Burn it All Down

The politics of chaos.

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The Atlantic‘s Derek Thompson explores “The Americans Who Need Chaos.”

Several years ago, the political scientist Michael Bang Petersen, who is based in Denmark, wanted to understand why people share conspiracy theories on the Internet. He and other researchers designed a study that involved showing American participants blatantly false stories about Democratic and Republican politicians, such as Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump. The subjects were asked: Would you share these stories online?

The results seemed to defy the logic of modern politics or polarization. “There were many people who seemed willing to share any conspiracy theory, regardless of the party it hurt,” Petersen told me. These participants didn’t seem like stable partisans of the left or right. They weren’t even negative partisans, who hated one side without feeling allegiance to the other. Above all, they seemed drawn to stories that undermined trust in every system of power.

This seems plausible enough. But these stories often go viral. How prevalent could this subtype be? Apparently, more prevalent than I’d have guessed.

Petersen felt as though he’d tapped a new vein of nihilism in modern politics—a desire to rip down the Elites, whatever that might mean. He wanted to know more about what these people were thinking. In further research, he and his co-researchers asked participants how much they agreed with several statements, including the following:

  • “We cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over.”
  • ”I need chaos around me—it is too boring if nothing is going on.”
  • “When I think about our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking ‘just let them all burn.’”

The researchers came up with a term to describe the motivation behind these all-purpose conspiracy mongers. They called it the “need for chaos,” which they defined as “a mindset to gain status” by destroying the established order. In their study, nearly a third of respondents demonstrated a need for chaos, Petersen said. And for about 5 percent of voters, old-fashioned party allegiances to the Democratic Party or the Republican Party melted away and were replaced by a desire to see the entire political elite destroyed—even without a plan to build something better in the ashes.

“These [need-for-chaos] individuals are not idealists seeking to tear down the established order so that they can build a better society for everyone,” the authors wrote in their conclusion. “Rather, they indiscriminately share hostile political rumors as a way to unleash chaos and mobilize individuals against the established order that fails to accord them the respect that they feel they personally deserve.” To sum up their worldview, Petersen quoted a famous line from the film The Dark Knight: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

The link goes to a recent article in the American Political Science Review, the premier journal in the field. It’s an interesting and plausible finding. And, while only 5 percent are in the pure “burn it all down” category, nearly a third demonstrated the “need for chaos.”

Several months after I first read Petersen’s paper, I still can’t get the phrase need for chaos out of my head. Everywhere I look, I seem to find new evidence that American politics is being consumed by the flesh-eating bacteria of a new nihilism—a desire to see existing institutions destroyed, with no particular plan or interest to replace and improve them.

In a much-shared Politico feature from January, the reporter Michael Kruse profiled a 58-year-old New Hampshire voter named Ted Johnson, who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, then for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. Johnson explained his pivot only with vague, destructive allegories. “Our system needs to be broken,” Johnson said. And only Trump, whom he acknowledged as “a chaos creator,” could deliver the crushing blow. Johnson reportedly works out of his three-bedroom house, which he bought in 2020 for $485,000 and which has appreciated almost 50 percent during Joe Biden’s presidency. He has a job, a family, and, clearly, a formidable financial portfolio. Still, he said he hopes that Trump “breaks the system” to create “a miserable four years for everybody.” We cannot fix the problems in our social institutions; we need to tear them down and start over.

Anecdotally, I remember a handful of friends and acquaintances—some of whom had theretofore been reliable Democratic voters—use that kind of language describing why they either voted for Trump or were at least kind of happy that he’d won. While obviously more prevalent among Republicans, there are clearly a significant number of Democrats who think their party elites are barely better than the alternative because they support the interests of Wall Street over Main Street.

White men in the conspiracy-theory study were the most sensitive to perceived challenges to status, Petersen told me. But the researchers wrote that the need for chaos was “highest among racial groups facing historical injustice—in particular, Black males.” Anti-elite conspiracy theories and tear-it-all-down rhetoric can appeal to groups who feel, sometimes quite rightly, aggrieved by long-standing injustice. As we spoke, I recalled some of the radical rhetoric from the summer of 2020: “If this country doesn’t give us what we want, then we will burn down this system and replace it,” Hawk Newsome, the chairman of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, said during an interview with Fox News. “I could be speaking figuratively; I could be speaking literally. It’s a matter of interpretation.” When I think about our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking, “Just let them all burn.”

