At the very least, something seems to be missing in the usual explanations for his becoming president. They tend to fall into two plausible, if ultimately inadequate, schools of thought. One of them holds that Trump rose to power because a large slice of the electorate was left behind by the neoliberal agenda of free trade and tech-sector hegemony. Only someone with a very good job or a very small imagination would dismiss this view out of hand. Nevertheless, the fact remains that voters with the lousiest jobs or no jobs at all—categories in which minorities and immigrants abound—are no fans of Trump.
Thus the second explanation: The success of Trump’s demagoguery is driven by white nationalism and racist hate. This too comes with plenty of supporting evidence. Yet skeptics have a point in asking why so many of Trump’s allegedly racist supporters would have cast their ballots not once but twice for Barack Obama. My strong suspicion is that along with the undoubted racists and xenophobes in the Trump camp are a number of uneducated white voters who do not hate blacks, Muslims, or Mexicans but rather the educated white liberals whom they suspect of caring more about blacks, Muslims, and Mexicans than about uneducated whites. When Trump said during his campaign, “I love the poorly educated,” he may have revealed more about whom many of his supporters truly hate than David Duke did when he endorsed Trump. So for those white liberals wringing their hands over the purported racism of Trump’s supporters, there is good news and bad news: They don’t all hate black folk. A lot of them just hate you.
Hatred of some “other,” however construed, and a sense of betrayal by the powers that be—both make sense as contributing causes of the devotion Trump inspires. There may be a third cause, however, one easily overlooked—possibly because it is so deeply ingrained in the nation’s sensibilities as to escape notice. This third cause, which I will call nihilism, helps to account not only for Trump, but also and more importantly for the phenomena he has come to personify (berserker gun violence, climate-change denial, etc.)—all of which were present before he entered the Oval Office and are likely to be around long after he’s gone.
Leaving nuanced definitions to the philosophers, I would define nihilism as a combination of three basic elements: a refusal to hope for anything except the ultimate vindication of hopelessness; a rejection of all values, especially values widely regarded as sacrosanct (equality, posterity, and legality); and a glorification of destruction, including self-destruction—or as Walter Benjamin put it, “self-alienation” so extreme that humanity “can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure.” Nihilism is less passive and more perverse than simple despair. “Nihilism is not only despair and negation,” according to Albert Camus, “but, above all, the desire to despair and to negate.”
A nihilist is someone who dedicates himself to not giving a shit, who thinks all meanings are shit, and who yearns with all his heart for the “aesthetic pleasure” of seeing the shit hit the fan. Arguing with a nihilist is like intimidating a suicide bomber: The usual threats and enticement have no effect. I suspect that is part of the appeal for both: the facile transcendence of placing oneself beyond all powers of persuasion. A nihilist is above you and your persnickety arguments in the same way that Trump fancies himself above the law.
Comparisons with Nazi Germany are often too glibly made and always too glibly dismissed. History does not repeat itself, true—I do not expect to see Donald Trump sporting a mustache the width of his nose—but history does show that similar social conditions can produce comparable political effects. With that in mind, it may not be out of bounds to quote from a nearly forgotten book by Nazi turncoat Hermann Rauschning called The Revolution of Nihilism. Published in 1939, and subtitled Warning to the West, the book characterizes Hitlerism as a form of vacuous “dynamism” with “no fixed aims” and “no program at all.” A movement of “utter nihilism,” it is “kept alive in the masses only in the form of permanent pugnacity.”
As early as 1932, Rauschning writes, Hitler was out “to liberate himself from all party doctrines in economic policy, and he did the same in all other fields,” believing that “the things that stir most men and fire their enthusiasm are the rhythm, the new tempo, the activity, that take them out of the humdrum daily life.” Especially if I’m reading at the end of a tiring day, this is the point at which I start losing track of whether Rauschning is talking about National Socialism or social media, but he has already said what he is talking about; he is talking about nihilism, which means that I wasn’t dozing after all.
