The Nihilist in Chief

How our president and our mass shooters are connected to the same dark psychic forces.

What links Donald Trump to the men who massacred innocents in El Paso and Dayton this past weekend? Note that I said both men: the one with the white-nationalist manifesto and the one with some kind of atheist-socialist politics; the one whose ranting about a “Hispanic invasion” echoed Trump’s own rhetoric and the one who was anti-Trump and also apparently the lead singer in a “pornogrind” band.

Bringing up their differing worldviews can be a way for Trump-supporting or anti-anti-Trump conservatives to diminish or dismiss the president’s connection to these shootings. That’s not what I’m doing. I think Trump is deeply connected to what happened last weekend, deeply connected to both massacres. Not because his immigration rhetoric drove the El Paso shooter to mass murder in some direct and simple way; life and radicalism and violence are all more complicated than that. But because Trump participates in the general cultural miasma that generates mass shooters, and having a participant as president makes the problem worse.

The president’s bigoted rhetoric is obviously part of this. Marianne Williamson put it best, in the last Democratic debate: There really is a dark psychic force generated by Trump’s political approach, which from its birther beginnings has consistently encouraged and fed on a fevered and paranoid form of right-wing politics, and dissolved quarantines around toxic and dehumanizing ideas. And the possibility that Trump’s zest for demonization can feed a demonic element in the wider culture is something the many religious people who voted for the president should be especially willing to consider.

But the connection between the president and the young men with guns extends beyond Trump’s race-baiting to encompass a more essential feature of his public self — which is not the rhetoric or ideology that he deploys, but the obvious moral vacuum, the profound spiritual black hole, that lies beneath his persona and career.

Here I would dissent, mildly, from the desire to tell a mostly ideological story in the aftermath of El Paso, and declare war on “white nationalism” — a war the left wants because it has decided that all conservatism can be reduced to white supremacy, and the right wants as a way of rebutting and rejecting that reductionism.

By all means disable 8Chan and give the F.B.I. new marching orders; by all means condemn racism more vigorously than this compromised president can do. But recognize we’re dealing with a pattern of mass shootings, encompassing both the weekend’s horrors, where the personal commonalities between the shooters are clearly more important than the political ones. Which suggests that the white nationalism of internet failsons is like the allegiance to an imaginary caliphate that motivated the terrorists whose depredations helped get Trump elected in the first place. It’s often just a carapace, a flag of convenience, a performance for the vast TV-and-online audience that now attends these grisly spectacles, with a malignant narcissism and nihilism underneath.

And this is what really links Trump to all these empty male killers, white nationalists and pornogrind singers alike. Like them he is a creature of our late-modern anti-culture, our internet-accelerated dissolution of normal human bonds. Like them he plainly believes in nothing but his ego, his vanity, his sense of spite and grievance, and the self he sees reflected in the mirror of television, mass media, online.

Because he is rich and famous and powerful, he can get that attention with a tweet about his enemies, and then experience the rush of a cable-news segment about him. He doesn’t need to plot some great crime to lead the news; he just has to run for president. But having him as president — having him as a political exemplar for his party, and a cultural exemplar of manhood for his supporters and opponents both — is a constant ratification of the idea that we exist as celebrities or influencers or we don’t exist at all, and that our common life is essentially a form of reality television where it doesn’t matter if you’re the heel or hero so long as you’re the star.

One recurring question taken up in this column is whether something good might come out of the Trump era. I keep returning to this issue because unlike many conservatives who opposed him in 2016, I actually agree with, or am sympathetic toward, versions of ideas that Trump has championed — the idea of a

  • more populist and worker-friendly conservative economics, the idea of a
  • foreign policy with a more realpolitik and anti-interventionist spirit, the idea that
  • decelerating low-skilled immigration would benefit the common good, the idea that
  • our meritocratic, faux-cosmopolitan elite has badly misgoverned the republic.

But to take this view, and to reject the liberal claim that any adaptation to populism only does the devil’s work, imposes a special obligation to recognize the profound emptiness at the heart of Trump himself. It’s not as if you could carve away his race-baiting and discover a healthier populism instead, or analyze him the way you might analyze his more complex antecedents, a Richard Nixon or a Ross Perot. To analyze Trump is to discover only bottomless appetite and need, and to carve at him is like carving at an online troll: The only thing to discover is the void.

So in trying to construct a new conservatism on the ideological outline of Trumpism, you have to be aware that you’re building around a sinkhole and that your building might fall in.

The same goes for any conservative response to the specific riddle of mass shootings. Cultural conservatives get a lot of grief when they respond to these massacres by citing moral and spiritual issues, rather than leaping straight to gun policy (or in this case, racist ideology). But to look at the trend in these massacres, the spikes of narcissistic acting-out in a time of generally-declining violence, the shared bravado and nihilism driving shooters of many different ideological persuasions, is to necessarily encounter a moral and spiritual problem, not just a technocratic one.

