Trumpism & American Political Nihilism
Trumpism was fueled by alienated Americans who would rather see the system burn than live in a pluralist democracy.
The assorted white supremacists, militant Christians, and Q Anon adherents joined together in prayer in the just-evacuated U.S. Senate, after violently seizing the Capitol to disrupt the sealing of Donald Trump’s defeat. Political nihilists, aching to dismantle democracy for a new America cast in their image were praying not just to Jesus, but for the demise of our representative system of government.
Trump was never so much a Republican president, as he was a political pyromaniac, setting fire to the norms and institutions of democracy and the vision of globalist modernity his followers so loathed.
Donald Trump’s presidency and its bloody conclusion was a picture of a democracy in peril. Broad swaths of the American electorate have rejected the democratic process, believing that elections and democratic governance are largely incompatible with their interests. Instead, more than 74 million Americans embraced an archetypal strongman leader who stood against democratic norms, pluralist culture, and truth itself. Many of these supporters cheered Trump’s efforts to overturn an election he decisively lost. Among these voters are ardent white nationalists, fanatical fundamentalist Christians, and men and women that feel themselves so culturally and economically excluded from the American democratic project that they would gladly see it burn.
The Chaos Agent
Trump was never so much a Republican president, as he was a political pyromaniac, setting fire to the norms and institutions of democracy and the vision of globalist modernity his followers so loathed. His movement stood less for conservative policymaking than it did for a virulent and particularly American strain of political nihilism. To the extent that Trump did enact a traditionalist Republican agenda, it was always with an eye toward preserving his broader political coalition. Yet it was understood from the beginning that he was to be an agent of chaos rather than a builder of consensus.
At the outset of the Trump administration chief strategist Steve Bannon declared that the “deconstruction of the administrative state” was the priority. This statement early on in the administration from the intellectual architect of Trumpism was a remarkable insight into a presidency that from its inception saw itself as dismantling established democratic institutions, its true purpose barely concealed beneath the patina of conservative dogma with which the movement cloaked itself.
Beyond the financial and personal opportunism motivating supporters at the top, animating Trumpism at its core are deep undercurrents of skepticism in our current system of pluralistic democratic governance. The tendency toward political nihilism has historically existed on both extremes of the political spectrum, but its modern American iteration found a welcome home among Donald Trump’s Republican Party.
The Accelerationist Presidency Delivers
Accelerationists believe the system is so inherently bad, corrupt, and utterly unserviceable that it should be razed and burned to the ground, as whatever system rises from its ashes is sure to be superior. Trump’s presidency then, was a resounding success, as he has profoundly destabilized our democracy, weakened its institutions, and shaken the foundational moorings of the republic.
American pluralist democracy is intolerable to important elements of the Trump coalition. As demographics rapidly shift, and we become less white, less religious, and less prosperous, a hodgepodge of white nationalists, Christian fundamentalists, and those left behind economically have merged to demand a new and giddily destructive vision of revanchist governance. Majoritarian politics could never deliver the America they sought, as these groups exist as only potent minorities in a progressively more diverse and modern electorate. Banding together under Trump’s pseudo-populism was a path toward achieving their overlapping antidemocratic agendas.
For white supremacists seeking to erase the decline of white dominance in American politics after what they felt to be the unbearable humiliation of Barack Obama’s presidency, and with the ultimate goal of creating an exclusively caucasian ethnostate within the continental United States, Donald Trump was a perfect president. With his casual racism and xenophobic demonization of immigrants, he was the closest they had ever come to one of their own holding high office. More importantly, he destabilized the government and brought the nation to the brink of civil war, a necessary prelude for accelerationists hoping to build a new racial utopia atop the smoking ruins of our current system.
When evangelical Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz voted to overturn a free and fair election in bad faith, they were the voice of this movement, declaring that they would take Christian control of government over the godless results of democracy any day of the week.
The Hard Religious Right
Militant Christians want to reverse the status-quo of a morally decaying, increasingly irreligious society, and to replace democracy with an autocracy of the faithful based exclusively on Christianity. These culture warriors are dedicated to fighting against what they perceive to be the fast decline of Western Civilization, as they work to counter rising tolerance for Islam, LGBTQ rights, and the fact of America’s diminishing need for religion. When evangelical Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz voted to overturn a free and fair election in bad faith, they were the voice of this movement, declaring that they would take Christian control of government over the godless results of democracy any day of the week.
Disaffected Young Men
The remainder of Trump’s support was derived from those largely without college degrees, disillusioned men and families left far behind economically after manufacturing jobs and a chance at the middle class vanished in the face of technological advances in automation and the shipping of jobs overseas by corporations eager to exploit cheap foreign labor. They blame condescending coastal elites and an indifferent political establishment, finding solace in conspiracies that help to explain their reduced circumstances. Although Q Anon adherents come from all classes and demographics, many of these disaffected and underemployed men are among its believers, and they were well represented among those that seized the Capitol.
The ideological underpinnings of accelerationists are varied and overlapping, but its emotional heart is antipathy for the increasingly unfavorable results of American electoral democracy, and a desire for a final reckoning with pluralism and diversity in culture and politics. The deep support for Trump’s efforts to overturn the election from among the base of the GOP, and the subsequent assault on the U.S. Capitol unveiled the destructive political impulses of a vast contingent of heavily-armed Americans who are ready to dispense entirely with electoral democracy. For these alienated Americans, the reality of our diverse system of self-government will become ever more unbearable, as our society moves further into an inclusive and multiracial modernity that many of them despise.
The Biden administration must acknowledge the depth of the animosity for the social and cultural changes sweeping the nation, as it seeks to bring people back into the body politic that have not yet been lost to extremism, conspiracy, and hate. Complicating this task is a right-wing media machine and its online equivalents routinely eschewing truth to spread misinformation, promoting division and anger for profit. Opportunistic populist politicians eager to reap electoral victories by harnessing discontent will continue to emerge. The path forward for our fragile democracy is fraught with danger, but there also exists a possibility for healing. If the Biden administration proves it can move beyond the partisan hostilities and ugly rancor of the Trump years to begin to competently solve the nation’s many pressing problems through compromise and consensus, we may yet find a way forward through the darkness.