I suppose that if I’m going to define nihilism as a lack of values—or to use Rauschning’s summation of Nazism, a “hostility to the things of the spirit, indifference to truth, indifference to the ethical conceptions of morality, honor, and equity”—I’m obliged to say what I mean by a value. I would call it any kind of allegiance for which you are willing to check your own desires for reasons other than pure self-interest. All values manifest themselves in restraint. You’d like to pitch out all those empty wine bottles, but you recycle them instead. You’re late for a doctor’s appointment but slow down your car so as not to hit a pedestrian crossing the street. (If your sole motivation is not to get gore on your front bumper, that is something else.) Values are by their very nature at odds with the amoral dynamism Rauschning describes; they are what applies the brakes. They also threaten the dynamism of an advanced capitalist economy by daring to suggest that something lower than the sky might be “the limit.” All the nameable avatars of the Almighty Market—pop psychology, digital fundamentalism, addictive consumption, cutthroat competition—are based on the premise that what you want is what you ought to have, and the quicker you can have it the better. By its very operation, the market inclines us away from principled restraint and toward nihilistic abandon.
For that reason, it’s probably a mistake to view nihilism as “an explanation apart” from the common analyses of the Trump phenomenon. Economic dispossession and virulent racism stand in relation to nihilism not as alternative theories but as reciprocal causes and effects. In other words, all three flourish in a moral vacuum. Tony Judt remarked on the “moralized quality” of political debates of the post-World War II era, reminiscent of those “19th century radicals” driven by “the belief that there were moral rules to economic life.” He saw that quality in stark contrast to “the selfish amoralism of Thatcher and Reagan.” What does “rising income inequality” imply if not a falling moral barometer? The question is as old as the prophet Isaiah.
In the same way, it would be difficult to draw a sharp line between nihilism and racism, or to find a trace of one without some germ of the other. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”—a twenty-first-century reader is almost made dizzy by the simultaneous affirmation that such things as truth, self-evident truth, and human equality exist (along with the gross depravity of the slaveholders who wrote and signed the document, though they could not escape the reproach of its implications). All societies, and certainly all democratic societies, rest on the notion that some values are self-evident. That is surely what Walt Whitman means when, after celebrating himself and singing himself, he goes on to say, “and what I assume you shall assume.” The fundamental equality of your self and my self is what allows us to have common assumptions and to believe they are common. Lose hold of that faith and no body camera on earth will capture the resulting disconnect, because people will not accept that the murder they witnessed “really happened” or that the unarmed suspect bleeding on the sidewalk was a human being who felt a bullet the same way they would.
A sense of radical incredulity, spectacularly typified by Trump’s refusal to believe his own intelligence services, is but one manifestation of the nihilism that brought him to power. What makes him “the real deal” in the eyes of his most ardent admirers is largely his insistence that almost everything else is fake. Like him, they know that the news is fake, the melting ice caps are fake, the purported citizenship of certain voters is fake, science is fake, social justice is fake, the whole notion of truth is fake. Whatever isn’t fake is so relative that it might as well be fake; “true for you,” maybe, but that’s as far as it goes. Among those who call themselves “believers” and are thus at least technically not nihilists, one frequently finds an obsession with apocalypse, a gleeful anticipation of the living end that will destroy the inherent fakery of all things. The social teachings of the Gospels need not trouble the Christian conscience so long as the troubles predicted in Revelation come to pass.
Not that Revelation features any event quite so diabolically nihilistic—and, yes, unbelievable—as a school shooting. The person looking for nihilism in its purest form need look no further than the de facto normalization of gunning down schoolchildren as an act of free expression—and, what is more, as an expression of nothing much in particular beyond the whim to do it. Less a “cry for help” than a grunt of “whatever.” What makes school shootings almost as interesting as they are atrocious is that they place an insupportable burden of proof on people whose knee-jerk response to any social calamity is to say, “This stuff has always gone on, we just didn’t hear about it.” Actually, no. In the same way as antecedents for Donald Trump can be found in Roman tribunes and Nazi demagogues but not in any previous American president, you will search the historical record in vain for persuasive evidence confuting that nihilism in this country is something new.
