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.

Capitalism in America: Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge in Conversation with Gillian Tett

it’s useful to understand how the system
works and the key turning point is a
very remarkable period it’s William
Jennings Bryan William Jennings Bryan in
1896 was a fairly young 36 year old
Nebraskan who got up in the middle of
that particular I guess you could say
Association of then the Democratic Party
and it was the one of those
extraordinary events which turns
politics around the Democratic Party was
a highly conservative party prior to
them and essentially it’s characterized
by presidents who thought that the least
government the best it was essentially
lazy fair he got up Bryan got up and
made this extraordinary speech which is
now historical and then cross of gold
speech about the American worker and the
American farmer of being crucified on a
cross of gold called being the gold
standard and that propelled him
strangely enough into the head of the
party he got nominated he never became
president because he kept losing
you think he went three times and failed
each time but left a very major
indelible stamp which led to Woodrow
Wilson and all the way through to
Franklin Roosevelt and I you know I
looked at Bryan as the root of Franklin
Roosevelt’s New Deal
that’s fascinating cause I think most
people that part of it’s often being
obscured in history it’s again one of
the reasons why this book is so
interesting is it throws up these
creating the existing tax pattern [M]y
view is that that’s the right thing to
do provided you funded the result of
that is a bit of variance is going to be
a very large federal budget deficit and
federal budget deficits invariably down
the road out qualification in gender
inflation at the moment we have the
tightest labor market I have ever seen
that is the number of job openings is
significantly greater than the number of
people looking for work and that must
inevitably begin to push on wages it
always has and always will but it’s
always delayed
and my told you that is something has
got to give and that’s I don’t know
where it all comes out well your blyat
comes out with inflation well the
problem basically is if we do nothing
we’re going to end up with probably
stagflation which is an inflation rate I
should say it’s partly stagnation which
as mentioned was very significantly
slowed output per our output per hour
now which used to be 3/4 percent per
year
back in the early post-world war ii
period it’s now well under 1% which
brings me very nicely on to the next
question from the audience which is
someone has asked for you to share your
thoughts about president Trump’s recent
criticism of Jay Powell and the Fed I
like him to answer that with all the
answers I think it’s very short-sighted
the issue of the Federal Reserve is
required by the Congress to maintain a
stable currency which means no inflation
no deflation and the policy they’re
embarked upon at the moment seems very
sense it will be caused as I mentioned
before the wage rates are beginning to
show signs of moving and you cannot have
real wages rising without it ultimately
think if they continue on the road would
that we will
going Pretlow I should say that the
president wants to go we’re gonna end up
with a very significant budget deficit
and very significant inflation
ultimately not not in the short term
that it takes a while
political system doesn’t care about
deficits what they do care about is
inflation when the inflation rate was 4%
in the 1970s
President Nixon imposed wage and price
controls were nowhere near there yet but
it’s wrong our way
if we are though heading towards a
potential rise in inflation rise in debt
at a time of growing populism do you
think there’s a chance that the Federal
Reserve will lose independence I’m
trying to follow you which I mean well
cheating is a chance at Congress or the
president will try to control the
Federal Reserve or take away some of its
independence I really don’t know one of
those forecasting aspects which is
difficult another question from the
audience as the Federal Reserve’s reach
grows do you think that leged of
oversight will become necessary again
that’s above my pay grade
or do you think that Congress should
exert more control or oversight of the
Fed I think the Federal Reserve is by
statute
remember the Federal Reserve Act of 1913
which essentially did something very
unusual we had a long period we
discussed this in the book in which
financial crises kept surging up and
