As the first-year anniversary passes of Omar Mateen's deadly attack on the gay Pulse night club in Orlando, it's worth remembering Donald Trump's apocalyptic response. Out on the campaign trail, he used the tragic event to warn that Muslim terrorism could obliterate the United States. "There will be nothing, absolutely nothing, left," he said. "Can you imagine what they’ll do in large groups, which we’re allowing now to come here?"
Like many doomsday prophets, Trump alternates between fomenting fear and promising a perfect world to come. "We stand at the birth of a new millennium,” he proclaimed in his inaugural address. With God and guns on our side, he vowed to end the “carnage” in America’s inner cities, secure our borders and wipe radical Islamic terrorism “completely from the face of the Earth.”
Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric is rooted in a long American tradition that began with the Puritans. Convinced they had a special covenant with God, the Puritans set about to build a model Christian society that would show the world the way to the new millennium. In political sermons known as jeremiads, Puritan preachers blamed all kinds of woes—conflict, natural disasters, witchcraft and war—on their flock's sinful ways. But if the community atoned for its sins, embraced its special mission, and followed its righteous leaders, the course would be set right again. Delivered during major public events like elections, jeremiads aimed to build consensus and control dissent.
The threat of apocalypse loomed over the Puritan experiment. Minister Michael Wigglesworth's epic poem The Day of Doom, published in 1662, warned of the "endless pains" and "scalding flames" that awaited the wicked on Judgement Day. Generations of Puritan children were made to recite it. As the best-selling book in the colonies for nearly a century, it presaged the popularity of modern apocalyptic tracts like the Left Behind series that has sold 65 million copies since the first book appeared in 1995.
The Puritans sowed the seeds of a national pathology of global significance. I call it the America Syndrome. Trump is its latest exponent, but most Americans, whether religious or secular, carry it in their psychic DNA. Its core elements are that we are God's chosen people, called upon to save the world, coupled with the threat of a coming apocalypse. History is an unfolding prophecy that propels us toward a hellish end or heavenly future.
In the America Syndrome the ends justify violent means. War is God’s will, and its depredations not only punish, but also cleanse us. The halo that shone over the brutal conquest of Native American and Mexican lands and the mass casualties of the Civil War has gone on to grace imperial adventures overseas. Patriotism is a sacred duty in a world sharply divided between good and evil, friend and foe. America First!
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For the chosen people to be who they are, they must exclude and subjugate the Other who they’re not. Since the white, male Protestant ideal is the ultimate measure of virtue, we are taught to hate and fear the dangerous Red Man, Black man, unruly woman, gay person, alien immigrant—anyone who doesn't conform. The identities of our enemies may change with the times, but they are ever present. Paranoia about them covers up anxieties about our own unworthiness, for how can we ever measure up?
The America Syndrome constantly feeds on and feeds us worst-case scenarios. Trump's strategist Steve Bannon not only makes fake news, but takes fake history seriously, believing that we are at a so-called "Fourth Turning" where an apocalyptic war pitting a weakened Judeo-Christian West against radical Islam and expansionist China is inevitable.
Bannon is hardly alone in thinking a big war is on the horizon. A 2010 Pew poll found that six out of ten Americans saw another world war as definite or probable by 2050. (In the same poll, 41 percent of respondents said they expected Jesus to return to Earth by 2050.) A recent YouGov survey yielded a similar result, with 64 percent of Americans expecting a major war soon and only 15 percent confident in world peace. Trump’s empowerment of hawks in the Pentagon further stokes these fears. Whether it’s dropping the “Mother of All Bombs” on the Islamic State complex in eastern Afghanistan in April or continuing threats to use military force against North Korea, the message is that the American war machine is ready and raring to go.
Maybe the Trump presidency is doing us a favor by throwing the pathology of the America Syndrome into such sharp relief. But Trump is also spurring a reverse apocalyptic response among many critics who see him as a sort of anti-Christ, the worst and most dangerous president ever, the culmination of all our collective sins. Ronald Reagan’s nuclear madness and Latin American death squads, and George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, which now even he admits set the stage for rise of the Islamic State, are recast as benign by comparison. Memories tend to be short in the America Syndrome.
What if Americans could accept that we’re not really so special? What if we could train our ears to resist the siren song of the jeremiad? What if we could acknowledge the inanities and profanities of our own history, instead of reading it like a patriotic version of the Book of Revelation? Perhaps we would be better able to separate fact from fiction, and get down to the hard business of building a better country and a more peaceful world.