The Global Zeitenwende
How to Avoid a New Cold War in a Multipolar Era
Following the electoral victory of Donald Trump, the mood of U.S. Democrats and the left-leaning world was somber. It was perhaps best summed up by the headline of France’s daily newspaper, Libération on its November 9 issue: “Trumpocalypse.”
We will surely hear more end times doom and gloom as Trump continues to assemble his cabinet. The best-case scenario is that much of his divisive campaign rhetoric was “serious, but not literal,” as PayPal co-founder and Trump transition team member Peter Thiel and some optimistic Democrats have suggested.
But his first round of cabinet appointments has belied such hope. And even if he didn’t mean what he has repeatedly said about women and racial and religious minorities, his campaign rhetoric and his decision to name the alt-right figure Stephen Bannon as chief strategist has unsurprisingly led some Americans to believe that they have a license to hate. An announcement that the new administration is considering a registry for Muslim immigrants is only likely to deepen this perceived license. Add to this, Trump’s temperament, his denial of climate science, his hostility to the Environmental Protection Agency, and his forthcoming access to the nuclear codes, and it does seem that Trump could edge the world closer to catastrophe.
But the key to preventing such a horrific outcome is to stop viewing Trump’s victory in apocalyptic terms. Apocalyptic worldviews, which have a long history in U.S. politics, lead to three political postures, all of which are extremely dangerous. The first is to withdraw from political participation—as the biblical author of the Book of Revelation encouraged early Christians to do. Those who cared about the fate of their souls must not be complicit with evil, it cautioned. Christians who accepted this counsel were left with no option but to give up on their political world and to await a New Jerusalem. Today’s liberal doomsayers want to move to Canada or secede.
The second posture is resignation. The world is going to hell, concludes the apocalypticist, but there is nothing to be done. Social scientists, such as scholars Saffron O’Neill and Sophie Nicholson-Cole, have found that this is a common reaction to end-of-the-world arguments in the climate change debate. Instead of rousing people to action, these calamitous warnings leave them defeated and disengaged. This puts Trump’s opponents in a jam. Eliciting a sense of apocalyptic fear may make the dangers of his proposed policies more vivid, while leaving his opponents less empowered to meet the challenges ahead.
The third response is a full-throated embrace of the apocalyptic worldview—one that divides the world into good and evil, vilifies opponents, and pushes the battle for ultimate justice to its violent consummation. This cosmic vision animated the European wars of religion. Today, its main champion is ISIS.
It is wise to note that we have already witnessed a similar level of polarization during the U.S. presidential campaign, as both nominees attacked each other using apocalyptic rhetoric. At a rally in Ocala, Florida, Trump told his supporters, “The election of Hillary Clinton would lead, in my opinion, to the almost total destruction of our country as we know it.” In Palm Beach, he called the election “a moment of reckoning” and “a crossroads in the history of our civilization.”
Clinton and her supporters met these bleak prophecies with their own messages of doom. Clinton concluded a New York Times Magazine interview with an ominous warning, “I’m the last thing standing between you and the apocalypse.” And Slate.com maintained a “Trump Apocalypse Watch,” which used a scale of one to four horsemen to indicate the likelihood of a Trump presidency and, by extension (and only half-jokingly), the end of the world. As the campaign drew to its bitter finale, the media played on the drama. “The end is near,” announced TIME Magazine in a headline that was both reassuring and ominous.
But if both sides fail to back down from this apocalyptic standoff, we can expect deepening polarization, mutual obstruction, and the embrace of more extreme policies and tactics. When one’s opponent poses an apocalyptic threat, almost anything goes.
That is why it is vitally important that we change our mindset. We shouldn’t see Trump’s victory as a harbinger of the apocalypse. Those who oppose Trump would do better to see it as a tragedy. A tragic worldview takes its bearings from the likes of the playwright Sophocles, the historian Thucydides, the theologian St. Augustine, and the political thinker Max Weber. Despite their deep differences, these thinkers recognize the difficulty of reaching settled solutions to our deepest disagreements. They see the dangers of both hubristic certainty and passive resignation.
Further, the tragic worldview does not deny the stakes of politics, or the reality of what can be accomplished. Instead, it calls upon us to return again and again to the work of politics—what Weber called the “strong and slow boring through hard boards.” For some, like Senate Democrats and Republicans who opposed Trump, this work will involve difficult and sometimes repugnant compromises. For others, such as governors and state legislators, city police departments, and citizens, the work of politics will call for resistance and protest.
We must arm ourselves, “with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes,” as Weber once counseled. “This is necessary right now, or else men will not be able to attain even that which is possible today.” The tragic worldview is not a popular one. Its insistence on seeing the world as resistant to progress, unresponsive to virtuous intentions, and capricious in its rewards for goodness does not offer much consolation. But it may be the best hope.