Creeping Nihilism

David Frum, of whom I am not a fan, but who has at least been on the right side of history this election, posted the following to Twitter yesterday:

This is but the latest volley in the escalation of what Frum calls “moral nihilism” but I would call “intellectual nihilism”, as it encompasses more than just ethics. Take, for example, the so-called “Science” Committee of the U.S. House, which has been tweeting garbage like this recently:

Though there’s certainly an ethical component to climate change denialism, it runs deeper than that. Simply put, it is pride in ignorance.

There are any number of parties that share the blame for this sorry state of affairs. I’m certain that some on the left are dead-certain that it’s Fox News’s fault. But Fox News, of course, only adapted the existing conservative talk radio playbook to TV. And that only worked because there was some element of truth to the belief that conservative ideas and values didn’t get a fair shake in the broader mainstream media ecosystem. I could go on, but I don’t know what the point would be in such an exercise.

Instead, my purpose here is twofold. First, I want to catalog some of the truly horrifying subversions of reality and ethics that are taking place. I will focus on the nascent Trump administration, where I think the most alarming things are happening, but it’s certainly not hard to find examples of large groups of people on the left being equally eager to be fooled by fake stories that confirm their existing beliefs. Second, I want to offer some thoughts on the implications for the future if this state of affairs continues.

Perhaps the most widely cited example from the campaign is billionaire Trump supporter Peter Thiel’s remarks on Trump’s supporters taking him “seriously, but not literally” while his detractors were taking him “literally, but not seriously.” This is a cute soundbite, but the premise is pretty unsettling: one shouldn’t ascribe too much meaning to the (then-potential) President of the United States’s actual words. They’re just words. But words are the primary vehicle for communication of ideas, particularly by presidential candidates, so perhaps it’s not that surprising that voters might have learned a lot about Trump’s actual plans by taking him seriously and literally. (Except for the rhetoric he’s already disavowed, some of which was clearly untenable even as he was repeating it on the campaign trail.) Recently, Corey Lewandowski renewed this complaint, directing exasperation at the media for taking Trump literally. It’s not clear what he thinks the media should be reporting, if not the words Trump actually said, but there it is.

The post-election rhetoric that has grown increasingly disturbing over the past few days. First, there’s the Conway tweet cited by Frum, which echoes Nixon’s legendarily amoral “when the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” Whether this is relativism or truly nihilism hinges on whether you think Conway believes what she’s saying. I don’t.

Then there’s maybe the worst incident of all: Trump loyalist Scottie Nell Hughes, on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show, stating, “there’s no such thing anymore, unfortunately, as facts.” You can find the audio here. This one is chilling, because I suspect that is the real endgame: a world in which everyone, contra Moynihan, is entitled to their own facts. There’s evidence that this is already well underway. “Don’t read the comments” is a well-worn internet cliche, but have you tried reading the comments? The vast majority of comments sections on popular websites seem to be giddily indifferent to truth or principle. Moreover, to the extent there is a moral viewpoint, it seems to be entirely relativistic — as though the Trump team’s behavior can only be assessed with reference to Hillary Clinton’s behavior, even now, post-election.

I had some thoughts on deck last night when I started this post about why all of this matters, but a post by Marginal Revolution’s Alex Tabarrok, (with whom I typically agree on very little), pointed me to another post by Jacob Levy that appears to have beaten me to the punch. The notion that there are non-relativistic truths about a great many things, and that policy ought to be made with respect for those truths, is the foundation of a democratic republic. Simply put, intellectual nihilism is a crisis for our system of government. That should worry all of us.