End of the world: A look at Trump’s nihilism

Will Donald Trump’s reckless ego, greed, nationalism, megalomania and anti-scientism destroy the world, and, if so, how?

This is, after all, a man who publicly posed the question, if the use of nuclear weapons is unimaginable, then “why are we making them?”

But another strain of Trump’s nihilism is captured by Trump’s ambivalence about the importance of preserving the planet for future generations by combating the threat posed to future life on earth by global warming/climate change.

Last week, the Washington Post reported on a little noticed projection that, on its current course, the earth’s average temperature will rise by seven degrees by the end of this century. Scientists describe such a rise as “catastrophic,” predicting that “many coral reefs would dissolve in increasingly acidic oceans. Parts of Manhattan and Miami would be underwater without costly coastal defenses. Extreme heat waves would routinely smother large parts of the globe.”

Obviously, this is just a projection by scientists, but what else can we use to deal with possible future catastrophes, Vegas oddsmakers? And if the smartest scientists in the world believe this is the future if no action is taken, what else can we do except take action?

In a piece for Rolling Stone, headlined “Why Aren’t We Talking More About Trump’s Nihilism?” Matt Taibbi suggests that the current occupant of the Oval Office has an answer to the what-else-can-we-do question I posed above, and that Trumpian answer is, roughly, ignore the experts, party on, we’re probably doomed anyway.

When Trump said, during one 2016 campaign rally, “What the hell do you have to lose by trying something new?” he was apparently speaking directly to African-American voters, which Taibbi acknowledges.

But Taibbi uses the quote to suggest that Trump is making a broader nihilistic argument to all segments of the population that nothing matters much other than the present, or at least doesn’t matter enough to inconvenience ourselves in the frail hope of preserving the world for future generations. Here’s a taste of what Taibbi calls Trump’s “more primal” and more nihilistic appeal:

His core message was relentless, hounding negativity, lambasting audiences with images of death and disaster.

His first campaign speech was basically a non-denominational end-times sermon, in which America was either kaput or close to it, surrounded on all sides by bloodthirsty enemies. ‘They kill us,’ he preached. ‘They beat us all the time. … We have nothing …’

He ranted about a system befouled by false prophets. ‘Politicians are all talk, no action,’ he howled. ‘They will not bring us — believe me — to the promised land.’

Obese and rotting, close enough to the physical end himself (and long ago spiritually dead), Trump essentially told his frustrated, pessimistic crowds that America was doomed anyway, so we might as well stop worrying and floor it to the end. …

It’s easy to understand the nationalist sentiment behind reversing trade deals or backing Brexit. But what’s the populist angle on burning the planet, or nuclear war? Taibbi ends his piece with this: 

The broader electoral pitch is just an evil version of every nuclear-age dance tune ever, “99 Luftballoons” or “1999.” The world is ending, so fuck it, let’s party. As crazy as it is, it’s a seductive message for a country steeped in hate and pessimism. Democrats still don’t understand it. Trump’s turning America into a death cult, with us as involuntary members.

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Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/03/2018 - 02:42 pm.

    Underlying his nihilism is a profound, and not incorrect, belief that he and his kind will be fine, at lest until all life is destroyed. The wealthy will be able to insulate themselves from the worst effects of climate change and environmental degradation. Survival is not a concern for him, as long as he can write enough checks to cover it.

    The rest of us, or the rest of humanity? Should have thought about that before we decided to be born to the wrong parents.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/03/2018 - 03:02 pm.

    The giveaway is how little Trump cares for his own children (The NYT articles about Trump and his father are enlightening). Trump is the ultimate solipsist — nothing matters except him now.

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/03/2018 - 03:10 pm.

    His message is “greed is good”. if someone else has something, it means that there is automatically less for you. Never a “win/win” solution–there must be only a “win/lose” situation.

    He is firmly rooted in the counting rooms of the present. Not in nihilism–it’s simply that those who come after don’t count.

  4. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 10/04/2018 - 07:51 am.

    WOW! The writer brings up the old, worn out “nihilist” name calling card. I just love the reader comments as well – who can dream up even more names to call trump?

    I guess if you question “the degree” of global warming and mention the “fake global warming” claims of recent years – you are a Nihilist?

    I guess if you do not believe in disarmament – you are a Nihilist
    Trump may be a narcissist – but no more than Obama.

    He may be a hedonist – but no more than Bill Clinton.

    He may be a circus clown – but did you see the Dems on the judiciary committee?

    It is still good to provide the base an opportunity to “rant” every week or so

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/04/2018 - 08:50 am.

      But when it’s all wrapped up in one ugly package —
      What you’re saying is that he combines the worst characteristics of all previous presidents (you did leave one out) without any of their virtues.

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/04/2018 - 09:46 am.

      Thank you, Mr. Gotzman, for showing us how to raise straw men in the form of implied accusations against others, while simultaneously shouting “Look!! Over there!!” to distract the audience from the primary point. It’s very Trumpian.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/04/2018 - 07:10 pm.

      Bill Clinton??? is that guy running again?

      He hasn’t run for anything for 20 years.

    • Submitted by ian wade on 10/06/2018 - 02:14 pm.

      Please provide an example of Obama’s narcissism.

