It seems like the right day to write about nihilism. There is a puzzling collusion of facts to consider. Nihilism isn’t a metaphor, it’s not a story we tell because of some inherited past. We may have nihilistic stories but there’s always some way we try to redirect them. That can fail because human beings can collect themselves to destroy themselves. That is nihilism.
We need to understand that nihilism is a kind of pathology, it doesn’t necessarily know that it advocates self-destruction. Nihilism can be a world view _and_, like our religious fantasies, it can be implemented without much intent or critical thinking. It can also be incompetent, lazy, unintended, and inadvertent because there’s something to gain (material, emotional, etc.) or to sell by saying and acting like a nihilist. It can even take on its own vulgar and sardonic humor (irony here is noted), you know, with Calvin pissing bumper stickers and the like. So why are Trump voters nihilists? What can we do about it?
First, while Trump won the poor rural white vote, the average Trump voter earned $10,000 more than the average Clinton voter. We can dispel the notion that government wasn’t working for them any worse than it has for everyone else. What we must conclude is that they want to make sure that government doesn’t work for “those” people or even for anyone if that’s what it takes.
The Mueller report will not change one vote. Trump’s base either doesn’t care or even wants him to be the person reported. This confirms our first conclusion: they don’t want government to be changed or tweaked or reinvented so that it works better for everyone, they want it destroyed because they believe that government is the problem and that it’s destruction is the best solution. More to the point, they will do anything to destroy their “enemies.” There really is nothing worse than a liberal or a minority person and they will go down with them to destroy this “other.”
Trump is an incompetent grifter—they don’t care about that either—so long as this leads to the dissolution of norms and the undermining of laws. This defines the Trump base of course as the equivalent of terrorists and nihilists. They seek nothing less than the destruction of the republic as we know it though they may be too foolish to understand just how they advocate for their own destruction.
It’s important to repeat that nihilism is a kind of pathology, it doesn’t necessarily know that it advocates self-destruction. Oligarchy and authoritarianism taking democracy’s place makes them feel better even as it furthers their own failure. That they claim to seek a better life for their children and grandchildren is part of the rationale that something “better” will emerge once their devastation is complete. The Second Coming is part of the pathology, whether or not they know it; it’s another cultural feature of a nihilist view.
This is why there is no reason to “work with” these voters other than to lead them, if possible, to their next pathology, which is to convince them that their nihilism has itself failed. That can be done passively by overwhelming them with voters who reject their candidates. However, this would also require Democrats to be competent, united, and determined. Good luck with that too. Democrats would have to cooperate with each other but the good news is that they don’t have to love one another. Read on.
The Antidote to Nihilism
There’s good news about a possible antidote to nihilism. It’s not love, it’s cooperation. And we humans have learned to cooperate even when we don’t love one another. Sure, it’s better that we care, it’s even possible that we care so much that we are willing to die for each other. But that is not how we treat nihilism. We are just as willing to hurt one another, to act self-destructively, or to accommodate the meaninglessness that is also at the core of possibilities.
I’ve been reading King Lear again and when you see Lear in light of certain Hindu mythologies there’s a possible antidote to nihilism. You see, in Lear love does not save and, in fact, it is the putative problem from the very outset. How do we prove our love? How do we believe in love? And what can people do that causes love itself to be a part of our just as plausible nihilism? All of these matters come to a summary in Lear. Love does not save us from ourselves however it might have saved us if we had understood that it won’t.
What the Hindu mythologies bring to the conversation is that gods and demons are not as far apart as you think. What separates them are different interests but that’s not the key. You see the demons are willing to burn down the whole world if they don’t get their way. They don’t always know what they want and they can be unaware of their impending self-destruction (think Ravana or Duryodana). But that doesn’t stop them. There’s something that _feels good_ that they want and here is the key to unlocking the difference between the demon’s nihilism and the god’s cooperation.
The gods cooperate even when it doesn’t feel good. The gods don’t demand that we love because they know that love does not save us from nihilism. The gods cut deals that don’t feel good and will never feel good. The gods cut deals that sully them, that compromise their values, that undermine their purity, that take something from them so that in a greater _cooperation_ there is more possible than destruction or nihilism. To wit, the gods live for another day, with those they cannot control or even like, and they figure out how to live with themselves when they know they have given up an important part of their principle. They decide to cooperate for a greater good and not stand on principle alone; they know that principle alone is the path to nihilism. So they cut a deal.
The opposite of nihilism is the kind of cooperation that cuts a deal for peace. You don’t need to “make” peace with the people you trust and love dearly. You need to figure out how to love them because they are flawed, like you. You do need to make peace with people you are pretty sure you don’t love or who most certainly don’t act like they love you at all, or even want to destroy you. You have to offer them a deal that might sully you some in the process. You have to offer them something they want, that feels good to them or gives them no other better choice that they can understand. If they don’t take it, offer them another and another.
Ask yourself how far you are willing to go and make sure to take note of that. If in the end there’s no deal then know that out of the ashes of nihilism you can emerge to make another deal. If you survive, if you win. That’s what Mahabharata reminds us is the alternative to nihilism. If you can’t handle that then there’s always the retreat into the mountain top cave. This is what most Americans will do because they won’t read the Mueller report and will just wish it were all over with so that we can get to “important” things. But they don’t want the important things: that would require staying involved with uncomfortable truths. So they will opt out, like the meditators on the mountain top. Don’t expect the rest of us not to care that you opted out. We are all in this together.