‘The U.S. Has Fallen Into a State of Political Nihilism’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Here’s a despairing email from a “U.S. Marine who has done multiple tours both in Iraq and Afghanistan since I joined the service in 2006, and I have never been more concerned for my country”:

Fallows recently asked whether Donald Trump was a flagrant liar or can he not tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not. The scary answer is he doesn’t care what’s true or not, and more importantly, the only thing that matters is himself and how he feels. This is terrifying, because we now have an emotionally unstable man as president who constantly needs attention and is willing to say or do anything to get the attention he feels he deserves.

The United States has fallen into a state of utter political nihilism, where there is no limit to what one party can say or do in order to achieve and maintain power. Worse, there is no meaning other than political theater behind it. The consequences of this political nihilism will be catastrophic and will reverberate down through the decades of the 21st century. If you doubt this, think of climate change, the global economy, and U.S foreign policy concerning NATO and other strategic alliances. Be afraid, be very afraid!

Another reader absorbs the latest:

After reading the latest cycle on the CIA report reaction [“Former Acting CIA Director Calls Russian Interference In Election ‘The Political Equivalent Of 9/11’”], I just finally understood a grim truth: President-elect Trump’s fear that any hint about election manipulation decreasing his sense of grandeur is greater than his concern about the role and process of elections in general. I say grandeur because he won the election, so his grasp is not tenuous; he is defending prestige alone, and that his pride could outweigh his concern for the engine of democracy is a grim truth indeed.

This next reader draws an analogy to, well, a Grimm tale:

Trump has no loyalties. He only wants to be POTUS because he can’t get any richer and see it mean anything. He can’t get any more famous. What else is there? He’s like the wife in “The Fisherman and His Wife.” In the end, she wanted to be God.

Another long-time reader, John, comments on Fallows’s latest note—which points out the plain reality that Trump’s victory was not the historic landslide he keeps claiming it to be:

I’m willing to bet that Trump knows his Electoral College margin was tiny. I’m willing to bet that he knows that there weren’t three million illegitimate voters. I’m willing to bet that he knows Russia was trying to help him. He’s not concerned with facts or evidence; he’s focused on framing the story for his followers. Fact-checking, shmact-checking—that’s something the MSM does and elites care about. Trump is tweeting bald-faced lies to give his followers cover, to give them something they can believe that won’t reduce their faith in him.

Trump and his people play by the reality TV rules. All that’s required is a plausible facade, while we expect adherence to actual facts. How pathetic are we? All that Trump’s followers want is a powerful fiction, something they can sink their teeth into, something with which to taunt us college-educated Atlantic readers. “Oh, you went to college, and you read all those books and took all those science classes, and you got A’s on your report cards? Big whoop, because now all that stuff you learned is meaningless! Facts don’t matter. Our man Donald makes it all up as he goes along, and we love him for it.” They love that we get so frustrated by Trump’s dissembling. The bigger the lie, the more they love The Donald.

Another reader, Jay, also tackles the “landslide” canard—but from the perspective of the popular vote:

Two points occurred to me this week that have not been raised anywhere in media that I have seen:

1. There are many discussion of the popular vote. Clinton’s lead over Trump is now 2.7 million votes. And it is often described this way [by New York’s Jonathan Chait]: “As votes continue to be tabulated in the days since the presidential election, Donald Trump’s deficit continues to grow (now at 2.7 million votes, or 2 percent of the total), while the imagined scale of his triumph continues to swell.”

But no one has pointed out that 7.6 million people voted for third parties. So the number of people who did not vote for Trump is now 73.1 million, compared to the 62.8 million who voted for him. So really, Trump lost the popular vote by 10.3 million. The vote was 54 percent against Trump to 46 percent for. I think it is worth pointing that out. It is also a better description of the potential size of the opposition to his policies.

2. I am a business attorney and work with a lot of small- to medium-sized family-owned businesses. Here’s a thing that most people may not appreciate: There is no job more like the king of a kingdom in modern society than the CEO of a family-owned business. These businesses often operate without boards of directors. The CEO is often the only shareholder or the majority shareholder. Everyone in the company works for him. These CEOs live in a bubble in which everyone they see does their bidding 24/7/365. Companies have no constitution. There are no internal rules, except those the company wrote for itself. The CEO can change anything any time. “You’re fired” is certainly important, but only the tip of the iceberg. A CEO can make any plan, start any project, buy any property, simply by deciding to do it all by themselves.

