THE INSURRECTION against the Electoral College certification opens a disturbing new chapter in American politics. This is not to say it is completely unprecedented. Trump’s embrace of formerly marginal segments of the extreme right—from his declaration that there were “fine people on both sides” at the infamous Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally to his disturbing recommendation, during a nationally televised presidential debate, that members of the Proud Boys hate group should “stand down and stand by”—certainly laid the groundwork. And it’s true that angry mobs of white people wreaking havoc are as American as apple pie. Nonetheless, Wednesday, January 6, marked the first time that a sitting president actively incited his supporters to storm and occupy the Capitol building and disrupt the official ratification of his loss.
As we watched these disturbing events unfold, it felt as though we could be living through a potentially apocalyptic moment, one in which all our certainties about constitutional government and electoral politics dissolved and all bets were off. Would Trump try to leverage the chaos he fomented to impose martial law? Would Republicans take advantage of the incomplete tabulation of electoral votes to invent some new technicality that would throw the election to Trump? Would anything ever be the same again?
As it turns out, the insurrection proved to be a flash in the pan, at least for now. The apocalypse many of us feared on that fateful Wednesday afternoon did not materialize. The Electoral College count was duly certified, and it appears that the republic may just white-knuckle it through the next ten days of the lame-duck period, with Joe Biden being sworn in on January 20th (albeit without the pleasure of his predecessor’s company).
At the same time, it has become almost a commonplace amid the apocalyptic conditions of Covid-19 to point out that the word “apocalypse” refers etymologically to a revelation, or more literally an uncovering. Hence, although there are a lot of questions to be asked about how we should respond to the Trump putsch, I would like to focus on what it reveals about the state of American public life.
Apocalyptic literature always finds its society and historical moment to be corrupt and decadent, and this secularized contribution to the genre will, perhaps unsurprisingly, follow suit. More than that, though, I will follow my prophetic and apostolic forebears in diagnosing the root cause of that corruption and decadence as a failure to recognize the truth, which has resulted in a thoroughgoing moral and political nihilism.
THE FIRST question to ask about the Trump insurrection is why they did it. What were they hoping to accomplish? In Trump’s case, the answer is obvious—he wants to remain the most powerful person in the world, immune from criminal prosecution and able to command unlimited attention at a global level. Yet it is unclear why common citizens would put their bodies, their freedom, and potentially even their lives on the line to serve Trump’s venal interests.
Something more must be at stake, but whatever it is cannot be accounted for in terms of normal politics. With the possible exception of the child separation policy, there is essentially nothing that Trump did in office that any other Republican president would not have done. His term was marked by massive tax cuts and a relentless effort to stack the federal judiciary with conservative judges—projects to which Trump was more or less a bystander. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court supermajority that Mitch McConnell had worked so hard to secure would limit the ostensible damage that a liberal president could do.
As for the liberal president whose inauguration Trump’s followers tried to prevent through very serious federal crimes, Joe Biden is the most conservative Democratic nominee of the postwar era. He started his career as an opponent of school desegregation and was instrumental in installing the archconservative (and accused sexual assailant) Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court. Over the course of his presidential campaign, he has thoroughly repudiated the party’s left-wing—rejecting the Black Lives Matters protestors’ demands to defund the police, signaling that he would not exercise his unilateral power to forgive student debt, and even vowing to veto Medicare for All (arguably the single greatest progressive priority) in the unlikely event such a bill reaches his desk. At the same time, he has expressed optimism about his ability to work with the evil Mitch McConnell and his skepticism about the kind of deficit necessary to deliver on most stated Democratic priorities.
In short, Joe Biden is the next best thing to a Republican, and his devotion to bipartisan compromise likely means that Republicans will set the terms of debate, despite the narrow Senate majority that Democrats secured on the morning of the Trump coup attempt. From a Republican perspective, of course, a literal Republican would be better—but surely not by enough to justify such unprecedented lawlessness.
Neither Trump’s similarity to a generic Republican nor Biden’s conservatism are known to the consumer of right-wing media. Even leaving aside outright conspiracy sites like Breitbart or InfoWars, ostensibly “mainstream” conservative sources like AM talk radio and Fox News portray Trump as a uniquely effective president who is all that stands between them and a centrally planned economy with gulags for the un-woke.
Such rhetoric has been part of the Republican repertoire from Reagan onward, even as Democrats have consistently stuck to a moderate variation on Reagan’s market-focused neoliberal paradigm. Bill Clinton famously claimed to be an “Eisenhower Republican,” more concerned with managing the deficit than with expanding social programs. Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement was to implement a market-based health care reform developed by the conservative Heritage Foundation and implemented at the state level by his 2012 opponent Mitt Romney.
