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It's the end of the world as we know it, again

Apocalyptic rhetoric is nothing new in American politics.

The earth going up in flames
Artistic rendering or actual photo?
Vadim Sadovski
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Have you heard? It’s the apocalypse.


Everywhere you look here in the (hopefully) twilight moments of the 2016 presidential election cycle, the apocalypse is invoked in a manner that’s less metaphor, more actual impending reality.

“All the signs of God's judgment of a nation, or a civilization, seem to be on us,” Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote in a column titled “This election is God's judgment on us” in The Week, published the day before the election.

“The election of Hillary Clinton would lead, in my opinion, to the almost total destruction of our country as we know it,” Donald Trump told a crowd in Ocala, Florida, in October.

On ABC News’ “Powerhouse Politics” podcast, former US Sen. Ben Bradley warned that the election of Trump would lead to nuclear war.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is a Flight 93 election. This may be our last shot. It's time to roll. It's time to run down the aisle and save Western civilization,” Trump endorser Gary Bauer told the crowd gathered at the Values Voter Summit in September.

And an October survey of 1,247 18- to 35-year-olds conducted by UMass’s Lowell’s Center for Public Opinion and Odyssey Millennials found that 53 percent would rather experience a meteor apocalypse than see Trump take office; 34 percent feel the same, but about Clinton.

Then there was The Daily Show’s ad for its election coverage:

The series finale of America.

And even Merriam-Webster got in on the act:

There’s no doubt that the 2016 election is unlike anything we’ve ever seen, and that Donald Trump’s candidacy in particular suggests unique threats that the country didn’t see even in the historically turbulent 1960s. “The eerie truth is that 2016 is so deeply unnerving not because it is ‘like 1968’ but because it isn’t like anything else,” Columbia journalism and sociology professor Todd Gitlin wrote earlier this year in the New York Times.

But while the stakes, content, and far-reaching implications of the 2016 election all seem new, the apocalyptic rhetoric is baked into the American psyche — and it pops up pretty much every time there’s a presidential election in the near future or recent past.

Apocalyptic rhetoric is (at least) as old as American history

During the GOP nominee debates, the rush to sound apocalyptic was something of a contest between candidates, Jeet Heer noted in the New Republic:

Armageddon around the corner was the theme of the sixth Republican debate, as candidates outdid each other to warn that the end was nigh: “If we don’t get this election right, there may be no turning back for America.” That wasn’t one of the party’s wild men like Ben Carson or Donald Trump. They are the words of Marco Rubio, the allegedly sunny voice of the party. For his part, Jeb Bush raised the alarm over the fact that “the world has been torn asunder.” Riffing on the alarm raised by moderator Maria Bartiromo that “the world is on fire,” Chris Christie warned that if “you’re worried most of all about keeping your homes and your families safe and secure, you cannot give Hillary Clinton a third term of Barack Obama’s leadership.” It was nearly an afterthought when Carson himself warned that if the Democrats win and appoint two or more Supreme Court justices, “this nation is over as we know it.”

But this apocalyptic tenor didn’t start in 2015, and it’s hardly unique to the 2016 election cycle. It’s pervasive in American political rhetoric.

At the Values Voters Summit — in 2013, after President Barack Obama had begun his second term in office — Ted Cruz was already talking about 2016, saying, “We’re nearing the edge of a cliff, and our window to turn things around, my friends, I don’t think it is long. I don’t think it is 10 years. We have a couple of years to turn the country around or we go off the cliff to oblivion.”

Back in February 2012, prior to Obama’s reelection, Jonathan Chait noted that Republican apocalyptic-speak was mounting:

“America is approaching a ‘tipping point’ beyond which the Nation will be unable to change course,” announces the dark, old-timey preamble to Paul Ryan’s “The Roadmap Plan,” a statement of fiscal principles that shaped the budget outline approved last spring by 98 percent of the House Republican caucus. Rick Santorum warns his audiences, “We are reaching a tipping point, folks, when those who pay are the minority and those who receive are the majority.” Even such a sober figure as Mitt Romney regularly says things like “We are only inches away from no longer being a free economy,” and that this election “could be our last chance.”

Or go back to 2008, when the McCain campaign produced an ostensibly tongue-in-cheek ad that either poked fun at Obama’s anointed-savior status among some supporters or outright painted Obama as the anti-Christ, depending on who you talked to.

Clearly the Obama presidency inspired an uptick in apocalypse-speak from certain Republican sectors, but this type of rhetoric is not unique to a single political era or party: Dialing back to 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign produced the famous “Daisy” ad, in which a little girl counted a daisy’s petals, only to have her innocent fun interrupted by a nuclear blast. “All of God’s children can live, or go into the dark,” the ad intoned. A vote for Johnson’s Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, was a vote for apocalypse.