Although a few BLM protests led to literal fires, and January 6 led to violent mayhem at the Capitol, the majority of chaos rhetoric isn’t necessarily actionable. It’s typically just talk: For some, it’s catharsis; for others, entertainment. What Petersen and the other researchers identified wasn’t a broad interest in political violence but rather a fondness for bull-in-a-china-shop bluster that promises total war against elites. Chaos is a taste, and it seems to be having a moment.

Now, I’m skeptical of lumping BLM protestors in with the MAGA crowd. Still, while their policy goals are wildly different—and their sense of grievance more justified— the general sense that “the system” no longer serves their interest is indeed a commonality.

The concept of “need for chaos” can help explain the mess that is American politics in 2024, and more specifically why the most common criticisms of Trump have failed to dent his support.

Ever since Trump’s 2015 candidacy kicked off, his rivals have accused him of being an agent of chaos, as if that were a turnoff for voters. Before the 2016 election, Jeb Bush called him a “chaos candidate.” In the GOP presidential primary, Nikki Haley said that Trump brings only “one bout of chaos after another.” The Biden team has repeatedly hammered home the connection between Trump and chaos. Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, the chair of the Democratic Governors Association, described the 2024 election as a “binary choice”—democracy and freedom versus “extremism and chaos.”

But Trump’s chaos vibes might fulfill a significant and otherwise unmet demand in the electorate. In the conclusion to their paper, Petersen and his co-authors write that the need for chaos emerges from the interplay between “dominance-oriented” traits (i.e., a preference for traditional social hierarchies), feelings of marginalization, and intense anger toward elites. Together, these traits would seem to apply to several voting groups: white conservative men nostalgic for a diminished patriarchy; independents who are furious about elite institutional failures during and after the pandemic; and culturally conservative, nonwhite Americans, especially men, who might feel marginalized by racism and economic inequality but also rue the latest waves of #MeToo feminism. Indeed, all of these groups are shifting toward the Republican Party under Trump.

The polling on Black and Hispanic support for Trump is complicated. He’s clearly doing better than other Republican candidates in recent years. But the degree to which these folks are actually going to vote for him, rather than simply expressing dissatisfaction with Biden, is unclear.

The need for chaos might also offer us a new “deep story” for the sort of disaffected and conspiratorial voters who could sway the November election. In her 2016 book, Strangers in Their Own Land, the UC Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild explained the far-right worldview using a psychological allegory, which she called her deep story. It went something like this:

You are an older white man without a college degree standing in the middle of a line with hundreds of millions of Americans. The queue leads up a hill, toward a haven just over the ridge, which is the American dream. Behind you in line, you can see a train of woeful souls—many poor, mostly nonwhite, born in America and abroad, young and old. You’ve waited a long time. But the line isn’t moving. You’re stuck, and you’re stigmatized. Liberals in the media say that every traditional thing you believe is racist and sexist. And now, people are cutting in line in front of you. The old order is falling apart. And somebody needs to do something about it.

Deep stories are important, because they allow groups who might violently disagree about politics to understand the psychological origins of their disagreement. As I spoke with Petersen about the need for chaos, another allegorical scene came to mind—a kind of deep story of the chaos voter.

You are a middle-aged man playing a game; it could be checkers or chess. You are used to winning. But you’ve lost several times in a row, and all to the same people. Now you’re losing again, and it doesn’t feel right. You haven’t made one wrong move. Something must be wrong. Something must be riggedThey must be cheating. In a rage, you turn the whole table upside down, and the pieces scatter and shatter. Why do this? Breaking the game makes things worse for everyone. But this isn’t about making things better. It’s about feeling a sense of agency and control. It’s about not feeling like a loser. One could call it chaos. But at least it’s the chaos you chose.