then collapsing which is a typical cycle
with
which went on to a decade upon decade
and the populism that evolved as a
consequence of this looked at
ever-increasing lead to find a way to
solve the problem of why the crises
occur and the general solution was if
the economy is accelerating and it’s
running out of gold species and you’re
going to get into a situation in which
they are always going to be crises so
what the Federal Reserve Act actually
did was very very interesting it
substituted the sovereign credit of the
United States for gold and then if no we
stayed on the gold standard technically
that was a major change in American
financial history and debate the basic
consequence of that is that Federal
Reserve determines what in effect is a
sensible level of money supply expansion
and one of the reasons the Federal
Reserve Act was actually passed was to
prevent the political system when
becoming so very dominant in determining
monetary policy which is exactly what
you don’t want to happen and I mean I
was you know eighteen and a half years
as you mentioned getting letters from
everybody who won very little
congressmen or otherwise who wants it’s
a the issue of and don’t worry about the
issue of inflation
and nobody was well when I would be
getting people who say we want lower
interest rates I got tons of that mail I
never got a single letter saying please
raise them and it tells you that there
are some views which go against reality
and reality always wins but if you look
at that the history of populism some of
the worst populism you got was in the
1970s some of the work that the anger
that was generated by inflation in the
nineteen seventies were roiled right the
way through the political system
eventually leads to the rise of of
Ronald Reagan because and who comes in
and then you know crushes crushes
inflation so inflation is is not a
solution to populism it drivers it makes
people very angry do you think the
current populism is going to get worse
chairman Greenspan well let’s remember
where populism comes from it’s I don’t
know whether this is a general
proposition but I find it’s difficult to
get around the answer that when the
inflation rate or that must the
inflation ratings as much as the levels
of income slow down when you get
productivity for example which is that
the major determinant of income and you
get productivity slowing down you get a
much lower increase in JD GDP and gross
domestic income and wages and salaries
alike and there’s a great deal of unease
in the population which is saying things
are not good somebody come help us and
somebody necessarily on the white horse
because comes up and says I’ve got a way
to handle this and if you look at Latin
America the history of
goodly part of Latin America is a
remarkable amount of people like Peron
coming in and all the subsequent post
World War two governments in Latin
America and it’s really quite
unfortunate and surprising it’s not that
they try it and it fails which it does
always it always fails but it doesn’t
eliminate the desire to do it in other
words of Peru Brazil and like they’ve
all undergone very significant periods
of huge inflation and collapsing and
nobody wears a lesson
yeah well we’re almost out of time but
there’s one other question from the
audience which I think cuts to the heart
of a lot of what we’re talking about
right now which is this does the success
of capitalism come at the cost of
enormous wealth disparity is it possible
to have this vision of creative
destruction of capitalism of dynamism
without having massive income inequality
I doubt it and I doubt it for the reason
I said earlier namely that we’ve got the
problem that human beings don’t change
but technology as it advances and it’s
embodied in the growth of an economy is
always growing and when you have
something that’s growing and the other
thing that’s flat you get obviously
inequality and the political
consequences of that can I qualify that
just a little bit I mean there – there
are different sorts of inequality
there’s a there’s the inequality that
you get from suddenly like Bill Gates or
Steve Jobs producing a fantastic new
innovation and idea which means that
they reap a lot of reward
for that but which means that society as
a whole gets richer and better off and
there’s the inequality that comes from
crony capitalism from people using
political influence blocking innovation
and and sucking out and do rewards for
themselves so I think we need to be
absolutely very very sensitive to the
wrong source of inequality while

