We’re living in an age of anxiety. The country is being transformed by complex forces, such as changing demographics and technological disruption. Many people live within a bewildering freedom, without institutions to trust, unattached to compelling religions and sources of meaning, uncertain about their own lives. Anxiety is not so much a fear of a specific thing but a fear of everything, an unnamable dread about the future. People will do anything to escape it.
Donald Trump is the perfect snake oil salesman for this moment. He lacks inwardness and therefore is terrified by the possibility of anxiety. He has been escaping self-scrutiny his whole life and has become a genius at the self-exculpating rationalization. He took a nation beset by uncertainty and he gave it a series of “explanations” that were simple, crude, affirming and wrong.
Trump gave people a quick pass out of anxiety. Everything could be blamed on foreigners, the idiotic elites. The problems are clear, and the answers are easy. He has loosed a certain style of thinking. The true link between the Trump administration and those pathetic loons in Charlottesville is not just bigotry, but also conspiracy mongering.
In the White House you have pseudo-intellectuals like the now-departed Steve Bannon who think the world is secretly controlled by the “deep state.” You have memos like the one written by the recently fired Rich Higgins, positing a massive worldwide conspiracy involving the ACLU, the Muslim Brotherhood, the United Nations and global Marxism. The alt-right, which has emerged in support of the Trump administration, is marked by the same conspiratorial epistemology. It provides explanations for complex events that allow its followers to avoid anxiety. The leaders of the alt-right claim to possess superior understanding that pierces through the myths that blind common mortals.
The world is secretly controlled by the globalists. The Sandy Hook school shooting never happened. There’s a child abuse ring run by Clintonites out of a pizzeria in Washington, D.C. All the ambiguities of life can be explained by pointing to the malevolent webs of secret power that only you – you precious, superior few – can see and understand.
From here it’s a short leap to those losers in Charlottesville. If the alt-right thinks the globalists secretly and malevolently control society, the neo-Nazis go back to the original version and believe that a conspiracy of Jewish bankers does. For them, tribalism is not only a way to feel some vestige of pride in their own lonely selves, it’s also an explanatory tool. The world can be a bewildering place, but not if you see it as a righteous war between whites and blacks, between straights and gays. The neo-Nazis are not the first group to discover that war is a force that can give an empty life meaning, even a race war.
The age of anxiety inevitably leads to an age of fanaticism, as people seek crude palliatives for the dizziness of freedom. I’m beginning to think the whole depressing spectacle of this moment – the Trump presidency and beyond – is caused by a breakdown of intellectual virtue, a breakdown in America’s ability to face evidence objectively, to pay due respect to reality, to deal with complex and unpleasant truths. The intellectual virtues may seem elitist, but once a country tolerates dishonesty, incuriosity and intellectual laziness, then everything else falls apart.
The temptation is simply to blast the neo-Nazis, the alt-right, the Trumpkins and the rest for being bigoted, vicious and hate-filled. And some of that is necessary. The boundaries of common decency have to be defined.
But throughout history the wiser minds have understood that anger and moral posturing are not a good antidote to rage and fanaticism. Competing vitriols only build on each other.
In fact, the most powerful answer to fanaticism is modesty. Modesty is an epistemology directly opposed to the conspiracy mongering mindset. It means having the courage to understand that the world is too complicated to fit into one political belief system. It means understanding there are no easy answers or malevolent conspiracies that can explain the big political questions or the existential problems. Progress is not made by crushing some swarm of malevolent foes; it’s made by finding balance between competing truths – between freedom and security, diversity and solidarity. There’s always going to be counter-evidence and mystery. There is no final arrangement that will end conflict, just endless searching and adjustment.
Modesty means having the courage to rest in anxiety and not try to quickly escape it. Modesty means being tough enough to endure the pain of uncertainty and coming to appreciate that pain. Uncertainty and anxiety throw you off the smug island of certainty and force you into the free waters of creativity and learning. As Kierkegaard put it, “The more original a human being is, the deeper is his anxiety.”
Over the next few months I’m hoping to write several columns on why modesty and moderation are superior to the spiraling purity movements we see today. It seems like a good time for assertive modesty to take a stand.
Brooks is a New York Times columnist.