The Burkman-Wohl fiasco was/is amusing as far as it goes, but it’s also disturbing.
We can afford to be amused by BW’s almost incredible ineptitude, because it guaranteed that their scheme to frame Robert Mueller for imaginary sex crimes would fail. What’s not amusing is the total cultural depravity from which such a scheme springs.
That depravity in turn appears to reflect a deep nihilism: a belief that because nothing matters, anything goes. That belief is Donald Trump’s credo, and also a key to understanding his success. We live in what the French writer Jean Baudrillard identified as a fundamentally nihilistic age.
In an interesting essay in the New Republic, Garret Keizer suggests that an epidemic of nihilism is at the core of Trump’s rise:
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.”
The nihilism of the political moment that brought Trump to power is reflected in its celebration of sadism and cruelty for their own sake, in the trolling the libs because it causes them anguish and for no other reason, in the obscenities of the “alt-right,” 4chan, James O’Keefe, Milo and company, and on and on, all the way down to the clownish but sinister antics of figures like Burkman and Wohl.
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.
Keizer is onto something here. (Naturally he acknowledges that Trump’s rise has multiple causes, and that an increasingly pervasive nihilism is just one of them). The endless obvious lying, the outrageous open corruption, the trashing of all ordinary norms of social and political discourse — it is very important to remember that this is what “rejecting political correctness” actually means in practice — the flaunting of personal degeneracy (“grab ’em by the pussy/if you’re a star they let you do it”) — all this is of a piece with a kind of carnivalesque celebration of the destruction of culture, of value, of politics in any constructive sense, of anything other than the most naked and disgusting self-interest, all dressed up as a kind of ruthlessly realistic “nationalism” when nobody in their right mind could possibly want to defend such a nation.
It’s worth remembering that a deep nihilism was at the heart of the most important fascist movements, particularly the Nazis:
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 calledThe Revolution of Nihilism.Published in 1939, and subtitledWarning 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.”
This is a sprawling subject, so for now let me just mention one other aspect of it: the startling fact that self-proclaimed evangelical Christians form the electoral core of Trump’s support. That the leader of postmodern political nihilism in America should find his strongest support among conservative Christians is the sort of development that probably would have shocked even such acute observers of the gathering storm of modern existential despair as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.