Her neighbors live in rural Arkansas, ground zero for nihilism, American-style. Their worst enemy is Elizabeth Warren, the Plan lady who not only thinks she can improve rural education and health care, but who thinks people in rural Arkansas want to improve them. Au contraire: they appear to like the chaotic destructionism of Trump. “[M]any here seem determined to get rid of the last institutions trying to help them.”

The intense hostility to political establishments of all kinds among what could be called “chaos voters” helps explain what Pew Research and others have found: a growing distrust among Republican voters of higher education as well as empirically based science, both of which are increasingly seen as allied with the liberal establishment.

As for caring whether Trump betrays Kurds and Ukrainians: “It’s an attitude that is against taxes, immigrants and government, but also against helping your neighbor.” If they’re not going to care about their neighbor, imagine how they feel about Kurds and Ukrainians.


Matt Taibbi puts it like this:

Implicit in this campaign of bureaucratic dismantling has been the message that pandemonium is a price Trump is very willing to pay, in service of breaking the “disaster” of government. Many of his top appointees have been distinguished by their screw-it-all mentality.

  The world is ending, so fuck it, let’s party. As crazy as it is, it’s a seductive message for a country steeped in hate and pessimism. Democrats still don’t understand it.

Think of the final scenes of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. The world is ending (nuclear annihilation), so the inhabitants of the last city the fallout will reach stage endless insane suicidal car races, where drivers who have nothing to lose gun their engines until the final spectacular flame-out.

Leaving nuanced definitions to the philosophers, I would define nihilism as a combination of three basic elements: a refusal to hope for anything except the ultimate vindication of hopelessness; a rejection of all values, especially values widely regarded as sacrosanct (equality, posterity, and legality); and a glorification of destruction, including self-destruction—or as Walter Benjamin put it, “self-alienation” so extreme that humanity “can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure.” Nihilism is less passive and more perverse than simple despair. “Nihilism is not only despair and negation,” according to Albert Camus, “but, above all, the desire to despair and to negate.”

A nihilist is someone who dedicates himself to not giving a shit, who thinks all meanings are shit, and who yearns with all his heart for the “aesthetic pleasure” of seeing the shit hit the fan. Arguing with a nihilist is like intimidating a suicide bomber: The usual threats and enticement have no effect. I suspect that is part of the appeal for both: the facile transcendence of placing oneself beyond all powers of persuasion. A nihilist is above you and your persnickety arguments in the same way that Trump fancies himself above the law.

Another go at it:

[Evidence suggests a] significant share of Trump supporters are as nihilistic and destructive as Donald Trump himself, [which] supplies a sort of Occam’s-razor answer to all the questions about why they put up with him: His worst traits are a feature, not a bug, for those who take pleasure in chaos.

Democrats still don’t understand it, says Taibbi. Okay, so let’s zoom in a bit:

Self-destruction is apparently many Arkansans’ middle name. If they’re not panting piously after the end of days, they’re offing themselves with opiates, or putting one of their abundant guns to their heads. They make the Sex Pistols look like the Lennon Sisters. The Donald Trump Show is what they’re laughing at on tv while kissing their ass goodbye, exactly like their fellow end-stagers from states with similarly massive gun ownership/suicide rates (Montana, Alaska, Wyoming). We’re killing ourselves! But before we do, we’re voting Trump.


And on that chaos thing. UD has always liked William Arrowsmith’s comment about an education in the humanities:

[The] humanities are largely Dionysiac or Titanic; they cannot be wholly grasped by the intellect; they must be suffered, felt, seen. This inexpressible turmoil of our animal emotional life is an experience of other chaos matched by our own chaos. We see the form and order not as pure and abstract but as something emerged from chaos, something which has suffered into being. The humanities are always caught up in the actual chaos of living, and they also emerge from that chaos. If they touch us at all, they touch us totally, for they speak to what we are too.

