The Millenarian Midterm

American politics is replete with apocalyptic and millenarian rhetoric; this has only ramped up in the leadup to the 2022 midterm election. Thankfully, those who feel this way are dead wrong.

Norman Cohn published his excellent academic tome on European religious apocalypticism, The Pursuit of the Millennium, in 1957. It dealt primarily with groups and events which occurred nearly a thousand years earlier, yet it is just as relevant to modern politics as it is to Medieval heresy. Cohn describes an era that was rapidly changing socially, culturally, economically, and politically; he writes of charismatic prophets, millenarian movements, and revolutionary vanguards. In the Middle Ages in Europe, these changes and the various group responses to them revolved heavily around religion – the center of life for the people of the time. This period was full of religious sects and ideologies which believed in the immediate coming of the end of the world and the replacement of the current society with a new world order[1] – either the Kingdom of God, or a version of Hell on Earth. These millenarian movements were very Manichaean in their outlook; they saw only good and evil, with no area in between. Of course, the members of the in-group were good and fought for Christ, while their persecutors were evil servants of Satan or the Antichrist.

Given this eternal struggle for the future of existence – a future that would, again, be decided imminently – accepted social morality and religious doctrine were quick casualties to the necessity of winning the battle for the soul of the world. One such sect, the adherents of the Free Spirit movement, were spread across Europe over five centuries and, according to Cohn, represented “the only thoroughly revolutionary social doctrine that existed” at the time.[2] Their brand of radical individual salvation led to “an affirmation of freedom so reckless and unqualified that it amounted to a total denial of every kind of restraint and limitation;”[3] everything could be theologically justified. This attitude was embraced by many millenarian groups during the Middle Ages, often leading them into violence, revolt, drastic social change, harsh treatment of dissent, and – eventually – death at the hands of the Church or State. All of this stemmed from the idea that the end was nigh, and true believers had to act accordingly to achieve salvation and defeat the foe which sought to destroy the world God built for His children.

If you’ve been paying attention to politics over the past several years, you may find these ideas and tropes painfully familiar. Our partisan politics – the closest thing modern secular society has to Medieval religion – has been riven by Manichaean thinking, revolutionary eschatology, radical ideologies, and apocalyptic warnings. People on both right and left see their ideological rivals as seriously attempting to destroy the country – if not the entirety of civilization – and claim the current moment as the precipice of either total victory or total defeat for their cause. These stakes are viewed as permanent, with no path back for the losers in the new world created by and for the victors. As such, any actions taken to avert this catastrophe are justified and justifiable. “By any means necessary” is not an uncommon adage to hear in radical political circles. This is all millenarian thinking. And as the 2022 midterms approach, this millenarianism has ramped up to 11.

The radicals on the right side of the political spectrum have been major proponents of millenarian thinking over the past several years, particularly revolving around the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. You may recall the infamous pseudonymous essay “The Flight 93 Election,” in which the author (Michael Anton, who would go on to serve in the Trump administration) argues that 2016’s presidential election was to be the last chance to save America from utter destruction. He compared the choice voters had to face between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to that of the passengers of the doomed United 93, which was hijacked on September 11, 2001; those passengers learned of the other terror attacks in New York and Washington, and decided that instead of waiting for that fate, they’d take the chance to rush the cockpit and overwhelm the hijackers.

For their courageous efforts, they crashed and died in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania – in the process saving perhaps thousands of lives. In this analogy, Clinton was the fate of guaranteed death at the hands of Islamic radicals, while Trump was a chance to survive and save others. As offensive as that metaphor is, especially to the passengers who deliberately sacrificed their lives on 9/11, it is also fundamentally wrong. We will (likely) never know what a Hillary Clinton presidency would be like, but it certainly would not result in the total obliteration of all we hold dear. Frankly, no American election could cause that.

In the aftermath of the 2020 election, the rhetoric was just as bombastic, with right-wing commentators seeing the Biden victory as a harbinger of civilizational destruction. The President himself got in on the action, exhorting his most extreme supporters to attempt to overturn the election’s results. Many on the radical fringes of the Trump movement saw the millenarian rhetoric as giving them carte blanche to carry out whatever acts needed to be done to save the Republic; in this, they were similar to those Medieval heretics who saw justification for any action as obvious given the existential stakes. This sort of intense belief was one of the driving factors in the disgusting attempt to overthrow the election at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. The rioters who assaulted the nation’s legislative center saw themselves as battling for the very soul of the country, desperately trying to stop the rise of their political Antichrist. Just as with the religious fanatics of the Middle Ages, they were wrong about the end outcome; unfortunately, this cost the nation dearly.