“You can think of need for chaos, in a way, like flipping the board over at a societal level,” Petersen said when I shared this deep story with him on the phone. “This is a status-seeking strategy of last resort. A person feels stuck and wants to have recognition, but he feels that he cannot be recognized or valued in the current system of cultural norms, rules, and power. And so, to solve that problem, he says: ‘Let’s tear it all down.’”

The two deep stories aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. But maybe the first one is a little more rational, in that it’s driven by hope that a change agent will make things better. Given that Trump really didn’t make things better for the dispossessed white blue-collar voter in his four years in office, the latter story might explain why his support hasn’t waned. It’s not so much a hope that Trump will fix things but a giant middle finger to the parts of society they hate.

Regardless, I’m more than a wee bit skeptical of Thompson’s prescription:

If the need for chaos helps explain the mess we’re in, it might also offer the Trumpist opposition a clearer plan for wooing some (but certainly not all) voters back to normalcy. The need for chaos is rooted in people’s feelings about status, power, and control. For example, independents with culturally conservative instincts might feel that progressive ideas—what some call “woke” politics—weaken their social status, or that COVID policies trampled on their ability to control their daily life. Democrats could emphasize the ways in which their policies and priorities build status, power, and control. Under Biden, pay has increased so much for low-income Americans that it’s wiped out almost half of the past 40 years’ rise in income inequality; that’s a revitalization of economic status. Energy production is at an all-time high, and the U.S. has never been so energy independent; that’s both national and physical power. A right-leaning Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade; now Democrats across the country are fighting to protect abortion rights to restore women’s control over their own bodies. The antidote to a new American nihilism is a full-throated defense of American agency.

Isn’t that pretty much what Democrats have been arguing for the last forty years or more?

This, though, is more promising:

The need for chaos is not a problem likely to be solved quickly. It might be more like a chronic condition in U.S. politics to be studied and understood. I ultimately see anti-elite sentiment as downstream of several very real elite failures, including the many public-health errors during the coronavirus pandemic. But although burn-it-down sentiment may come from reality, it also feeds off virtual reality, or the stories that people are told about the world. Consumers face a bonanza of news-mediated despondency about quality of life, in part because news outlets are responding to audience negativity bias by telling the worst, most dangerous, and most catastrophic stories about the world. If journalists want to understand the need for chaos, it might be useful for us to scrutinize the ways in which we are partly responsible for growing the public’s taste for narratives that catastrophize without promise of improvement.

But I don’t think it’s going to happen in time to have much effect on the November elections.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    Insightful links to articles (some seen, some not), and a topic I have to think about before I comment on the topic, other than that this makes sense.

    But I don’t think it’s going to happen in time to have much effect on the November elections.

    Me neither.

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  2. Kevin says:

    The really weird thing is that I’m a progressive / liberal. But at the moment, I’d also be willing to call myself a conservative. Not in the sense it’s been used in the past, but in the sense of trying to stop obviously badly intentioned people from destroying things. I want the government to make things better for people, take care of people more, and so on. But right now, I’d be happy if a small minority of people stopped making things worse.

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  3. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    but a giant middle finger to the parts of society they hate.

    Michael Moore essentially said this back in 2016, so the phenomenon seems to be longer standing than we’re admitting.

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  4. CSK says:

    Steve Bannon has been stating his desire to “burn it all down” since at least 2016. Trump’s been an enthusiastic proponent of chaos for decades; he claims to thrive on it. He enjoys having the people around him try to function in an atmosphere of distrust, suspicion, and fear. He thinks it ensures their loyalty to him only. Nothing is more important to him than that.

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  5. DrDaveT says:

    It’s tacked on at the end as an afterthought, but I think the deliberate stoking of grievance by extremely well-funded and well-organized organizations and individuals (and the complicity of the mainstream media in letting it happen) is a bigger part of the story than people admit. Despite the endemic conspiracy-prone gullible and the genuine deplorables, America would look very different today if not for the efforts of Roger Stone, Rupert Murdoch, QAnon, etc. The vulnerable population has always been there; they discovered and exploited the vector to infect them.

