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.