When the press describes Trump as authoritarian, they are correct, but he didn’t learn it from dictators. He learned it from his day-to-day work environment, where he had essentially unlimited power over a billion-dollar organization.

The best, fun, family-owned businesses try hard to install some character and moral sense into the heirs that might take over. Many require family members to work outside the company for at least five years, before they let them come to work in the family business. Often those family members do well, are successful on their own, and never come back. But those that do have at least learned how to behave in a outside work environment, where their supervisors have the power to give them instructions, and they have to perform. Trump never had any experience like that, as far as I know. I have certainly seen CEOs in this situations who lack moral character, and the result is not pretty. There is no check on their behavior at all. Typically, the spouse and children who are the only ones who might speak up without getting fired, are too afraid to do it. So the CEO rules like Sun-King in their own little kingdom.

My guess is that Trump thinks that being President will be just like his day job. He can give orders and things will get done. I think he will be surprised by the notion that he is limited by the Constitution, Congress, and the courts. “I alone can fix it” is just a reflection of how his world works in the Trump Organization. He has been the only person who gets to make any decisions for more than 30 years. That can certainly warp your sense of self. Mr. Trump’s appears to be the worse for the experience.

This next reader wonders if the GOP’s muted response to the bombshell news of Russian hacking goes beyond cynical partisanship:

One word that I seem to be missing in the stories about the Russians hacking both the DNC and the RNC is “blackmail.” If they have incriminating info from the RNC hack, who did they approach to let them know that this information could be released? They clearly could have incriminating documents and emails that the Republicans do not want to get out, and the Republicans seem to have taken great care to prevent the evidence of Russian hacking to be made public. So what do the Russians know and who is most afraid of what they know?

Speaking of Russian intrigue, Fallows forwarded me the following email from a Canadian former aid worker, calling it “long but interesting”—and it’s hard to disagree:

Since Friday’s reporting on the CIA’s findings of Russian meddling in the U.S. election, I’ve been reflecting with a deep sense of foreboding on what this means for future relationships between Russia and the West. So much will hinge upon how the narrative develops, and that provides no comfort at all.

Bear with me?

For several years from 1994 onwards, I was a humanitarian aid worker, researcher, and writer working in and around several of the nastier wars in post-Soviet space—Chechnya, Georgia/Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia/S. Ossetia/Georgia and a few other lesser-known hotspots. For those of us in the international humanitarian community of UN agencies, Red Cross Movement and INGOs, post-Soviet space was uncharted territory fraught with new and lethal difficulties. My job at the time was mostly trying to look at what was working and what wasn’t, and to figure out from that how best to safeguard or expand the space available to humanitarian agencies to assist and protect civilians in these wars, all of which were being fought without humanitarian pretensions. Aid workers were getting killed and kidnapped there like nowhere else before, so of course there was a strong element of self-preservation in trying to figure things out, a precursor to acting on our humanitarian impulse and mandates.

Looking back, my Western upbringing left me poorly equipped for figuring out the “why” of things to the extent needed for getting things done in that spectacularly shitty and opaque environment. My encounters with American diplomats (and, to a lesser extent, European ones) left me convinced that they tended to be even less well-equipped than I was, often arriving on the scene with deep-seated assumptions about Russia and Russians that almost always made bad problems worse and solutions more elusive. (An important aside here: One exception that stood out was Brady Kiesling, a thoughtful young American diplomat with whom I had many positive and enlightening encounters in the Caucasus. Kiesling, as you might remember, would later leave the U.S. Foreign Service over objections to the Iraq war).

With hindsight, I was slow to discover how important it was to my task at hand to try to see things through Russian / post-Soviet eyes. I got nowhere in understanding Russian political and military behaviour as it was being played out in my stomping ground until I delved into Russian history—particularly the pre-Soviet, Stalin, and WWII-eras. This proved essential not because I was soft-headed, inclined to be lenient, or at all interested in justifying despicable Russian political machinations and atrocious Russian behaviour on the battlefield.  Rather, it was simply necessary for the purely pragmatic purposes of figuring out how to prevent stupid things from happening, how to work better at solving, and preventing the problems that were otherwise proving so intractable and deadly.

