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.

What Are Conservatives Actually Debating?

What the strange war over “David French-ism” says about the right.

In March the religious journal First Things published a short manifesto, signed by a group of notable conservative writers and academics, titled “Against the Dead Consensus.” The consensus that the manifesto came to bury belonged to conservatism as it existed between the time of William F. Buckley Jr. and the rise of Donald Trump: An ideology that packaged limited government, free markets, a hawkish foreign policy and cultural conservatism together, and that assumed that business interests and religious conservatives and ambitious American-empire builders belonged naturally to the same coalition.

This consensus was never as stable as retrospective political storytelling might suggest; even successful Republican politicians inevitably left many of its factions sorely disappointed, while conservative intellectuals and activists feuded viciously with one another and constantly discerned crises and crackups for their movement. But the crisis revealed or created (depending on your perspective) by our own age of populism seems more severe, the stresses on the different factions more serious, and it is just possible that the longstanding conservative fusion might be as dead as the First Things signatories argued.

Among them was Sohrab Ahmari, the op-ed editor at The New York Post, whose public career embodies some of those shifts and stresses: An immigrant whose family fled the Islamic Republic of Iran, he began his career on the right as an ex-Marxist secular neoconservative at The Wall Street Journal editorial page and has since become a traditionally inclined Catholic (a journey detailed in his striking memoir, “From Fire, By Water”) and also more Trump-friendly and populist into the bargain.

In the last week Ahmari has roiled the conservative intellectual world with a critique of something he calls David French-ism, after David French of National Review, another prominent conservative writer. This controversy, like the debate over Tucker Carlson and capitalism earlier this year, has been a full-employment bill for conservative pundits. But it probably seems impossibly opaque from the outside, since superficially Ahmari and French belong to the same faction on the right — both religious conservatives, both strongly anti-abortion, both deeply engaged in battles over religious liberty (where French is a longtime litigator). Indeed it is somewhat opaque even from the inside, prompting conservatives engaging with the dispute to wonder, “What are we debating?”

I’m going to try to answer that question here. We’ll see how it goes.

Basically the best way to understand the Ahmari-French split is in light of the old fusion, the old consensus, that the First Things manifesto attacked. French is a religious conservative who thinks that the pre-Trump conservative vision still makes sense. He thinks that his Christian faith and his pro-life convictions have a natural home in a basically libertarian coalition, one that wants to limit the federal government’s interventions in the marketplace and expects civil society to flourish once state power is removed. He thinks that believers and nonbelievers, secular liberals and conservative Christians, can coexist under a classical-liberal framework in which disputes are settled by persuasion rather than constant legal skirmishing, or else are left unsettled in a healthy pluralism. He is one of the few remaining conservatives willing to argue that the invasion of Iraq was just and necessary. And he opposes, now as well as yesterday, the bargain that the right struck with Donald Trump.

Ahmari, on the other hand, speaks for cultural conservatives who believe that the old conservative fusion mostly failed their part of the movement — winning victories for tax cutters and business interests while marriage rates declined, birthrates plummeted and religious affiliation waned; and appeasing social conservatives with judges who never actually got around to overturning Roe v. Wade. These conservatives believe that the current version of social liberalism has no interest in truces or pluralism and won’t rest till the last evangelical baker is fined into bankruptcy, the last Catholic hospital or adoption agency is closed by an A.C.L.U. lawsuit. They think that business interests have turned into agents of cultural revolution, making them poor allies for the right, and that the free trade and globalization championed by past Republican presidents has played some role in the dissolution of conservatism’s substrates — the family, the neighborhood, the local civitas. And they have warmed, quickly or slowly, to the politics-is-war style of the current president.

But what, specifically, do these conservatives want, besides a sense of thrill-in-combat that French’s irenic style denies them? I don’t think they are completely certain themselves; in a useful contribution to the Ahmari affair, R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, describes their animating spirit as a feeling that something else is needed in American society besides just classical-liberal, limited-government commitments, without any certainty about what that something ought to be.

Still, you can see three broad demands at work in their arguments. First, they want social conservatives to exercise more explicit power within the conservative coalition.

This may sound like a strange idea, since, after all, it is social conservatism’s growing political weakness, its cultural retreat, that led the religious right to throw in with a cruel sybarite like Trump. But there’s a plausible argument that even with its broader influence reduced, religious conservatism should still wield more power than it does in Republican politics — that it outsources too much policy thinking to other factions, that it goes along with legislation written for business interests so long as the promised judicial appointments are dangled at the end, and that it generally acts like a junior partner even though it delivers far more votes.

