Tag Archives: nihilism

Voting For Chaos

Posted by accident. This is tomorrow’s post. Next one on Thursday. Sorry for cluttering your inboxes.


An intriguing–and frustrating– aspect of our current political climate is the persistent search to understand Trump supporters. What accounts for the loyalty of voters to this man who is personally repulsive and officially incompetent?

We’ve had the economic theory, which was pretty thoroughly rebutted by the data; we’ve had the “racial anxiety” theory, which–again, according to the data–clearly does account for a significant percentage of those supporters. We’ve had the “partisan identity” explanation that I shared a few days ago, which seems valid so far as it goes, but doesn’t explain the origins of the partisan divide.

In September, columnist Thomas Edsell shared another explanation, offered by a trio of scholars in a paper given at the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting: a “need for chaos.” The efforts of people who display this need have been facilitated by the ease with which social media allows transmittal of “conspiracy theories, fake news, discussions of political scandals and negative campaigns.

The authors describe “chaos incitement” as a “strategy of last resort by marginalized status-seekers,” willing to adopt disruptive tactics. Trump, in turn, has consistently sought to strengthen the perception that America is in chaos, a perception that has enhanced his support while seeming to reinforce his claim that his predecessors, especially President Barack Obama, were failures.

Petersen, Osmundsen and Arceneaux find that those who meet their definition of having a “need for chaos” express that need by willingly spreading disinformation. Their goal is not to advance their own ideology but to undermine political elites, left and right, and to “mobilize others against politicians in general.” These disrupters do not “share rumors because they believe them to be true. For the core group, hostile political rumors are simply a tool to create havoc.”

We used to have a word for this: nihilism.

The authors of the study surveyed voters in the United States and Denmark, and uncovered disquieting, all-encompassing hostilities. Twenty-four percent of respondents said society should be burned to the ground; 40 percent agreed that “When it comes to our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking ‘just let them all burn’ ”; and 40 percent agreed that “we cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over.”

The intense hostility to political establishments of all kinds among what could be called “chaos voters” helps explain what Pew Research and others have found: a growing distrust among Republican voters of higher education as well as empirically based science, both of which are increasingly seen as allied with the liberal establishment.

Trump’s “talent,” according to another scholarly paper,  is his ability to capitalize on the fear of chaos, rather than the desire to trigger it.

“Populist movements,” McDermott and Hatemi write, “rely on inflammatory rhetoric to create a tribal ‘us versus them’ condition — this type of environment instigates neural mechanisms from the evolutionary desire to be part of the group.”

The abrupt rise of social media has played a crucial role, they observe:

In many ways, as we have technologically advanced, we have also regressed to more immediate, emotional, and personal forms of political communication. And it is only in understanding the nature of that personal political psychology that we can begin to grapple seriously with the challenges of today, including the consequences of global populism.

The common element in all of these studies and theories is the extent to which fear–fear of change, fear of the “other,” fear of the unknown–feeds hostility to “the system” and to the  “elites” that supposedly benefit from that system.

There are clearly a lot of disaffected people out there, and the Internet facilitates their expression of rage.

What we can do about it is another matter.