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Apocalypse Now and Then

The Republican fear-mongering rooted in Reagan nostalgia

Getty Images / Scott Olson

The Republican Party is often portrayed as deeply divided against itself, entangled by a factional battle between the establishment and insurgents. But the debate in South Carolina on Thursday night made clear there is one idea that unifies the party: the strong conviction that we are all doomed. Armageddon around the corner was the theme of the sixth Republican debate, as candidates outdid each other to warn that the end was nigh: If we don’t get this election right, there may be no turning back for America.” That wasn’t one of the party’s wild men like Ben Carson or Donald Trump. They are the words of Marco Rubio, the allegedly sunny voice of the party. For his part, Jeb Bush raised the alarm over the fact that “the world has been torn asunder.” Riffing on the alarm raised by moderator Maria Bartiromo that “the world is on fire,” Chris Christie warned that if “you’re worried most of all about keeping your homes and your families safe and secure, you cannot give Hillary Clinton a third term of Barack Obama’s leadership.” It was nearly an afterthought when Carson himself warned that if the Democrats win and appoint two or more Supreme Court justices, “this nation is over as we know it.”

It’s natural for an opposition party to paint the status quo in dire terms, but the doom and gloom of the Republican party has gone far beyond the norms of usual politics. These were the words one might hear from a hell-fire preacher trying to save souls on the verge of eternal damnation. Why is the GOP so apocalyptic? 

In 2012, writing in New York magazine, Jonathan Chait described the apocalyptic tenor to Republican rhetoric and argued it was a product of GOP fears of demographic trends which portend shrinking political clout. As Chait argued

To be sure, the apocalyptic ideological analysis—that “freedom” is incompatible with Clinton-era tax rates and Massachusetts-style health care—is pure crazy. But the panicked strategic analysis, and the sense of urgency it gives rise to, is actually quite sound. The modern GOP—the party of Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes—is staring down its own demographic extinction. Right-wing warnings of impending tyranny express, in hyperbolic form, well-grounded dread: that conservative America will soon come to be dominated, in a semi-permanent fashion, by an ascendant Democratic coalition hostile to its outlook and interests. And this impending doom has colored the party’s frantic, fearful response to the Obama presidency.

There’s much to recommend to Chait’s analysis as to why apocalyptic rhetoric is on the upswing at this moment. But it ignores the fact that this cosmic fear-mongering has been a key glue of the conservative movement since it’s birth after World War II and was given its stamp of approval by the patron saint of the American right, Ronald Reagan. The recent rash of apocalypticism is not so much a response to a changing situation as it is a form of unifying Republican nostalgia.

When the American conservative movement coalesced in the late 1940s and early 1950s, libertarians like Friedrich Hayek warned socialism would lead to “the road to serfdom” while red-hunters like Joseph McCarthy warned that communists had deeply infiltrated the government. 

Ronald Reagan is sometimes misremembered as an optimistic believer in “morning in America.” In truth, he rode to power using the apocalyptic rhetoric of the 1950s right, which seemed plausible in the late 1970s and early 1980s with inflation rampant, the Soviets invading Afghanistan, and American hostages held in Iran. No wonder Christie and other Republicans pounded away at the minor skirmish the United States had with Iran, trying to equate it with the hostage crisis which undid Jimmy Carter’s political career.

This apocalyptic fear that the West was doomed also helped bring evangelical and fundamentalists into the fold of the GOP. The famous 1964 speech that made Reagan a star in the Republican party included these words: “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness.”

The apocalyptic language we heard on stage was rooted in a deep desire to return to the Reaganite certainties of old. The Republican party is deeply divided and faces a bleak demographic future in national terms. No wonder they find a strange comfort in returning to the doom and gloom of the past.