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.

How 9 “Art of the Deal” quotes explain the Trump presidency

  • On a daily schedule: “I try not to schedule too many meetings. I leave my door open. You can’t be imaginative or entrepreneurial if you’ve got too much structure. I prefer to come to work each day and just see what develops.”
  • On flexibility: “I never get too attached to one deal or one approach. For starters, I keep a lot of balls in the air, because most deals fall out, no matter how promising they seem at first.”
  • On the press: “One thing I’ve learned about the press is that they’re always hungry for a good story, and the more sensational the better. It’s in the nature of the job, and I understand that. The point is that if you are a little different, or a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you.
  • On exaggeration: “The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration, and a very effective form of promotion.”
  • On fighting back: “[W]hen people treat me badly or unfairly or try to take advantage of me, my general attitude, all my life, has been to fight back very hard. The risk is you’ll make a bad situation worse, and I certainly don’t recommend this approach to everyone. But my experience is that if you’re fighting for something you believe in — even if it means alienating some people along the way — things usually work out for the best in the end.”
  • On results: “You can’t con people, at least not for long. You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotion and get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole. But if you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.”
  • On competing: “I’m the first to admit that I am very competitive and that I’ll do nearly anything within legal bounds to win. Sometimes, part of making a deal is denigrating your competition.”

Trump and Kelly deserve each other

Trump’s first definition, in the person of Reince Priebus, was as an executive who preferred to surround himself with toadies constitutionally incapable of standing up to him and prepared to pay the price of slathering him with praise. The most vivid illustration came during Trump’s first full Cabinet meeting, in June, when Priebus gushed, “We thank you for the opportunity and the blessing that you’ve given us to serve your agenda and the American people.”

Just as Priebus revealed Trump’s insatiable desire for stroking, Kelly illustrated his unsettling attraction to strongmen.

.. The problem, as it turned out, was that Kelly not only reinforced some of Trump’s worst instincts — he displayed them himself. Where Trump resisted condemning white separatists protesting the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville last summer, Kelly followed a few months later with a paean to Lee as “an honorable man” and asserting that “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.”

.. Kelly seems to share Trump’s inclination to escalate and allergy to apology. After Kelly attacked Florida Democrat Rep. Frederica S. Wilson as an “empty barrel” and a video showed that he had misrepresented her comments, Kelly vowed he would “never” apologize.

.. He cared more about keeping one of the few capable people inside the West Wing at his side than about having an accused abuser on the staff.
.. When the Porter story broke, Kelly’s response was classic, Trumpian bravado: to urge Porter to fight on and issue a statement praising him as “a man of true integrity and honor.”

Bannon’s departure is unlikely to calm the turmoil in Trump’s White House

Trump predicted Bannon would be “a tough and smart new voice at @BreitbartNews . . . maybe even better than ever before,” adding: “Fake News needs the competition!”

.. Several friends and former co-workers said that they expect Bannon to use the platform to attack his political opponents, including those he has derided as “globalists” and Democrats inside the White House.

“I think Steve is going to be more effective on the outside,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a longtime friend of Bannon. “On the outside, if you are well-funded and you are feared and you have a platform, you are going to be a power player. Steve has all of that in spades.”

.. Trump and Bannon associates also expect Bannon to continue to have Trump’s ear, as has been the case with some other fired staffers such as Corey Lewandowksi, Trump’s first campaign manager, who periodically shows up at the White House.

“With Donald Trump, once he likes you, you’re either in his inner orbit, or you’re in his outer orbit,” said Christopher Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax Media and a member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla. “You never leave altogether.”

.. “What it does not do is remove the person who’s creating the most drama in the White House, and that’s Donald Trump,” the strategist added. “He’s going to continue to do what he’s going to do.”

.. On most of these issues, there is no evident strategy among Republicans on either side of Pennsylvania Avenue for bridging divisions and bringing Trump and congressional Republicans together.

.. Trump has grown increasingly unhappy with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and rarely mentions House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) in private conversations, blaming both for his legislative troubles

.. a flurry of bravado-filled interviews with Bannon appeared on various websites, including one in which he said he felt as if “I’ve got my hands back on my weapons” and was prepared to “crush the opposition.”

.. Advisers to senior congressional Republicans were taken aback that none of the combative language was countered by the White House.

“They just sat out there,” said one Republican aide. “That told me everything about whether the White House actually cares about making clear it’s on our side.”

.. Ever since Priebus left, many Republican officials have found it harder to engage the White House and to feel assured that the administration “understands the language of Republicans,”

Trump Has Putin over a Barrel

Senator John McCain said on a Sunday talk show that “Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country.”

..But with energy prices falling, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has essentially been in a recession over the past four years. With oil at $50 a barrel or less, Russian budgets plunge deeper into debt. It’s even doubtful the Russians have enough money to upgrade their military-energy industrial complex.

.. Through crafty media relations and his own bravado, a deluded Putin struggles to maintain the illusion that Russia is a strong economic power. But it ain’t so. Not even close.

.. He said, “if we do not have strong families and strong values, then we will be weak and we will not survive.”

.. But in an absolutely key part of the speech, he took direct aim at Vladimir Putin’s energy bullying. Trump said, “We are committed to securing your access to alternative sources of energy so Poland and its neighbors are never again held hostage to a single supplier of energy.” Italics are all mine.

.. Trump wants America to achieve energy dominance. He withdrew from the costly Paris climate accord, which would have severely damaged the American economy. He directed the EPA to rescind the Obama Clean Power Plan, which would have led to skyrocketing electricity rates. He fast-tracked the Keystone XL pipeline. He reopened the door for a modernized American coal industry. He’s overturning all the Obama obstacles to hydraulic fracturing, which his presidential opponent Hillary Clinton would have dramatically increased. And he has opened the floodgates wide to energy exports.

.. Right now, U.S. oil reserves are almost in parity with those of Saudi Arabia. We have the second-most coal reserves in the world. There are enough U.S. gas reserves to last us a century. We have already passed Russia as the world’s top natural-gas producer. We are the world’s top producer of oil and petroleum hydrocarbons. And exports of liquified national gas are surging, with the Energy Department rapidly approving new LNG projects and other export terminals.

.. Trump made it clear that America’s energy dominance will be used to help our friends across Europe. No longer will our allies have to rely on Russian Gazprom supplies with inflated, prosperity-killing prices.

.. the businessman president fully intends to destroy Russia’s energy-market share. And as that takes hold, Russia’s gas-station economy will sink further.

.. And as that takes hold, bully-boy Putin will have to think twice about Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltics. He’ll have to think twice about his anti-American policies in the Middle East and North Korea.