MAGA: Is it Nihilism, American style?

The Twitter discussion between Thomas Zimmer and Tom Nichols on whether MAGA is a nihilistic movement, or a white patriarchal Christian movement is worth the read, and a good discussion. However, I wanted to add to the discussion on a few things I think are missing by using a few parallels that are found in Leo Strauss’ German Nihilism. Now obviously there are quite a few differences from MAGA and the German nihilism that Strauss discusses – like the German nihilists were young, or they were atheists. But there are a few things that I believe are relevant to today’s discussion on whether MAGA is a nihilistic movement (there is actually more than a few). I hope this essay can add something worthwhile to the discussion.

Strauss defined German nihilism as the rejection of modern civilization as such. It was “not absolute nihilism, [the] desire for the destruction of everything including oneself, but a desire of the destruction of something specific: of modern civilization,” and a rejection of the “moral meaning” of this modern civilization. In other words, the German nihilists were rejecting the moral meaning that was found in the Communist, liberal or utilitarian formulations, like “to relieve man’s estate; or: to safeguard the rights of man; or: the greatest possible happiness of the greatest possible number.” Thus Strauss argued that the nihilist’s motivation for rejecting modern civilization was a “moral protest” against the “internationalism inherent in modern civilization” and against the “open society.” With that very brief summary of Strauss’ German nihilism I will move into the MAGA movement.

One cannot help but see a parallel here with the German nihilists and the MAGA movement – though the difference would be the MAGA movement is a “moral protest” against our current form of America’s liberal/democratic order. It’s also not hard to see the parallel between a moral protest against the German nihilist’s internationalism and open society of their day, and all those “build the wall” chants at Trump rallies.

There are a variety of MAGA supporters: religious fundamentalists, white nationalist groups, GOP establishment figures, grifters & opportunists, and intellectuals who see Trump as a catalyst. Because of the variety of groups in MAGA is why Nichols’ thinks the MAGA “rank and file are ideologically incoherent.” Though Nichols does agree with Zimmer that some of the “putative leaders” do have a “racist and religious fascist ideology.”

Nichols is probably correct that the rank and file MAGA supporter does not have a very articulate conception or idea of what they want for America’s future. Even the New Right intellectuals are still trying to articulate a clear and decisive definition and way forward for the Right. The ideas that the MAGA rank and file espouse are, at bottom, generally rooted in mythical conceptions of America’s past and its founding – conceptions that are often at odds with historical evidence. And, yes, some of the Q ideas from the rank and file are just downright ignorant and absurd.

To bring back Strauss’ German nihilism, he noted the nihilists “did not really know, and thus were unable to express in a tolerably clear language, what they desired to put in the place of the present world.” Strauss stated “Their Yes is inarticulate – they were unable to say more than No!” Again, it is not hard to see the parallel here. The MAGA rank and file may not have a coherent ideology (their Yes is inarticulate), but there is little doubt they are resoundingly saying No to the current form of our liberal/democratic order; and this No is what binds the various groups of the MAGA movement together. And this No has “proved however sufficient as the preface to action” – including the destructive and violent action of Jan 6th.

Strauss went on to discuss the opponents and the problems they had of trying to refute the German nihilist’s No. He stated the opponents of nihilism “committed frequently a grave mistake” because they believed “to have refuted the No by refuting the Yes” when they pointed out the “inconsistent, if not silly positive assertions” of the nihilists. Furthermore, the opponents often “did not even try to understand the ardent passion underlying the negation of the present world.”

The vast majority of today’s anti-Trump and liberal/left pundits commit the same mistake when they focus the majority of their refutations by capturing and highlighting the stupid, inconsistent, and contradictory things spoken by Trump and the MAGA rank and file. Nichols gives a great example of this when he wrote, “white Christian men are worried about losing status. But these are Christians who don’t go to church, globalization haters who consume gobs of globalized culture, misogynists who’d freak if they had to live in the pre-sexual revolution era.”

These kinds of refutations are not even an attempt “to understand the ardent passion underlying” the MAGA movements rejection – the No! – of the liberal/democratic order – and since there are various groups, there will be various reasons for their No.  To be fair, Nichols does try to offer a reason for MAGA’s No: they are ”turn[ing] against democracy out of boredom and plenty.” I just don’t find this argument to be convincing, and think the No is more of a disaffection they have with the political elites, and a rejection of the current form that our liberal/democratic order has taken on (But that is another article). And, ironically, Nichols’ boredom and plenty thesis sorta does the same thing he accuses Zimmer of doing: wrapping MAGA all into one label.

Additionally, highlighting these contradictions and inconsistencies and then laughing, ridiculing and condemning them has only strengthened and “confirmed their beliefs.”  They had already come to doubt America’s “great authorities” (“the liberal media,” political elites & pundits) so the anti-Trump rebuttals and supposed refutations, led by the very same great authorities MAGA had already come to doubt, was just further confirmation of their beliefs and a strengthening of their No! 

MAGA rank and file will continue to follow Trump because he’s very adept at feeding the appetite of each different group’s No! To the Christian fundamentalists, he speaks to their No of a liberal world that allows gay people to marry, transgender people to live in dignity and women to have reproductive freedom. To the white nationalists, he winks and nods “stand back and stand by” and speaks to their No of living in a racially diverse and plural society. To the extremely conservative plutocrats, he gives them the Courts, and speaks to their No to the democratic order that threatens their Randian worldview, or traditional religious views.

In my opinion, academics, like Zimmer, offer a better diagnosis of the MAGA movement because it does a more thorough job a really trying to understand the ardent passions underlying the MAGA movement. And it comes closest to touching on the No that binds the various groups of the MAGA movement together. However, going back to Strauss and the problems he highlighted about German nihilism I ask myself: how the hell are we going to stop a movement that is hellbent on destroying the current form of our liberal/democratic order if our great authorities and political elites have barely addressed their No! I’m not completely sure on that, but I do think it’s worth looking at FDR and his successful fight against the plutocrats and America’s fascist movement of the 30s.

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