As we grapple with yet another Trumpian fiasco wrought by his seemingly endless ability to inject instability into our society, his need for the Border Wall, it seems to many that Donald Trump is a dystopian figure ruled by gut feeling and impulse. While this characterization of Trump definitely describes him at any given moment, there is a deeper pathology at work. If Democrats hope to combat his destructive tendencies and potentially defeat him in another election, it would serve them well to understand the framework within which he operates. Trump’s erratic behavior takes on a frightening coherence when viewed through the dual lenses of cognitive dissonance and American apocalyptic thought. In this light, not only does Trump’s behavior become comprehensible, but it illuminates his populist appeal to a largely white, Evangelical base (a group he seemingly contradicts with his very existence) and allows for some predictive understanding.
The genesis of Donald Trump’s political rise is rooted in the real-life pain of an ever-shrinking middle class. Trump correctly perceived an existential angst in American Society and he addressed it with an ancient remedy. He understood a growing portion of this country was experiencing a profound level of cognitive dissonance and he responded with one of its most effective balms—apocalypticism.
Cognitive dissonance is a modern term for an ancient human problem. The term was first proposed by Leon Festinger in his seminal work “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance” (1957) to describe the all too human experience of things just not adding up. In short, cognitive dissonance is the discomfort created when someone’s worldview clashes with their perceived experience. Festinger proposed that people will attempt to reduce this mental incoherence (and thus the stress and discomfort it creates) by seeking new information that reduces the condition while also avoiding situations and information that increase the dissonance.
While the intensity of the modern media environment may have accelerated and magnified the rate in which we presently experience cognitive dissonance, that does not mean it is a modern problem. We can go back about as far as we have written records and find evidence of cognitive dissonance. Preserved in ancient religious texts, like a mosquito in amber, are the manifestations of cognitive dissonance of various peoples who believed they were facing existential threats that challenged their fundamental understanding of the order of reality. This record is the apocalyptic literature of our Judeo-Christian tradition. And, truth be told, when considering the rise and governing style of Donald Trump, the Whore of Babylon and the Beast with Seven Heads don’t seem to be such strange comparisons.
Apocalyptic literature in the New Testament is pretty much limited to the Revelation of John and in the Hebrew Bible to the Book of Daniel. That does not mean that there wasn’t a lot more. In fact, there is a large corpus of apocalyptic writing that dates from the Intertestamental Period (3rd Century BCE to 1st Century CE) with a smattering of Christian apocalyptic works continuing until the early Middle Ages. These works, collectively called the Pseudepigrapha (1 and 2 Enoch, 4 Ezra, 2 and 3 Baruch, Jubilees, Sibylline Oracles, Treatise of Shem, Apocryphon of Ezekiel, Apocalypse of Zephaniah, and on…), while varied, have a common thread running through most of them. There is a dissatisfaction/fear with the present world, they are produced in times of political distress or oppression, they posit supernatural/secret/evil forces that are subverting the natural order of the universe, and there is the promise of a coming restoration of the natural order through some salvific figure or event. Apocalyptic writing in the Judeo-Christian tradition often came about during times of oppression (starting with the Babylonian/Persian conquest, then the Greek occupation of Palestine, and finally Roman domination) when the Jewish and Christian writers had reason to believe they were facing an existential assault. The apocalyptic literature of this time period was often a way of bringing into harmony the Judeo-Christian worldview with their lived experience.
The cognitive mechanics at work behind the production of much, if not all, apocalyptic literature is pretty basic. It goes like this: If God is supreme and powerful and we are the elect that follow him and keep his commandments, then why are we oppressed by hostile foreign powers that profess to follow other gods? The apocalyptic literature often explains that the world, really the cosmos, should be ordered the way the faithful believe it to be, yet it has been subverted by great (often secretive) forces of evil, but that some even greater force (angels, a messiah, supernatural powers of nature) sent by God will vanquish the evil and then the righteous will triumph and live in glory and splendor of the world restored.
This dynamic, believing they are the elect but living a life of oppression, is about as fundamental and all-encompassing as a cognitive dissonance can get (i.e.—How can your life be so miserable if you are faithful to a just and caring God?). If the most basic belief that you hold, the very one that undergirds all your other beliefs, is not supported by your observations, the psychological stress this could generate would be debilitating. You cannot live a life with this much dissonance—you would go mad. So, according to Festinger, you are left with two options. One, find information that supports your world view. Or, two, avoid situations and information that reinforce the dissonance. For the ancient Jews and Christians, avoiding the situation of being oppressed and the knowledge of that oppression was not an option. So, given that the human mind is what it is, it took the only other route available—find information that supports your world view.
