist.

Nihilism feels deeply resentful towards kindness, reason and open-mindedness. Its preferred currency is negativity; it has no positive vision of an even remotely attractive social and political order, and, more importantly, it does not even feel the need to have such a vision. Its preferred mode of communication is not conversation or even negotiation, but agitation, an excited mix of self-justification, accusation, denunciation, and rousing calls to action. It’s preferred political tactic is that of the scorched earth, “just smash the reigning order”. The ideal politician is the cocky hell-for-leather man, who “tells it as it is”, the crowd and the nihilist leader egging each other on in an ecstasy of liberated xenophobia.

… And here is the dilemma that political nihilism presents for the open democracies in which it currently thrives: as it is not about arguments, it cannot be countered with arguments. The register of political nihilism is emotion, symbols, charisma and performance. And performers need an audience. Nihilists like Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, the Dutchman Geert Wilders and the Austrian Heinz-Christian Strache, effectively tap into a miasma of free-floating anger and resentment…

UD thinks Brian Leiter, in the first fifteen minutes of this lecture on Nietzsche, does a very good job of explaining why American culture might devolve into the sort of enervated, self-hating, everything-hating nihilism that would grasp at the mindless charismatic ‘aesthetic’ option – in this case, the stimulating empty destroy-everything performance of Trump – as at least a way of continuing to feel alive. This emergent sensibility is a darker version of what people in earlier decades phrased the society of the spectacle or amusing ourselves to death. It’s where you go when your ‘eighties techno-passivity (tv, computer, film – one rigged-up Truman Show consumer spectacle after another) morphs into an ideology. Too much nothing eventually makes you desperately want something – any something. Zeal. Zeal without agendas. Pure agitation. Cocky hell-for-leather. But America is a very violent country, where millions and millions of people have home arsenals. Trump has a very violent imagination and he is charismatic.


Actually, not any something will do. The something can’t be anything having to do with traditional somethings – God, social progress, justice, love of humanity – because all of these, let’s say, have been, or are well on the way toward being, nihilized away… Why did the Democratic convention feature so many love-in, what-the-world-needs-now, lean-on-me performances? Because when all other vitalizing, motivating, foundations give way, you’re left with that one.

Did you watch long enough, last night, to catch that poor reverend at the end of the convention, trying to give the benediction? Did you hear what he said as the room continued to erupt with balloons? “I don’t know how I’m gonna pray in this chaos.” Not that the convention was chaotic; I thought it was great. But the spectacle, if you will, spoke multiple volumes to ol’ UD.

You won’t catch Trump farting around with prayer. He’s transcended it.


Nihilism is often hilarious, because it is so pretentious and at the same time such an empty infantile pose. Everyone loves The Nihilists in The Big Lebowski (Ve believes in nossing, Lebowski. Nossing. And tomorrow ve come back and ve cut off your chanson.); and if you were lucky enough to see Robin Williams and Bill Irwin in Waiting for Godot, you know what a laff riot that play is. Before Godot, there was the piss-yourself-giggling Ubu the King. And the nihilistic comedies of the ancient Greeks. Artists have always known that Hillarian moderation is much less stimulating than Trumpian over-the-tops and hysterias and absolutisms and extremisms.

And of course somehow at the same time nihilism has a certain plausibility as a way of thinking about or even feeling about existence. Christopher Hitchens got at this when he characterized what he considered male-tinged humor:

Nietzsche … described a witticism as an epitaph on the death of a feeling. Male humor prefers the laugh to be at someone’s expense, and understands that life is quite possibly a joke to begin with — and often a joke in extremely poor taste.

Nihilism wouldn’t be so funny if it were just pretentious and infantile; it needs the spin on it that a certain philosophical legitimacy gives it.


Yet our most Beckettian humorists have also always known that – in the words of Beckett himself – I can’t go on I’ll go on is the reality on the ground.

This is why, for UD, the realest moment of the Democratic National Convention came when Joe Biden, alluding to the death of his son, said

As Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterwards, many are strong at the broken places.”

Margaret Soltan, July 29, 2016 4:54PM
Posted in: democracy

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  1. JackOH Says:

    Yep. I’m thinking Trump = Ernst Juenger (very roughly). That long European peace from 1870 on was just so boring, it was time for a change. As in WWI, the critter that destroyed Western Civ (in my personal opinion). Okay.

    The quality of the people I know who support Trump is not good. They’re suck-ups and day-dreamers. Many of them are moral cowards who’ve never done anything on their own initiative to make things better. They want a big man to do it for them.

  2. dmf Says:

    nihilism is just the idea that there is no Meaning to Life, like how in Darwinism (Leiter reads Nietzsche as a naturalist which is useful but debatable)there is no Telos/Logos to biological evolution.
    Has nothing to do with being apocalyptic (too religious/theo-logical), nothing to do with political anarchy (tho shares the belief that there are no gods just alltoohuman people making it up as they go), certainly nothing to do with thuggish oligarchs or warlords.
    Bloom’s Romantic notions of Gnosticism (and those of his disciple Paglia)are rather toothless in the face of the political/economic/environmental collapses of the day tho Greil Marcus has put them to good use writing music criticism so if ya think that Bob Dylan was a prophet or a political revolutionary than I suppose that’s one way (pretty adolescent by my account) to go…

  3. JackOH Says:

    My first Trump-Pence TV ad brought my brain to a boil before my comment above. “American steel is coming back” theme. Awful, cheap manipulative grasping for the cheap seats.

    I live in a onetime inland basic steelmaking (from ore) area. Basic inland steelmaking is dead. Everyone with a brain here knows why. (Transportation costs vs. harbor-based mills, and these days, big Asian competitors.)

    Trump’s contempt for reality staggers me.

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