The end is near. Or not.
At various points in American history, popular preaching has warned that history itself was about to culminate and cease. Many sermons of the revolutionary era (with more patriotic zeal than theological sophistication) identified King George III as the antichrist and associated the founding of America with the onset of the Millennium.
This was enough to frighten Thomas Jefferson’s 11-year-old daughter Martha, who received a comforting letter from her father. “I hope you will have good sense enough to disregard those foolish predictions that the world is to be at an end soon,” wrote Jefferson. “The Almighty has never made known to anybody at what time He created it; nor will He tell anybody when He will put an end to it, if He ever means to do it.”
Martha would certainly be losing sleep today. Republican rhetoric is often characterized by a (slightly) more secularized version of apocalyptic prophecy. “Our country is going to hell,” according to Donald Trump. America is headed for the “cliff to oblivion,” according to Ted Cruz. America is “very much like Nazi Germany,” according to Ben Carson. All are apparently running for president of a dystopia.
Some of this is rhetorical laziness – employing hyperbole as a cheap substitute for genuine passion. Carson seems particularly prone to this strategy. By comparing Obamacare to slavery, Carson means he really, really, really, doesn’t like Obamacare.
But there is a cost to using the apocalypse for emphasis. It hardly needs to be said (though apparently it does) that Trump, Cruz, and Carson are wrong about America. We are not like Nazi Germany, even a little bit. We are not teetering on the verge of national oblivion. And there are immigrants who risk everything to reach the country Trump consigns to hell.
America has a long list of social and economic challenges, disturbingly (and unjustly) concentrated in certain communities. But we are not slouching toward Gomorrah. Over the last few decades, divorce rates and abortion rates have both declined. Levels of violent crime have dropped dramatically. The American economy, for all its problems, still attracts the world’s capital and the world’s best students. We have a wonderful country, thank you, flawed and free, carrying the highest political ideals of humanity, always capable of hope and healing.
If that sounds sappy, so be it. The best American leaders have believed it, deeply and intuitively, and caused others to believe it.
Apocalyptic rhetoric is more than the evidence of historical ignorance and bad speechwriting. It leads to a distorted politics. If America has reached its midnight hour, it means that the institutions that have gotten us here are utterly discredited. The normal avenues of political reform are useless. Proposals for incremental policy change are so much deck-chair arranging. Political persuasion and compromise evince a lack of urgency. What we really need is to call a constitutional convention. Or to conduct a massive police action removing 11 million undocumented immigrants. Or to elect a really strong leader who knocks heads and sets everything straight.
Many Republican candidates have used apocalyptic language. But it is Trump who seems to understand its true potential. If, as he says, we are “losing the country,” then the country needs, not a policy wonk or a legislative strategist, but a deliverer. Policy papers are actually a distraction from the main task – the application of personal resolve and strength. Build the wall. Take the oil. Defeat the Islamic State. Put the Chinese in their place. With details on everything to be worked out by minions.
Trump and Carson can only succeed if the end times are upon us. And I don’t mean that in a theological way. In normal times, innovative policy and governing skill would matter most in selecting a president. Successful governors and legislators would naturally rise to the top. Only in a crisis of institutional legitimacy does the outsider become the savior. This means Trump, Carson and other apocalyptic politicians must encourage a mental state of emergency among Republicans. Lacking any relevant qualifications in the current political system, these candidates must bring that system into complete disrepute. Since the politicians have made such a hash of things, they insist, a businessman or a neurosurgeon couldn’t possibly do worse?
Oh, yes they could.
It may be possible to convince a good portion of the Republican primary electorate that American institutions have gone to hell. If so, during the general election, the institution in crisis would be the Republican Party.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.