Wherever you look someone is sounding the alarm about how America has been taken over by evil extremists and is going to hell in a handbasket. This sort of talk used to be confined to the fringes: you’d actually have to go looking for it in some ramshackle bookstore or on a street corner patrolled by a badly-dressed proselytiser. Now, the merchant of doom comes to you in the guise of an attention-seeking journalist, credentialed expert or pampered politician.
These new school paranoiacs divide into two camps: a progressive one and an anti-progressive one. While diametrically opposed politically, they nonetheless share the same conviction that the sin of their enemies is everywhere and must be vanquished to save the soul of America. And, like all moral panic entrepreneurs throughout history, their deepest concern centres on the purity of young people, who they claim are being “groomed” into demonic tribes, whether of the Left or Right.
The liberal version of apocalyptic alarmism is by now all too familiar: the broad gist of it is that Donald Trump is a tyrant who has unleashed the atavistic and peculiarly American impulses of white rage that will inevitably lead the country to civil war and ruin — unless he and his base are repelled by the valiant Democrats. In his bestselling book On Tyranny, published just after the 2016 election, Yale historian Timothy Snyder sternly warned that America could descend into fascism under Trump. By the time Trump had all but completed his first term in office and was seeking another, the liberal prophets of doom had gone into overdrive. “I can’t say this more clearly,” Thomas Friedman wrote in The New York Times in late September 2020. “Our democracy is in terrible danger…”
The events of 6 January served to confirm their darkest warnings: it was an attempted coup! It didn’t matter that most of those who broke into the Capitol had not the slightest idea what they were going to do once they got inside the building, or that the only lethal shot fired during the whole ludicrous debacle was at a Trump supporter, or that there was zero chance that Trump would be violently returned to power. It didn’t matter that Trump, despite new testimony that he wanted to join the protesters in marching toward the Capitol, had scurried back to the White House, where he returned to his usual state of lethargy, or that one of the defining traits of his presidency was ineptitude. None of that mattered, because it complicated the preordained narrative: Trump and his supporters are an existential threat to the republic.
Once Biden moved into the White House you would have thought that the apocalyptic fantasy surrounding Trump would have eased up a bit. It didn’t, and the crack-pipe of progressive paranoia soon flared up again. In May last year Slate published a piece on how “Trump Is Planning a Much More Respectable Coup Next Time”. But the crack-pipe was at its hottest in the editorial traphouse of The Atlantic, which ran a cover-story in January proclaiming that “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun”.
More recently, the US Supreme Court’s decision to revoke Roe v. Wade has served to refocus progressive premonitions of doom. The Guardian reported that the revocation of the 1973 ruling, which enshrined Americans’ constitutional right to abortion, “could drive the biggest wedge yet between what appear to be two irreconcilable nations coexisting under one flag”. “Some wonder if the country’s social fabric, frayed by four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, can survive.”
A persistent thread in much of this alarmism is a deep preoccupation with children and their “safety”. The concern is not so much that children, or indeed their children, will grow up under tyranny, a “terrifyingly real” prospect according to Snyder. The fear, rather, is that children might become the tyrants: they are in danger of being “groomed” into fascist little monsters, whether it be through video games, Instagram or even online fitness groups. And if you don’t treat extremism like it’s a virus and inoculate your kids against it, then you’re part of the problem.
On the other side are the equally shrill and hyperbolic anti-progressives, who think the Democrats and their supporters are trying to stage a socialist coup by stealth and that anything but Republican rule will spell disaster for the country.
Trump’s style, of course, was nothing if not apocalyptic. In the run-up to the 2016 election he had warned, invoking one of his favourite rallying points, that: “Right now, we don’t have a country, we don’t have a border.” By the time the next election came round, he was warning about the existential threat of Biden. “He’ll bury you in regulations, dismantle your police departments, dissolve our borders, confiscate your guns, terminate religious liberty, destroy your suburbs,” Trump thundered at a campaign rally in late October 2020. On Twitter, he said that the election was a choice between the “TRUMP BOOM” or “Biden’s plan to kill the American Dream!”
In a recent article in The Washington Times, David Bossie, a conservative activist and long-time Trump adviser, declared that the “Democrats are purposefully trying to destroy our country as we know it in their quest to change America into the world’s next failed socialist state”, citing the rise in violent crime across American cities and the incursion of critical race theory into schools as “part of the Left’s grand plan” to destroy America as we know it.
Bossie didn’t mention children, but many conservatives in America can’t keep off the subject, believing that legions of Left-wing activists and sexual deviants are “grooming” children into the cult of woke zealotry. “When did our public schools, any schools, become what are essentially grooming centres for gender identity radicals?”, Fox News host Laura Ingraham demanded to know earlier this year.
A few months ago, the focus of the story shifted to how Disney had positioned itself as one of the country’s preeminent grooming hubs. According to The Federalist: “Disney’s Obsession With Grooming Children Is Nothing New, But Their Openness About It Is.” More recently, the focus has switched to taxpayer-funded Drag Queen Story Hour events at city schools. “Progressives may have no problem with child grooming and sexualisation, but I do,” protested Vickie Paladino, a New York City Council member.
What explains the current upsurge in apocalyptic alarmism and its insistent encroachment into the centre of American political life?
Part of the answer is that it’s strategic: sounding the alarm about impending catastrophe is what political partisans do, especially if they can’t persuade a good number of people on the merits of their policies. And, of course, alarmism about extremists has been used everywhere by politicians of all stripes to clamp down on critics and infringe their rights in the interests of “security”.
Alarmism is also a well-rewarded grift, especially for extremism experts and journalists who have perverse incentives for amplifying threats. In a recent article on the new-Right in America, James Pogue made the point in this way:
“Someone like me who has made a career of writing about militias and extremist groups might go about my work thinking that all I do is try to tell important stories and honestly describe political upheaval. But within the Cathedral [Curtis Yarvin’s phrase for an amalgam of universities and the mainstream press], the best way for me to get big assignments and win attention is to identify and attack what seem like threats against the established order, which includes nationalists, anti-government types, or people who refuse to obey the opinions of the Cathedral’s experts on issues like vaccine mandates, in as alarming a way as I possibly can…”
Another possible explanation for the rise of apocalyptic alarmism is the warping effect of spending so much time looking at extremist material on the internet. As someone who studies violent extremism as part of my job, I’ve thought a lot about how over-exposure to violent imagery and hateful propaganda can affect the mental health of those who do this work. Some researchers and journalists claim to have been traumatised by what they have seen, while others worry about the spiritual harms they may have incurred.
But I also wonder whether those who spend so much of their time in highly radicalised online spaces might slowly, bit by bit, succumb to the warping impact of that exposure. If all you do is read online forum posts praising the murderous actions of Elliot Rodger, you just might start thinking that men really are monsters or potential ones, in the same way that if all you do is watch extreme porn, you just might think that women are sexual objects to be used and humiliated. Or, if all your news about woke liberals comes from the derangement porn of Libs of TikTok you just might start thinking that demented woke people really are everywhere and bent on destroying Western civilisation.
The problem with apocalyptic alarmism, whatever its stripe, is not just the self-aggrandising melodrama that usually accompanies it, or the hypocrisy of sounding like the “semiotically aroused” fringe the alarmists loath. It is its lack of proportion and basic common sense. As Matt Welch has noted: “the moral of ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ is not that there is no wolf, but rather that warnings should be saved for when the beast actually arrives.”