The Triumph of Incrementalist Nihilism

It goes without saying that the entire Trumpist/Palinist movement is nothing more than a revanchist nihilist impulse. Despite some conservatives’ attempts to retcon some sort of ideology onto the Trumpist impulse under the guise of National Conservatism, the movement, such as it is, is little more than an eruption of the id. Because of its unrelenting nature, it can lead to a loss of hope, that it is impossible to fix our problems. There is no balm in Gilead for those sin-sick souls.

But there is another source of nihilism, and this is one we have some marginal control over: the Democratic Party. Last week, in a discussion of Democratic myopia about impeachment, I quoted Elizabeth Spiers. There was something else from her piece which I couldn’t work in (boldface mine):

And here’s the real risk, both morally and politically: If Pelosi treats Trump as an aberration and continues to be passive in the hopes that we can all power through until next November, there’s no accountability mechanism built into our system of democracy that has any real credibility. There’s no crime so severe that Trump can’t get away with it—not intentionally neglecting brown children until they die in cages, not being openly racist, not raping women, not helping hostile foreign powers and covering up for dictatorial regimes that torture American journalists to death, not putting American lives at risk in imperialistic and prosecutorial wars. That’s especially true for the offense that should be the most straightforward impeachment charge in this case—obstructing justice when our system of government works by design to prevent the president from abusing his power for personal gain. If nothing Trump does matters during this administration, nothing our system of democracy has in place to prevent descent into autocracy and tyranny matters, either. Norms and laws only work when they’re enforced.

The long-run cost here is that leadership that does nothing turns us all into nihilists, whether we like it or not. It says that values don’t matter as long as decorum is observed, and that elites are in charge, preferably behind closed doors, where the public can’t second-guess what they’re doing or demand that they do more. In this scheme of things, norms and laws are perfunctory theater, at best. Anyone who’s savvy enough and has enough resources can do exactly what Trump has done, and do it with impunity, and in a more damaging way, because there’s now a roadmap for doing it. And under such conditions, the only way to survive in a system governed entirely by nihilism is to become a nihilist yourself—even for self-styled members of a resistance.

It’s not just related to impeachment either. As long as the professional Democratic class believes that significant policy change is impossible, that will further increase nihilism. What is the point of political action if your life won’t change for the better–and significantly so? That too is very corrosive.

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