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Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump poses as a prophet of doom. “Our country is going to hell,” he warns. The United States faces economic collapse, the disintegration of its vital infrastructure, and looming annihilation at the hands of “radical Islamic terrorists.” In short, it’s the apocalypse: “If we don’t get tough, and if we don’t get smart, and fast, we’re not going to have a country anymore.” The time to act is now “because later is too late.” If citizens heed his call, he says, there is hope. Trump can lead the United States away from Armageddon and make the nation “great again.”
With the promise of a raucous Republican National Convention this week, Americans can expect Trump to double down on catastrophic despair and redemptive hope. Commentators have suggested that Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric marks a stark departure from the tradition of mainstream American political discourse. For example, writing in the Washington Post, opinion blogger Paul Waldman argued that “there may never have been a candidate who sees America as such a dystopic nightmare of gloom and despair.” But such observers are wrong.
In fact, many American statesmen have been doomsayers. Some have even used this language for noble ends—to rouse citizens to confront the nation’s great crises. What is different about Trump is that he injects his own dangerous brand of megalomania into the country’s apocalyptic tradition. Unlike statesmen and even demagogues past, Trump alone offers himself as America’s sole savior. Time and again, he tells us that our “problems can all be fixed, but…only by me.” Time and again, he promises: “I will never let you down.”
It is easy and even comforting to think of apocalyptic rhetoric as marginal and extremist, as beyond the pale of mainstream politics. We imagine a band of vulnerable people who, under the direction of a charismatic leader, have gathered in a rural bunker to pursue their doomsday expectations to a violent end. For instance, the Branch Davidians who were involved in a 51-day armed standoff with the FBI near Waco, Texas, in 1993 were motivated by an ideology of the end times.
More recently, the Islamic State (ISIS) has used extremist readings of Sunni doomsday theology to recruit thousands of followers in its campaign of territorial expansion, violence, subjugation, and enslavement in Iraq and Syria. According to William McCants, an expert on modern jihadism, ISIS leaders and recruits see the wars in the Middle East as the “final battles of the apocalypse,” after which the Caliphate will be restored and prophecy fulfilled.
Visions of tribulation and redemption also find their way into the mainstream of American politics. Historically, cataclysmic rhetoric has taken a page from biblical accounts of doomsday. Many of the United States’ Puritan settlers saw the religious conflicts in England as the final battles of the end times. To them, England’s Anglican clergy were “the excrement of Antichrist.” America would become the New Jerusalem prophesied in the Book of Revelation.
On the eve of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln likewise cast the looming battle against slavery in apocalyptic terms. Drawing on the biblical imagery of the end of days, he said that it seemed to him “as if God had borne with this thing (slavery) until the very teachers of religion had come to defend it from the Bible to claim for it a divine character and sanction; and now the cup of iniquity is full, and the vials of wrath will be poured out.”
Over 70 years later, President Theodore Roosevelt would use the same rich stock of apocalyptic imagery to link his own battle against “special privilege” to Lincoln’s resistance to slavery. As the Republican National Committee seemed set to award the party’s nomination to William Howard Taft in 1912, Roosevelt gathered his supporters in Chicago the night before the convention. He urged the cheering crowd to fight for a country in peril: “Fearless of the future; unheeding of our individual fates; with unflinching hearts and undimmed eyes; we stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord.”
Apocalyptic rhetoric has recently been deployed in a more secular guise. President George W. Bush used the familiar tropes of scourge and salvation when he spoke of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in his second inaugural address. This “day of fire” came after the “years of relative quiet [and] repose” that followed the collapse of communism. The attacks were the terrifying birth pangs of a new world in which different rules of state practice would apply. But, like Trump, Bush also used the language of doomsday to reassure: “the untamed fire of freedom,” he said, would reach even the “darkest corners of the world.”
Former Vice President Al Gore also used biblical imagery to describe a secular day of reckoning. After showing some particularly devastating images of climate catastrophe in An Inconvenient Truth, he notes that they are “like a nature hike through the book of Revelations [sic].” He concludes his 2009 book Our Choice on a similar note, with a poem that combines references to melting ice caps, ocean acidification, and species extinction with one of the most ominous images of the Christian apocalypse: “Horsemen ready their stirrups.”
Why has the rhetoric of doomsday had such an enduring appeal in mainstream U.S. politics? Apocalyptic worldviews impose a cleaner narrative on events that are troubling and hard to understand. For early Christians who heard the biblical Revelation, the trauma of Roman imperial rule suddenly became meaningful. These tribulations were but the prelude to a blessed future for the chosen.
Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric also highlights the confusion that many of his supporters may feel as they contemplate their country’s demographic, economic, and national security challenges. We don’t “know what is going on,” he repeatedly says. But, if he becomes president, we soon will. Today’s confusion and discontent become the prelude to an America restored. Like the long tradition of apocalypticism, Trump’s rhetoric marries the despair of doomsday with the hope of redemption. It invests the challenges of the present with a cosmic significance. It invites its listeners to see themselves on the edge of a great transformation.
Apocalyptic rhetoric is dangerous for many of the same reasons that it is so appealing. Although its cosmic narrative makes today’s crises intelligible, it also reduces their moral complexity. Good is pitted against evil. “Us” against “them.” The Book of Revelation promises a New Jerusalem to the chosen, but threatens their enemies with scourge and slaughter. The Puritans drew on this worldview to bind their communities together and to cast out the challengers to theocratic authority as witches and devil-worshippers.
Bush likewise offered a false moral clarity to Americans shortly after 9/11, when he warned the nations of the world: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric also combines this seductive simplicity with a warning that the choice between destruction and salvation is imminent and its stakes are cosmically high. Later is too late and all means—waterboarding, “taking out” the families of suspected terrorists, and deploying nuclear weapons—are on the table. This is doomsday rhetoric at its very worst. Talk like this has justified unspeakable violence (from the medieval pogroms to the wars of religion).
At its best, the tradition of apocalyptic rhetoric in the United States has sought to unite rather than divide. It has sought to rouse citizens to confront injustices in which they may themselves be implicated—from slavery to environmental catastrophe. It has sought to remind them of their founding values and to give them the moral courage to act on those ideals together. This is patently not what Trump’s doomsaying is trying to do. His call divides and excludes. Of those who remain, he demands an enthralled dependence. This is where Trump’s rhetoric departs from the best (and even the worst) of the apocalyptic tradition and becomes a kind of narcissistic messianism. Our problems “can all be fixed,” he promises. But not by us. “Only by me.”