If the oppression is real and undeniable (and it was), and God is just and powerful (which they believed He was), then there must be a reason for their condition. The reason, they posited, is supernatural, secret evil forces had conspired to subvert the proper order of the Cosmos. That does not invalidate the worldview of the oppressed, in a very real way it acts to buttress it, because, in apocalyptic literature, justice is coming. By remaining true, even in the face of oppression and injustice, when the reckoning comes it will uplift the downtrodden and legitimize them and their cosmology. Evil, in all of its various forms, will be vanquished and the Just shall triumph. A fundamental aspect of this dynamic is not just that the proper order has been subverted, but that faithfulness, not compromise, is the only true solution. The rule of God cannot be re-established by dealing with the Devil.
The most well-known version of this story to modern Americans is The Revelation of John. In it, John receives a revelation (Ancient Greek—apocalypse) from Christ that explains the world as being in chaos as a result of rebellion from beasts (the Devil) and that the readers must remain faithful and that in the end Christ will return and vanquish the beast and restore the world to the just rule of God. John is speaking to early Christians being persecuted by the Romans. This rather standard formula in apocalyptic writing is a pattern that is well-know, especially to evangelical Christians, and the message is part of the fabric of American Society. The tropes of apocalyptic literature can, and have, been easily mapped onto the American myth.
In Judeo-Christian history one of the great formative moments (in fact it gives rise to the period in which the bulk of the apocalyptic writings occur) is the loss of both Israel and the Temple after the Babylonian Conquest. The loss of Israel is seen not only as a result of the powers of evil outsiders, but also from the faithlessness of those within. For, if all within had remained strong and faithful, then there would be no way they could be vanquished. There is a long and powerful strain in the Judeo-Christian tradition that sees deceit from within as the only true threat to the rule of the Just. From the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures to Jesus’ exhortations to be and remain true, the message is clear: salvation requires uncompromising faith. Apocalyptic literature and thought magnify this position.
In apocalyptic literature, there is an idealization of a faithful period that predated the Fall and a promise of a future restoration of the Just so long as they remain true and faithful to God. This manifested itself with a harkening back to the Davidic Kingdom as a period of Just Rule and a looking forward to the restoration of the righteous in the Kingdom of God while calling for a return to a mythic orthodoxy. In modern American society, the idea of America as fallen seems to coincide with the Vietnam War. The America of the Founding Fathers (our Davidic heritage) and the Greatest Generation that defeated the Nazi threat to the world is no more. On top of the realization that our government could lead its people into an unjust war was the ever-growing reality of economic hardship. The halcyon days of the 1950s were quickly disappearing in the rearview mirror. America still existed, but it was falling. This narrative of decay found its soulmate in the subliminal, but powerful, apocalypticism of American fundamentalism.
The cognitive dissonance that has given rise to Donald Trump is every much as fundamental and existential as the cognitive dissonance that gave rise to the apocalyptic movements of our Judeo-Christian past. The beating heart of this existential crisis is the question “What defines the American Way?” For well over 3 generations, but with a rising voice that has become an almost deafening chorus in the last 30-40 years, the answer has been singular and full-throated—unrestrained capitalism. That answer has become so unanimous that capitalism and the American Way are now nearly synonymous and to suggest otherwise is often the easiest way to be considered either unserious or, if you persist, seditious. The fly in the ointment of this worldview, one that Trump innately sensed, is that for a growing segment of our population the American Way does not seem to be working for them anymore. When you work long hours, your spouse works long hours, you barely earn enough to make ends meet, you don’t have healthcare, you don’t have job security, and you can’t see a better future for yourself or your children, it is hard to see this system as functioning properly.