But the dilemma that conservatives have to confront is that you can chase this cultural problem all the way down to its source in lonely egomania and alienated narcissism, and you’ll still find Donald Trump’s face staring back to you.

Exporting The Anti-Culture

I grew up in an American expat family living in a Persian Gulf monarchy. This is a place that underwent very rapid modernization in a short time, where the majority of the population literally went from dwelling in mud brick huts and scratching out a subsistence (usually as farmers or fishermen) to living in air-conditioned apartments and villas and working in climate-controlled office buildings, commuting between the two in cars on superhighways. All in the space of a single generation.

.. What struck me most in reading your coverage of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is how much the cultural decay he describes in Appalachia tracks with what I saw in the rural areas of the country where I lived.

.. Modernity, as conceived by Western society, is in the process of erasing Christianity, and it’s already made major inroads in wealthy, conservative Muslim countries.

.. I don’t buy the materialist explanation that ISIS is just a product of the discontents of modernity. Nor do I think that it’s necessarily the logical conclusion of Islam as a religion. ISIS and Al Qaeda are what happens when Muslims who are assimilated to modernity react against it, but retain its key principles.

.. Rieff considered our culture to be an “anti-culture” because it denies the things that any culture needs to sustain itself.

.. One of the themes of Rieff’s work on which I focused was his concept of anti-culture—the idea that in the twentieth-century West there had risen to social dominance not any particular culture but a suspicion of all cultures, which consisted in authoritative institutions and internalized psychological demands—you know, guilt. Nothing any longer regulated individual conduct except for the idea that nothing should regulate individual conduct.

.. it is rooted in an ideology that claims to be content-free, neutral, procedural—liberalism

.. Kalb sums up the ideology of liberalism as the enforcement of “equal freedom.”

.. The celebrating pastor spent a good five minutes excoriating the concept of same-sex marriage. It seemed strange, and viewed in isolation it was clearly out of place. But in cultural terms, it was understandable. The resurgent populism that we see so much of lately, and that is proving to create pliant material for power-seeking right-wing demagogues, represents the desperate cry of a culture under siege. This populism is the inchoate yelp of people whose cultural terms are failing them and are no longer validated by their social and political institutions. Like cornered Indians pushed into mountain retreats, many of our Middle Americans are retrenching

.. Does this mean that the Benedict Option will be the Christian equivalent of self-defined reservations?

.. Europeans who had been kidnapped by Natives and who grew accustomed to living tribally only very rarely could be persuaded to return to civilization. Many of them, when dragged back, longed to return to live in the more primitive way — and if given the chance, they returned to the tribe. Conversely, Natives brought to live among Europeans usually failed to thrive.



Resisting The Anti-Culture

Let’s face it: We now live in a world where refusing a man the right to expose himself in a woman’s toilet is enough to risk your city losing the right to host a football game.

.. The anti-culture warriors of this present age have very long, very strong arms and—unfortunately for the coming generations—very short sight. Just think of the Talibanic fury recently released on university campuses against any vestige of the past which does not conform to the exacting morality of the present.

Christians need to wake up to this. We have no culture to engage, let alone transform. It is thus time to drop the hip rhetoric of cultural engagement and transformation that comforts us that we are part of some non-existent dialogue and that grants the world of our opponents a dignity which it simply does not deserve.

.. He’s working from sociologist Philip Rieff’s definition of culture. For Rieff, any culture is defined by its “thou shalt nots” — that is, the things it forbids. This tells the people within a certain culture what is sacred and what is taboo. Culture is “a pattern of moral demands, a range of standard self-expectations about what we may and may not do, in the face of infinite possibilities.”

.. Modern Western culture is built on transgressing boundaries, on forbidding to forbid.

The center cannot hold because there is no center to be held.

.. Holding schoolchildren hostage to this perverse generation’s ideal of civil rights. Five years ago if you had said such an edict would come down from Washington, most people would not have believed it. Yet here we are.

.. Tomorrow it will mandate this in the public schools. And it will by no means stop there, not with this bunch, and certainly not with Hillary Clinton in the White House. It’s going to be one damn thing after another.

We no longer have a culture. We have chaos. And the people will accept it, because we have exchanged the culture we had for chaos, and we call it freedom.

I have never been the kind of conservative who thought of my government as a threat to me, my family, my faith, and my culture. That’s over.

.. It’s time to prepare for some very dark days. Those who still have a culture within them and their families and communities had better start digging in.

.. Whether Trump wins or loses, the Trump culture is ascendant. Whether in the person of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, we will get the President we deserve. The question is what next. Anyone who thinks that politics provides the primary answer to that question, is missing the larger reality.