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.

Kavanaugh Hearings on TV Offer Riveting Drama to a Captive Nation

Later came a Judge Kavanaugh who bore little resemblance to the milquetoast man on Fox News three nights earlier. Indignant and defiant, nostrils flaring, the judge unleashed a torrent of pain and grievance, at times unable to speak as he cried in front of a national audience.

.. Not all C-Span callers were sympathetic to Dr. Blasey. “She talks like she was raped,” said Sherry, a Republican in California who said she was sexually attacked at 17. “I’m going, ‘Was she raped or not?’ I don’t understand why she’s crying now.”

.. On the networks, commentators spoke of the day in historic terms. “Fifty years from now, people are going to be playing that exchange,” the CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said, singling out Dr. Blasey’s pained recollection of the boys who, she said, laughed as she was assaulted.

.. “This was extremely emotional, extremely raw, extremely credible,” Chris Wallace, the “Fox News Sunday” host, said of Dr. Blasey’s testimonial. Before lunchtime, he was calling the hearing “a disaster for the Republicans,” and Andrew Napolitano, a Fox News commentator who speaks occasionally with Mr. Trump, said, “The president cannot be happy with this.”

By evening, though, after Judge Kavanaugh’s tear-choked appearance, Mr. Wallace said the judge had delivered “exactly what a lot of people were hoping for.”

A Christian Nationalist Blitz

the mission has little to do with what most Americans would call religious freedom. This is just the latest attempt by religious extremists to use the coercive powers of government to secure a privileged position in society for their version of Christianity.

.. The idea behind Project Blitz is to overwhelm state legislatures with bills based on centrally manufactured legislation. “It’s kind of like whack-a-mole for the other side; it’ll drive ‘em crazy that they’ll have to divide their resources out in opposing this,” David Barton

.. more than 70 bills before state legislatures appear to be based on Project Blitz templates or have similar objectives.

..  allows adoption and foster care agencies to discriminate on the basis of their own religious beliefs. Others, such as a Minnesota bill that would allow public schools to post “In God We Trust” signs on their walls

.. The first category consists of symbolic gestures, like resolutions to emblazon the motto “In God We Trust” on as many moving objects as possible (like, say, police cars).

Critics of such symbolic gestures often argue that they act as gateways to more extensive forms of state involvement in religion. It turns out that the Christian right agrees with them.

“They’re going to be things that people yell at, but they will help move the ball down the court,” Mr. Barton said in the conference call.

A Former Neo-Nazi Explains Why Hate Drew Him In — And How He Got Out

you write that people don’t get into these kinds of groups or other kinds of terrorist groups so much because of ideology, but out of a personal need for community, identity, some kind of fulfillment. You didn’t come from a broken or abusive home. Where do you think your need came from?

PICCIOLINI: I felt abandoned by my parents, not understanding at that age that my parents as immigrants had to work seven days a week, 14 hours a day to survive in a foreign country. And as a young person, I just wondered what I had done to push them away and why they weren’t there. And I went in search of a new family. But you’re right. I don’t believe that ideology nor dogma are what drive people to extremism. I believe it’s a broken search for three very fundamental human needs of identity, community and purpose.

.. It was really the driving beats and the edginess of – and the angst that I was able to release through the music that was very appealing to me. I had already been a part of the punk rock subculture so I was already searching for something to express my anger. And when I heard Skrewdriver, when I heard this music that was coming over from England at the time, it allowed me to be angry because the lyrics gave me license to do that. And I very effectively then used lyrics myself when I started one of America’s first white-power bands to both recruit young people, encourage them into acts of violence and speak to the vulnerabilities and the grievances that they were feeling so that I could draw them in with promises of paradise even through my lyrics.

DAVIES: But when you were getting into this and you were hearing that Jews and blacks and Mexicans were the enemy, I mean, to what extent did that square with any of your own experience or opinions?

PICCIOLINI: Well, it didn’t start that way. It started out with Clark and several of the older skinheads in this group appealing to my sense of pride of being European, of being Italian. And then it would move on to instilling fear that I would lose that pride and that somebody would take that away from me if I wasn’t careful. And then it went on to name specific groups through conspiracy theories that were bent on taking that pride or that privilege away from me. So it was the fear rhetoric.

