When Donald Trump announced this week that he wants to stop all Muslims from immigrating to the United States, he said, “We can’t live like this. You’re going to have more World Trade Centers. It’s going to get worse and worse, folks.” The crowd cheered and gave him a standing ovation.
The billionaire tycoon continues to lead the Republican presidential field in most national polls, despite the fact that Trump proclaims daily to his followers that their country is dangerously weak, even doomed. (And only he can save them.)
What’s the appeal of this dark view? Well, it’s precisely that: people find his apocalyptic rhetoric enticing and familiar — because America has end-times obsession deeply embedded in its national psyche.
This is a nation, after all, where a reputable national poll found that 41% of us believe Jesus will return to rule the world by 2050. Where there is such a thing as a Rapture Index, gauging how close the world is to The End. According to the index, we are in big trouble in large part because of the economy. For example: “Slow economic growth is putting downward pressure on prices,” “financial markets remain in a prolonged period of instability,” and “the price of oil declines below $42 per barrel.” As a result, we are in “Fasten Your Seat Belts” territory at the moment, according to the index.
Meanwhile, The Walking Dead is a consistently top-rated TV show. A show called Dominion, about a war against mankind in the absence of God, was the most-viewed scripted series ever on Syfy, with a high of 3 million viewers before its cancellation in October. And this weekend, you can go see The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, and scare yourself silly about how close we were to a financial meltdown a few years ago. “It’s a human propensity to think in dualistic terms, in an extreme opposition between good and evil,” says Catherine Wessinger, an expert in apocalyptic studies at Loyola University in New Orleans. “But sometimes it becomes radical. And then it becomes exacerbated with violent and bigoted rhetoric and people act on it.”
Trump represents what some observers say is a dangerous brew of white working-class economic anger, combined with nativism and nationalism, combined with a smidge of pop evangelical theology, combined with American exceptionalism. Lately, some scholars have even gone so far as to say Trump is dancing on the line of fascism (which by definition contains elements of apocalyptic belief).
Chip Berlet has studied apocalyptic groups and right-wing movements for more than 30 years, and calls Trump a “right-wing populist,” the kind of leader who attracts people slipping down the socioeconomic ladder. Of course, there have been many apocalyptic movements in the U.S. before, some of them quite spectacular and some driven by similar economic and nativist impulses.
Berlet writes in his book with Matthew Lyons, “Right-Wing Populism in America,” that the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan “represented a population that saw its position threatened from below and above — in this case black ‘insubordination’ from below and northern military occupation from above.” The Klan, and the wider movement to “redeem” the South, Berlet says, was driven by the idea of “rebirthing” itself after a battle to drive out evil.
(This theme of rebirth echoes the apocalyptic idea of the final battle between good and evil in the Book of Revelation popularized in some evangelical churches.)
And there have been plenty of other apocalyptic movements and cults through the years: The Unification Church, Waco, Heaven’s Gate, the Militia Movement, and others. All of these emerged within the last 30 years and were heavily covered by the media — but none of them got the level of media attention as Trump.
Partly, of course, it’s because he is a presidential candidate; and, he has the loudspeaker of social media and dwells in a more intense news cycle in a way that previous events didn’t. It’s also that today Americans are afraid of terrorism and ISIS, angry at illegal immigrants, and overwhelmed by the country’s rapid demographic shift.
But it’s when you combine all those factors with acute economic distress among the white working class — particularly since the financial crisis and the Great Recession — that’s when you have a recipe for dangerous right-wing populism and the rise of a leader to “save” them, Berlet says.
And that gives rise to apocalypticism: belief in a coming violent confrontation between good and evil during which hidden truths will be revealed, and at the end the world will be reshaped.
“Right-wing populism says that current leaders are corrupt and betraying us, but it also says that the middle class is having its pocket picked by the parasites below,” Berlet says. “So white Christians say they have to build a wall to protect themselves from raping and murdering Mexican neighbors, meanwhile registering and rounding up Muslims because they’re plotting terrorism. That’s a pretty good apocalyptic scenario because those threats are existential to the U.S.”
Indeed, since the ISIS attacks in Paris on Nov. 13, there have been at least 30 documented attacks on Muslims in the U.S., according to California-based legal group Muslim Advocates. Among the incidents: On Monday a severed pig’s head was found on the steps outside a Philadelphia mosque. And on Thanksgiving Day, a Pittsburgh taxi driver from Morocco was allegedly shot in the back by a man mocking the prophet Muhammad and asking about the terror group ISIS.
It’s ironic, of course, that Trump’s latest focus, ISIS, is itself an apocalyptic group. According to William McCants of the Brookings Institution and author of “The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State,” ISIS was created because its leaders believe the Muslim savior, or Mahdi, is coming any day, and the Islamic State has to be established to help them fight the infidels.
So while Donald Trump attempts to foment a confrontation with a constellation of enemies, particularly Muslims at the moment, the very group he targets is employing the same apocalyptic strategy — though with unspeakably more horrifying consequences. “Trump right now is doing ISIS’ work in the sense that he is intending to drive a wedge between Americans and Muslim-Americans and that could lead to the radicalization of some of them,” Wessinger says. “His rhetoric is promoting the cultural atmosphere ISIS would love to see.”
That’s the point most of the GOP establishment, not to mention the White House and even British Prime Minister David Cameron are also making to Trump this week — shut up because you are wrong and divisive — pretty much to no avail at the moment.
So what are the rest of us to do as we face down our fears? Embrace that apocalyptic battle between ourselves and an enemy, real or imagined — ISIS, Muslims, Mexicans, anyone we don’t understand? Expect a redemption, with The Donald galloping in to save us?
Or listen to our better angels, as Wessinger suggests?
“We have to not paint all Muslims with the same brush because doing so dehumanizes them,” Wessinger says. “When you dehumanize them, it becomes righteous to do bad things to them. If we look at history we can see that’s a bad road to go down.”
Deborah Caldwell, former interim managing editor of Fortune.com, is Director of Financial Content at Time Inc. She is also an award-winning journalist who covered religion and politics.