To get to my point: Leaving aside the huge wildcard that is Donald Trump and his appointees, in the coming days, weeks, and months the U.S. in particular, and perhaps the West in general, may well be forging a new relationship with Russia informed by the recent revelations of Russian meddling in the U.S. elections.  We’ll be swamped with media attempts to get to the bottom of that meddling.  I expect that much Bengazi-esque attention will be focused on demonstrating how Obama failed to protect the U.S. from such an existential threat.

I hope, in the reporting that goes beyond Obama’s role, that some serious effort is made at the earliest stage to parse the origins and motivations for the Russian interference, and that it goes well beyond “Putin = BAD,” or reductions to an ascendant Russian nationalism, or to an increasing Russian bellicosity—all of which are valid but grossly incomplete explanations of this other, different kind and scale of spectacularly shitty and opaque environment.

My take on this story is that for it to be told with any accuracy, one needs to delve deep into some of the nuances that underlie such a hostile act, some of which I’ll try to enumerate here:

  • the reasons for Russia’s profound sense of its perceived abandonment by the U.S. in WWII, with near-catastrophic results;
  • the ensuing animosity toward the West that persisted and grew through the Cold War;
  • the Russian sense of deep humiliation in the post-Soviet era as its entire economic system and its political and military might unravelled;
  • the arguably aggressive, at-best opportunistic stance of NATO in the post-Soviet era—wargaming conflict with an ascendant Russia long before it started to re-ascend, actively recruiting new NATO members and hangers-on in Russia’s backyard, and;
  • Russian perceptions of the aggregate of Western efforts in the post-Soviet era to promote “democratization” in Russia and its neighbours (by that veritable phalanx of organisations like NDI, IRI, USIP, Open Society Institute, USAID, and a host of others);
  • the imposition of sanctions on Russian elites and how these fed into Russia’s already pervasive and isolating “us against the world” mindset.

So much grist in all of this for Putin’s nationalist mill, but it goes so much further than just that. But just to reiterate: My intent isn’t to argue for leniency toward Russia or to diminish its actions in any way, but to underscore the need to take Russian perceptions into account when formulating policy directions in the difficult period to come.

Update: Shortly after this reader roundup went live, my colleague Russell detailed how McConnell finally stepped up:

The Senate will investigate claims that Russia interfered in the election on behalf of Donald Trump—whether the president-elect likes it or not. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday gave his backing to bipartisan inquiries after the CIA reportedly concluded that not only did Russia meddle in the campaign, it did so with the goal of elevating Trump over Hillary Clinton. ... On Monday, McConnell broke sharply with Trump on the Russia question and in his confidence in the CIA’s credibility. “The Russians are not our friends,” he told reporters at the Capitol…

Keep reading here.


Update: Here’s a reader dissent over Fallows’s “Landslide Donald” note:

After Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012, respected left-leaning national publications such as The Nation, and an op-ed writer at The Los Angeles Times, described the event as an “electoral college landslide.” Obama’s Electoral College count was 332-206, which wasn’t substantially better than Donald Trump’s at 306-232. And Obama won the popular vote by a margin of less than 4 percent—but still, there were those on the Left who described it as a type of “landslide.” But The Nation went so far as to declare that since Obama won a majority of states, he had a mandate. (Trump won 33.)

So I think the Trump campaign’s desire to call this one a “landslide” is understandable. It doesn’t rise precisely to the level of Obama’s 2012 victory, but it’s fairly close. And a reasonable argument may be made that psychologically and politically, it had the same effect as a landslide.

The Democrats also blew a golden opportunity to take control of the Senate, and 2018 doesn’t look good either, with the Democrats defending 25 out of 33 seats—many of them in Red States that voted for Trump by a comfortable margin. They lost roughly 900 seats at the state legislative level, and they’re down to 11 governors.

The Supreme Court replacement for Antonin Scalia, and most likely replacements for Ginsburg and Breyer as well, will come from Trump’s Heritage Foundation candidate list. At the Cabinet level, Trump is picking a Who’s Who from the Republican anti-Obama brigade, including three generals who told Obama that withdrawing from Iraq so precipitously was a bad idea, and found their military careers abruptly at an end.