Jared Kushner SPEECHLESS After Reporter’s Question

Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior
adviser Jared Kushner he did a lot of
defending the president on a lot of
different topics on an interview with
Axios on HBO so let’s get right into it
because I want to show you what happened
when Kushner is asked whether he has
seen Trump do anything racist or bigoted
take a look so for the answer is no
absolutely not
you can’t not be a racist for 69 years
then run for president be a racist and
what I’ll say is that when a lot of the
Democrats call the president a racist I
think they’re doing a disservice to
people who suffer because of real racism
in this country I’m so imagine you have
the same reaction everyone else did
watching that luckily Jonathan Swan the
interviewer in this he had a pretty good
follow-up take a look was birtherism
racist um look I wasn’t really involved
in that I know you wouldn’t mm-hmm was
it racist like I said I wasn’t involved
in that I know you won mm-hmm was it
racist um look I know who the president
is and I have not seen anything in him
that is racist so again I was not
involved in that did you wish he didn’t
do that like I said I was not involved
in that that was a long time ago all
right so that’s his answer to the
follow-up I forget who did it my name is
John King who was like there was a
normal interview going on and then right
after this series of questions began
Jared forgot how to speak like how to
speak in complete sentences so hard to
lie I mean it is obviously affecting him
Jared who I didn’t think was capable of
human emotions I’m not sure I thought he
was capable of hunger maybe thirst okay
fear okay I guess that might have been
the driving factor there but like that I
just break down every single thing about
what happened there first he says that
the president was not racist for 69
years nice or however long it was right
and then suddenly is racist right but
but he has been raised
refusing to cop to that so was that
racist I wasn’t a part of this nobody
asked you you just claimed to know
everything about this man for the past
69 years yeah so were you there were you
now every single day absolutely he’s
that kind of guy and then he says it
does a disservice to people who have
suffered from actual racism which is
like an attempt at the kind of arguments
that conservatives try to make in order
to just confuse people it’s like using a
triple negative they’re just like I have
no idea what you’re saying
right but you seemed confident as you
said it but when you want to talk about
people who were actual victims of racism
how about all the people that weren’t
allowed to move into Trump buildings
because he had racist tenant policies
absolutely ridiculous I guess I don’t
know how else his son-in-law is supposed
to answer a yes or no question that
everyone knows but we have video proof
there are federal documents from of what
you’re talking about there’s a full-page
ad in The New York Times in 1989 like we
have actual proof of his racism there’s
a video of him on the campaign trail you
know so there’s actual proof but I guess
I can’t imagine his son-in-law answering
it but any other way wouldn’t it be
great if Jared was like yes thank you
finally yes he’s so racist right exactly
and then he went to dinner with George
Conway
it’s just with that relationship I
wonder how Trump can be okay with his
daughter marrying such a wiener such
like a limp wiener like that’s what it
is and the answer is probably uh he’s
from a big real estate family who did
better than mine but he’s never gonna
challenge me as the dominant figure in
my daughter’s life
great that’s I think this is the first
time I’ve really been able to figure out
what that relationship is like and all
his confidence in Jared Jared might just
be like an okay project manager but
never anything else and what we’ve seen
over and over again is that you’re okay
until you’re not he would Trump yeah so
who knows what the future holds
yeah I don’t know but I wouldn’t skip
ahead a little bit and talk about Russia
okay okay because uh he was also asked
about that infamous Rush
meeting and like just you know straight
up a flick why didn’t you report this to
the FBI why did you go why and there was
a bit of a back-and-forth it’s a I want
to show you here so the question from
swan is does it not set off some alarm
bells when you see an email that the
Russian government wants to help the
campaign Kushner says the email I got on
my iPhone said show up at 4:00 I didn’t
scroll down so on reminds him that it
had Russia in the subject line and then
still no copping to the reality of the
situation is right there you knew what
the meeting was gonna be about and so we
asked him if this happened again would
you report it to the FBI take a look at
his answer call the FBI happen again I
don’t know it’s hard to do hypotheticals
but the the reality is is that we were
not given anything that was salacious
this wouldn’t be hard for me to do
hypotheticals that is any precise
hypothetical where you say yes I would
because you’re hiding behind this
concept that you don’t know the rules
right and you’re just new to this but
the hypothetical answer should be I
would report it to the FBI it’s the
easiest thing to do unless you
consistently do get invites like this
and just don’t want to cop to that fact
right you’re right like you know that
it’ll happen again and you you know that
you won’t report it to the FBI otherwise
like I don’t see how this isn’t saying
yes immediately isn’t a good look for
the administration say yes of course we
would because we didn’t know what was
going on we had nothing to do with that
so of course we would but he doesn’t
want to answer any questions whatsoever
pursue I mean I just that moment when
they asked about the racism
yeah just like what what would you do
what I was not involved in that so you
you can’t make an assessment of
birtherism or any racist act whether it
was racist whether you wanted it to
happen whether you endorsed it because
you weren’t involved in it first of all
that’s like the tacit acknowledgement
and crappiness that allows racism to
persist because people aren’t able to
just say oh no that was bad it was
absolutely races it was absolution
absolutely racially motivated and and he
should just cop to that
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Trump’s ‘Legitimacy Complex’ At Risk Over NYT Reporting On Financial Losses | Deadline | MSNBC

Trump in
many ways built his career by suggesting
that the life story of his political
nemesis Barack Obama was a fraud it was
the birther stuff it was Trump
suggesting Obama had gotten affirmative
action to get into Harvard I mean there
is a parallel here to Trump’s life story
is now thanks to your colleagues great
reporting known to have been a fraud and
I think that this is one thing that you
hear from people talking about the Trump
campaign and what it will look like they
say a lot of stuff with Donald Trump is
baked in his view the way he speaks
about women this it’s not gonna change
voters they know who he is and they
accept who his supporters accept it they
like what he’s done in the economy and
and they they’ll overlook it but stories
like this that delve deep into his
background mean that you know you think
you know who Donald Trump is and it
turns out that you don’t exactly know
who Donald Trump is that it’s different
and the question is will this actually
change that baked-in stuff so they say
maybe I don’t know who this is
in terms of not paying taxes for a out
of those ten years I don’t know I mean
I’ve heard in the past when we heard he
didn’t pay taxes there was supported his
said it makes him look smart that he got
to beat the system
another another version of this though
as a candidate is now he is the system
he is the establishment so that’s
another problem for him running as the
establishment candidate not the guy who
rails against the establishment that he
was able to beat as a
a businessman but we’ll see how it
affects how it affects voters views of
him of who they think they know and
interesting last one here I mean Donald
Trump’s force we can always tell when
he’s been caught doing something and
even he knows this true he’s pushed back
to your colleagues reporting wasn’t that
it was inaccurate it was I’m so smart
I’m so smart I wrote these off so you’re
right the story goes on