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America’s Nihilism blues

With the latest election cycle, the nation faced a lot of anxiety, a lot of hope and, perhaps least surprisingly, a lot of cynicism. In the wake of the 2016 election, as well as its preceding four years, there was an abundance of ill will directed both towards the electoral college, the White House and, more generally, the U.S. Government. Distrust was the name of the game for the Trump administration as far as left-leaning Americans were concerned, and this theme followed the nation right up until our present election.

Strangely enough, however, this distrust has recently translated from the left to the right in what has been perhaps the most ironic development of this current election cycle. Where in 2016, bereaved Clinton voters demanded both recounts and electoral dismantling galore, the same battle cries were heard from the Trump camp with even the president himself demanding via Twitter to “STOP THE COUNT.” 

There is no denying that the past half-decade has brought out a great amount of distrust in the American people, both Democrats and Republicans alike. Clinton was, to the right, the very manifestation of the white-collar career politician which is so deplored by so many, and the “drain the swamp” slogan only capitalized on this governmental mistrust. Meanwhile, the Comey-Trump-Putin controversy, the impeachment of Trump, and the presence of Russia in the 2016 election cast a shadow over the Trump presidency which arguably colored the views of an entire generation. Yet this pessimism in higher powers is nothing new. In fact, a century beforehand, Friedrich Nietzsche was writing all about the consequences of losing faith both individually and institutionally. 

In his seminal (and final) work “The Will to Power,Nietzsche warned his audience of a growing belief within European society that he described as “a vast generalization, the conclusion that there is no purpose in anything,” a school of thought which he dubbed Nihilism or the disbelief in any and all values. Nihilism is, by its very nature, an antithesis to any and all schools of thought as its only belief is in the fundamental disbelief in all things. As Nietzsche explains it, “all belief holds that something is true,” and all forms of nihilism must necessarily reject any and all truths. As a result, a Nihilist thinker rejects all forms of philosophical code, save that there are no codes.

Nihilism, according to “The Will To Power,” is a natural evolution of Pessimism which, according to Nietzche, was the natural European response to the inescapable moralizing power of Christianity. Placing an importance both on moral truths and on religious unknowns led to a deeper tension between belief and disbelief, truth and falsehood, reality and fiction, until suddenly the whole question of belief seemed entirely meaningless. This whole debate leads to what Nietzsche calls exhaustion which “alters the aspect and value of things.” One who is exhausted is only able to “belittle and disfigure” the things that they see, finding no good values in anything. 

In 1883, Europe had not even seen the worst of what the 20th century would have to offer. Yet after a global economic depression, a Spanish Flu pandemic, and two world wars — the latter of which saw one of the most widespread and brutally inhumane campaigns in recent history — Nietzsche and his clairvoyant treatise on Nihilism only became more and more relevant. Now, however, we see Nietzsche and his work come to fruition, not in Europe, but in the United States of America.

If European Nihilism erupted from the roots of Christianity, American Nihilism almost certainly arises from a similar faith in the government. As a country founded on the premise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the United States is a philosophical ideal of personal freedoms through government structures. Yet constantly, the government disproves this premise. From Watergate to Vietnam to the NSA spying on American citizens, the people of America are shown time and time again that their faith in the government is misplaced. 

Distrust in human institutions has been a constant throughout human history. Both libertarianism and socialism find common ground in their mutual distrust of some kind of elite class. Yet the very basis of American democracy rests upon the grounds that the government works for the people. Indeed, the very nature of Bipartisanship helps to engender this distrust as citizens are consistently pitted against different versions of the same government — a conservative White House or a liberal White House. Nietzsche might say that if the American people are not outright Nihilists, they approach the label closer and closer with every election.

It is rather easy when discussing these topics to get bogged down in the philosophical weeds, and an important part to consider in all of this is the fundamental day-to-day examples of societal failure that Americans have to come to terms with. A perfect example of the causes and effects of American Pessimism is the opioid crisis which has been ravaging America since at least the ’90s. The causes — lack of regulation on big Pharma, loss of blue-collar jobs, the economic recession of ’08 — are certainly important to consider, but what is most important is the effects that these things have on the average American. A quick Google search tells that from 1999 to 2018, 232,000 Americans died from an opioid overdosage. Taking into account both living addicts and families of addicts, it is easy to see through stats alone how opioids have ravaged America.

Yet one does not need statistics to see the impacts of the opioid epidemic nor any of the other issues America faces. Anybody living in rural America can see firsthand the impacts of opioid addiction on communities. The sight of panhandlers on the highway has become all too common, and the homeless tent cities that litter L.A. are similarly abundant. To the average American, these issues are quite visible, and the inescapability of it all contributes to a larger sense of pessimism throughout the country. Worse still, when so many problems within the nation remain unanswered through election after election, the question of values and faith becomes even more difficult to answer. If the government says it can fix the problems but the problems remain, why hold any faith in it at all? 

In all this, Nietzsche is inexorably bound up. A seer for the modern anxious American, Nietzsche foresaw Trump and his strategic utilization of “nostalgia Americana.” According to Nietzsche, a nation faced with Nihilism is a nation that will recede, marred by “all kinds of groping measures devised to preserve old institutions.” It takes little mental gymnastics to connect this to the “Make America Great Again” slogan. In the context of Nietzsche, this American nostalgia is not just a desire for simplicity, but a desire to recede, to forget the doubts which now so plague America.

Similarly, Nietzsche foresaw the depressive effect which would become so dominant in a Nihilistic society and in the youths who must bear the burden of being born into said society: “My friends, we had a hard time as youths; we even suffered from youth itself as though it were a serious disease. This is owing to the age in which we were born — an age of enormous internal decay and disintegration which, with all its weakness and even with the best of its strength, is opposed to the spirit of youth.” Indeed, born into a country fighting between tradition and progression, it is difficult for many young people to keep optimistic about it all. 

Yet for all this gloom, there is a diamond hiding in the rough. Nietzsche himself declares that not all forms of Nihilism are inherently bad. In fact, he distinguishes between two types: active and passive. Whereas passive Nihilism is the willful and weary resignation to fate, active Nihilism is a powerful and destructive force, a radical disbelief in all forms of structure and a force of good: “It may be a sign of strength; spiritual vigour may have increased to such an extent that the goals toward which man has marched hitherto (the “convictions,” articles of faith) are no longer suited to it.”

This may all seem a bit abstract, but it is illustrated in all the many ways the youths of today have risen against the forces and structures which they deem unworthy of holding up. Grass-roots campaigns, marches against Washington, the abolishment of the electoral college, you name it — for every structure within the American government, there are at least a sizable number of people fighting against it. Nietzche was something of a grouch himself, but if he saw the spirit of revolution today, who knows? He might be proud. 

American faith is a rather difficult subject to write on due simply to the sheer scope of the American vision. The United States is home to a wide swathe of people, many of whom do not seem to agree on anything. The American experiment is, first and foremost, an experiment for its people, and when the people feel let down, their voices will always be heard. The American people might never be totally satisfied with their country. Yet if anything may be learned from Nietzsche, it is that this dissatisfaction should not be ignored or shrugged off, but embraced. If Nietzche was correct, then perhaps Nihilism at the doorstep of America is less a fear than it is the next step in the American experiment.