So, you know, distrust higher education all you like. But be aware that it’s trying to make some serious moves against your chaos, that its novels and poems both acknowledge the foundational reality, and exploit the generative energy, of that chaos as we seek to emerge from it, on occasion, into form and order. Into organized life.

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18 Responses to ““[T]he impeachment scandal will not hurt Mr. Trump — and … Democrats who promise to make the lives of people like my neighbors better might actually help him.””

  1. theprofessor Says:

    The Plan Lady closely resembles many a liberal faculty member who jumps to administration in order to impose their vastly superior wisdom on higher ed–and then proceeds to destroy whole institutions, because they have never done one fucking real thing in their entire lives. Were it not for her Great Big Lie, the blond, blue-eyed faux Indian wannabe dictator would still be ensconced in a third-tier law school, cadging some extra bucks by advising the companies she professes to despise on how to beat ambulance-chasing lawsuits.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Hey tp: I take it you don’t like her.

  3. Stephen Karlson Says:

    Bastiat: the state is that grand fiction where everyone attempts to live at the expense of everyone else.

    Clinton, Arkansas (and a lot of other places that have screwed up an energy boom or otherwise been left behind): the end game once the fiction is clear.

  4. David Foster Says:

    “a growing distrust among Republican voters of higher education as well as empirically based science”…just to focus on the second part of that: most of the high-profile anti-vaxxers that I’ve seen expressing themselves publicly are far from Republican. They tend to be Hollywood celebrities and the like, with the usual constellation of political opinions that goes along with that identity

    There was an interesting study recently that suggested the anti-vax belief sets varied less between Republicans and Democrats than between the more-moderate and more-extreme supporters of each party. That is, on that issue, an extreme “liberal” and an extreme “conservative” (as measured by some scale) had more in common than a more moderate version of each.

    Also: a very high % of anti-GMO activists are on the Left. I hardly think that fear of GMOs can be put down to “empirical science.”

    Nuclear: one would think that those who are most worried about CO2-driven climate change would support nuclear energy. But liberals and “progressives” are generally hostile toward nuclear, and don’t seem to have much interest in, for example, France’s experience in generating 70% of its electricity via nuclear, and doing so safely.

    (Thomas Edison attempted to suppress the Tesla/Westinghouse AC power distribution system in favor of his own DC-based distribution by using extremely sleazy fear-based tactics. In today’s political climate, he probably would have gotten away with it)

  5. Margaret Soltan Says:

    David: All good points. The difference is that the particular ‘chaos’ voters featured here display an extremity of nihilistic self- and world-destruction that few anti-vaxxer, anti-GMOer, or anti-nuclear types will display.

  6. Ravi Narasimhan Says:

    Freedom’s just another word for nothin’left to lose.

  7. EB Says:

    Trump got 60% of the vote in Arkansas in 2016, the same percentage as Romney in 2012. Let’s not be so apocalyptic. Let’s build on the other 40%.

  8. Margaret Soltan Says:

    EB: I agree that despite some of the dire thinking about the region, there might be something to work with there.

  9. David Foster Says:

    Is there really more nihilism and suicidal behavior in rural Arkansas than in, say, Baltimore or Chicago? I’d expect that quite a lot of it can be found in New York City and nearby New Jersey, within a few miles of the NYT offices. But, of course, dysfunctionality in those environments can’t be tied to voting for Trump or other Republicans.

    re the definition of nihilism: ” a refusal to hope for anything except the ultimate vindication of hopelessness; a rejection of all values, especially values widely regarded as sacrosanct (equality, posterity, and legality); and a glorification of destruction, including self-destruction”…I’d say that this has largely describes much of the Left over recent decades. Asserting that all of American history and accomplishments are about nothing but racism? Taking down pictures of scholars and leaders because they are just ‘Dead White Males’? Asserting that even something as purely intellectual is really about race? Demanding gender transition for 7-year-olds, who aren’t allowed to even choose their own bedtimes? These are phenomena almost entirely of the Left.

