We have used the symbol of apocalypse at Hunt the Devil to frame the political ascendency of Donald Trump in mythic terms. It is a rich and resonant symbol, a metaphor with multiple entailments, both religious and secular, each entangled with the others. Its mythos is relevant to interpreting the crisis of US empire that is reflected in Trump’s rise to the presidency.
The imperial presidency itself is a metaphorical precursor of the Trump phenomenon, a term for excessive executive power, which gained popularity in the 1960s and found voice in Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s 1973 book by that title. The power of the presidency exceeded its constitutional limits consistent with the transformation of the republic into an empire. With empire came war culture and the normalization of continuous warfare.
We might mark the start of US empire with the end of World War II and the beginning of the nuclear age: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the ensuing doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction. There were, of course, many precursors, much anticipation, and a readiness for world rule (Henry Luce’s vision of the “The American Century”) that came to fruition with the Second World War.
The label empire was a bit raw for American tastes initially but less so today. There is no shortage of academic works on the subject of American empire. Economic hegemony and rampant militarism are two markers of the US style of imperialism. Today’s neoliberal globalization is a permutation of economic hegemony that co-opts the military might of the nation state for the benefit of transnational corporate interests.
The US has become more of a neoliberal brand and less of a sovereign nation state. The mythos of US exceptionalism appropriates patriotism to militarism—the forever war on terrorism—both as a distraction from neoliberal economic dislocations of the citizenry at large and as an instrument of transnational corporate power. The economic interests of a tiny minority are served under the guise of a chosen people tasked by God to advance the cause of freedom, democracy, and civilization. The national myth is deceptively placed in the service of mammon at the expense—materially and morally—of the people, whom it pits against one another.
Hyper-polarization within and between peoples of different nation states colonized by neoliberal globalization brings us back to the phenomenon of Trump’s political ascendancy and the sign of apocalypse. Trump is a divisive figure, both as a symptom and a contributor to the divide. His rise to prominence and power is disorienting. How could it happen? What does it mean?
It could happen because of what it means: US imperialism is in crisis. This is an apocalyptic moment to which we can respond with a democratic corrective, or not.
Apocalypse in both religious and secular variations signals a significant crisis, an impending catastrophe, a prophetic revelation, and a promise of salvation. It may signal the collapse of civilization consistent with divine purpose or, in more secular terms, widespread destruction and devastation, such as visions of nuclear winter, global warming, economic collapse, pandemic, etc. The four horsemen of apocalypse are variously characterized as pestilence, war, famine, and death.
Trump symbolizes the turmoil of imperial persistence. His deceptive clownery reflects and deflects the crisis at hand. His militant demagoguery capitalizes on public recalcitrance to sustain rather than remediate imperialism.
We need only to attend to the trope that frames much of what Trump says and does to see the trouble signaled by his political ascendancy. The metaphor of demolition—with cathectic entailments of repealing Obamacare, defunding nondefense programs, removing federal regulations, cutting taxes, tearing up treaties, eliminating radical Islamic terrorism, and draining the swamp of government corruption—conveys, beyond Trump’s deception, an apocalyptic revelation.[i] Trump’s discourse is an unintended and unknowing instrument of prophetic disclosure. It reveals a crisis of empire, if we choose to see the revelation, which raises the very question it cannot constructively address: What comes after empire?
The significance of Trumpism is the imperative to envision life in a world not dominated by militant empire and unfettered neoliberal globalization. It is the lack of democratic vision that could blind us to a prophecy of imperial overreach and unloose the four horsemen of calamity and disaster.
[i] I have developed the point about Trump’s demolition trope in Robert L. Ivie, “Rhetorical Aftershocks of Trump’s Ascendency: Salvation by Demolition and Deal Making,” Res Rhetorica (2017) forthcoming.