“Elections have consequences,” said Obama, and this one was very consequential at all levels and in all three branches of government. The comprehensive and lasting nature of this defeat is gradually being realized by the Left, and it’s causing a great deal of depression and despair. (The Atlantic just posted a story about “a cure for post-election malaise.”)

So although this may not have been a genuine landslide according to the strictest of terms, I suggest it has had the same effect.


Circling back to the nihilism theme, here’s one more reader note (also forwarded by Fallows), this time commenting on Trump’s call to Taiwan and his general contempt for political norms—which eventually leads to “anarchy and nihilism,” according to our reader:

I’m watching, with continued horror, the responses you are getting to your tweets on the Taiwan phone call. I’m horrified at the utter ignorance of key people regarding the dangers of failing to observe norms in international relations. So this is a supplement to my earlier emails to you about the importance of normativity domestically.

To review, there is no concrete, structural, real-world, tangible thing holding our society together. It is a shared consensus on the (slippery) meaning of words, and on the processes by which our institutions operate. Reality check: If humans were instantaneously to disappear from the face of the planet, what would the Constitution really be? A piece of paper with black squiggles on it, functionally indistinguishable from toilet paper. That is the extent of the solid, reliable fundament on which everything inside our borders rests. Everything else is normative, a shared consensus of meaning and consequence.  

This is why the “there are no facts” meme that you have been highlighting is so important. If there are no facts, if there is no observable truth to which we strive to adhere, then there is nothing. We have reached anarchy and nihilism, and whoever has the biggest muscle and the biggest gun prevails: the absolute state of nature. We start all over again.

And everything that keeps our lives stable and predictable absolutely depends on observing those norms. The things which feel solid and concrete that we expect when we wake up in the morning—from coffee, to warmth, to having a job, to having a retirement account on which to depend—all of it is absolutely dependent on the observance of those norms. We take the fragility of our lives and of our society much, much, much too much for granted. And the stability which we have come to expect—indeed, to believe is solid—is as fragile as a sandcastle approaching high tide when the norms are disturbed.

And the fragility of domestic norms are ironclad compared to the norms that have developed over the centuries internationally. Communication between countries and foreign cultures is based upon far more fragile, and even less definable norms. There is no constitution, no law books, no Supreme Court, not even a shared language. This is what makes the foreign service establishment SOOO essential, and SOOO important to be cultivated and treasured and respected. Something as (domestically) innocuous as a congratulatory phone call can, internationally, be the basis for withdrawing formal consular recognition. In international diplomatic parlance, the mere placement of an eyelash can have profound meaning and devastating consequences. And the normative fragility internationally can have tremendous, lasting, destabilizing consequences.

I reiterate that we take our stability for granted. We fly from coast to coast. We fly internationally. But look at what happened when stability was shattered in Iraq, in Libya, in Syria. At least with the murderous dictators in power in those countries, the consequences were contained. When we shattered the stability by our interventions, the puss has poured all over the world, and it has destabilized cultures to the point that we have Trump.

Yes. I tie the rise of Donald Trump directly to GWB’s intervention in Iraq. (Yes, we are the strongest power in the world. But we are not omnipotent. Our strength is in our willingness to exercise self-restraint. We were the strongest power in history of the world on the day before the invasion of Iraq occurred. Once we invaded, our weaknesses and our vulnerabilities became blazingly obvious.)

As a species, we have built an elaborate structure of norms to protect us from the absolute state of nature. The absolute state of nature is the only concrete thing which can, with absolute assurance, stop the fall from the dissolution of norms.

In the last election I have heard many, many seemingly intelligent people say that they voted for Trump because everything is corrupt, and they just wanted to blow things up.  I think these people fail realistically to account for how little in their lives they can truly count on. International stability and predictability and normativity rest on a hair’s breadth. And the degree to which Trump’s ignorant shenanigans can permanently disrupt international stability (not to mention domestic stability) and the normative structures that maintain what stability there is, is deeply, deeply unappreciated in the response to the Taiwan affair, and, indeed, to the election of Trump.

This is a justification, if not for panic, then for deep, deep, deep concern, and extraordinary intervention.