Following Trump: the straight road to nihilism

Fyodor Dostoevsky had, in his work, explored what happens to society when people who rise to power lack any semblance of ideological or moral convictions and view society as bereft of meaning. But then a disturbing public trial spurred him in a more overtly political direction. What would happen when people lacking any semblance of ideological or moral convictions rise to power? A young student had been murdered by members of a revolutionary group, The Organization of the People’s Vengeance, at the behest of their leader, Sergei Nechaev. His focus turned not only to moral questions but also to political demagoguery, which, he argued, if left unchecked, could result in devastating loss of life. Although set in a sleepy provincial Russian town, Demons serves as a broader allegory for how thirst for power in some people, combined with the indifference and disavowal of responsibility by others, amount to a devastating nihilism that consumes society, fostering chaos and costing lives.

From 1949 to 1967 Leo Strauss served as a professor in the University of Chicago political science department, and became the source of the inspiration of the neoconservative ideology of the Republican Party. He developed a political philosophy based on deception, the power of religion, and aggressive nationalism. This was a system in which the people are told no more than they need to know as deception is a norm in political life. He recommended the use of religion for the morals of the masses, but not applying to the leaders. If the masses really knew what was going on it would lead to nihilism. The void was to be filled with religious values. Also, Strauss proposed the use of aggressive foreign policy to unite the masses. In Strauss’s view perpetual deception of the citizens by those in power is critical because they need to be led, and they need strong rulers to tell them what’s good for them.

Donald Trump has held very few consistent positions since he began running for president in 2015. The one that stands out? His relentless bashing of the media as “fake news” and insistence that Republicans tune out all forms of mainstream media. His decade in public life is littered with just that sort of over-the-top rhetoric, with few actual facts to back his wild claims up. Remember that Trump told us exactly what he was up to back in 2018, speaking to a VFW gathering. “Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news,” Trump told the crowd. “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” He wanted to be the sole disseminator of information – and “facts” – to his base. That desire was driven by selfish and political concerns: Trump wanted to create an alternate reality in which he was winning at everything from the economy to immigration to even Covid-19.1

The former president has many ways of creating a reality on Truth Social that supports him. He shared a screenshot of a Newsweek story – though something was undeniably off about its contents. Trump’s version, shared on his Truth Social account, omits a lead reference to the outcome of the 2020 election (which Joe Biden won), and cuts a line about the “81-year-old” Biden being seen as too old to run for president. Trump is 77 years old. Also, MeidasTouch caught him altering another piece by the weekly news magazine, posting screenshots of an article titled “Donald Trump Poised to Be First Republican to Win Popular Vote in 20 Years,” removing several sections from the original story that referenced Biden’s strengths as a candidate, Biden’s predicted wins, and Trump’s failures. The only indication that he heavily edited the piece was some ellipses.2

One of the primary ways in which Trump persuades his audience is through repetition. Repetition is a persuasive technique often used by politicians, journalists, and advertisers. According to several psychological studies, repeating simple words and phrases can convince us that they are true, even if they aren’t. This is partly because we tend to take repetition as a social cue; when we hear something more than once, we are inclined to accept it as true because we think that the rest of the group might also believe it. In addition, we are more likely to believe ideas that come easily to us; therefore, the more familiar we become with words and ideas, the more we will take them to be true. More importantly, studies show that using repetition as a persuasive tactic is most powerful when the audience is not paying close attention.

