Nineteenth-Century Nihilists Foretold Our Era

Why the Age of Alternative Facts Might Have Unnerved Even Nietzsche

A “March for Truth” protest in Los Angeles in June 2017 John Fredricks / REUTERS

Most historians view the French Revolution as the source of the ideologies that have shaped the modern and postmodern eras. For any ism—from liberalism, conservatism, and communism to nationalism, totalitarianism, and anarchism—historians can make the case that it springs from the cascade of events that began in 1789. An ism that usually fails to make the list, however, is one that now seems to be on the tip of every pundit’s pen—namely, nihilism.

In one of the odder footnotes to the revolution, the Baron de Cloots, Jean-Baptiste du Val-de-Grâce—better known by his pen name, Anacharsis Cloots, if not by his chosen title as “Orator of the Human Race”—embraced the term “nihilism.” Determined that the fledgling French Republic be truly secular, Cloots insisted that its citizens avoid all reference to God. Even atheists, he warned, by their denial of God’s existence keep God’s name alive. For this reason, he intoned, the “republic of the rights of man is strictly speaking neither theist nor atheist, but nihilist.”

While the aspiring nihilist did not live long enough to realize his hope for establishing a republic on the moon—Cloots literally lost his head during the Terror—the term he introduced has enjoyed a long and varied life. Indeed, it is now experiencing something of a renaissance. Even the most casual consumer of news keeps stumbling across the term, especially when it comes to the theater of American politics. Rather like neighboring tribes that, according to anthropologists, accuse each other of engaging in cannibalism, our political parties denounce each other for engaging in nihilism. Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover Institution disparages the “new nihilism” of the Democratic Party, while Alex Pareene of The New Republic decries the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, as the “nihilist in chief.” A Google search of “Trump” and “nihilism” sparks well more than half a million hits, crowding the screen from both sides of the political spectrum: the conservative columnist Ross

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