Republicans were unwilling to take yes for an answer, however. They impeached Clinton and weaponized the filibuster and the federal debt ceiling against Obama, even as both advanced important Republican priorities. Now Trump and his allies have leaned on every pressure point in the electoral system to prevent the ascension of an even more conservative Democrat—an effort that was already unprecedented before Trump sent an angry mob into the halls of Congress. As Mitt Romney shouted at his Republican colleagues, “This is what you get!” A political party that stokes enthusiasm by feeding crazy lies to its followers had finally inspired insane actions to match.
OVER AND again, and to an increasing degree, the alternation of power between two broadly similar political parties is treated as an apocalyptic emergency—and not only by the right. Liberals, too, claim to see in Trump a nigh-apocalyptic threat to US democracy. In a variation on the right’s xenophobia, cable news personalities and social media influencers seize on Russia’s hacking and automated trolling efforts to paint Trump as an instrument of a foreign power.
Yet despite this apocalyptic rhetoric, in their day-to-day politicking, Democrats have mostly treated Trump as a normal president. They have voted for many of his cabinet and judicial picks—including Neil Gorsuch, whom Trump nominated for the Supreme Court vacancy that McConnell essentially stole from Obama—and hashed out deals on the budget and on pandemic relief with paltry results for working people. Even in response to extreme situations like the revelation of the child-separation policy or the prospect of a six-vote conservative Supreme Court majority, they have stuck to the normal levers of power, never threatening a government shutdown, much less attempting to mobilize public protest. Only when Trump personally targeted Biden in the Ukraine scandal—or again, after he threatened their personal safety through fomenting mob violence—did they move to impeach him, despite the fact that Trump openly boasted of new crimes on his now-suspended Twitter feed.
As with the Republicans’ apocalyptic rhetoric against Democrats, it’s difficult to see exactly what the problem is supposed to be here. Democrats denounce Trump’s racism, yet they nominated one of the main architects of the infamous crime bill that so exacerbated the mass incarceration of Black people. They deplore his mistreatment of immigrants but rallied behind the right-hand man of the president who deported the greatest number of immigrants in US history—at a faster rate, in fact, than Trump himself. Even their more aesthetic objections to Trump’s incoherence and general tackiness ring hollow when we consider that they chose a rambling elderly man with hair plugs to run against him.
More important than countering Trump, it seems, is disciplining the party’s left flank. All progressive policies and slogans were jettisoned, yet the sheer existence of concepts like “defund the police” were blamed for the Democrats’ dispiriting underperformance against the most hated president in modern times. Having rejected any concrete solutions to systemic racism, Democrats have little to offer other than bromides straight out of an HR training webinar—a pattern that applies to essentially every important policy question. The alternative to actively destructive Republican policies is, again and again, a faux-realistic lament that nothing can be done to solve our most serious social and economic problems. If anything, the mismatch between the apocalyptic rhetoric and the political reality is even more glaring than in the Republican case.
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WHERE DOES this bipartisan convergence on apocalyptic rhetoric come from? In my book Neoliberalism’s Demons, I argue that neoliberalism—which I define as the political agenda to remake as much of society as possible on the model of a competitive market, an agenda that has been broadly shared by both major US parties for the past forty years—has always been an apocalyptic discourse. During the postwar era, neoliberal theorists were self-styled prophets crying out in the wilderness that the postwar economic settlement, which aimed to temper the effects of capitalism through welfare provision and an active role for the state in economic planning, was leading us down the road to full Soviet-style communism.
When Reagan began to put neoliberal theory into practice, he presented it as a last-ditch effort to restore American greatness and save the ideal of freedom itself from liberal decadence. Centrist liberals who took up neoliberal ideas took a slightly different tack, presenting themselves as holding off apocalyptic forces. On the domestic front, their sensible moderation was all that stood between their left-wing constituents and the more militant agenda of the Republicans, while on the international level, neoliberal normalcy was put forward as the only alternative to chaos and terrorism.
This emphasis on the end times served to give neoliberalism a veneer of urgency and meaning that was objectively missing in its agenda to use market mechanisms to reinforce and exacerbate social hierarchies. Apocalyptic patterns of thought also gave neoliberalism a false moral gravitas, in that it treated the decisions of the market as a kind of Last Judgment, the final word on the moral worthiness of every member of society. Millionaires and billionaires were lionized as heroes, while the poor were dismissed as losers and scroungers who were suffering the consequences of their bad choices. Where previous models of capitalism presented the destructive side of market competition as a necessary evil, neoliberals embraced the market’s separation of society into winners and losers as a positive good—almost a divine revelation. Democrats focused on tinkering with market mechanisms to ensure truly equal opportunity, while Republicans were more concerned to make sure the market’s more punitive side was not unduly restrained. But that difference in emphasis took place in the context of a greater consensus on the morality of the market.