Trump’s digressions and rambles – or, as he says, when “the back of the sentence reverts to the front” – are much easier to follow in person thanks to subtle cues. His style of speaking is conversational, and may even stem from his New York City upbringing. As George Lakoff, a linguist at UC Berkeley, told me, “[The] thing about being a New Yorker is it is polite if you finish their sentences for them. It’s a natural part of conversation.” This may be why Trump’s sentences often seem, in transcript form, to trail off with no ending. “He knows his audience can finish his sentences for him,” Lakoff says. He makes vague implications with a raised eyebrow or a shrug, allowing his audience to reach their own conclusions. And that conversational style can be effective. It’s more intimate than a scripted speech. People walk away from Trump feeling as though he were casually talking to them, allowing them to finish his thoughts.3

The Mandela Effect, is an unusual phenomenon where a large group of people remember something differently than how it occurred came into use long before Donald Trump helped the terms “Fake news” and “Alternate facts” go mainstream. The term was coined by writer and paranormal researcher Fiona Broome in 2009 after she spoke at a conference about how she remembered his death in jail in the 1980s and many among the audience had the same collective memory of the event, which of course never happened. The Mandela Effect, which gave its name to a movie, refers to this type of mass but false memories. Through these processes more and more of the majority will gradually change towards the cause resulting in the snowball effect which will ultimately result in societal change, once this has happened social cryptomnesia occurs which is when people can remember a change but not how it came about.

“Trump’s primary use of Twitter has been to spread propaganda and manipulate public opinion,” said Sam Woolley, director for propaganda research at the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Media Engagement. “He used Twitter to delegitimize information or to delegitimize the positions of his opponents.” Of Trump’s 10 most-popular tweets, four contained false claims related to the 2020 election results. Of his 100 most popular posts, 36 contained election-related falsehoods. “Trump uses social media and terms like ‘fake news’ and ‘witch hunt’ and his power there to create the illusion of popularity for ideas that actually have no basis in reality,” said Woolley. “Often what this does is create a bandwagon effect for supporting false or misleading things, or more generally attacking institutions,” which may include health care, science, education, and the government, in addition to the media.4

The nihilist wants to destroy the existing social order for no valid reason, and the narcissist strives to feed from others even if it destroys them. While these are not the same, there are some overlapping ego-centric ideologies. Trump is not a nihilist; he is a narcissist. The narcissist is infatuated with his own opinion, while the relative values of everyone else’s opinion approaches zero. At its greatest limit nihilism and extreme narcissism are equivalent. What concerns people in 2024? For the first time in forty years, we heard the term “existential threat.” Existentialism – a loss of hope in reaction to a breakdown in one or more defining qualities of one’s self or identity – is the attempt to confront and deal with meaninglessness… to not succumb to nihilism, to not give up or avoid responsibility. Trump is associated with “existential threat” because many perceive his actions threaten American democratic values and believe America will be governed against their will.

For Nietzsche, there is no objective order or structure in the world except what we give it. Penetrating the façades buttressing convictions, the nihilist discovers that all values are baseless and that reason is impotent. Political nihilism is the belief that no government is really needed, it believes that humans can get by without any social institutions. Full political nihilism denies the meaningfulness of all social institutions, and results in personal political apathy. It is the belief that one can just drop out and be an observer and be fine as most of our youth do. Nihilism of the Alt-Right refers to the attitude that the future collapse of civilization is impossible to avert; an attitude has evolved in the movement that no matter what one may do or believe, the end is rapidly approaching and inevitable. The Alt-Right want to be on the winning side, or if this is not possible, help bring down the existing system.

Nietzsche considered nihilism a transitional stage that accompanies human development. It arises from frustration and weariness. When people feel alienated from values, and have lost the foundation of their value system but have not replaced it with anything, then they become nihilists. Dostoevsky warned of the strain of nihilism that infects Donald Trump and his movement: power for power’s sake, playacting at revolution. The only way to fight against this nihilism is to replace cynicism with a politics that offers the possibility of meaningful change. This means proposing bold progressive programmes that would dramatically challenge the status quo. In order to restore democracy in America it will be necessary to throw off neoliberal policies of wage suppression, deregulation, and tax cuts; and, once again, put political power in the hands of the American working class.

1 https://www.cnn.com/2021/08/30/politics/trump-legacy-fake-news/index.html

3 https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/1/11/14238274/trumps-speaking-style-press-conference-linguists-explain

4 https://www.cnbc.com/2021/01/13/trump-tweets-legacy-of-lies-misinformation-distrust.html

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