One shared group activity of the past nearly three years has been the attempt to unpack exactly what prompted almost half of the Americans who vote to install a Donald Trump into office. Thomas Edsall has a riveting new piece in the New York Times positing that one important factor was the massive uptick in voters who responded positively to nihilism and chaos. He argues that this segment of the American population is attracted by a generalized “chaos incitement” that has “gained decisive influence through the rise of social media.” Edsall draws this theory from an award-winning new paper by two Danish political scientists, Michael Bang Petersen and Mathias Osmundsen, as well as Kevin Arceneaux, a political scientist at Temple, who show how low-information, highly conspiracy-driven “news” has been weaponized by chaos seekers, “not to advance their own ideology but to undermine political elites, left and right, and to ‘mobilize others against politicians in general.’ ”
These chaos seekers, Edsall notes, thrive on destabilizing trust. They have no outright political ambitions of their own but instead fantasize about burning systems to the ground, starting from scratch, and tearing apart existing systems as its own reward. This fomenting of mistrust and suspicion, notes Edsall, can explain why even educated Republicans evince a growing mistrust of higher education and science, and it doubtless also explains why voters increasingly feel doubtful about other fact-based pillars of democracy, including courts and the media. As a unified theory of our present nihilism, “chaos incitement” has much to recommend it. By this measure, the cruelty itself is not precisely the point. The burning it all to the ground is.
Edsall ends his analysis on a worrying note: “Might Trump and his loyal supporters seek to bring down the system if he is defeated in 2020?” he asks. “If voters deny Trump a second term, how many of his most ardent supporters, especially those with a ‘need for chaos,’ will find defeat unbearable?” It’s a good question and one that also knits together two important themes that have emerged this past summer without sufficient reflection: Chaos and God.
First, God. Donald Trump began to casually compare himself to the Messiah a few weeks ago, and while most rational actors worried for his mental health, his comments and tweets simply fell into the slipstream of a long-running evangelical narrative about a chaotic Trump who serves as a prophetic “Cyrus” figure whose very contempt for norms of governance and truth are all part of the larger biblical program of bringing a prophecy about how everything ends. The trick of it is, of course, the more grossly Trump-as-Cyrus behaves—the more he lies or cheats or grifts— the more closely he tracks that prophecy, or as Katherine Stewart put it last winter, “the great thing about kings like Cyrus, as far as today’s Christian nationalists are concerned, is that they don’t have to follow rules. They are the law. This makes them ideal leaders in paranoid times.” Under this broad prophetic vision, the whole purpose of a Trump figure is to burn things down, or as Stewart concluded, “this isn’t the religious right we thought we knew. The Christian nationalist movement today is authoritarian, paranoid and patriarchal at its core. They aren’t fighting a culture war. They’re making a direct attack on democracy itself.”
The connective tissue between Edsall’s “chaos incitement” and a uniquely American, nationalist religious fervor is not that complicated. Tara Isabella Burton, in an essay for the New York Times after the El Paso and Dayton shootings last month, put it this way: “It is impossible to understand America’s resurgence of reactionary extremism without understanding it as a fundamentally religious phenomenon.” Burton continues, describing a new kind of secular religion that unifies most, but not all, of the mass shooters who have ravaged the country in recent years, that “what nearly all of these perpetrators shared was a cosmic-level worldview that fetishizes violence as a kind of purifying fire: a destruction necessary to ‘reset’ the world from its current broken state.” And there it is again, that purifying fire, in this instance to blast America free from the terrifying grip of feminism, multiculturalism, and religious diversity. The religious nationalists and the secular shooters are both, in this telling, taking gleeful aim at democratic structures and guardrails.
Here is the other part about God: All summer I have been attempting to understand what South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has been attempting to introduce into the Democratic primary conversation about governance as he openly and comfortably owns his own religious faith. In a progressive cohort that is increasingly uncomfortable with any kind of God talk, Buttigieg, a devout Episcopalian, has been bringing his faith to the party. At first, this seemed to be an effective attempt to castigate the “faithful” on the other side, but more and more, Buttigieg seems to be trying to create a language of faith and tolerance for the political left. Whether this accrues to his electoral benefit is an open question, but the project also seems to be trying to counter the surging blow-it-all-up-for-God impulse on the religious right with a civilizing, communitarian, tolerant vision of faith for the religious left. Whatever its pitfalls, the Buttigieg approach is a marked improvement on a progressivism that finds itself both unable to talk about religion on its own terms and also unable to counter religious arguments and controversies on the right, from the fraught questions around whether Amy Coney Barrett, a deeply religious appellate court judge, should sit on the Supreme Court someday, to the real reasons for Donald Trump’s enduring support of a messianic story about Israel (it reassures his evangelical base).
A preference for chaos on the far right is connected to God in ways Democrats can barely talk about, much less comprehend, whether it’s the fundamental disconnect around evangelical support for unfettered gun rights or the right’s rejection of environmental protection or immigrants’ rights. But the more morally discordant Trump’s policies and politics are, the more he is seen as fighting for religious rights. This is not a claim that all or even most religious belief is nihilist—it is just a recognition that there is a deeply nihilist strain in some religious quarters, one that dovetails perfectly with the impulse to “blow it all up.” Part of this is simple tribalism. Tom Scocca is right that “owning the libs” is surely its own philosophy and reward. But the darker, and surely more frightening, narrative at work here is that the disruption of earthly institutions, the fomenting of chaos as the precursor to the next thing to come along, has a decidedly religious valence to it. Democrats can try to ignore it, but ignoring it does not seem to diminish its power.
What Buttigieg is attempting to re-introduce into the Democratic arsenal is a form of religious counterprogramming to the allure of all-out religious chaos. He describes this as “an opportunity to be something of a bridge-builder, to point out all the ways in which these different communities can hear each other.” It’s also the work of Rev. William Barber and Michelle Alexander and the faith-based sanctuary movement and the revival of the progressive Jewish left. It all appears to be of a piece: reinserting faith values into Democratic politics, but also reclaiming, perhaps paradoxically, the very idea of religious faith as a civilizing, democratic value that can lie at the core of democratic governance. It is a tightrope act, to be sure, to answer the chaos-based faith imperative with a normative view of religion as fundamentally connected to governance, and good stewardship of the planet, and constitutional democracy. And it comes at a moment when such views of religion are largely in decline, or as Burton put it in the Times, “now more than ever, the promises religion has traditionally made—a meaningful world, a viable place within it, a community to share it with, rituals to render ordinary life sacred—are absent from the public sphere.”
What Buttigieg seeks to do may be too little, too late. It may repel the same Democrats who cringe at the idea of any religion as an ordering or organizing force at a time when religion comes to electoral politics dressed principally in hypocrisy and furious resentment. But the United States of America, for all its myriad sins, was born at least in part of the belief that faith and democracy could be reconciled into some form of mutually beneficial public coexistence. The cure for “chaos incitement” can come with a renewed regard for the very best impulses of core institutions of faith—from empathy to humility, to charity and human connection—all of which can thrive and have historically blossomed alongside the institutions of constitutional democracy. This may require a bigger tent, or a wider lens. But it could also help diffuse the allure of chaos, or flaming conflagration, as moral or spiritual objectives in themselves.