Culture

Apocalyptic thinking in the age of Trump

America is ready for the end times.

Culture

Apocalyptic thinking in the age of Trump

America is ready for the end times.
Culture

Apocalyptic thinking in the age of Trump

America is ready for the end times.

In an election wracked with invocations of Lucifer and the approaching end times, the confusion of Donald Trump with the Antichrist is fitting. Depending on whom you ask, Satan has made himself known on both sides of the aisle. Some right-wingers — including InfowarsAlex Jones, Ryan Zinke, a GOP Congressional candidate from Montana, and a gaggle of conservative Christian commentators — saw Hillary Clinton as their demonic archetype. Still others saw Trump and his Satan-inspired chief strategist, Steve Bannon. A Time magazine cover that inadvertently gave Trump devil horns didn’t help matters.

But while the question of whether Donald Trump is an — or even the — Antichrist may be impossible to answer, the fact that the apocalyptic figure has even made an appearance this election cycle is notable for what it says about the country as a whole. That is, these comparisons simultaneously allow their proponents to schlep whatever guilt they may feel for Trump’s rise, while also permitting them to set boundaries between themselves and the president-elect’s supporters, and the president-elect himself.

Despite the religious fervor that end-time prophecy usually induces, the term “Antichrist”’s few appearances in the Bible shows it originally had a meaning that differs wildly than how it is used today. Initially, “Antichrist,” which appears exclusively in the otherwise minor epistles John I and II, was used by early Christians to denote those who refused to confess Christ’s presence on Earth or his divinity. As persecution continued to follow the early church, it began to hone its apocalyptic vision even more. By the end of the second century, Irenaeus, an early Christian writer and bishop, theorized that the Antichrist would be a single figure.

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Other books — including Revelation in the New Testament and the books Daniel, Ezekiel, and Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible — provide ample fodder for end-times speculation. From the “beasts” in Daniel and Revelation, to the epic battle in Ezekiel 38-39, the use of symbolism and metaphor has made practicing prophecy a struggle. These pieces of apocalyptic literature — which, quite literally, deal with the “unveiling” of events to come — leave hints at what the Antichrist may do, namely face off with Christ as the ultimate expression of evil, thereby bringing about the end of days. Yet what he will look like is less fleshed out. Though not named as such, the Antichrist is often read into the two beasts, one from the earth and the other from the sea, that appear in the last book of the Bible, Revelation. (One of these beasts is said to bear the number 666 — a number that also corresponds to a “mark” given to those ruled over by the beast. In both prophetic literature and popular culture, the number has, as a result, frequently been cited as indicating the presence of the Antichrist.) Lacking textual anchors, those troubled by the coming end times have been free to succumb to their imaginations.

Those troubled by the coming end times have been free to succumb to their imaginations.

But a lack of Biblical support never stopped anyone. Trump does fit several of the criteria attached to popular perceptions of the Antichrist. Many earnest sources of apocalyptic speculation, including the best-selling Left Behind series by the late Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, imagine the Antichrist as a truly modern figure. Although the wildly popular 17-book series, which was published between 1995 and 2007 and has sold over 65 million copies, is fictional, the vision embraced by LaHaye and Jenkins portrays the coming apocalypse as an event where non-believers are forced to reckon with the damage wrought by the Antichrist. Here, the Antichrist is a worldly, charismatic man, often of Eastern European and Jewish heritage, who embraces modern technology and institutions for his own sinister ends. This interpretation, which is common among a large subset of American Evangelicals, believes the Antichrist’s reign — a period known as the “tribulation” — will follow the rapture of true followers of Christ.

It’s easy to extrapolate this to Trump. He’s vainglorious, charismatic (at least in the eyes of some Americans), and obsessed with wealth. Kushner Companies, a real estate company jointly owned by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, is headquartered at 666 5th Ave. Trump, while not Eastern European himself, has a proclivity for Eastern European women and promises better relations with Russia, a country that figures prominently in 20th and 21st century apocalyptic tales. And while Trump says that his favorite book is the Bible, he did once note that he’s “not sure” as to whether he’s asked God for forgiveness of his sins.

For frustrated liberals and prophecy junkies alike, it’s a theory that’s provided comfort — or at the very least, amusement — throughout the drag of the election. It’s also taken hold in the media.