celebrating the right sort of inequality
and also had that Joseph Schumpeter that

great man once said that the the nature
of capitalist progress doesn’t consist
of Queens having a million or two
million pairs of silk stockings it
consists of what used to be the
prerogative of a queen being spread
throughout the whole of society silk
stockings you know that become something
that go from being very rare and only
worn by Queens to being worn by all
sorts of people all over the place so
it’s the nature of capitalism is to
create new innovations which are at

first rare but spread throughout the
whole of society and everybody uses so
if you think think of the the iPhone or
something like that some that was
something that was incredibly rare and a
few people had those sort of
communications vais now everybody
carries them around all the time and the
great capitalists the Bill Gates the

Steve Jobs don’t get rich by selling one
really really good iPhone to one purpose
and they get into selling their products
to all sorts of people so there’s a
sense in which there is no real
trade-off between very rich people
getting very rich and the rest of
society getting getting better off you
know they only get rich because they
create things which everybody most
people want to have and buy you know
it’s it’s it’s it’s the Silk Stocking
question really I you know I accept that
qualifications let me just say one thing

you going back to his mentioning here
Walter Isaacson’s book on innovation he
wrote that book and I remember reading
it and my final conclusion was and I
asked him why is it that most innovation
is in the United States
it’s American and he said you know I’ve
never thought of that I don’t think he
was aware of the fact that he here and
all these innovation
to developers and they all turned out to
be American which leads me to conclude
that there’s something fundamental in
the psyche of American history in the
American public which creates it it’s
not an accident which is why I won in it
who too often so which is what you of
course you sought to explain the book so
if you had a chance to take this book
into the Oval Office today or into the

Treasury and give it to the President
and say this is a history of America
here are the key lessons what is a top
bit of advice that you would give to the
administration today to keep capitalism

growing in America well you know we do
have we haven’t mentioned that there’s
an underlying financial problem which we
haven’t addressed in the best way to
discuss it as when I first became aware
of it
I would haven’t been looking at data and
accidentally created a chart which
showed the relationship between
entitlements spending which is social
benefits in the rest of the world and
gross domestic savings and I’m from 1965

to the current period the ratio of
entitlements to the sum of those two is
flat as a percent of gross domestic
product which means or at least implies
that one is crowding out the other and
when you look at the individuals they
are actually looking different and
enable one goes up the other goes down
and so forth and I think that’s
suggestively the fact that there is
something in the sense of when we say
that entitlements by which a rising and
the baby boom generation is essentially
crowding out gross domestic savings
which in turn coupled with
the borrowing from abroad is how we
finance our gross domestic investment
which is the key factor in productivity
right so entitlement reform well I look
forward to a tweet about entitlement
reform I look forward to this very
important book being part of the
discussion about how to keep America
America’s economy great and growing but
in the meantime thank you both very much
indeed for sharing your thoughts it is
indeed a fascinating book and quite an

achievement and best of luck in getting
this very important message out so thank
you both very much indeed
[Applause]

How Do Populists Win?

At first blush, a populist message of “us vs. them” might seem less effective than a message of “all of us together,” given that elections are won with broad coalitions. But under conditions of widespread alienation and distrust, the political gamble of an exclusionary, anti-pluralist message can pay off big.

CHICAGO – In the Middle Ages, Italian city-states led the European “commercial revolution” with innovations in finance, trade, and technology. Then something strange happened. In 1264, to take one example, the people of Ferrara decreed that, “The magnificent and illustrious Lord Obizzo … is to be Governor and Ruler and General and permanent Lord of the City.” Suddenly, a democratic republic had voted itself out of existence.
In fact, this was not an uncommon occurrence in Northern Italy at the time. As Niccolo Machiavelli explains in The Prince, the people, seeing that they cannot resist the nobility, give their support to one man, in order to be defended by his authority. The lesson is that people will abandon democracy if they are worried that an elite has captured its institutions.
Medieval Italy’s democratic institutions succumbed to what we might now call populism: an anti-elitist, anti-pluralistic, and exclusionary strategy for building a coalition of the discontented. The method is exclusionary because it relies on a specific definition of “the people,” whose interests must be defended against not just elites, but all others. Hence, in the United Kingdom, the Brexit leader Nigel Farage promised that a vote for “Leave” in 2016 would be a victory for the “real people.” As Donald Trump told a campaign rally the same year, “the other people don’t mean anything.” Likewise, former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe often speaks of the “gente de bien” (the “good people”).

There are two obvious reasons why such populism is bad.

  1. First, its anti-pluralistic and exclusionary elements undermine basic democratic institutions and rights;
  2.  second, it favors an excessive concentration of political power and de-institutionalization, leading to poor provision of public goods and subpar economic performance.