.. But I can tell you that every single person that I recruited or that was recruited around the same time that I did up to now, up to what we’re seeing today, is recruited through vulnerabilities and not through ideology.

.. There were disparate groups all around the country popping up after it started in Chicago, and the goal was to try and unify everybody. But that was the first time that I felt a sort of energy flow through me that I had never felt before, as if I was a part of something greater than myself. Even at 14 years old when I was desperately searching for that purpose, this seemed to fill it. And I certainly bought in.

DAVIES: And at this point, you had shaved your head and started wearing boots and took on the skinhead look?

PICCIOLINI: I did. And I noticed a change in my environment very quickly. The bullies who had marginalized me prior now would cross the street when they saw me coming because they feared me, and then I would begin to recruit them. And I noticed a very stark change in how people treated me, and I mistook that as respect when in reality it was fear and really not wanting to be involved with what I was involved in.

 

.. DAVIES: You know, the music has a lot of energy and a lot of anger to it. I mean, I – you know, it’s – how much of a connection is there that – between this kind of – the emotion of that kind of music and the violence of the movement, do you think?

PICCIOLINI: I think it’s very connected. At least, it was during the ’80s and ’90s. Music was the vehicle for propaganda. It was the incitement to encourage people to commit acts of violence, and it was a social movement. People would come in for the very few concerts that were held every year from all over the country or all over the world. And it was a way to gather. And still today, I believe that music is a very powerful tool that the movement uses to inspire vulnerable young people into a very hateful social movement.

 

..  You went to Germany and toured there with the band with some groups there. And there’s a point where you give a really evocative description of the skinhead rally where you say, it begins with speeches, and there’s lots and lots of beer-drinking throughout and then, you know, frenzied, you know, music and then eventually, sooner or later, fights break out among different groups who are in attendance or because someone was jealous over a romantic approach to somebody’s girlfriend. It doesn’t exactly sound like people were trying to put together a strategy for change, right? Either winning elections, or armed revolt or much of anything other than coming together and having these moments with each other which often ended in violence.

 

.. PICCIOLINI: Well, I don’t think that that’s correct. I do think that there were a lot of concerted strategies in the ’80s and ’90s that we’re seeing take hold today. We recognized in the mid ’80s that our edginess, our look, even our language was turning away the average American white racist, people we wanted to recruit. So we decided then to grow our hair out, to stop getting tattoos that would identify us, to trade in our boots for suits and to go to college campuses and recruit there and enroll to get jobs in law enforcement, to go to the military and get training and to even run for office.

And here we are 30 years later and we’re using terms like white nationalist and alt-right, terms that they came up with, by the way, that they sat around and said, how can we identify ourselves to make us seem less hateful? Back in my day when I was involved, we used terms like white separatists or white pride. But it certainly was neither one of those. It was white supremacy and – as is white nationalism or the alt-right today.

 

.. we ran businesses. We ran record labels. We ran record stores. We ran magazines that were glossy. We made videos before the Internet. I mean, it was for all intent and purpose a global movement that was highly organized but lacked a, you know, a very charismatic central figure.

 

.. Well, aside from just the indiscriminate violence that, you know, the acts that we committed on almost a daily basis against anybody – it didn’t really matter, there really wasn’t a reason – there were also times where we were involved in, you know, in planning armored car robberies, where we talked about that. There was a point in 1991 where I was approached by somebody representing Muammar Gaddafi, from Libya, who wanted to bring me to Tripoli to meet with him and accept some money to fund a revolution against the Jews in the United States.

And that’s something that’s always scared me because that set a precedent that I think that we will see more of in the future where we start to see some of these Islamist terror groups start to partner with these far-right groups.

And while that may sound crazy because they hate each other, unfortunately, their enemy, their number-one enemy is what they would consider the Jew. So I think it’s only a matter of time before we start to see these organizations begin to work with each other and start to spread their terror more globally.