New doesn’t preclude boring, of course. In less murderous forms, you can see nihilism at work in the banal iconoclasm that exults in anything outrageous, provocative, or “transgressive,” that sees no qualitative difference between the offensive and the genuine. So you have Columbine, and then you have radio talk show host Howard Stern marveling aloud why the killers didn’t pause during the slaughter to have sex with the “really good-looking girls running with their hands over their heads.” Definition of a nihilist: someone who thinks nothing contained in the envelope is ever as important as pushing it. “One must shock the bourgeois,” Baudelaire is supposed to have said, speaking at a time when the bourgeoisie could still be shocked. I wonder what Baudelaire would have made of late-night TV. I wonder how many of those who tuned in to Saturday Night Live to see Alec Baldwin impersonating Donald Trump realized the extent to which Trump himself is an impersonation of Saturday Night Live.
The reason Trump has managed to get away with a truckload of gaffes and indiscretions, any one of which would have destroyed the career of another politician, is precisely because they make up a truckload. They do not constitute a singular blot on his character; they certify his identity. They prove him to be an authentic iconoclast, a superhero of transgression, the guy who brags about grabbing women’s crotches, makes fun of war heroes, and speaks unashamedly of waging nuclear war. He makes Iggy Pop look like Cotton Mather. He can be scary, but he’s never square. He can even shock the bourgeoisie, who as it turns out don’t much mind being shocked, having learned long ago that a little innocuous “subversion” is a hell of a lot cheaper than paying more taxes or raising the minimum wage.
Americans are more infected by this ethos than they might think. Here’s an easy way to test that proposition. When the activist African American pastor William J. Barber II speaks of the need to restore morality to public discourse, are you slightly embarrassed? Do you wonder to yourself, “Can he really be saying that?” or wish he could find a less, shall we say, “moralistic” way to put it? I happen to think he’s hit the nail squarely on the head, although, to tell you the truth, I am a bit shocked.
Nihilism can be simply defined and readily observed, but its causes are probably as complex as human beings themselves. Some can be located in certain primal emotions and the irrational behaviors they generate. Others I would locate in the workings of capitalism. Obviously, there is not always a clear distinction between the two. Capitalism can be seen, and has even been defended, as the systemic expression of unregenerate human nature. Trading in the stock market can be a highly primal affair. Not for nothing do investors speak of having “made a killing” on Wall Street.
Of the relevant causal emotions, perhaps the most primal is fear, and the impulse to overcome fear through recklessness. (It goes without saying that Trump’s presidency is simultaneously a response to fear, a stoker of fear, and a reason to fear.) “All men kill the thing they love,” Oscar Wilde writes, and perhaps most ruthlessly when the thing they love—or have convinced themselves they no longer love—is under threat. Need I say that “the thing” being killed is America?
Another pertinent factor is envy, a basic human emotion that rising social inequality can only exacerbate. To put it in cruder terms: “The world sucks for me, so I am going to make it suck for you too. I have lost my job, my status as a white male, and may even lose my gun. So you, my smug, privileged friend, are going to lose your civil liberties, your faith in social progress, your endangered species, your affirmative action, your reproductive freedom, your international alliances, your ‘wonderful’ exchange student from Syria.” The rationale is probably not too distant from that of the jealous husband who shoots his wife, her lover, and himself. Enjoying ourselves, are we? We will enjoy nothing!—which is to say, we will enjoy the only thing a nihilist can enjoy.
Whether envy also figures in the eschatological fantasies of lower-middle-class evangelicals is perhaps too speculative to discuss, though vengeful envy has been an observable factor in outbreaks of apocalyptic fervor throughout history. One of the pleasures of heaven, according to Tertullian, the second-century theologian known as “the father of Latin Christianity,” would be watching one’s former persecutors roast in hell. That this was addressed to people who had literally seen their loved ones burned alive and has been derided ever since by people whose closest brush with burning occurred when they forgot their sunscreen does not diminish its relevance. Surely there are people who thrill at the thought of FDR or JFK, if not roasting in hell, then rolling in their patrician graves every time Trump sends a tweet.