Then came the genuine neoliberal apocalypse: the Global Financial Crisis. All the tenets of neoliberalism were called into radical question. How could an omniscient market not have seen the collapse of the subprime housing market coming? How could a system-wide shock, which permanently ratcheted down living standards and life chances for virtually the entire population, possibly represent the reward and punishment of individual choices—especially given how many people were punished for the ultimate “responsible choice” of them all, the choice to invest in a home? And how could market mechanisms possibly get us out of this?
The situation seemed to cry out for solutions outside the normal neoliberal toolkit—and yet it had been the work of a generation to purge both major parties of anyone who fell outside the neoliberal consensus. Hence it was neoliberal solutions that carried the day, in the form of a massive bank bailout and a stimulus package that was largely offset by cuts at the state and local level and hence served primarily to prevent the total collapse of public spending.
The result was a painfully slow recovery that had barely returned wages and household wealth to pre-crisis levels when the coronavirus crisis hit. Once again, the neoliberal system was dealing with a problem that fell outside its parameters—though in this case it was an exogenous shock to the system. The objectively greater scale of the crisis led to more radical solutions, including enhanced unemployment benefits and even some unconditional financial support, but the goal was still to ensure that the market continued to function “normally.”
Twice in our young century, then, the neoliberal paradigm has faced an apocalyptic challenge; in both cases it has responded by reasserting neoliberal “best practices” in ways that have at best partly ameliorated a situation of mass immiseration. If we return, then, to our question of why both major parties are indulging in apocalyptic rhetoric that is increasingly unmoored from political reality, it is because both have put themselves in a position where they cannot afford to tell the truth. The truth is that the neoliberal consensus has failed and will continue to fail. There is no market-based way forward for our society—in fact, the market incentives of cable news and social media platforms alike have only exacerbated the circulation of conspiracy theories and other dangerous lies.
In other words, the two parties indulge in their own distinctive styles of apocalyptic rhetoric to stave off what for them would be the ultimate apocalypse—the collapse of the neoliberal order itself. There are good reasons to support the Democrats’ less harmful version of the neoliberal paradigm as a harm-reduction measure, and yet neither party deserves anyone’s positive support. Both sides insist that every election is an apocalyptic confrontation when in reality, on the scale of the genuinely apocalyptic problems we face (systemic racism, economic inequality, unaccountable corporate power, climate change, a global pandemic), the difference between the two parties amounts to a rounding error. Apocalyptic rhetoric supplies a meaning and urgency to American politics that is objectively absent, inspiring a loyalty that is always necessarily betrayed.
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THE TRUMP putsch opened a new chapter in American politics, by calling into question the tenability of the neoliberal apocalyptic bait-and-switch. The dynamic of firing up the base with crazy lies could presumably have continued indefinitely—especially given that conspiracy theories tend to encourage passivity rather than activism. Among Republicans, however, the easy division of labor between cynical political operators and manipulated rubes began to break down in the Obama years, as the Tea Party movement led some of the most dedicated fans of conservative agitprop (who, in defiance of pundits’ stereotype of Trump supporters as “white working class” country bumpkins, tend to be professionals, small business owners, and otherwise privileged) to seek office themselves. That trend culminated in Trump, who is at once the most powerful Republican officeholder and the most avid consumer of its conspiratorial Kool-Aid.
This dangerous short-circuit laid mostly dormant until the fateful day when Trump lost the election—which from his perspective was clearly an apocalyptic event. Rather than face the reckoning that his loss would force upon him on the legal and financial level, much less the personal failure that it represented, Trump chose instead to act decisively to stave off the apocalypse and call upon others to help him do so. This call to action, which finally calls the political class’s bluff on its apocalyptic lies, is what is truly unprecedented about the insurrection.
The fact that it is so unclear whether Trump really “believes” that he lost the election is itself emblematic, as is the fact that so many of the rioters were clearly motivated primarily by the social media attention their lawless actions could gain them. A political culture with no mooring in the truth produced a president and a movement for whom the difference between fact and fiction simply no longer applies—and revealed unambiguously how dangerous that disconnect between truth and political life can be.
Tragically, though, neither the incoming Democratic leadership nor the more “principled” among their Republican colleagues appear to be in any position to recognize or speak that truth. Instead, the best we can hope is that the bipartisan political class will hold Trump somehow accountable for his crimes, as part of a strategy for disguising their responsibility for cultivating a political culture grounded in apocalyptic lies.
Adam Kotsko teaches in the Shimer Great Books School of North Central College. He is the author, most recently, of Neoliberalism’s Demons: On the Political Theology of Late Capital.