USA Politics

In age of Trump, apocalyptic rhetoric becomes mainstream

Patterns of thought

Under Obama, some conservatives warned of an existential threat to the nation. Now, liberals are using similar language. The concerns are not baseless, some experts say. But intensifying partisanship is a key driver.

President-elect Donald Trump and President Barack Obama, right, arrive for Trump's inauguration ceremony at the Capitol on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP | Caption

The longer President Trump is in office, the more Cat Deakins worries about the future – for herself and her children.

With every executive order and cabinet appointment, she envisions another scenario: an America that rejects immigrants, that succumbs to climate change, that erupts in war.

“It’s scary to me that [people within the administration] are promoting this idea of, ‘We are at war with Islam.’ That’s the kind of thinking that leads to World War III," says Ms. Deakins, a cinematographer in Los Angeles. “I don’t think we can be alarmed enough.”

It’s a strain of thought that’s begun to take root in leftist narratives as the Trump administration enters its second month. The idea is that since taking office, the president has led the nation – and continues to lead it – down a path that will culminate in a dictatorship, a police state, or both. As Slate columnist Michelle Goldman writes, “To talk about Trump as a menace to our democratic way of life understates the crisis.”

To some degree, such statements reflect the pendulum swing of political power; conservatives made similar claims during former President Barack Obama's tenure. And observers warn against reacting in an apocalyptic way to policies that are merely partisan.

Still, Mr. Trump is unpredictable, a president unprecedented in modern times, who has already used an expanded set of executive powers to pursue his agenda – one that many see as threatening widely held democratic principles.

“There is legitimate basis for concern,” says John Pitney Jr., a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “While apocalyptic rhetoric might be exaggerated, there have been real invasions of civil liberties, deep threats to civil rights. It’s perfectly appropriate to be watchful and wary.”

A sense of alarm

Sinister talk and ominous rumors are not new to American politics – from Ronald Reagan’s supposed propensity toward nuclear war with the Soviet Union to the Clintons’ purported involvement in the death of White House attorney Vince Foster.

“It was on the fringes,” Professor Pitney says. “But what we’ve seen since the turn of the century is the mainstreaming of apocalyptic rhetoric.”

During former President Barack Obama's tenure, conservative pundits regularly made apocalyptic pronouncements about his heritage and religion. Some on the far right predicted his presidency would transform America into an Islamist or communist state.

Those prophecies proved groundless – and fed into a dangerous cycle of partisan antipathy, political analysts say. 

Today, the sense of alarm has trickled down into the lives of some Americans who face a constant barrage of headlines and disputes, especially on social media.

Olaf Wolden, a documentary filmmaker in New York City, says he worries about Trump’s strained relationship with the press and the truth. “When information doesn’t fit the narrative he needs, he attacks it,” Mr. Wolden says. “That’s a classic move out of the playbook of [Joseph] Stalin or [Augusto] Pinochet.”

Others, like Deakins, are troubled by the upheaval in the administration’s early days, such as the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. “It’s horrifying to watch it roll out,” she says.

Still others point to the president’s attitude toward immigrants, which they say stokes racism and xenophobia.

“Building a border wall, scapegoating immigrants as one of the major problems for folks here in America – that is a threat to democracy," says Alex Montances, an advocate for the rights of Filipino migrants in Long Beach, Calif.

That said, a line must be drawn between critiques of poorly crafted policies and apocalyptic concerns, says Peter Berkowitz, an expert on US conservatism and progressivism at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

There’s a difference between those who harshly criticized Mr. Obama because they saw the Affordable Care Act as government overreach and those who cast him as un-American and a tyrant based on false allegations about his race or religion, notes Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. (Editor's note: This paragraph has been updated to provide the correct attribution.)

Likewise, Professor Berkowitz adds, a distinction must be made between those who are horrified by Trump’s immigration policy – like his border wall and temporary ban on refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries – and those who say that the US is now a fascist state.

Journalists remain free to cover the news as they see fit, the Supreme Court to block executive orders it deems unconstitutional, and Congress to wrangle over laws they disagree about, he points out.

“Some of Trump’s rhetoric provides reason for heightened concern,” Berkowitz says. “That we are already fascistic – none of the evidence I see brought forward suggests that.”

Not being judicious in one's criticism risks losing credibility, says Erik Fogg, co-author of the 2015 book, “Wedged: How You Became a Tool of the Partisan Political Establishment, and How to Start Thinking for Yourself Again.”

"Regardless of what party you come from – but in particular for the left right now – the key is to be very, very selective about where they raise the alarm," says Mr. Fogg.

A dangerous cycle

A key consequence – and driving factor – of apocalyptic rhetoric is political polarization.

In 2004, only about 1 in 10 Americans were consistently liberal or conservative across most values, the Pew Research Center reports. By 2014, the figure had doubled. The same year, Pew found that 27 percent of Democrats saw the Republican Party as “a threat to the nation’s well-being.” Thirty-six percent of Republicans said the same of the Democratic Party.

Such mistrust has paved the way for more extreme partisanship.

In one of countless tirades against the former president, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh – whose program remains one of the most popular talk shows on the air today – lambasted Obama in 2012 for saying that the rich often have help earning their wealth.

“Barack Obama is trying to dismantle, brick by brick, the American dream,” Mr. Limbaugh said. “This is what we have as a president: A radical ideologue, a ruthless politician who despises the country and the way it was founded and the way in which it became great.”

Progressive pundits have since made their own proclamations of Trump’s evil intentions.

In January, Salon politics writer Chauncey DeVega accused the GOP of mobilizing “anti-black and anti-brown animus for political gain” and blamed “obsolete journalistic norms of ‘fairness,’ ‘balance,’ and ‘objectivity’ ” for failing to call out Trump’s fascism.

“Donald Trump and his supporters represent the tyranny of minority opinion,” Mr. DeVega wrote. “Consequently, they are the worst example of the will, spirit and character of the American people.”

“You have extremity on both sides of the spectrum. That’s what leads to apocalyptic thoughts about politics,” says Professor Perry of the University of Virginia. “But there are probably apocalyptic thoughts that lead to polarization. It’s all rather cyclical.”

By making caricature monsters of the other side, “you make reconciliation harder and harder,” says Fogg, the author. And it also could affect both parties' ability to see the real threat, he adds.

"You can’t write off the other team’s apocalyptic ideas as pure hysteria and embrace our own, and then when it doesn’t come to pass let it go," he says. "I think the trick is going to be ... figure out the real threat, and counter that. If we don’t, we’ll be scattered."