Now, even though the Republicans are likely to sweep to immense victories in the 2022 midterm elections on the back of high inflation, rising crime, foreign debacles, and Democratic misgovernance, some of their radical supporters and pundits have returned to the millenarian well. Funnily enough, many of those doomsaying about the current state of American politics were doing the very same thing in 2016. For example, Michael Anton, the originator of the “Flight 93 Election” meme, is back in the business of predicting apocalypse. The video above – sit through its cringe-worthy absurdity if you dare – is a discussion of the future of American politics with a variety of hard-right commentators. The main topic of the conversation is what they call “Caesarism”, an authoritarian, single-man rule which will supposedly return the fallen American Republic to a place of civilizational glory.

Do they discuss how this will happen? Nope. It’s all just wishcasting about the fantasy of a dictatorial daddy who will right the wrongs of the left. Do they explain why the Roman Republic embraced Julius Caesar in the first place? Not really; they gloss over the decades of calamitous civil war and back-and-forth proscriptions and political executions in order to better link our modern society to that of the ancients. Do they talk through how the modern Caesar they desire – and to be clear, they absolutely pine for it – would take or keep power? Not in the slightest. They casually discuss the split of America into subnational camps led by ‘Red Caesar’ and ‘Blue Caesar’, but dismiss the fact that this new equilibrium would only come at the cost of millions of American lives. Do any of them show willingness to bring this authoritarian pipedream about themselves? Absolutely not. They are, of course, the intellectuals who would be elevated by the Dear Leader, not the grunts who get their hands dirty. At least the messianic nutcases of the Middle Ages, like Thomas Müntzer, led from the front!

One of the ridiculous characters in that video is Dave Reaboi, a commentator whose catchphrase is “Do you know what time it is?” That question is meant to separate those who, like Reaboi, understand that the United States is in the midst of total destruction and reformation, from the naïve rubes who can’t see the forest for the trees. Of course, a broken clock can be right twice a day, but it is far more often wrong. Reaboi’s clock has been smashed to smithereens. This apocalyptic rhetoric is echoed in NatCon circles, as well as by the subset of Catholic Integralists who desire a State oriented to the ends of the Church (of course, the current Church is corrupt, so we need to reach back to the Vatican of the past). Popular commentators label all of their political rivals as “communists” who seek to overthrow all that is good and just in America. I am no fan of Communism – it is perhaps my most hated ideology – but I also know what it is. Modern Democratic policies, even on their more progressive end, are not Communism. There are shades of gray in reality, but apparently not for the Manichaean right. The sky is not falling, no matter how much these millenarian pundits claim it is. After Tuesday’s elections, their arguments may not diminish, but they certainly will be debunked.

Despite the apocalyptic rhetoric emanating from the right, the far bigger push for political millenarianism is coming from the left side of the aisle right now. The party in power generally tends to do poorly during midterm elections, especially in a President’s first term. Trump dealt with a hostile Congress after 2018, Obama lost his mandate to the Tea Party wave of 2010, Gingrich’s Republican Revolution came in 1994 after 2 years of Clinton, and so on.[4] Based on polling and the general political situation, Joe Biden and the Democrats are set up for a particularly nasty result in just a few days. Given their precarious hold on both houses of Congress, the President could easily be staring down the barrel of a fully-Republican legislature in January.

As the major issues of the moment – inflation, crime, pandemic policy ramifications, foreign chaos, immigration – all cut against Democratic governance, the party and its backers in media and academia have gone all-in on millenarianism. In this case, that means constant dire warnings about the imminent and enormous threats to the very fabric of American democracy. I’ve written about this rhetoric before, after President Biden’s odd speech in front of an Independence Hall bathed in Dario Argento-style red light; the tactics of “democracy in danger” have a long history of abuse and often lead to worse outcomes than the supposed threats to democracy themselves. The catastrophizing trend has only continued since that speech. Hillary Clinton, herself the target of the right’s “Flight 93” talk in 2016, has adopted the same patterns recently, arguing that Americans need to “save democracy” at the federal, state, and local levels. What does that mean in practice? Voting blue, of course. Celebrities and activists have jumped on the bandwagon, using even more inflammatory and absurd language. Rob Reiner, who hasn’t directed a good movie since 1992, sees this election as a binary choice between “Constitutional Democracy” and “Fascism.” That Manichaean statement was liked nearly 40,000 times on Twitter.

