In the 1860s, a counter-cultural movement emerged in Russia. A response to authoritarian repression of individual liberties, Russian nihilists strived for social change and a toppling of an autocratic regime. They rejected nearly all political and social institutions of Russia in favor of empirical, scientific truths. Reminiscent of the Enlightenment, the Nihilist movement scorned clerical authority and extended their rejection of spiritual institutions to an unswerving materialist agnosticism. The nihilists’ form of anarchism was rooted in the thinkers’ desire for social change, a fearless rejection of the establishment, and in-depth contemplation.

All notable revolutions have involved some degree of Nihilism: French Revolutionists sought to completely restructure the French political and social order, and the anticlericalism of the French revolution foreshadows a similar rejection of the Church in the Russian nihilist movement. For American Revolutionaries, revolutionary nihilism was simply a means to gain independence: American society after the revolution retained some characteristics of British society, particularly the church. Even the Cuban revolution, which resulted in the imposition of a despotic government, relied on the nihilistic desires of Guevara and Castro. Therefore, in most cases, nihilism is simply a means to an end. Its role in a revolution depends on the aim of the revolution: In the case of France, the nihilism lingered throughout each stage of the revolution. In Cuba, nihilism solely served as a way to topple Fulgencio Batista. The uniqueness of the Russian nihilist movement lies in its philosophical rather than revolutionary roots. Unlike in the three aforementioned revolutions, nihilism was a system of intellectual thought in 19th century Russia, and it only became militant during the Russian Revolution in 1917.

Materialized Nihilism:

Echoes of nihilism in 21st century America manifested themselves before the 2016 election, contrary to what most would assume. The election of Barack Obama and the resultant obstructionism of the Republican Party, particularly regarding the Affordable Care Act, gave America its first whiff of nihilism. The Republican opposition to the ACA did not propose an alternative. They didn’t have to. All they had to do was utilize the system of checks and balances.

The Republican Party’s vehement rejection of the Affordable Care Act was a form of state-born nihilism. It was based on neither desire for revolution or reform; it was a nihilism of nothing. If you fast-forward to the 2016 election and Donald Trump’s unprecedented victory, the Republicans earned a chance to materialize their nihilism. Despite the eight-year long battle between the Republicans and the Affordable Care Act (and the presumable knowledge that Republicans would have regarding healthcare legislation) the Republican Party failed massively in their endeavor to repeal and replace Obamacare. The result of the Republicans’ nihilism was a failure because in their negation of Obamacare they lacked substance. In contrast with the four aforementioned revolutions in which nihilism was used as a tool for implementing new policies, the Republicans used it just to oppose the Democrats. They favored a healthcare bill with less emphasis on government intervention, but they rarely communicated this desire in their quest to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The ability of the Republican Party to obstruct Obamacare revealed that the American system of checks and balances permits nihilism. However, The Republicans’ failure in the healthcare bill demonstrated that nihilism is only a temporary tool for change. Without a tangible solution, mindless rejection of the opposition will never work.

An inherent feature of Russian nihilism was the ties that it had to a deeper ideology. Although the word nihilism, from the Latin word for nothing, nihil, implies an ideology of repudiation, Russian nihilists were anarchists with a noble cause. Their desire for a more egalitarian society required rejection of the institutions that upheld social inequality and repression of individual thought. Through this, they developed a philosophy. The Republicans’ nihilistic actions, on the other hand, stemmed more from partisan (and potentially racial) differences rather than ideological differences. They were not repressed. They simply wanted to obstruct the president. Barack Obama himself conceded that he would consider a Republican-authored healthcare bill if it was better, but no Republicans answered the call. The Republicans’ refusal to cooperate with a president who stated that he was open to bipartisan collaboration reveals that their nihilism was shallow. It was rooted in competition, not conservative values.

Nihilism in American Foreign Policy:

The concept of American exceptionalism after World War II gave birth to the nihilistic, neoconservative foreign policy that has defined the last sixty years of American involvement foreign affairs. The paranoia that became characteristic of the Red Scare included echoes of nihilist sentiment: conservative figures like Joe McCarthy and Barry Goldwater purported communism as an evil, encroaching ideology that should be defeated by American intervention. In turn, this pandemic fear of communism justified the Vietnam war, a war with no intent other than to dampen the influence of communism in East Asia. Securing at least a portion of the populace’s support for the Vietnam War revealed that nihilism within the elite ranks of government can percolate to the common person.