A little girl plucks the petals of a daisy in a campaign ad run by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964
Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign ran the famous “Daisy” ad against Barry Goldwater in 1964.

That same year, at the convention nominating Goldwater as the GOP’s candidate, a younger Ronald Reagan became a political star with his “A Time for Choosing” speech, which rang with its own distinctly apocalyptic overtones. “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny,” Reagan said. “We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children’s children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done.”

But this strain of thinking didn’t begin with Reagan; in fact, it permeates US history. Apocalyptic rhetoric is baked into the American imagination, intertwined as it is with the Puritans’ vision of America as a “city on a hill,” a beacon of light to the world, and the eschatological vision of some founders that America would have an instrumental place in the future of the world, ordained by God and part of his greater plan. In fact, Americans have been preparing for the return of Jesus since the founding, and often tying it to political events.

The way we talk about the apocalypse has changed

Writing on apocalyptic rhetoric in American elections, sociologist Daniel Whisker noted that there’s a discernible shift in the way Americans talk about these themes over time:

These apocalyptic themes — the minions of Satan, their empire on earth, the persecution of the elect and the coming millennium — are as old as the American republic, but since the second world war, their periodic recurrence has been replaced by a continuously rising eschatological panic…

21st century apocalypticism is distinguished from most 20th century versions of the paranoid style by the conflation of the religious and the political themes at work … The increased political significance of religious identity since the onset of the “culture wars,” the migration of protestants from traditional denominations to evangelicalism, and the revived rhetoric of opposition between Christianity and Islam since 2000, has entrenched Christian apocalyptic themes in current versions of the paranoid style.

I co-wrote a book on the apocalypse in pop culture, which came out earlier this year. But we wrote the draft way back in 2014, and then — with what turned out to be depressing prescience — titled it How to Survive the Apocalypse. In it we note that when it comes to the apocalypse, there’s nothing new under the sun:

As long as we humans have been telling the story of our beginning, we’ve also been telling the story of our end—for every Asgard and Midgard, a Ragnarok; for every Garden of Eden, an Armageddon. These stories of “apocalypse” are about the end of the world and the destruction of civilization. This is how it all ends.

But apocalyptic literature is not really just about the end of the world.

The Greek word apokalypsis means not only destruction, not only the disruption of reality, but the dismantling of perceived realities — an ending of endings, a shocking tremor of revelation that remade creation in its wake. It renews as it destroys; with its destruction it brings an epiphany about the universe, the gods, or God.

Apocalyptic literature has always said a great deal more about who we are now—the makers and the receivers—than who we might be in the future. It reveals more than predicts. And that’s why our stories have changed over time: when the way we think about ourselves as individuals and societies changes, our apocalypses change too.

The interesting thing about apocalyptic stories, we noted, was that in the past, humans took it for granted that the apocalypse would be a judgment visited upon them from on high. God, or the gods, or some higher power would finally toss up his/her/their hands and hit the cosmic reset button with fire, a flood, or some other cataclysm that would wipe the slate clean. Ancient literature is full of these stories; the Bible itself is bookended by two of them (Noah’s flood in Genesis and the end-times book of Revelation).

Noah's ark on the flood waters as lightning strikes around.
The Bible has barely started before an apocalypse shows up.
Amanda Carden

But as we discovered:

Today, we imagine the apocalypse differently: we’ve swapped ourselves into the position of apocalypse-enactor.

We have science, and scholarship, and technology, all of which let us understand and manipulate our environment with previously unthinkable powers: we can cure disease, beam a message around the globe in seconds, walk on the moon, see the invisible. Our destinies are in our hands, and that control is so broad, so unprecedented, that apocalypse is within our grasp.

You and I have become gods. But that has come with a price: now we can bring about the end. We are the authors of our own destruction.

You can see this in the apocalyptic rhetoric around elections, from LBJ and Reagan to Trump. We bring on the apocalypse. We have that power.

Which explains the emphasis this election on staving off the apocalypse by voting — even in the deeply religious circles that have been the source of so much inquiry during this campaign, particularly on the right. It is our job to keep the apocalypse from happening, just as it will be our fault if it does.

This isn’t wrong, of course. But if we work our way back to the Greek meaning of apokalypsis — unveiling, a dismantling of what we perceived to be real — then all this election rhetoric is right after all. It is the apocalypse: the end of an era and the beginning of another. The apocalypse doesn’t have to be a cause for despair. It could be a place to take stock.

In some pretty clear ways, every time a presidential election is on, we reveal to ourselves — and to the world — who we are as a country. And man, it’s ugly this year. It’s frightening. It’s dangerous for those who fear for their lives and livelihoods. But it’s also a necessary reminder of the dangers of growing complacent about the possibility of authoritarianism in our democracy or about the need for vigilance during the administration of a less incendiary candidate.

So, yes, it’s the apocalypse — again. And there will be more. Make this one count.