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The most under-discussed feeling in the modern world is boredom. Anger is given more than its due. Depression gets an airing. What we find much harder to credit is that, for some, the problem with modernity is not that it is too hard, but that it is too easy. Nothing in the way of duty or sacrifice is asked of them. They might have parents or grandparents who spent themselves in a larger cause, and feel somehow not quite alive next to them. There are women like this but, as the psephologists will testify, there are many more men. The nostalgia for the Blitz spirit among Englishmen who were born circa 1960 is an increasingly weird case in point.
The supposed crisis of masculinity always evokes a Springsteenian wasteland of shuttered steel plants. But it can be a much tonier affliction than that. It covers the outwardly successful men who want “something more” than sterile comfort and low stakes. Nietzsche was on to the emasculating effects of modernity in the late 1800s, and Lewis in the mid 1900s. And that was when conscription, ideological struggle and religion were still around to make a guy feel connected to the epic. Now he has to find it in some passing blowhard who asks for his vote. Populism is the closest thing to an outlet.
This is why there is something ersatz to me about today’s version: a slightly performative element that distinguishes it from the all-too-sincere 1930s populism. I sense that, while many voters really mean it, some are just restless and want to feel their juices bubble. I have known (and stopped knowing) lots of once-temperate people who have been carried off on the giddy ride in recent years. Their dopamine hit seems to come from the drama itself, not the content of the creed. The trouble is that it is no less dangerous for that.