I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.
I am one of those fanatics on the alt-right and the alt-left, the ones who make online forums so vicious, the ones who cancel and call out, the minority of online posters who fill the air with hate. I’m one of those radicals whose rage is intertwined with psychological fragility, whose anger at real wrongs is corrupted by my existential panic about myself.
To know anything about me you have to understand the chaos at the core of my innermost being. I was raised without coherent moral frameworks. I was raised amid social fragmentation and division, the permanent flux of liquid modernity.
Adults in my life have not been trustworthy. Friends have not been trustworthy. Women reject me. I passed through school unseen. You have no idea how ill equipped I am to deal with my pain. I was raised in that coddling way that protects you from every risk except real life.
When I was younger my eyes pleaded: Tell me what adulthood and manhood are supposed to look like! All you said was, “You can be anything you want to be!” How does that help? You told me I was special, but the world goes on as if I don’t exist.
I yearn for order. Blunt simplicities. Politics provides the Manichaean binaries I can’t find anywhere else, and so I make everything political. Own the libs! Smash the racist right! A war of pure good and pure evil.
I crave the single narrative that will make everything clear: Everything is race. Everything is class. Everything is moral rot caused by godlessness. They say that fundamentalism is rigid and authoritarian. I say to them: Yes! I want fundamentalism. Please wrap me in that rigidity. Otherwise, I have no coherent self.
Catastrophizing is my mindset. Catastrophizing is pure: Society is totally corrupt. The “system” is totally rotten. I am terrified by ambiguity and ambivalence, the idea that the glass might be only half full. I seize on the extreme example of anything and take it to be the typical case. In this way I create my truth. An immigrant committed murders, so immigrants are murderers.
People are not defined by individual traits but by group ones. Individual persons are too complicated, but groups are abstract and easy to stereotype. Every human being gets reduced to some category, preferably the cunning ones I despise: the libs, white males.
I need leaders and spokesmen who will never show uncertainty. I want leaders who tell simple blame stories. It’s the bankers! It’s the immigrants! I want intellectual put-down artists who will crush the other side and let me vicariously enjoy their triumphs on YouTube again and again.
My moral system is simple, too. Up is evil, and down is good. People above me on the status hierarchy are venal, while those of us in my group are victims of their corruption. The existence of any hierarchy itself is prima facie proof of injustice.
From the abstract vantage point of my computer screen, I see a world in which my opponents are elite oppressors and my kind are oppressed. They have their exclusive cliques, and I am disdained. And here we get to the ultimate injustice: Why are they recognized while I am not? This is the molten core from which my indignation flows. The status quo does not respect me, and therefore I despise it.
So my politics is not really about issues; it’s epic wars for recognition. I don’t deal with the complexities of economics or foreign affairs. I seize upon the minor missteps made by my opponents in order to discredit their kind. You stumbled? I delight in crushing you! Owning the libs spares me the terrifying ambiguity of actually getting to know one.
I’ve lost faith in reason. Communication is for condemnation and arousal. Forgiveness has become foreign to me. Sometimes you have to be vicious for justice. If I afflict the comfortable I have served justice. I don’t have to worry about comforting the afflicted. If I attack faraway wrongdoers I don’t have to worry about tutoring a child.
Online war is a force that gives life meaning. Hatred gives me that delicious simulacrum of power. Did you really think you could raise me on gourmet coffee and yoga pants and I wouldn’t find a way to rebel against your relativism and materialism? Didn’t you observe the eternal pattern — that if you try to flatten a man to the bourgeois he will rebel by becoming a fanatic?
And yet ... somehow it’s not working. Somehow politics doesn’t fill my soul, bring me peace or end my existential anxiety. I have helped create a harsh world in which vulnerability is impossible and without vulnerability there can be no relationship. Relationship is the thing that I long for the most and that I make impossible. I have cut myself off from the only thing that can save me.
I am indignant. I am superior. I read Dostoyevsky’s “Notes From The Underground.” I am alone.
David Brooks is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.