      “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.” – Inigo Montoya

  5. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 10/04/2018 - 09:16 am.

    We have lost the “United” part of the United States of America. Ever since Reagan the country has been pulled apart by politicians who are supposed to be leading us. They pull us apart with unsolvable wedge issues, lies, fabrications, conspiracy theories, denials, and political empires formed by lifelong politicians. Now we have to deal with racism, bigotry, misogyny, demonstrable lying, attempts to pull apart freedom of the press and freedom of speech. You can add in there distrust of our judicial system because justices no longer need any personal qualities others can trust or admire. Voter apathy got us Trump and his number one problem is his Achilles heel, he doesn’t know how to lead. He has never had to lead before, he has only had to dictate. He doesn’t know how to work with others. He has had it his way his whole life. It is a real shock for him having to work with others to get what he really wants – attention. Unfortunately, working with others is a critical skill for the leader of a democracy. He wants to be a dictator. Lying comes easy for him because he has a life without any consequences. The worst thing his father ever did for him was give him X millions of dollars. Mr. Mueller appears to be winding down his investigation. I doubt seeing those around Trump fall, even family members, will have any impact on him as he doesn’t have any empathy. They will be looked at as those who were captured by their own stupidity and he doesn’t like people who have been captured. Days ago Trump complimented Dr. Ford on her testimony only to be followed up days later with mockery of her, to serve his purpose. On script, reading words others have written for him, I give him a D. When he is off script I give him a massive F. He just can’t contain himself, his ego needs continuous stroking. When he doesn’t get it from others, he lays on the fiction based braggadocio to stroke his own ego. Trump is a very vindictive man without a sound basis for his actions. He is bent on destroying everything that President Obama achieved just because President Obama achieved it in an environment of bigoted Republicans. There is no subtleness about Trump. Everything he does is in your face.

    Washington has massive problems that need to be fixed. Trump is not the person to fix anything because he excels at burning bridges, not building them. He has led an isolated life and that is the only way he is comfortable working, in isolation. That just won’t work in a democracy.
    My summation of Trump is one GIANT RED FLAG.

    • Submitted by Misty Martin on 10/04/2018 - 12:05 pm.


      May I just say “Bravo”! I agree with everything you said and you said it all – truer words have never been spoken. And I think the laughter that was aimed at President Trump during the delivery of his United Nations speech says it all doesn’t it? Trump said during his campaign for President, that other nations were laughing at us behind our backs – as one commentator said recently after that debacle on 9/26/18 that he has certainly fixed that problem – now they just laugh at us to our face.

  6. Submitted by peter mcloughlin on 10/04/2018 - 09:53 am.

    It is very hard to see how humanity to going to avoid another world war. And while I understand where Eric Black is coming from, the problem is not all down to Donald Trump – but flawed human nature.
    The pattern of history is clear. Power (manifested as interest) has been present in every conflict throughout history – no exception. It is the underlying motivation for war. Other cultural factors might change, but not power.
    Interest cuts across all apparently unifying principles: family, kin, nation, religion, ideology, politics – everything. We unite with the enemies of our principles, because that is what serves our interest. It is power, not any of the above concepts, that is the cause of war.
    It is the one thing we will destroy ourselves for, as well as everyone else. When core interests are threatened and existential threat looms nations go to war. There can be no compromise on these. As a result every civilization/nation eventually gets the war it is trying to avoid: utter defeat. This applies as much today as any other time in history. Deterrence doctrine, made for the 20th century Cold War for which it arguably worked, is irrelevant in the 21st and will ultimately fail us. Deterrence can no longer prevent the scenarios where Mutual Assured Destruction will be resorted to. We will soon face the scenario that (unlike the Cuban missile crisis) one protagonist will not be able to step back from the brink, blindly stumbling into a situation they cannot de-escalate. All that is left is Deterrence’s fall-back position – annihilation.
    Leaders and decision-makers delude themselves, thinking they can avoid their fate – they can’t. If survival is threatened, there is no alternative to war, however destructive.

  7. Submitted by chuck holtman on 10/04/2018 - 07:55 pm.

    Trump, as Mr. Brandon notes, is a solipsist, not a nihilist. It is his followers who are nihilists. Existential terror leads to self-loathing, which leads to the loathing of others, which leads to nihilism. Trump, like every other authoritarian, intuitively exploits those disabled by existential fear, demonstratively mocking and punishing the targets of choice so that self-loathing can be recast as the loathing of others, and tacitly, with hints and small demonstrations, suggesting to deploy a purportedly righteous wrath that will turn all into disorder and render the frightening notions of agency and responsibility meaningless.

    When I was very young, arriving home from visiting relatives late at night, I would close my eyes as my dad hauled me from the back of the station wagon, carried me on his shoulder through the yard, into the house and up the stairs, and dumped me on my bed in the darkness, where I would go to sleep without again opening my eyes. I remember still the warmth of my dad’s back beneath, the comfort in giving over my fate to him, and the exquisite blind moment in the air before I struck the mattress. Le petit nihilisme. Trump’s followers are on his shoulder, eyes closed, waiting to fall.

  8. Submitted by John Evans on 10/04/2018 - 09:52 pm.

    Gosh … what a lot of mush!

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