Add to this a growing sense of helplessness in a large portion of our country and you have a perfect storm for the likes of Donald Trump. As America has embraced corporatism in greater and greater degrees, the sense that the citizenry doesn’t have control of the system has become more pervasive. The news is littered with polls that show that no matter the will of the people if there is a powerful lobby that either wants something or doesn’t want it, that is the deciding factor. When 68% of Americans favor some form of gun control legislation and we cannot pass any laws to enact that desire, it doesn’t take a Princeton Study to tell people that we no longer live in a democracy. This process, which cumulatively has wrought widespread financial anxiety and pain, has not been quick. It has been the culmination of decades of small manipulations of our society from an ever more powerful corporate lobby. Tweaks to regulations, omissions in law, and pro-business courts have changed the landscape of America to make the individual feel increasingly vulnerable and powerless. It is a case of the proverbial frog in the slowly boiling pot of water.
The ever-increasing emasculation of the citizenry has left people hurt and wary. The fear of going bankrupt because of an illness or some other uncontrollable circumstance is palpable, even if that fear is inchoate. Our economy feels so rigged now that unless you are born with money, or by some freak chance you happen to get some, you are destined to work a brutally long time for a subsistence wage that could disappear at any time. Our economy no longer feels like a merit-based system, but more like a casino—sure, there is the occasionally lucky winner, but all the odds are stacked in the House’s favor and most of us are never going to be the House. It is to these conditions and to these people that Trump speaks.
That frog has been sitting in his pot for decades now and the water has gotten quite hot. But the litany, from most politicians and the modern media culture, is to keep telling him that the water is fine and that he lives in the greatest pond the world has ever known. This disjunct has created a level of cognitive dissonance so great that something needed to happen to resolve it. The sad reality is, it didn’t have to be Trump, it could have gone a different way. Only two politicians spoke to this growing sense of unease, but when Bernie Sanders was pushed out of the race Trump’s message had no competitors for the condition it was addressing.
The tension between the lived reality of many Americans and our national ideology was becoming untenable to a growing portion of the populace. At the core of this cognitive dissonance that both Trump and Sanders tapped in their campaigns was the reality that for many Americans the “American Way” was becoming, or had already become, a malign system. Both spoke directly to the pain felt by these Americans and named the cause— a “rigged” economy. The cognitive mechanics at work behind the pain of these Americans were pretty basic. It goes like this: If America is Powerful and Good, and capitalism is the American Way, and I am a faithful American, then why is my life so miserable.
When you are in a car heading for a cliff and the driver tells you all you need to do is straighten up the glove compartment and maybe vacuum the carpets and everything will be alright, you lose faith in the driver’s ability to save you from the impending doom. In the 2016 election there were only 2 people saying that maybe we needed to stop fussing with the glove compartment and change the course of the car—Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump—the rest just wanted to tweak the status quo but leave the machine running as it always had. While Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were both saying that something was wrong with the American system, addressing the cognitive dissonance that many Americans were experiencing, they couldn’t have been further apart in their solutions.
Bernie Sanders wanted to question one of the basic premises—that unrestrained capitalism IS the American Way. His argument was an economic argument that posited perhaps a system that is premised on greed may not be entirely compatible with a republican democracy. That, over time, unrestrained wealth aggregates power and power always seeks to grow and protect itself. He was saying that massive wealth, unrestrained, corrupts the institutions around it and “rigs” the system to increasingly benefit the already well-to-do. He was offering information that explained the pain and helped resolve the dissonance. While cogent, and true, it was a position that even his own party flatly rejected because it questioned such an unquestionable myth about American Identity. Ultimately, Sanders’ own party conspired to silence his voice and vision. And, by doing so, it pushed many of those voters out of their party and into the arms of Donald Trump.
Donald Trump didn’t question the validity of our government being married to a brutally cold economic system that is based, unashamedly, on exploitation. He didn’t even really make an economic argument. No, instead, the Donald went biblical. He said, like the apocalyptic authors of the past, that the system was fine, but that it was being subverted by a variety of malign actors and that was the actual reason for the pain many Americans felt. He posited traitors in the form of Democrats that were rigging the system from within and foreigners (NATO and immigrants) attacking it from the outside.
In Trumpian cosmology, Democrats assume the role of betrayers that are subverting the natural order. They are putting rules and regulations in place that rig the American system and that is why it isn’t working for the average man. If the American Way is unrestrained capitalism, then any restraint is tantamount to betrayal. By advocating for regulations, Democrats are unfaithful to the American Way. Additionally, according to Trump, Democrats are for Open Borders and Free Trade (a bizarre argument for a Republican to make against Democrats, but that is the world Trump has imagined into existence). In Trump’s America, Democrats are hamstringing the American economy while simultaneously letting immigrants in to rape and murder your kids and take your jobs—or at least the jobs they haven’t already given away to foreign countries. Could the betrayal be any more profound?