Far too many of our political pundits and leaders look like Homer Simpson in their doomsday preaching.

The academy and media have also circled the wagons around this talking point. MSNBC’s favorite ‘Presidential Historian’ Michael Beschloss – a man who, along with his fellow liberal historians, has the President’s ear – has been active on this front for months. He warns ominously of rising Republican fascism by selectively quoting FDR, and went on television this week to claim that “We could be six days away from losing our rule of law, and losing a situation where we have elections that we all can rely on.” That was just the wind-up from Beschloss; the pitch was a doozy:

“Joe Biden is saying the same thing tonight, and a historian 50 years from now – if historians are allowed to write in this country and if they are still free publishing houses and a free press – which I’m not certain of – but if that is true, a historian will say what was at stake tonight and this week was the fact whether we will be a democracy in the future, whether our children will be arrested and conceivably killed.”

Institutions are getting in on this game as well, with Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation publishing a biased piece which essentially claims that democracy is in peril if Democrats are not elected in November. The article, written by a well-regarded professor, ignores entirely the anti-democratic language of Democrats and the violent acts carried out by left-wing actors in favor of a pat narrative that Republicans are the sole danger to American political processes. A veritable smorgasbord of media outlets has repeated the same story; this piece from Al Jazeera America is representative of much of what has been published in larger outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN. This fear-mongering millenarianism is meant to drive voters to ignore the major issues they experience on a daily basis, in exchange for a phantom terror of fascism.

Now, less than a week before the midterm election, Democrats are doubling down on this strategy of apocalypticism. The White House Spokeswoman, Karine Jean-Pierre, has claimed that “Democracy is under assault and we cannot pretend otherwise… Mega MAGA Republicans do not believe in the rule of law.” Ron Klain, the White House Chief of Staff (and a lunatic Twitter addict), was on television stating that the Democrats are sounding “one final warning” about the potential death of American democracy in the midterm election. The fact that staffers so close to the President are outwardly making these catastrophizing claims is disturbing. What is more concerning, however, is that the biggest signal of this millenarian push comes from the President himself, who gave a speech on Wednesday beseeching the American public to vote for Democrats to save democracy. In many ways, it echoed the language of his Independence Hall speech, lambasting his political rivals for their supposed antipathy towards democracy. This version had a few choice nuggets – both in terms of millenarianism and bad history – which are broken down below for your reading pleasure.

But there’s something else at stake, democracy itself. I’m not the only one who sees it. Recent polls have shown an overwhelming majority of Americans believe our democracy is at risk, that our democracy is under threat. They too see that democracy is on the ballot this year, and they’re deeply concerned about it.

  • That this is the key closing message for the Democrats, only a week out from the election, bodes very poorly for their preferred electoral outcome. It is transparently a bogus claim and is an excellent example of millenarian language. This sort of rhetoric is simply Joe Biden preaching apocalypse in a secular, modern America. In this, he is no different from the false prophets of Europe’s Middle Ages; although they were far more compelling orators.

The great irony about the 2020 election is that it’s the most attacked election in our history. And, yet, there’s no election in our history that we can be more certain of its results.”

  • This isn’t close to being true. For a speech clearly written with the aid of Biden’s favorite TV historians, this is a laughably bad passage. Other elections have absolutely been more attacked. 1824? 1878? 1960? 2000? Hell, how about 1860? The losers literally fought a war over that one! Talk about attacking an election! There are also plenty of elections where we were more certain of the result. Reagan won 49 states in 1984. LBJ won 61% of the popular vote in 1964. FDR won nearly as high a percentage of the popular vote and only lost 2 states. Monroe ran unopposed in 1820!

