August 24, 2015
Americans joining ISIS may seem bizarre — Islam is not a force here, ISIS is an aberration of Islam, etc. — but in a way it’s not surprising. It is part of a tradition or, perhaps more accurately, a trend in American culture, that of the society-rejecting loner. We see this trend in the claim of sovereign citizenship, in the law-unto-oneself violence of the NRA, in the idiots from Oath Keepers who brandish assault weapons, in the self-appointed militia who purport to guard military bases, in resistance to mandatory vaccination. We see its rhetorical form in the ramblings of conservative politicians who want to abolish the IRS or the EPA or Medicare or government in general. We see its semi-collective form in the advocacy of nullification or secession, its fully collective form in the delusions of politicians, Democratic and Republican, who think that this country can exist apart from the rest of the world. It is in short the breakdown of society, of the knowledge that no man, state or country is an island.
Mark Lilla put it this way five years ago: "A new strain of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now. Anarchistic like the Sixties, selfish like the Eighties, contradicting neither, it is estranged, aimless, and as juvenile as our new century." Lilla referred to the phenomenon as populism, in part because his article was focused on the Tea Party movement. The use of that term emphasizes the collective aspect, but even the seemingly collective manifestations are driven by the attitude of the self-absorbed individual. Lilla made that point clearly: this kind of populism "appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that. . . . They don't want the rule of the people, though that's what they say. They want to be people without rules — and, who knows, they may succeed."