In mid-February 2016, the New York Daily News embraced Trump’s devilishness. Spurred by Pope Francis’s assertion, in response to a question about Trump’s proposed wall in February 2016, that “a person who thinks only about building walls … and not building bridges” is not Christian, the tabloid — rarely known for its subtlety — dubbed Trump “Antichrist!” on its cover. Trump, who was at that point the front-runner, was depicted as a devilishly red and scaled demon, sitting amid flames.

In an anonymous post, The HyperTexts, a journal of poetry, prose, and commentary, offered an extended post-election tongue-in-cheek analysis of Trump’s credentials as Antichrist. “It seems remarkable that any Christian could be fooled by Trump,” the author(s) notes shortly after running through the president-elect’s connection to the Number of the Beast, “and yet the main reason he won the presidency was YUGE support among evangelical Christians.”

Remarkable, sure, but not a thought that had escaped the mind of some Christian commentators. Many saw him as a clear danger to the faithful. As one contributor explained on Red State, Trump can be best described as an, not the, Antichrist. “Trump has already bought into the system entirely. He is as vacuous a candidate as there can be,” the user clconnett continued. “He is an Antichrist not because he is explicitly evil, shouting and screaming against God, but because he disregards God and morality all together.”

“He is an Antichrist not because he is explicitly evil but because he disregards God and morality all together.”

He’s not alone. Erick Erickson, a Conservative radio show host and die-hard #NeverTrumper, noted that while he doesn’t consider Trump “anti-Christ,” he does worry that the enthusiasm with which Evangelicals embraced Trump is concerning. “That so many Christians can claim Biblical prophesy to justify support of Donald Trump ... leaves me no doubt that the actual coming Antichrist will fool many,” he stated in a post published a few days before the election. Despite this, about two months later, he pondered why so many American chose to protest the president-elect.

Still, numerous religious critics contend that Trump fails to meet the necessary criteria for being an, or even the, Antichrist. About a month before the Republican National Convention, Ted Haggard, the former pastor at New Life Church in Colorado whose career was undone when it was discovered he used crystal meth and was masturbated by a gay escort, recounted a conversation he had with a journalist wherein he pointed out the lack of textual evidence for Trump as the Antichrist. “Jesus’s comment in Matthew 24:14 makes me think we have more work to do here on the Earth before the Antichrist will surface,” he said.

Numerous other pastors and televangelists agree, even if they’re not in consensus on Trump’s God-given purpose. Frank Amedia, Trump’s “Christian policy” consultant during the campaign, believed Trump’s White House would clear the way for the Second Coming of Christ, even if he wasn’t the Antichrist himself. “I perceive that Donald Trump has been raised up with that breaker anointing to just begin to crush all of the strangleholds that have been placed upon this country,” he said in an interview with a Pentecostal magazine.

Such prophetic furor has had a tremendous cultural impact in the United States since its founding. As Robert Fuller explains in his 1995 book, Naming the Antichrist: The History of an American Obsession, “apocalyptic name-calling” has a long, rich history here. While it goes back to the Puritans, in the 20th century it has often centered around divisive figures. Some of the century’s most violent leaders — Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco, and Josef Stalin — have been tapped as possible Antichrists. (One source, however, is eager to note that Franco’s actions weren’t the issue — the title was the result of “a genealogical connection.”)

Others have been politicians and major figures who rose to power at tumultuous periods in time — Franklin D. Roosevelt, Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan (who was fond of bragging that he had six letters in each of his three names), Bill Clinton, and, of course, Barack Obama. It’s almost as if being called the Antichrist is a compliment — it means you are a powerful man.

It’s almost as if being called the Antichrist is a compliment — it means you are a powerful man.

Whether done in jest or not, describing Trump in apocalyptic terms is, in the end, about setting boundaries. When we call Trump “the Antichrist,” we transform his election into an event that’s comfortably out of our control but one that can also serve as a rallying point. “Belief in the Antichrist has fostered group loyalty by dramatizing the satanic nature of every enemy facing the faithful community,” wrote Fuller. “It has, furthermore, alerted individuals to the insidious tactics that this enemy might use to attract them to apostate ideas or lifestyles and in this way has encouraged a self-consciously separatist stance toward the surrounding world.” At least in the case of Trump, it’s a full-throated way of asserting that the president-elect is, as the protest chant goes, “not my president.”

Hannah Gais is a New York-based writer.