And I want to be very clear, this is not about me, it’s about all of us. It’s about what makes America America. It’s about the durability of our democracy. For democracies are more than a form of government. They’re a way of being, a way of seeing the world, a way that defines who we are, what we believe, why we do what we do. Democracy is simply that fundamental.

  • Democracies are a form of government. Biden is talking about liberal democracy in the Anglo-American mold here, which is very different. Democracy is just a system of people voting on political decisions, whether that is through elected officials (representative democracy), through referenda on political questions (direct democracy), or a blend of the two. America was a democracy in the founding era, when only white male property owners (with some exceptions) could vote. Imperial Germany was a democracy of sorts even though its system effectively allowed the Kaiser ultimate power. Democracy, properly understood, is merely “a mechanism for regulating conflict through elections.” This concept of ‘democratic minimalism’ runs directly counter to the ‘thick’ definition of democracy currently en vogue on the left. They, President Biden included, see democracy as more outcome-based than process-based; hence, something is not a democracy if it turns out illiberal outcomes, even if they come about from electoral politics. But that is stealing a base definitionally, and is meant primarily to take ownership of the very idea of democracy for Democrats’ own partisan interests.

Autocracy is the opposite of democracy. It means the rule of one, one person, one interest, one ideology, one party. To state the obvious, the lives of billions of people, from antiquity till now, have been shaped by the battle between these competing forces, between the aspirations of the many and the greed and power of the few, between the people’s right for self-determination, and the self-seeking autocrat, between the dreams of a democracy and the appetites of an autocracy.

  • Interestingly, the most autocratic American Presidents have generally been Democrats. Woodrow Wilson and FDR both acted as truly imperial presidents, grabbing enormous power for themselves at the expense of the Congress and the states. Both vastly overreached in their domestic agenda and used the arms of the State to punish their political foes. Both took advantage of wartime to crack down on civil liberties; Wilson in his Espionage and Sedition Acts, Roosevelt in his internment of Japanese-Americans. One could throw Lincoln in there too, but I see him as a special case. There has never before – or thankfully, since – been such an imminent, real threat to the existence of the United States. Lincoln’s authoritarianism was about as justifiable as authoritarianism gets. Also, isn’t it kind of paradoxical to say that the other party wants autocracy, so you must vote for us? Would that not itself create a one-party state, and thus an autocracy? The muddled message here is quite unhelpful.

As I’ve said before, you can’t love your country only when you win.

  • Ironically enough, this statement is far more accurate when it comes to Democrats than Republicans. Polling has consistently found that supporters of each party heavily diverge on their feelings of patriotism and love of country after their preferred side loses an election. Republicans are generally highly patriotic regardless of who sits in the White House, whereas Democrats are significantly less patriotic when they do not hold political power. This was a phenomenon on full display during the Trump administration, when Democrats became 11 percentage points less patriotic almost overnight; the proportion of Democrats who said they are ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ proud to be American fell from 78% in 2016 to 67% in 2017. Perhaps President Biden should take the advice given in Matthew 7:3-5 and remove the beam from his eye before lambasting the specks in the eyes of his rivals.

As we’ve seen, American politics is on a path to apocalypse – but only in the minds of its most partisan actors. This worldview has only gained in prominence as the country approaches a crucial midterm election. Those on the right are proclaiming that “the country has never been more insane,” while those on the left are bellowing about fascism and the death of democracy. Both sides in this idiot Battle Royale are millenarian in their outlook and rhetoric. Their claims of imminent collapse are about as untrustworthy as could be. America is dealing with problems, sure, but we are nowhere even near the worst periods in our nation’s life. We have overcome worse economic crises, more humiliating foreign debacles, and far more existential conflicts. America in 2022 is one of the best places to live in all of human history. Our democracy is strong, our people are patriotic, and our ability to bounce back from setbacks is unparalleled. Don’t listen to the cranks on left and right who seek to make you a slave to fear; they are no more accurate in their predictions of doom than were the false prophets and millenarian cultists of Norman Cohn’s research.

[1] Under Cohn’s rubric, these two factors are what determine if a movement is truly millenarian.

[2] Cohn, 149.

[3] Cohn, 148.

[4] The only real outlier here comes in 2002, when Republicans did well and retained control of Congress; that was the first election after the attacks on 9/11, so there were clearly external factors at play.

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