Neoconservative nihilism is dangerous, and it is the source of much of the world’s contempt for the United States. It assumes that Western principles of pluralism are applicable in all countries, regardless of their histories. It ignores the failures of the United States in its flexing of military muscle. And lastly, it worsens the United States’ relationship with the rest of the world, fostering an unwillingness around the globe to cooperate with America.

The most striking differences between Russian nihilists and neoconservative nihilists were the reasons and goals: The nihilism of the Russian Revolution was rooted in existential, social, political, and philosophical questions. With their philosophy, they aimed to create a society that valued liberty, equality, and reason over antiquated authoritarian dogma. As they were intellectuals, Russian nihilists rationalized their beliefs with moral and existential arguments. Their extension of nihilism into materialism and agnosticism shows the deeply intellectual roots of the Russian Nihilist Movement. In contrast, neoconservative nihilists lack the intellectual thought and deliberation of the Russian philosophers. Neoconservative nihilism has no connection to an ideology; instead, it is a shallow mission with no noble intent. An absence of intent in American nihilism translates to ineffective, destructive foreign policy: Unlike the Russian philosophers, neoconservative nihilists have placed minimal focus on restoring the peace of nations in which they intervene. As a result, strife continues. Symbolic bombings to weaken a tyrannical regime become futile once the regime is overthrown and there is nothing to replace it. If America continues to choose mindless intervention over thoughtful diplomacy, global conflicts will never be alleviated. Intervention can be justified, but it must be carefully executed.

Nihilism in Trump:

The Trump phenomenon has been the most recent incarnation of nihilistic sentiment. Donald Trump has pandered to his constituency’s frustration with the status quo and their disdain for the political elite. Trump’s ability to ascend to the oval office without specific policy plans or the decorum of a seasoned politician revealed the nihilistic desires of his voters. Following the burgeoning nationalist trend in the Western world, populist nihilism defeated the political elite in the United States. Unlike in France, the approval rating of the former president was not extremely low. In fact, unemployment, urban crime rates, and illegal immigration had been decreasing during Obama’s presidency, contrary to the campaign claims of Donald Trump. Early in Trump’s campaign, he clarified his affinity with nationalist, protectionist policies and his scorn for economic globalization. His supporters echoed this message.

Coal and manufacturing jobs have continued to dwindle, much to the chagrin of Trump’s supporters. Trump’s unapologetic attack on the policies that inhibit growth in coal and manufacturing communicated to his supporters that he understands their plight. For the disenfranchised, the solace that they sought in Trump is similar to the Russian Nihilist movement: Both involved frustration with the political elite and had a goal of dismantling the establishment. In spite of their similarities, the difference between Trump’s nihilism and the nihilism of the Russian Revolution is intellectual. Like neoconservative policy, there is little substance in the promises of Donald Trump and his ideology has no basis in intellectual thought or experience. Russian nihilists were credible because they were trained thinkers with curious minds. Like neoconservative policy, there is little substance in the promises of Donald Trump, his ideology has no basis in intellectual thought or experience. In contrast, Russian nihilists were credible because they were trained thinkers with curious minds. Trumpian Nihilism lacks the vision necessary for effective governing.

While a large portion of Trump’s constituency falls under the “disenfranchised” category, Trump’s voters are diverse, at least socioeconomically. Not everyone who voted for Trump was undergoing financial struggles. Some were conservatives who were terrified of Clinton. Some were alt-righters who viewed Trump as an embodiment of their white nationalist desires. Some simply wanted change. However, Trump’s campaign clearly aimed to appeal to disenfranchised blue collar workers through nihilistic promises in hopes that they would adopt the same nihilistic beliefs and ignore his glaring ineptitude.

Donald Trump has fumbled in his first few months in office. His belligerence has not faded, nor has his propensity to engage in Twitter wars. He has continued to disparage the media and accuse them of libel, and he has struggled to pass legislation. While Trump’s trouble in the first four months may demonstrate the result of materialized American nihilism, social revolutions and uprisings have shown that nihilism can be an effective tool when used correctly. Through the Trump phenomenon, we have learned that it is undeniable that there is legitimate frustration with the elite, and the rhetoric from the political elite has exacerbated this frustration. Consequently, many have overlooked the president’s lack of credibility, qualification, and knowledge. To alleviate the frustrations of working class America, Trump-style nihilism is not the answer. Instead, the 2020 presidential candidates must find a way to incorporate pragmatic policy proposals with consideration for the desires of the blue collar constituency that overwhelmingly supported Trump.


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