    Returning to ’empirical science’, here’s a woman, a zoologist, who counts polar bears. Her results are considered politically unacceptable, so the cool kids, as they doubtless consider themselves, have attacked her career.


    Note the comment by a ‘liberal’, cited in the post, about his ongoing (successful) efforts to have dissenting academics fired.

    Attempts at ‘deplatforming’, and worse, are characteristic of today’s Left, and actual scientific analysis is all too often of less interest than enforcement of ideological conformity. So I’m not too impressed with assertions by Leftists of their commitment to Science, which they all too often seem to view as a priesthood rather than as a set of methodologies.

  10. TAFKAU Says:

    Wow, something about this post has turned the comments section into a series of contributions from the fine folks who visit Reddit. I never thought I’d see Powerline cited here, but since it was, here’s some background from the leading news source in Professor Crockford’s home country (the CBC) indicating that her “research” is, well, a crock:

    “About 80 per cent of denier blogs cited the work of University of Victoria zoologist Susan Crockford, even though she has published almost no peer-reviewed research on polar bears and hasn’t done any field studies.”

    And I don’t know how I had previously missed the odd stylings of someone who claims to be a professor:

    “The Plan Lady closely resembles many a liberal faculty member who jumps to administration in order to impose their vastly superior wisdom on higher ed–and then proceeds to destroy whole institutions, because they have never done one fucking real thing in their entire lives.”

    First, please name one such institution (Burlington College doesn’t count; Jane Sanders was not a faculty member in any meaningful sense). Second, all of us who are academics have done well more than “one fucking real thing in [our] entire lives,” and if you’re going to show up at a site by and (largely) for academics, you’re going to have to come at us with something a little more sophisticated than that.

  11. David Foster Says:

    TAFKAU…ad hominem, much?

    I rarely read Reddit.

    The tone of your comment is all too common of political ‘dialogue’ there days. Certainly not typical of the commenters on this blog.

    Susan Crockford’s blog is here:


  12. TAFKAU Says:

    I thought Reddit was simply another right-wing blog given to smearing “the left” with ridiculous cherry-picked claims. My wife tells me it’s a bit darker than that, so I’ll apologize choosing Reddit without really knowing too much about it.

    That said, it is baseless and insulting to roughly 40% of the U.S. population to claim that “much of the left” believes:

    ▪ All of American history and accomplishments are about nothing but racism (almost nobody on “the left” believes that)

    ▪Taking down pictures of scholars and leaders because they are just “dead white mails” (um, no, usually they are dead white leaders did something awful; I’m not a fan of a lot of these movements, but they aren’t about attacking innocent deceased Caucasians)

    ▪Demanding gender transition for 7-year Olds (seriously? You believe “much of the left” supports this? Even the case you found on whatever site is not Reddit is misreported; nobody is suggesting physical gender transition for a 7 year old)

    These are not “phenomena almost entirely of the left.” They are phenomena that are virtually non-existant and to say otherwise is a smear of decent people with whom you happen to disagree

  13. David Foster Says:

    “(um, no, usually they are dead white leaders did something awful)”

    Something awful, like making major contributions to the progress of medicine?


    “(The former dean of Harvard Medical School) first noticed the blank walls several weeks ago, but he wrote that he believes removing the portraits was a mistake. “What I experienced was not diversity, but sterility,” he wrote in the op-ed. He reports that senior professors told him discussion about the issue was “no longer possible.”

    This sentiment led him to write the op-ed. On Twitter, Dr. Flier wrote: “More than anything else, it was the explicit fear of speaking out against this by faculty at all levels that drove me to write this piece. I felt I had to do this, and that others more vulnerable to false criticism might then speak their minds.””

    This **explicit fear of speaking out** seems to be increasing in many places, and it is indeed being largely driven by people on the Left…such as the commenter I mentioned earlier who makes an avocation out of getting people fired. (Which doesn’t mean that *all* people on the Left, or even most, behave this way, but that this behavior pattern is a lot more common on the Left than on the other side at this point of time.)

