I seem to find myself using a lot of big words and interesting new vocabulary these days. Nihilism is defined as “the rejection of all religious and moral principles, in the belief that life is meaningless.” It is a term that got its roots (ironically) in early 20th century Russia. Political nihilism definitely got its roots there.
Let’s follow the logica progression. It starts with the assumption that all parties (or individuals) come in with hands unclean. The Russians used this tactic as a way to ward off criticism of human rights abuses by simply pointing out that your people (whoever is levying the charge) had done the same. Stalin killed more than a few million people? Well, your government killed countless Native Americans. The Russians have oppressed their people for centuries? Well, your government had slavery and Jim Crow.
You see friends and family that have unwittingly bought into this line of thinking in political terms. Candidate A is a horrible person that committed crimes and steals whenever he or she can. Candidate B had an affair and lied about it. So, they are both horrible people and their “crimes” cancel each other out.
Political nihilism is in some ways worse than the orginal kind because it involves two key elements that threaten to destroy everything our country has built up until this point. The first one is closely related to the original definition. Essentially, the concept of overriding principles that govern everything we do as a body politic no longer exist. Everything is transactional. We shouldn’t base anything on what we have traditionally believed to be true. It’s all about what we get in the moment.
Donald Trump seems to be on the forefront of this revolution. Conservatives used to be for personal responsibility. They used to be for free trade. They used to be for fiscal conservatism. They used to be for standing up for our allies and against our enemies. They are not for any of these anymore. In fact, you can find no greater symbol of political nihilism than the fact that they have no party platform. Officially, they are just rubber stamping 2016’s, but really they are pledging fealty to Trump. It’s all transactional.
As a fact of history, platforms and core beliefs shift. Yet, each party has always had them. You could stand proudly and declare that you were a Democrat or a Republican and that means you stand for X, Y, and Z. It served as a moral compass. Sometimes those principles were religious in nature. Sometimes they weren’t, but they were surely moral principles just the same.
The second part of political nihilism is the scariest part to me. It is a general attack on objective truth. Mind you, no one seriously comes out and says there is no objective truth. That would be political suicide. Instead, we simply eat away at the institutions that are the arbiters of objective truth and fact. They become “fake news.”
So, whenever a media outlet reports something we don’t like it becomes fake news. This isn’t about just Trump. This has been going on for decades. There has been a very organized attack against the mainstream media. You’ve probably heard people call it the lamestream media. Suddenly, well respected outlets like the Washington Post and New York Times have become liberal shills.
Well meaning folks will admit there are right wing sources that do the same, but it serves the same purpose. There is objective truth, but there is nowhere I can go to find it. The end result is that people simply find sources that tell them what they want to hear. Those sources become reliable sources. If I dismiss all information from certain sources because I assume they are biased then I effectively can shut down any debate or discussion. If we can’t agree on the facts then we might as well not debate at all.
So, what we are seeing these days is the intersection of three very dangerous principles. The first principle was the fact that all countries and all people have done bad things and they’ve all lied, so there is no moral or ethical ground to stand on. I can vote or support whoever I like with impunity because they are all bad people.
Secondly, we don’t need political, social, ethical, and religious guardrails in our society. We can do whatever we want in the moment. It is the subtle difference between moral relativism and simply having no morals. The first simply comes to the belief that you and I can reach different conclusions as to what is absolutely morally right. However, each of us should have a moral code we live by. This is why the president’s comments about service seem so abhorant and yet make so much sense when you think about his psychological makeup. He doesn’t understand that some people would do something where they don’t necessarily benefit in some way monetarily. The entire concept of selflessness is foreign to him.
Finally, we get the war on facts. This one has been going on longer than Trump has been around, but he has taken full advantage of it. He’s lied more than 20,000 times as president and yet it doesn’t seem to stick. His followers just cry “fake news” and move on. You get the intersection of these three horrible trends together and you understand where we are as a society and body politic. There is no objective fact we can agree on, everyone is a liar and a cheat, and there are no principles we need to live by. It’s no wonder so many of us are so despondent.