The Existential Roots of Trump Derangement Syndrome

Members of a group calling itself Refuse Fascism protest the Tuesday firing of FBI director James Comey by President Donald Trump, outside the downtown Los Angeles federal building Wednesday, May 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

Just before the French election I installed the Le Monde app on my phone. French news doesn’t interest me except as it impacts financial markets or (rarely) geopolitics. That was a mistake; the lead story in France’s top national daily yesterday at 7:00 a.m. EST involved a “tutu protest” against the allegedly homophobic Wyoming senator Mike Enzi, in which men and women donned frilly ballet skirts for a gay rights demonstration.

President-elect Emmanuel Macron is scrambling to field candidates for the National Assembly elections and proclaiming a grand reorganization of the European Union — but Le Monde reminds us what the French are really about. Trust them to point up the things we most dislike about ourselves.

Pace James Carville, we need a sign that reminds us: “It’s the culture, stupid.” One big idea unifies all of Nietzsche’s offspring — the Marxists, the Freudians, the French Existentialists, the critical theorists, the Deconstructionists, the queer theorists — and that is the right to self-invention. That is the cruelest hoax ever perpetrated on human beings, for we are not clever or strong enough to reinvent ourselves. To the extent we succeed, we become monsters.

In the Judeo-Christian past, human beings had a destiny, men to earn bread by the sweat of their brow and women to bear children in pain. People knew that their impulses must be subordinated to the requirements of God and nature. Since the French Revolution, progressives have sought to overthrow the regime of obligation in favor of the right to self-definition. Before the 2016 presidential election, they thought they had succeeded. Justice Anthony Kennedy enshrined it in common law, in the Obergefell gay-marriage decision: “The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity.”

If you choose your identity at whim, your life has no meaning. That is true in the most parsimonious sense of the word: if you can arbitrarily decide to be a gender-fluid bestialist as well as a F to M to F trans-entity, then your life can “mean” any number of different things, all of them equally arbitrary. The term “meaning” implies a unique meaning, which in turn implies a meaning that has grounds for being there (“unique” doesn’t imply that you have only one chance to choose your gender self-designation from among the fifty provided by Facebook, after which you are stuck with it forever).

The progressives made their stand on transgender issues because it appears to be the triumph of self-invention over nature and tradition. That is a cruel joke on the tiny number of individuals who feel compelled to live their lives in the gender opposite to that of their birth. They have no choice in the matter, and live difficult lives.

That puts the question of the meaning of life in a different light. In the brave new progressive world, life means whatever you want it to mean. It is up to you to invent a meaning that suits you, which you may change whenever it occurs to you to do so. That is what Nietzsche meant by affirmation of life: Because life itself is so miserable and pointless (with reference to the legend of Silenus), each individual must “affirm” life by an arbitrary act of will. The trouble is that if life can have any meaning you assign to it, then it has no meaning in particular. Your life is meaningless, in the strict sense of the word. To the trick question, “Do black lives matter?”, I propose this answer: No, but neither do anyone else’s.

The wearers of newly minted designer identities hear satanic laughter echoing after them. As Mephisto told Faust, “Wear a wig with a million hairs, and stand in heels as long as your elbow, and you still remain what you are.” Supposedly, the function of self-invention is to assuage anxiety. The self-inventors believe that if they follow their impulses down the rabbit hole and create what purports to be a new self, they will banish the anxiety of empty existence. But that is a devil’s bargain. Such people live in terror that their fraud will be found out, and that people will point them out on the street and laugh.

That is why identity politics requires “safe spaces,” speech codes, and even mob violence to suppress even the mildest sort of reproach.

You can’t find the meaning of life by looking for it, I have argued in the past. If you need to invent it for yourself, you must first reject what previous generations handed down to you. To the progressives, every past work of fiction or philosophy requires trigger warnings — not just Mark Twain, who occasionally used the N-word, but also Immanuel Kant, whose Critique of Pure Reason was plastered with a trigger warning by a publisher in its most recent edition. Never mind that Kant’s work contains not a word on race or gender: it is guilty of the retroactive crime of belonging to a past which we know to be racist, homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic, imperialist, and so forth. To invent one’s self is to abolish one’s past, and, by implication to cut off one’s future, for one’s children (if any there be) also will reinvent themselves, and abhor their parents as intensely as their parents abhorred their grandparents.

The self-inventors are lost in time, as it were, condemned to find meaning in the fleeting and unsubstantial moment. They have taken the other side of the bet that Faust made with Mephistopheles — that his soul was lost if the devil could show him a moment that he wanted to hang on to forever. Their illusory sense of meaning can survive only in an echo chamber where it is constantly reinforced by group-think.

The progressives felt themselves on the verge of turning America into a gigantic echo-chamber. Except for tiny pockets of resistance, they control the universities. They dominate the mainstream media and mainstream culture. They had the Supreme Court as of Obergefell. And they had a Democratic administration ready to cut off funding to schools that didn’t let boys-who-say-they-are-girls into the girls’ room.

And into this triumphalist delirium, there intruded the raucous Queens accent of Donald J. Trump, the most politically incorrect contestant for national office since Andrew Jackson. The progressives have responded by retreating into deep fantasy, with tutus and pussy hats (which, one might add, are a micro-aggression against transwomen who do not have vaginas, and should be replaced by a hat that depicts a part of the anatomy that everyone has).

Trump did not merely derail the progressive political agenda. He turned the lights out on the Holodeck and left the snowflake-identities of the self-inventors to melt in the wholesome light of day, and the progressives will never stop raging against him.