Nonetheless, populism can become an attractive political strategy when three conditions obtain.

  1. First, claims about elite dominance must be plausible enough that people believe them.
  2. Second, in order for people to support radical alternatives, existing institutions need to have lost their legitimacy or failed to cope with some new challenge. And
  3. third, a populist strategy must seem feasible, despite its exclusionary nature.

All three conditions can be found in today’s world. The increase in inequality over the past 30 years means that economic growth has disproportionately benefited a small elite. But the problem is not just inequality of income and wealth: there is also a growing suspicion that the social distance between the elite and everyone else has widened.

These economic and social disparities have profound implications for political representation. In the US, political scientist Larry M. Bartels has shown that while legislators have increasingly defended the interests of the rich, gerrymandering has spared them from political competition. In Europe, Jean-Claude Juncker, while serving as prime minister of Luxembourg, once described the European Council’s decision-making as follows: “We decree something, then float it and wait some time to see what happens. If no clamor occurs … because most people do not grasp what had been decided, we continue – step by step, until the point of no return is reached.” Such elitist logic is intrinsically vulnerable to populism.

In addition to managing new challenges poorly, institutions and policymakers have also failed to look beyond their own dominant narratives. For example, in the run-up to the Brexit referendum, the “Remain” campaign focused entirely on the economic costs of leaving the European Union, even though opinion polls showed that migration and other issues were of much greater concern to voters.

Finally, for populism to get a foothold, politicians themselves must see it as a viable strategy. Generally speaking, declaring that the “other people don’t mean anything” isn’t the best way to garner broad support. So, even when structural factors favor it, populism can succeed only in certain circumstances. In Trump’s case, the intense

partisan polarization in the US means that he can appeal to marginal or swing voters, because he knows that Republicans will vote for him no matter what. And, more generally, populism can win when the “other people” are narrowly defined or simply small in number, provided that they can still be depicted as posing a threat.

To defeat populism, then, one must address all the factors that make it a viable strategy. That starts with recognizing that populism can emerge only when there are real social and economic problems to give it electoral traction. It also means being honest about the fact that there are competing and contested visions of citizenship, which should be debated, not ignored.

As a de-institutionalizing strategy, populism appeals to the growing cohort of those who are disillusioned with existing arrangements. In the US, the widespread perception that institutions have failed to address issues such as inequality has been  in major institutions since the 1970s. After failing to anticipate the 2008 financial crisis, US policymakers are now struggling to regulate (and tax) new “mega-firms” like Amazon and Facebook. They are also seen as having dropped the ball with respect to globalization and the effects of the “China Shock” on local labor markets. Similarly, in Europe, increased labor mobility and rolling refugee crises are widely seen as having surpassed EU institutions’ carrying capacity.

Finally, we need more democracy and representation – including, possibly, referenda – so that voters feel as though their concerns are being taken seriously. The political class should be exploring new ways to make government more representative of society. India, for example, has caste-based quotas for parliamentary seats and other positions, and many other countries do the same with respect to gender. There is no reason why the US and Europe couldn’t pursue similar measures.

This commentary appears in connection with the Trento Festival of Economics. For more information about the event, go here. For Project Syndicate’s compilation of related commentaries, go here.

Making Sense of the New American Right

Keeping track of the Jacksonians, Reformicons, Paleos, and Post-liberals.

I like to start my classes on conservative intellectual history by distinguishing between three groups. There is the Republican party, with its millions of adherents and spectrum of opinion from very conservative, somewhat conservative, moderate, and yes, liberal. There is the conservative movement, the constellation of single-issue nonprofits that sprung up in the 1970s

  • gun rights,
  • pro-life,
  • taxpayer,
  • right to work

— and continue to influence elected officials. Finally, there is the conservative intellectual movement: writers, scholars, and wonks whose journalistic and political work deals mainly with ideas and, if we’re lucky, their translation into public policy.