Along with primal emotions, always more acute in times of social stress, are certain mechanisms innate to capitalism. I am hardly the first to note that capitalism tends toward nihilism by reducing all values to market values. As Marx and Engels put it, capitalism “has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’ ... It has resolved personal worth into exchange value.” Granted, capitalism makes use of belief systems in its ascent, but eventually eats them up like the proverbial female spider who devours her mate. If a Protestant ethic will make workers go more obediently into the factories, then capitalism will extol the Protestant ethic; but if blasphemy begins to move merchandise at the mall, then it will blaspheme to the point of making Beelzebub blush. If democracy furthers profit, then long live democracy; if democracy impedes profit, then long live Citizens United and private security forces flown in to beat back the disaster-riled mobs. In the capitalist bible, profit and loss always trump the Law and the Prophets.
The winner-take-all strain of capitalism also fosters nihilism by depriving certain classes of key ingredients that make or buttress a sense of purpose: work, family, social usefulness. How does an unemployed 35-year-old living in his parents’ basement make his life seem meaningful to himself, or at the least notable to others, especially if he lives in a culture where meaning and notoriety increasingly come down to the same thing? Perhaps by defying the taboo against murdering one’s parents. Perhaps by defying the taboo against murdering schoolchildren. Perhaps by defying both.
But the nihilism of the capitalist system is not confined to the social and cultural margins, to misfits in basements and meth-dealers on Harleys. In recent decades it has received influential support and exquisite expression from certain sectors of the intelligentsia. Others before me have pointed out how the theoretical game-play and moral relativism of the postmodern academy—masquerading as left-wing analysis no less!—serve the capitalist project. If there are no “grand narratives,” no self-evident truths, no straightforward texts, no criteria for determining artistic merit, then there is surely nothing to stop us from deconstructing such obsolete products as The New York Times and the Bill of Rights—or even, as so many academics seem obtusely unable to grasp, to deconstruct the self-evident merits of “diversity” itself? If you preach iconoclasm while dedicating a rainbow-colored stained-glass window, you shouldn’t be too surprised if somebody picks up a rock. Ultimately, you are left with no unassailable value but monetary value, the amount of your fellowship grant, the unpaid portion of your student loan.
It’s common to speak of Trump as a character out of a TV show; he might just as easily be viewed as a transplant from a cultural studies department (where much time is devoted to the study of TV shows). In his disdain for science, in the subjectivity of his worldview, in his radically solipsistic moral relativism (things are good or bad as they relate to him), he is a postmodern hero par excellence, Derrida with a funny haircut and a thousand-dollar suit. To put it more succinctly, he is the ungainly chicken of late-stage capitalism come home to roost.
Some will object that few people sporting a Make America Great Again baseball cap are going to have read postmodernist theory, so any claim of a cause-and-effect relationship here is ludicrous. No, the objection is ludicrous. It is like saying that a seabird cannot show up on a beach covered in petroleum since a seabird is obviously not an oil tanker. Culture is a highly permeable ecosystem. Mike Pence was influenced by Lady Gaga even if he couldn’t pick her out of a lineup. I have always thought of Ronald Reagan as the last of the California hippies, blithe in his stoned assurance that America could reach the New Jerusalem if everybody was left alone to do his own thing and consult his own astrologer. In the same way, I think of Mark Zuckerberg as an Ivy League Hells Angel. The Facebook motto “Move Fast and Break Things” wasn’t coined by Ralph “Sonny” Barger or his leather-clad sidekick Doug “the Thug” Orr, but it might as well have been. Ditto for Steve Jobs’s claim of having “put a ding in the universe.” When the universe itself is fair game for dinging, can nihilism be far behind?
