In a depressing New York Times piece titled “Loneliness Is Breaking America,” Michelle Goldberg discusses research that shows that being socially isolated, disconnected, and alone is highly correlated with being a rabid Trumpist, a QAnon believer, and/or a COVID truther. Goldberg quotes Damon Linker writing in the Week about recent studies that show the “number of both men and women who claim to have ‘no close friends’ increasing five-fold over the past 30 years.” It’s not just that it’s fundamentally unhealthy to be so lonely. Linker and Goldberg both invoke Hannah Arendt, who argued that loneliness can be a precondition for accepting totalitarian ideologies: “The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships.”
Americans have, to be sure, been bowling alone for a long time now. But the internet also allows lonely people to band together to seemingly bowl to the death, forging relationships, connection, and meaning in enterprises that are ever more frequently and frighteningly rooted in lies. This revelation surfaces just as the Washington Post publishes a guide to what the Jan. 6 rioters were thinking when they joined a violent lawless siege on the U.S. Capitol. The aggregated defenses of most of the charged rioters paint pictures of lost, broken, fragile meaning-seekers, everyday ordinary Joes, caught up in swirling forces beyond their control, and desperate to be seen and to forge meaning. The sentencing judges, notes the Post, must now struggle with the intractable problem of “what to do with the people who led normal lives until Jan. 6, when a vortex of forces compelled them to engage in criminal behavior.” (This struggle, one must observe, is seemingly complicated by the fact that most of the rioters were white.)
Violent Trumpism, white supremacist militias, QAnon lies, and misinformation all prey on people who have been increasingly isolated by decades of sociological, economic, and religious trends and forces, all of which have been amplified in the pandemic. But revisiting Arendt takes it further than that: These ideologies also reduce people’s ability to trust, even as they offer them something to “believe” in. Whether it’s the QAnon imperative to mistrust anything you haven’t researched yourself, or the Trumpist insistence that anyone saying anything you dislike must be a liar, the systematic shredding of realistic touchstones opens the door to believing anything and everything, in order to just be a part of something. As Masha Gessen has written, again of Arendt, she “links loneliness to the states of uprootedness and superfluousness: having no place in the world, nothing to give to the world. This, in turn, is linked to the loss of what she calls ‘common sense’—the shared reality that allows us to know ourselves, to know where we end and the world begins, and how we are connected to others.”
All of this is disturbing on its own, but there’s another recent reason dangerous isolation and mistrust of government have been on my mind lately. There is a radical new Texas abortion bill, S.B. 8, that prohibits virtually any abortion after the sixth week of pregnancy, a point at which few women know they are pregnant (and a clear violation of Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey). Much has been written about how S.B. 8 is stranger and darker than other abortion restrictions—in addition to the egregiousness of the six-week ban, it also shifts responsibility for enforcement from state actors onto private citizens. The law, slated to go into effect on Sept. 1, is, by design, nearly impossible to challenge in court, as Steve Vladeck and Laurence Tribe argue here. It would also create a mechanism wherein states can potentially sidestep the protections of any federal rights, as Julia Kaye and Marc Hearron explain here. Like all abortion regulations, the law would fall disproportionately on poor, Black and brown women, and would—as is also intended—attempt to terrorize abortion providers out of business by forcing them to defend multiple frivolous suits from the Egregiously Offended. And all this is happening as abortion opponents correctly assume that the current Supreme Court’s conservative majority intends to passively let reproductive freedom wither away slowly, regardless of the health and welfare of women it used to pretend to cherish.
But what actually strikes me most forcefully about the Texas law is the way that it will intersect with and exacerbate the pathologies highlighted by Arendt, Goldberg, and Linker. The new law directs itself at those very same atomized, mistrustful impulses for self-help and seemingly heroic individualist interventions that are the cornerstone of totalitarianism. By design, again, S.B. 8 conscripts ordinary citizens—anywhere, including outside of Texas—to sue any person who has performed, aided, and abetted, or intended to aid and abet an abortion in violation of the ban. The rape counselor who advised you, the housemate who drove you to the clinic, the pastor who helped weigh your options are all on the hook. If a stranger in a restaurant merely overhears discussion of getting an abortion, that stranger could take you to court. And the state could then award those people at least $10,000 (plus attorneys’ fees and court costs, to be paid by the abortion abettor) per illegal abortion if they are successful at trial. As Tribe and Vladeck put it, the law “effectively enlists the citizenry to act as an anti-abortion Stasi.” There are, to be sure, environmental and whistleblower laws that also encourage citizen enforcement, but in those regimes, the citizens act in tandem with the state, not as a replacement for it. The cash bounty? That’s the cherry on top.
The formal reason state actors are not allowed to enforce the Texas abortion ban is to make it harder for people interested in protecting the right to abortion to sue. But the lingering impact of pitting citizen against citizen is yet more confirmation that as trust in government enforcement wobbles, we are all going to be invited to be our own militia now. This follows a long line of efforts to relocate police authority away from the state to the individual, including new efforts to immunize lawless militias, which, by the way, are proliferating. Since 2005, the ever-expanding “stand your ground” laws, allowing citizens to use lethal force in self-defense, even if they could have safely retreated, are nothing if not versions of this message—that if the government can’t enforce the law to your liking, you should be permitted to do so yourself. The selfsame “Blue Lives Matter” crowd didn’t hesitate to attack and injure Capitol Police on Jan. 6 once they had convinced themselves they were in the right.
It is frankly terrifying to hear state officials persuading a mistrustful citizenry that they should be deputized as the righteous protectors of the lives of the unborn, at the cost of the safety of the women who are actual citizens. While there are many reasons to believe the law will not stand (among other things, as my colleague Mark Joseph Stern has argued, the law seems to violate the Texas Constitution itself, which bars individuals from suing over conduct that did not injure them personally), it will create a massive train wreck in the Texas courts until it is resolved. But in the decadeslong struggle to stop abortions, from the murder of physicians to the TRAP laws designed to shutter clinics, this law falls heavily on the side of emboldening the most fanatical to act under the color of law.
It is not, then, simply that Americans are dying from loneliness. It’s that this toxic loneliness, fueled by movements that feed on anger and lies and extremism, is also enabled by legal regimes that encourage vigilantism and individual enforcement. When Texas pits neighbor against neighbor, asking them to speculate about intimate and complex health care decisions, then remunerates the snitches for turning in imagined enemies of the people, the explicit intent may not be to weaken families, communities, state institutions, and public trust, but that is surely going to be one of the effects. Arendt understood perfectly that lonely, isolated people—seeking meaning and purpose and community—crave fictions in place of messy realities. And the strong strain of rugged American individualism only boosts the need to be part of a bold citizen law enforcement regime that answers to no law at all. S.B. 8 may have been borne of a clever litigation strategy that immunizes the state from legal burdens, just as it terrorizes abortion providers out of existence. But make no mistake: It is of a piece with a larger and lethal illiberal worldview in which isolated and disconnected people are encouraged to give up on institutions, truth, and government, in favor of extralegal totalitarian impulses. Conscripting random citizens to enforce the law against one another for fun and profit isn’t just a noxious subversion of a long-standing American legal tradition; it’s yet another step toward lawless self-help dressed up as individualistic and heroic law and order.