Immigrants, a particularly rich vein in Trump’s apocalyptic vision of American decline, actually have two roles in Trump’s dystopian vision of America. They represent an external threat that needs to be repelled. They are coming at us as a chaotic horde hell-bent on changing the way we live. This threat is so tangible that it requires an actual physical barrier—the Wall—to protect us from it. But immigrants also function as an internal threat. Once in, immigrants are hard to distinguish (but not being white gives many of them away in Trump’s world) from “real” Americans and thus can also function in the role of traitor. In Trump’s America, the only reason the Democrats could ever gain power is through illegitimate means—immigrants, both legal and illegal, violating election laws to place traitorous Democrats in power. The Democrats’ reliance on these foreigners to maintain their grip on power is so absolute that they are willing to sell America short to these foreigners. Trump’s “America First” slogan is a dual-purpose apocalyptic meme that highlights Trump’s vision of a betrayed and subverted American system—it simultaneously accuses Democrats of betrayal while also highlighting the role of foreigners in America’s decline. The demons lurking in Trumpian mythology are Mexican rapists, radical Islamic terrorists, and foreign governments fleecing America through treaties and trade deals.
For Trump’s use of apocalyptic themes to truly resonate his audience must fully appreciate how fallen they are. Being the richest, most powerful nation that has ever existed does not lend itself to the idea of being oppressed (even if many were feeling the pain of a rigged economy). That is why one of Donald Trump’s most consistent rhetorical devices is to paint America in the grimmest of lights. From his speech accepting the Republican nomination to his Inaugural Address, Trump portrayed America as defeated. He literally spoke of the “American carnage” and how “[T]he wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world.” Again, reinforcing the message implicit in his “America First” slogan. He also has directed an unrelenting attack on our institutions as being complicit in our downfall. The CIA, FBI, Justice Department, the EPA, Congress, and the Courts have all been the subject of Trump’s denigration. The America of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and D-Day no longer exists. Gone is the Shining Light on the Hill. In its place is America the Fallen, beset by immigrants, riddled with traitors, and shackled to corrupt institutions. This is the America Trump needs his followers to believe in.
The rise of conspiracy theories during Trump’s ascent and governance makes sense in the apocalyptic light of betrayal and the fallen state of America. Theories like birtherism, QAnon, and the Deep State represent secret forces that are at work trying to destroy American Society. In 2015, Trump went to Roger Stone and Alex Jones and tapped into their audience of 10 million unique monthly readers to help graft his apocalyptic vision onto that group’s already fear-based understanding of America. Roger Stone, the Trump Whisperer, famously gave Trump the idea for the Border Wall. Trump speaks to the pain and fear his followers are experiencing and he is harmonizing their cognitive dissonance through an apocalyptic vision of America. He is telling them that they do not need to change their understanding of America, that unrestrained capitalism is the American Way, but it is under assault from the forces, some secret, that he has identified and that those forces are the reason for their pain. The beauty of such vehicles as InfoWars and the National Enquirer was that they had already built a distribution system to people ready to accept conspiracy over fact. Especially if the theory somehow tied all the problems of society back to the King and Queen of Evil—the Clintons.
Finally, Trump completes the apocalyptic trope with a salvific figure (himself) that will defeat the evils of the subverting powers and return American Society to its pre-fallen glory. Trump positioned himself as the only person capable of saving America. In a sense, he anointed himself as the Messiah for America’s salvation. In his speech at the Republican National Convention accepting his Party’s nomination he said: “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it. I have seen firsthand how the system is rigged against our citizens.” In fact, Trump’s campaign rallying cry, Make American Great Again, can be properly understood as an apocalyptic recital. By necessity, this slogan posits a fallen society and Donald Trump, through his vision of America, is literally promising that he can return it to its state of pre-fallen Grace. MAGA isn’t just racist and trite, it completes the apocalyptic frame and embodies the implied prophetic promise of a Trump presidency.