Another tendency driven by the market, driven harder still by the information economy’s relentless “creative destruction,” is the compulsion to detect and get ahead of the latest trend. I suspect this compulsion will soon be as hardwired into our brain stems as the fight-or-flight response. If you asked me what Americans today fear more than anything else, I would answer that they fear being left behind. (The anxiety even comes with its own handy acronym: FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out.) They fear missing the boat, foundering in the backwash of the next wave. And what if “the next wave” is wholesale destruction? Common sense would say that you set about piling sandbags, but this would be as unthinkable to many people as resisting the depredations of Amazon by patronizing their local independent bookstore. Instead, the reflex is to make a pact with the vandals, to collaborate with them. To be “ahead of the curve.” Better to be with the destroyers than with the destroyed. If the barbarians are at the gates, best to dress up as a barbarian. More than a few servile Republican members of Congress seem to have drawn that conclusion in regard to Trump.
Finally, nihilism may emerge when people feel overwhelmed by their societies. This is where primal emotions and capitalist dynamism meet: in the moral deadening that comes of having few significant choices and infinite trivial ones. I suspect that somewhere in the heart of many Americans is the wish to see “it all come apart” because the “all” is simply too much to reckon with, too much to bear. King Lear calls on the hurricanes to blast the world and spill the “germens” that make humankind. Trump is too preposterous to be a Lear figure, but his rants may resonate with a Lear-like nerve in those weary of the world. Let the curtain come down. Let us finally be done.
I once caused a minor flap in a restaurant by referring to myself as a customer. I intended no offense. The imperious restaurateur thrust out his bared chest (he was wearing a low-cut caftan) and repeated the word as though I’d just piddled on his rug. I meekly corrected my usage to “guest,” whereupon he lowered his chin enough to indicate that I might possibly deserve to see a menu. His fastidiousness did not extend to the matter of the bill.
I’m told the place has since closed, though it will always be in operation for me as a metaphor. As metaphors go, it’s a bit complicated. The simple way to read it is like this: At the haughty urging of our “hosts,” we in capitalist America think of ourselves as liberals, progressives, conservatives, patriots, pacifists, intersectional-feminist-Marxist-Buddhist environmentalists, but what we are at the end of the day is a country of customers. If you doubt it, wait for the bill, which, if you have trouble paying, will tell you the other thing you are. Not that Marx hasn’t already told you. You can tattoo your eyelids if it makes you feel a tad more subversive, like a tech mogul packing his billionaire buns into a pair of jeans, but when they come to clear away the plates, he’s the guy who owns Facebook and you are just another face.
It would be tempting to leave it at that, but far too doctrinaire. Reflecting further on my faux pas, I’ve come to appreciate that the restaurateur saw the possibility of a value beyond the monetary transaction of our business. If the food I ate was delicious—which it was—that owed in part to his refusal to see his work solely in terms of his proprietorship and my patronage. Yes, there was something disingenuous in his regarding me as a “guest,” but there was also something crass and reductive in my calling myself a customer, especially after he’d gone to all the trouble of practically putting on a bathrobe so we could both feel more at home.
I’ve never stayed at a Trump hotel, where I’m sure all the customers are called guests, but I suspect that the man behind the brand doesn’t much care if they call themselves customers. As long as they pay up at the end of their stay, they can call themselves any damn thing they like.
And here may be yet another factor that draws people to Trump and draws them to nihilism as well: the suspicion that the moral niceties of their fellow Americans are either disingenuous or delusional. It is the inevitable disillusionment that comes of meeting Thomas Jefferson with Sally Hemings while the Devil whispers in your ear, “Heard any declarations of independence lately?” All too easily you can move from realizing that Jefferson is something of a humbug to believing that the equality he declared self-evident is humbug too, whereupon you have also moved from being justifiably indignant at meeting a Founding Father’s enslaved mistress to rejecting your best reason for wanting her free.
The same temptation can occur in less momentous deflations, whenever insincerity peeks from under a euphemism—whenever the “guest” turns out to be a customer. And it may be especially tempting when a culture suspicious of moral imperatives replaces them with the notion that sincerity is the highest virtue and hypocrisy the gravest fault. “I can’t say if he’s wrong or right, but he’s totally sincere.” The political philosopher Judith Shklar, who sees some degree of hypocrisy as essential to the workings of a liberal democracy (she cites the rascally Benjamin Franklin as a case in point), notes how “endless accusations of hypocrisy” invariably pursued “the most capable statesmen” in American history because they had “raised the level of moral and political expectations” and “failed to fulfill the standards they had themselves revived.” The corollary for the least capable statesmen is only too clear: In a moral universe where good and evil have been reduced to sincerity and hypocrisy, Donald Trump (the liar who believes his own lies) will always play the honest angel to Ben Franklin’s duplicitous imp.
