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.

Why you still don’t understand the Green New Deal

Political news coverage tends to focus on strategy over substance, and that’s making it less likely that the public will agree on big policy ideas when we need them the most.

The Green New Deal is an ambitious proposal that outlines how the U.S. might begin transitioning towards a green economy over the next ten years. It includes steps like upgrading our power grid and renovating our transportation infrastructure. But most people watching news coverage likely don’t know what’s in the Green New Deal. And that’s because political news coverage tends to focus on strategy over substance, fixating on a bill’s political ramifications rather than its ability to solve a problem. That approach to news coverage is known as “tactical framing,” and research shows it makes audiences at home more cynical and less informed about big policy debates. The result is a cycle of partisanship, where solutions to big problems like climate change are judged on their political popularity rather than their merit.

The Effect of Facebook’s Social Media Silo on Itself and You

You reinforce the walls of your personal information bubble. At least, that’s what SUNY Buffalo communication professor Ivan Dyelko and his research team found. In “The dark side of technology: An experimental investigation of the influence of customizability technology on online political selective exposure,” Dyelko and his coauthors report that people are much more likely to click and spend time on articles that reflect their pre-existing biases. In the tests they did, the only group that was likely to spend significant time reading articles that challenged their beliefs was the one in which the news feed was randomized, not weighted by user preference or an algorithm based on prior user behavior. Ask yourself: Do any of your social media services or search engines work on randomization? Or do they all show you what they think you want to see?

So what? Unlike a certain search engine that weights results instead of providing organic returns to user inquiry, social media companies are now shrugging sheepishly and saying, “Yeah, we totally contributed to the siloing of social discourse. Um. Sorry?” (It helps that there’s a study that points out their role in the media failures of 2016.)

.. Who cares? Social media investors should. Facebook is considered a great long-term stock buy right now because it’s virtually monopolizing a market—MySpace is an also-ran, Google+ is a niche product, and LinkedIn was bought so it could become a data collection mechanism for Microsoft’s suite of machine learning-enhanced workplace tools. But Facebook’s monopoly depends on it maintaining its user base of 1.9 billion active users, all of whom generate monetizable content for Facebook. If those users perceive a reason to flee Facebook—if they feel it’s biased, untrustworthy, routinely violating their safety or creating social friction—then the data sets Facebook sells to advertisers and publishers become less valuable, meaning the company eventually loses value.

We’ve already seen this happen with Twitter. Google, Disney and Salesforce all backed away from buying the microblogging company in 2016 for two reasons: Twitter hasn’t been able to successfully monetize its users (unlike Facebook), and Twitter has a growing reputation among current and former users as being unconcerned with the quality of user experience. That experience doesn’t just include the bullying endemic to Twitter; it also includes the content of the tweets themselves. On Twitter, nobody knows if you’re a robot someone paid to promote a specific ideology.

.. And you, dear reader, should care about your filter bubble potential, too. As a recent New York Times op-ed on the virtues of hate-reading reasoned, “Reading what you hate helps you refine what it is you value, whether it’s a style, a story line or an argument… Defensiveness makes you a better reader, a closer, more skeptical reader: a critic. Arguing with the author in your head forces you to gather opposing evidence. You may find yourself turning to other texts with determination, stowing away facts, fighting against the book at hand. You may find yourself developing a point of view.”

If you are the type of person who has actually woken up out of a fitful sleep saying, “And you’re wrong!”—and I’m going to guess, based on the self-selecting nature of people who read So What, Who Cares, every one of you has lost sleep at least once because someone was wrong on the Internet—then you are going to want to be right when you argue on the Internet or in your daily life. Being right requires identifying our own bubble, admitting why you’ve chosen to live in it, and then looking for the points of view that poke at it to see what breaks and what holds true.

Donald Trump broke the conservative media

“If in 96 days Trump loses this election, I am pointing the finger directly at people like [House Speaker] Paul Ryan and [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham and John McCain and John Kasich and Ted Cruz — if he won’t endorse — and Jeb Bush and everybody else that made promises they’re not keeping,” Hannity exclaimed, later threatening to endorse Ryan’s far-right primary challenger.

.. In fact, throughout the election season, it has appeared that Republicans have fielded more attacks from their supposed friends on the right than their political opponents on the left.

.. “The analogy that I think of is somebody who has a baby alligator in their bathtub and they keep feeding it and taking care of it,” said Charlie Sykes, a popular conservative talk show host in Wisconsin. “And it’s really cute when it’s a baby alligator — until it becomes a grown-up alligator and comes out and starts biting you.”

.. three key forces: Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and Matt Drudge.

.. Simultaneously, the conservative news media sought to lock in its audience by characterizing the mainstream press as an industry comprising dishonest liberals — something with which the GOP was more than happy to go along.

.. “What it became, essentially, was they were preaching this is the only place you can get news. This is the only place you can trust. All other media outlets are lying to you. So you need to come to us,”

.. To avoid being called a RINO (Republican in name only), a Republican would have to take a hardline conservative position on nearly every issue. If, say, they were to hold conservative positions on 90% of the issues, the conservative press would focus on the 10% where there was disagreement.

.. only one candidate could be conservative enough to support for president: Cruz.

.. But something went awry. The most aggressive right-wing members of the conservative press — the members who constantly lambasted certain Republicans for not toeing the hard-right line on every issue — got behind perhaps the most unlikely candidate of all: Donald Trump.

.. “We have reached the bizarro-world point where, for all intents and purposes, conservatives are RINOs,” said John Ziegler, a nationally syndicated conservative talk show host who called Andrew Breitbart a friend. “There is no place now for real conservatives. We’ve also reached the point, I say, we’ve left the gravitational pull of the rational Earth, where we are now in a situation where facts don’t matter, truth doesn’t matter, logic doesn’t matter.”

.. “You look at someone who a few cycles might have been derided as a right-wing lunatic, now they aren’t conservative enough,”

.. he believed some conservative pundits were “just drawn to Trump’s style more than policies.”

.. “I think that some of them just like Trump and were willing to cut him some slack on his shifting of positions because he’s a fighter and they like that,”

.. Ratings may have also played a role, according to conservative talkers who refused to jump aboard the Trump train.

.. Hannity in particular has faced criticism from some colleagues in the conservative-media sphere who allege he has been too cozy with Trump. Ziegler, the conservative radio host, said there’s “there’s no question” a “monetary element” drove coverage overall.

.. “Hannity is desperate for every ratings crumb on the Fox News Channel. … It’s all about ratings,” he said. “Hannity is not particularly talented, he’s not a smart guy — he used to just be a Republican talking points talk show host who happened to be in the right place at the right time. So he’s very vulnerable at any time.

.. while there are other outlets that belong to the conservative media apparatus, they lack the influence of the hard right. The National Review or Weekly Standard might earn the eyeballs of elites in Washington, but those in the heartland seem to prefer the style of the more aggressive pro-Trump outlets.

.. That has left conservatives who oppose Trump in a tricky position when trying to get their message to supporters. No longer can Ryan or Cruz turn to Hannity for a softball interview. They can’t work with Breitbart or rely on Drudge to help with their legislative agenda.

These Republicans have effectively been exiled from the conservative news media

.. “We have taught conservatives for many years to trust nothing other than what they hear in conservative media. Yet the conservative media has now proven to be untrustworthy.”