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American Nihilism


This is not an article about Donald Trump. This is, instead, an article about the America that created him.

The slogan is “make America great again.”

What does this mean, really?

The more I think about it, the more I see it as unintentional satire. Does it mean more jobs, broad prosperity, better communities, a just society, a healthy, happy people, and international respect?

Or does it instead mean a world brought to its knees, terrorized by the American war machine? Does it mean torture and abuse, degradation and racism, division and violence?

By no means do Trump supporters represent all Americans. Out of all primary votes cast so far, Hillary Clinton has the most. But Trump is not far behind, and while I consider the man himself a worry, the mentality of his supporters is more concerning. These people are overwhelmingly white, fearful, and crave strong authority figures. Less do they desire calm, even-handed leadership. Instead, men who would push the red button and rain fire on our enemies without a second thought are in demand.

If being “great again” is all that matters, is it of any relevance if we all die in trying to get there?

In trying to come up with a topic for tonight, I was pointed to, of all things, a masterful review of _Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice._ I’ve not seen it, admittedly, but it started me down a train of thought that culminated in wanting to develop this particular subject.

Ever since the 911 attacks, we’ve been obsessed with the imagery of that violence while simultaneously repulsed by it. The World Trade Center towers were edited out of upcoming movies, and for a while it was bad form to air old movies and TV shows that prominently featured the towers. We could not forget the attacks–we could hardly think of anything else–and yet we resented even the slightest visual reminder of what we lost. Perhaps it’s the old, pre-911 America we’re dying to forget, so we can revel fearfully (yet somehow, gleefully) in a new normal where death and destruction are signs of progress.

Our politics and our culture were reshaped in an instant on that fateful day. To be struck so decisively, so shockingly, so unexpectedly suddenly made the unthinkable thinkable. It gave us license to dig up so many other unthinkables and make them real. A nation that feels restless without a war to fight had a purpose again, and new tools to fight it, but those weren’t enough. We had to bring back the tactics of old: torture, sleazy allies, petty political meddling. Mission creep was a given, and so were budget overruns. But none of it matters as long as we’re killing, killing, killing.

President Obama is often criticized for being “weak.” In truth, he has prosecuted the “War on Terror” more ruthlessly than his predecessor. The difference is in showmanship. Bush and his cronies were always happy to tout the damage inflicted by their war machine; Obama has gone out of his way to avoid discussing it in detail. Perhaps more importantly, Obama doesn’t seem to enjoy killing people, but orders it with a sort of dispassionate resignation–if his technocratic mind offered a less deadly option, he’d surely take it. I don’t believe, personally, that unilateral drone strikes and extrajudicial assassinations are the only way to solve the problems he is attempting to solve, but I do believe he (and his advisors) believe it is necessary.

On the right, however, killing isn’t something you do out of duty or necessity–it’s something to become good at, something to enjoy, and to do as much as you can. American Sniper, the book and film both, have been a cultural phenomenon. The book sold well over a million copies, which is no small feat in today’s market. The film made half a billion dollars. The author of the autobiographical book was himself a professional killer. This is not a slur–the man himself, Chris Kyle, boasted about how good he was at killing Iraqis, and only wished he could have killed many more. Is the popularity of his story the result of a can’t-look-away car-wreck mentality, or does it come from a sense of identification, of wish fulfillment? Is Chris Kyle the American dream or the American nightmare?

Couldn’t we ask the same of Donald Trump? Or even Ted Cruz, who is both more ideological and more warmongering? Not to mention in second place behind Trump in the GOP primaries.

And thanks to yesterday’s attacks by ISIS in Brussels, the world can be treated to right-wing American politicians jockeying for position to prove who is the most bloodthirsty, the most heartless, the most determined to murder our way to peace. Both Cruz and Trump blamed “political correctness” for the attacks. If only we could deprive Muslims of their humanity, they might be less inclined to radicalize and terrorize. Perhaps what they envision is a status quo much like that of black Americans: economically impoverished, socially marginalized, and habitually victimized to the point of almost total non-resistance. But this is also the age of BlackLivesMatter, of demands for criminal justice reform, and potential paths toward real change in how Americans think (and act) about race. And perhaps that is part of what is motivating the right’s fear, and the white rage that inhabits the Trumposphere. When minorities once thought sufficiently cowed begin speaking out of turn, is that the time to bring them to the table in good faith, or beat them down so they won’t dare speak up for another generation or two?

These are people who believe that violence is the only language our designated enemies understand. In a way, die-hard ISIS fighters are the perfect counterprogramming to the traditional American approach. They cannot be oppressed into silence. They know no fear. They don’t even value their own lives. They would gladly die for their beliefs–something Americans, it must be said, tend to cherish as a value, at least when emitted as the echo of a dead white man. Expecting to sow peace by killing people who already want to die is, of course, utter absurdity. In no other context does it make sense to give an enemy exactly what they demand, and yet in post-911 America, the best way to fight those who want to die is to oblige them.

After 911, we never bothered to ask what would drive anyone to seek to hurt us so, and we’re not about to start. It’s almost beautiful in its reductive perfection: the only way to stop terrorism is to kill terrorists. To ask what creates terrorists is to engage in wishy-washy liberal tendencies–to academically masturbate over “complexity” when everyone knows it’s a very simple problem: a terrorist is a terrorist, and terrorists need to die, just not before we torture any information they have out of them. It is a philosophy devoid of humanity, devoid of meaning.

Neocons like those in the George W. Bush administration were not nihilists, it must be said. They killed, and perhaps enjoyed killing, but it was for particular purposes: enriching defense contractors, ensuring American access to oil, and opening up new populations to exploitation by capitalist multinationals. Cynical and abhorrent reasons, but logically understandable ones.

The enraged white reactionary demographic–the Trump voter, the Cruz voter–sees enemies everywhere. There’s no particular end goal in mind, except to maybe feel safe, but this safety is impossible because the true turmoil lies within. It’s an anxiety bred of insecurity, of a loss of privilege, of being forced to grapple with a confusing world in which people who look like you are set to have less and less power over time. The parade of enemies will never end. There will always be new bad guys to torture and kill. It’s only a matter of time before it’s neighbor against neighbor. It’s a mentality that would see us all dead, if only for our own protection.

I don’t believe all Americans think this way. Probably not even most. But a disturbingly large number do, and they will be voting this November.

Photo by Newtown grafitti