It may be that nihilism, or Trumpism if you prefer, is the indignant customer’s reaction to being told for the thousandth time that he is something better than a customer when he has a thousand reasons for knowing that’s what he is and often all he is. On the one hand, his is a cynical denial that hospitality, idealism, and labors of love exist, an insistence on seeing every instance of venial human hypocrisy as proof of a meaningless void. (“Those Clintons, who do they think they’re kidding?”) On the other hand, isn’t it also a pathetic yearning for truth, even on the part of someone who may no longer believe that truth exists? American nihilism is an oozing sore, but like an oozing sore it is evidence both of a malady and of a body’s desperate attempt to heal itself. What I mean to say, if only for my own edification, is that some compassion for the wounded is in order here.
The difference between a genuine prophet of doom and a mere doomsayer (I think of myself as neither) is that the former hopes he is wrong. A recent event strongly suggested that America is hardly a nation of nihilists or is in any present danger from the purported nihilism of a benighted few. The cruel separation of migrant parents and children brought forth an exhilarating storm of outrage and bipartisan rebuke. Four former first ladies (Carter, Bush, Clinton, Obama) were belting out the same righteous song—“immoral,” “disgraceful,” “a humanitarian crisis.” Given so heinous a crime, the ladies could hardly protest too much, though it’s possible we made too much of the protest.
For one thing, the separations had happened. Whatever you want to call them, “unthinkable” will not do; the word lost any pertinence as soon as the first kid screamed. For another, the separations happened over a period not of days but of months. Not least of all, they happened within a complex logistical framework. Who can adequately comprehend the degree of coordination and moral acquiescence required to move hundreds of Central American children from the southern border to the city of New York? Perhaps no one so well as a parent who has tried to get two of his or her own kids from a New York apartment to the beach. To get as far as it did, the operation required a number of operatives not only willing to “simply follow orders” but also able to make thoughtful adjustments along the way. Automation is coming, I’ve been told, but these children were not whisked away by droids. It would be less disturbing if they were.
One also observed a disquieting awkwardness as people scrambled for an acceptable explanation as to why kidnapping was wrong. “Un-American” appeared to trump “immoral,” an admittedly blameless choice of words, though it had the unfortunate effect of echoing the nationalist chauvinism of the president himself. He took kids away from their parents in the name of making America great again; his critics demanded he put the kids back in the name of being more authentically American. Am I a killjoy for feeling insufficiently soothed? I happen to own and fly an American flag, but if you want me to swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, it’s not the first place I’m going to put my hand. I was reminded of the debates over “enhanced interrogation techniques” that followed September 11, with some commentators arguing that torture might be permissible in certain extraordinary cases (no rigid binaries like good and evil for those folks) and others arguing against torture on the sublimely moral high ground that it doesn’t yield reliable information. I suppose that someone about to be waterboarded for the tenth time will be grateful for any sort of preemptive argument, even one so grossly utilitarian, but Amnesty International will surely want a better slogan than “only if it works.”
It’s possible we will never know when or if all of these families have been reunited. It’s probable that many of us will have lost our zeal for redress long before the last traumatized children are returned to their parents. In the process of constructing this very paragraph, I realized with a jolt that I could not recall whether the special prison at Guantánamo Bay had been closed. I knew there’d been talk of closing it. Were there still a few inmates? Were they moved or set free? I had to go and ask my wife, who’s better than I am at staying current. “No, honey, it’s still there.”