The pull of Trump’s apocalyptic narrative is hard to overstate. They were seeds cast upon fertile ground. When you consider that the median average for books read by an American is 4 per year, it is truly shocking to learn that Evangelical pastor and author, Tim Lahaye’s apocalyptic Left Behind series (co-written with Jerry B. Jenkins from 1995-2007) sold a staggering 80 million copies. The series is a fictionalized extension of the Revelation of John. Add to this Hal Lindsey’s 1970 Christian apocalyptic book, The Late, Great Planet Earth, which sold 35 million copies by 1999, and you begin to get an idea of not just the longevity of these ideas in American Society, but also their popular appeal. Lahaye’s and Lindsey’s books spawned sequels, video games, movies (one narrated by Orson Welles and another starring Nicolas Cage), graphic novels, and a musical. When Donald Trump talks about the fall and redemption of America, he is using language and imagery that is very familiar to a large portion of his Evangelical base. Premillennial dispensationalists (as this school of apocalyptic thought is formally known) believe that wars and disasters will increase before the Second Coming. Thus, Trump’s chaotic governing style, rather than being alarming, is actually seen as more proof of his role in the Divine Plan.
Additionally, Trump supporters have been active in reinforcing this Apocalyptic/Messianic association. Early in the 2016 campaign, when some evangelical leaders were struggling with Trump’s apparent moral vacancy, an evangelical pastor and author, Lance Wallnau, compared Trump to Cyrus. The genius of Wallnau’s move is that it relieves Trump of the burden of his behavior. In the Old Testament, King Cyrus of Persia is called a Messiah (anointed) for releasing the Jews from the Babylonian captivity and instructing them to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. Cyrus was neither a Jew by heritage nor belief. By comparing Donald Trump to King Cyrus, Wallnau was saying that Trump may not be a Christian, or even act like one, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t God’s Chosen. This comparison has been repeated often by many Christian supporters to reinforce the idea of Trump’s divine station regardless of his profound lack of virtue. Even Benjamin Netanyahu—who is very familiar with the role Israel plays in conservative American politics—has made that comparison. When Sarah Huckabee Sanders says “I think that [God] wanted Donald Trump to become president” she is implying that Donald Trump is literally the vessel of God’s will. Add to this Pompeo comparing Trump to Queen Esther, who saved the Jewish people from annihilation by King Ahasuerus of Persia, and we can see the dynamics of this rhetorical feedback loop being developed—Trump speaks in apocalyptic tropes and his enablers refer to him in messianic imagery.
One of the most pernicious side effects of Trump’s use of apocalypticism is that its very nature makes compromise difficult, if not impossible, on certain core issues. If Trump’s base believes, as he has told them repeatedly, that immigration poses an existential threat to the American Way, then he cannot be seen to waver on such an issue. George Lakoff in his writings has taught us that reason, up to 98% of it, is unconscious and is triggered by subconscious frames. When Trump used apocalyptic tropes to frame his vision of America it came with the subconscious, internal logic of Judeo-Christian apocalypticism. This means that once he defined the threats—Democrats and immigrants—then compromise with them was tantamount to heresy. Probably the most defining feature of apocalypticism is that faithfulness is key to the restoration of the proper cosmological order. While using apocalyptic tropes was a powerful tool in advancing Donald Trump’s candidacy, it did come with certain limitations and we are seeing those limitations being played out now in the present immigration debate and Trump’s inability to accept a compromise on the issue of the Wall. Compromise would be a lack of faith and that, in a nutshell, is betrayal in religious terms. That is why we see the continued escalation of Trump’s rhetoric about the southern border. The reality that anything will come of either the Border Wall or, most recently, closing the southern border, is remote, but that isn’t the point. Trump must appear to be fighting for this cause or become another false prophet. In fact, Trump’s inability to resolve the issues at the southern border only reinforces the message to his base that America is declining and has been betrayed.
Donald Trump did not manipulate American sentiment through a sophisticated understanding our of cultural-religious history or frame semantics. That would be like saying a wolf goes for the hamstring because of its deep understanding of anatomy and biomechanics. No, it was the innate cunning of a natural con man. The politics of grievance and fear provided Donald Trump with a comfortable environment to work in, and coupled with a coterie of savvy handlers steeped in the narratives of conservative politics, he spun a toxic story of America that had a built-in audience that was primed to receive it. A good con man does not invent his con out of nothing. Instead, he relies on pre-existing fears and biases. Playing to real pain, Trump assembled a cast of familiar conservative demons in what should be understood as a coherent quasi-religious narrative—The Apocalypse of Don.