The Apocalypse in U.S. Political Thought

Trump Isn’t the First—And He Won’t be the Last

Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally at the Nugget Casino Resort in Sparks, Nevada, February 23, 2016. James Glover II / Reuters

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

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