Against Nihilism

He is the loudest rallying cry in the world that it’s time for us to do better and get to work

The 2016 election was a slow-motion nightmare, the kind that gives you sleep paralysis, like you're awake and have to scream to survive but your mouth is stitched shut as the vague outlines of men set your house on fire. It was a year of destruction. All those nice little lies it's so easy to tell ourselves about politics, about how politeness is a virtue and facts beat muscle, were incinerated.

It's a nightmare that's hard to wake up from, so total was its trauma and ability to crush resolve. This is partially because President Trump refuses to shut up about his win, a win he never planned for. It's also because the actions of his White House are so utterly corrupt and incompetent and depraved that they don't even feel real.

Navigating our political landscape feels like we went for a walk in the woods and fell down a hole and landed in an America where the sun is going out. It is so surreal that it's tempting to regard it as fantasy, as something that has to end fantastically, something that can be undone with a magical reset button that sends Donald Trump back to a version of 2014 in which Bill O'Reilly voluntarily retires from Fox News and hands Trump his show and we can go back to our normal lives — oh god, for a road back home to our normal lives.

I was on the road for most of 2016 covering the election, and only now is any perspective arising. When I attended the fringe right-wing Constitution Party's convention in Utah, I got the feeling that the Christian conservative community I knew growing up was dying, which was advantageous to progressives. What I understated then was that these kinds of conservatives, governed by rules and traditions and "the old way is the best way," were being replaced by a more nihilist strain, a type of conservative who is not hopeful or politically engaged and wants to demolish government as we know it for entertainment, for spectacle. It's a movement whose motto is "fuck everything, who cares."

What we found was not an uprising of white working-class malcontents who were foaming at the mouth for white nationalism, but a resounding and thorough sigh of ‘this sucks.’

When I first started taking Trump seriously as a contender for the White House, I wrote about his birth via conservative talk radio by Michael Savage and Alex Jones, and Rush Limbaugh before them. These performers used the language of politics, the idea of politics, for entertainment. Rush Limbaugh was a comedian who needed to keep his listeners amused so they'd stick around after the commercial breaks. He didn't care about truth, because truth is dull and has the odor of schoolwork.

Then Limbaugh got too popular. People who weren't comedians took his talking points and used them to sculpt new characters, with more conviction. It was a racket and it made a lot of people rich, but it also created voters who didn't engage with their fluff entertainment critically and came to believe its stories through overexposure. It created voters who were used to having their prejudice and moral laziness validated and encouraged. It made it easy for Donald Trump, who founded his career on rackets, to mobilize these voters who had been poisoned for decades. Much easier than it would have been for the melting wax statues who made up the rest of the Republican Party to do so.

Trump’s barreling plea to chaos gave me cause to worry at the 2016 conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia. I fully expected riots, because Trump was soaking Republican anger in ethanol and so many Democrats were distraught about the primary defeat of Bernie Sanders. But no riots came. There was conservative vitriol and liberal despair, but I mostly saw an ocean of people from all walks of life who were unmoved by and unhappy with their party's candidate for president.

The week before the election, I drove cross-country with my brother to ask every single regular person we could find about the election, and how they felt about the country. What we found was not an uprising of white working-class malcontents who were foaming at the mouth for white nationalism, but a resounding and thorough sigh of "this sucks." There was no evidence whatsoever that Trump was actually popular. His ascendance was mostly a matter of mobilizing regular Republicans while Democrats were divided over their anointed wonky centrist.

In the months since that drive into purgatory, we've seen how Trump governs: like somebody who has no idea how government works and only cares about being the most famous guy on the news. And he's exactly as smart as a YouTube fast-food reviewer hopped up on trucker speed (if YouTube fast-food reviewers hated poor people), which means he can't finish a sentence without choking on his own tongue. He will be easy to defeat in 2020 if the left can stop trying to be polite and run a campaign of blood and guts against him.

The lesson I learned from covering this election, and from the early days of the presidency from hell, is not that America is any worse than it used to be. Its flaws are just more obvious and underlined. Ours has always been a nation founded on imperialism and massacre, and its people have always been prone to tribalism and hate. Trump is not cause to give up on this country. Trump is not cause to retreat into fantasy. Trump is the loudest rallying cry in the world that it's time for us to do better and get to work.

Building that future starts with an inspired American left that gives a real alternative to Trump yelling at us, a left that knows the material well-being of our citizens is imperiled and nobody feels secure, a left that makes our people an offer for something else, a left that promises a future and shows us how that future would be made manifest. That starts with talking to Americans, engaging them on their level, and selling them on real leftist principles instead of telling them how bad the alternative is. That starts with making young people believe in your candidate. That starts with admitting the train has been derailed but hasn't exploded.

Public political nihilism is everywhere because of this president, and it's pure bullshit. It's all about creating a morose, vaguely teenage, and powerless conception of your place in the world to escape moral culpability. It's a way out. It gives you narrative and closure. It makes your life a movie that you're watching from the nosebleeds.

But there's a way to change that. Whenever you want to say the world is ending, whenever you want to say the ship is sinking so let's crack open some Scotch and sing a funeral song, slap yourself in the face and tell the truth. If you engage with the news at all, the easiest thing to say in 2017 is that the world is ending. What's harder is admitting the scary truth: It's not, and there's work to do in it.