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  6. Kevin says:

    @DrDaveT: I wouldn’t consider QAnon a cause, but a symptom. The only reason QAnon is regarded any differently than the SCP Foundation is because there are a bunch of people receptive to the nonsense.

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  7. Modulo Myself says:

    The article is hilarious. The author can’t help but inject the universal experience he thinks we all had with Covid, which is outrage at public-health failures. Not DeSantis and Florida and the dead, but you know the shared sacrifice and sense of ambiguity and anxiety which drove us all apparently over the edge. And one of those thought experiments is asking to imagine being in a line and impatient. Wow, that’s an experience I’ve never had before. Another suggests that there is a person out there smarter than you, or better at something than you. This another experience I’ve never had, so I can only try to understand the rage at having encountered such a thing.

    The only takeaway is that they are describing people who really are losers. And not because of their status or income or how they dress, but because they can’t deal with the part of the world which has been fair to them. Republicans and conservatives love being screwed by other parts of the world. That’s why they have Trump–he would loot their savings in a second, but that’s different than being in a line and having to be just a person like anyone else or losing in a fair game of chess. Not only are the losers, I think, they are fundamentally corrupt.

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  8. Andy says:

    I think there is a strong strain of anarchism on the political fringes, but it’s very weird how dissonant it is. People want to burn things down, but only the things they don’t like.

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  9. Gustopher says:

    Johnson reportedly works out of his three-bedroom house, which he bought in 2020 for $485,000 and which has appreciated almost 50 percent during Joe Biden’s presidency. He has a job, a family, and, clearly, a formidable financial portfolio. Still, he said he hopes that Trump “breaks the system” to create “a miserable four years for everybody.”

    I think I speak for every rational person when I say “burn his fucking house down.”

    He clearly has some kind of inner demons that he needs to see expressed in the world, and I think the flaming wreckage of his home would really help him realize his dreams with minimal negative impact on the people around him. It would be a kindness. We would be helping him live his best life.

    Have we stigmatized self-destructive behaviors to the point where people like Johnson aren’t content to just destroy themself? If so, we should rethink that.

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  10. gVOR10 says:

    As I’ve said before – governing is about policy, elections are about entertainment. Burning it all down, or at least contemplating burning it all down, is entertaining.

    @DrDaveT:

    I think the deliberate stoking of grievance by extremely well-funded and well-organized organizations and individuals (and the complicity of the mainstream media in letting it happen) is a bigger part of the story than people admit.

    Rick Perlstein’s Infernal Triangle: “Authoritarian Republicans, ineffectual Democrats, and a clueless media”. I often ask in these threads, “Why now?” and observe that this stuff didn’t just fall out of the sky, there are villains in the story.

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  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    Losers assume revolution will improve their status. That doesn’t really happen. The American Revolution cemented slavery and doomed the Indians to be ethnically-cleansed. But most people were entirely unaffected. The French revolution devoured its own creators and, exhausted, succumbed to a dictator who sent those same people off to die fighting Russians and Brits. The Russian revolution, the Chinese revolution of 1949, Cuba, every African revolution ever. Revolutions have a tendency to disappoint. Often they disappoint people to death.

    Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, describes most revolutions.

    Do these MAGA idiots realize that getting rid of the constitution means getting rid of the 2d amendment? Do they get that fascist regimes don’t allow fat old fucks in cammies to assemble arsenals? The people who come out on top will be a subset of the people already on top, and losers will remain losers.

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  12. Barry says:

    In the case of the media, it’s clear that the owners deeply desire Trump, figuring that chaos is good for ratings.

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  13. DrDaveT says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Do these MAGA idiots realize that getting rid of the constitution means getting rid of the 2d amendment?

    Why should they? They have decades of experience with declaring a specific text to be controlling and inerrant, and yet ignoring (or flat contradicting) 90% of what it actually says. If you can do it with the Bible, why not with the Constitution?

    (Oh my god, I just realized — they take their Bible seriously, but not literally. It’s a perfect analogy.)

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  14. Matt says:

    I’ve had some fairly extensive conversations with a few “burn it all down” types. They always seem to think it’ll work out great for them and the people they care about (if they have any). Delusional and ignorant tends to describe their thoughts..

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