    Re gender reassignment and children, see CBS:


  14. Professor Jonah Says:

    “So, you know, distrust higher education all you like. But be aware that it’s trying to make some serious moves against your chaos…”

    Respectfully, this positive note in defense of higher education is very difficult to square with more than a decade of blog posts devoted to exposing financial and ethical corruption, terrible teachers with terrible ideas, fake or compromised academic programs, and the pointless, wasteful worship of college sports. If those of us who know the system don’t trust the people and institutions of American higher education, why should we expect people in Arkansas to do so?

  15. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Professor Jonah: Excellent remark. But note this blog’s tagline: To change things. And note that a careful reading of this blog will yield many posts praising great universities, colleges, and professors. I do what I do to make what is already by far the world’s best higher ed system better. I hope it comes through to my readers that I love and am very, very grateful to American higher ed, and that like many professors I’ve watched in real time as lives were changed at universities. But it’s destructive to pretend destructive things aren’t happening in universities – on the contrary, those things should be ridiculed and attacked so one can do one’s bit perhaps in stopping them. Only if Arkansan nihilists think corrupt/crappy institutions thrive and no one is resisting them are we… whatever. Doomed.

  16. TAFKAU Says:

    Time to move on, so I’ll just say this: if we want to cherry pick extremely rare examples of outrageous behavior, we can attribute all sorts of horribleness to our political opponents. Nothing you’ve mentioned is representative of “the left.” I would challenge you to find three Democrats in Congress who believe any of this. On the other hand, climate denialism is the modal view held not only by congressional Republicans, but also by their ridiculous president.

    (Additionally, science is not just a “set of methodologies.” It also describes the body of knowledge attributable to the proper use of those methodologies by experts. Climate science is science, and, whether our conservative friends like it or not, it is currently the best information with we have with which to inform our public policy decisions.)

  17. Prof. Jonah Says:

    UD: Thanks for your gracious response. I’ve seen lives changed for the better at universities too, but increasingly I wonder: At what cost? I still have tremendous faith in the humanities, literature, history, art, philosophy, theology, music, et al., to change lives, but the price has become too high, literally and figuratively: kids who are stressed out about college admissions in ninth grade; debilitating debt afterwards; exploited adjuncts and teaching assistants treated worse than fast food workers by people who can’t stop broadcasting their supposed progressive values on social media; vast endowments being hoarded for no real purpose; non-profit institutions being run more rapaciously than for-profit corporations….On balance, I’ve probably seen far more lives stunted, ruined, or misdirected than improved.

    None of this, I know, is news to you, but I’m no longer convinced that the university is the right place for the sort of educational and intellectual work I value, work that doesn’t seem to have a home anywhere in our culture at all. If I’m not exactly a conservative, Trump-voting Arkansan and I feel this way, I can’t see how someone in the Ozarks is going to be receptive to being told “I’m from academia and I’m here to help!”

  18. Dr. Doctorstein Says:

    Sorry to be so late to the party here, but I’d like to ask Dr. Jonah and others to remember the kinds of institutions attended by most American college students. These are not the Ivies. They’re not even Berkeley or UCLA. They’re regional/second-tier public universities and community colleges. They’re places like Truman State University in Missouri or Laguardia City College in Queens. They’re not places that students are obsessing about getting into or that leave them $100,000 in debt. Many of them are NCAA Division II or III, and while some of them are D-I and ludicrously overspending on sports, even there the great majority of their students spend their Saturdays working or studying. These institutions are not pointlessly hoarding endowments; in fact they could use a lot more in the way of donations and are likely being hurt by Harvard, which in addition to sucking up all the oxygen is probably convincing many that *all* colleges and universities are swimming in cash. These institutions are not ruining lives, they’re doing a tremendous amount of good. So cheer up a little, everyone.

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