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The Americans Who Need Chaos

They’re embracing nihilism and upending politics.

By Derek Thompson

Flag-themed tornado

Illustration by The Atlantic

FEBRUARY 23, 2024

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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.

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.”

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.

Or take Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of the more energetic MAGA mascots. Last August, she attended the first GOP presidential-nomination debate, which Trump declined to join. Ratings were abysmal, and Greene noted a certain lack of joie de vivre at the proceedings. “The number one comment I’m hearing in Milwaukee is ‘it’s boring without Trump here,’” she posted on XI need chaos around me—it is too boring if nothing is going on.

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.

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 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.’”

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.

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.

Derek Thompson is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the Work in Progress newsletter.