Much has been written (especially about the young, because that is where adults like to locate cultural pathologies) regarding the shortness of the nation’s collective attention span, about information overload and its numbing effects. Less is written about the minuscule distance that exists between a short attention span and defective moral agency. Most people of conscience would agree that the true test of moral integrity is a principled act, but to perform such an act one needs to have enough presence of mind to move from the principle to its application. To demonstrate your commitment to ice cream, you need to remember why you got up to go to the fridge. Inattention is the gateway drug to nihilism. Distraction is the stealth weapon of the powers that be. Muscle-bound with information, we stand in front of our mirrors and flex. “Knowledge is power,” we croak through strained faces, adjusting our pose a few inches to the left or the right because our legs are falling asleep.
Not long ago I asked a veteran union organizer named Larry Fox what he had learned from his 40-plus years in the labor movement. Somewhat to my surprise, he said he had learned that love is a stronger motivating force for social change than anger.
The answer impressed me for two reasons. First, it brought to mind something the American socialist Michael Harrington had written in the early 1970s, around the same time as the angrier of his New Left comrades were falling under the spell of guns and bombs. “It was as a socialist, and because I was a socialist, that I fell in love with America,” he said, adding this note of prophetic warning: “If the Left wants to change this country because it hates it, then the people will never listen to the Left and the people will be right.” (Any self-satisfied right-wingers smirking at the partial fulfillment of Harrington’s prophecy should understand that the same goes for them.)
Second, I was struck that Fox, like Harrington, was uninhibited by sophistication. He was seemingly unaware that “someone like him” shouldn’t be saying “something like that.” As with the Reverend Barber’s use of the word morality, I realized that what I’m discussing here as a national predicament was in some ways manifest in my own awkward reaction to a word like love. In spite of my various convictions, nihilism had rubbed off on me.
Against nihilism only love can prevail. That is because love must always affirm a value, both the value of the loved one and the value of the love itself. It cannot do otherwise. But here’s the catch: A love capable of confronting nihilism must be nothing less than the militant, self-sacrificial force that it was for Martin Luther King Jr. “If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live,” King said. In light of that statement, one could say that Trump-era America has become a nation of people whose fitness to live is at serious risk. Were it not, they would view the question “Are you prepared to die for your country?” as a tactical consideration instead of a plebeian breach of good taste. They would view the nation’s children as something more than “an investment in the future.” They would not speak of martyrdom as a form of pathology.
But aren’t martyrdom and nihilism close cousins? If you’re asking that with a straight face, then you too have been bitten by the nihilistic bug—or else have confined your understanding of martyrdom to those who strap on suicide vests. With terms derived from Nietzsche, Slavoj Žižek writes of a defining split between the “passive” nihilism of “First World” countries, whose inhabitants “find it more and more difficult even to imagine a public or universal cause for which one would be ready to sacrifice one’s life,” and the “active” nihilism of “Third World” militants who dedicate their lives to some “transcendent cause,” even to the “point of self-destruction.” In so doing, he blurs the distinction between those who would gladly kill for a cause and those who would reluctantly die for it. (He may also be making too neat a division between the First and Third worlds.) Martyrdom and nihilism are as different as Gandhi and Genghis Khan. A nihilist dreams of going out in a blaze of glory, taking as many with him as he can, because he hates his life and despises life in general. A martyr sacrifices her life, which by definition she cannot do unless that life is precious to her. You can only sacrifice what you hold dear. And you do so because something else is dearer still.
The recent plethora of school shootings makes plain not only the costs of weak gun laws, the risks of untreated mental illness, and the tragic repercussions of rearing children through the proxies of digital media and abandoning them to the tender mercies of the NRA—but also what amounts to the national morality play of this moment: nihilism versus self-sacrificing love. The indiscriminate shooter versus the teacher who throws his or her body at the shooter or on top of a wounded student—that is the mirror, that is the choice, that is the split image that keeps coming up on the screen. What’s happening in our schools may soon be happening in our streets, and not for the first time. King was speaking of what he had witnessed in Alabama no less than of what he believed in his heart. You know that punning slogan often seen at anti-Trump protests, “Love Trumps Hate”? If it seems a bit saccharine to you now, that is only because you have yet to tally what building a beloved community might cost. You’re forgetting all the architects who paid the first installments with their blood.