The leading candidates to replace Barack Obama think America is going to hell.
Fans of apocalyptic religious scenarios have plenty of rich material to work with in Seventh-day Adventism, a church whose most famous contemporary member is Republican presidential co-frontrunner Ben Carson. As formulated by former member Beth S. Carpenter, writing in Mashable, Adventism's tenets include "that the United States will follow a Biblical prophecy" in which Washington "will 'speak like a dragon' and persecute Adventists, aligning with the Catholic Church to force Sunday church attendance." The pope here is the "Antichrist," and his alliance with a fallen America will drive Carson's co-religionists to the hills. The results will be bloody, and spectacular.
I mention this not to malign Seventh-day Adventism—to the contrary, I'm gratified that yet another comparatively new and marginal church is being absorbed into the great American mainstream. If anything, the faith's doctrinal apocalypticism seems uniquely resonant with the howling dissatisfaction and rhetorical pessimism that so far has characterized the remarkable 2016 presidential campaign. Starting with Carson himself.
At the October 28 GOP debate in Boulder, Colorado, Carson asserted—in a response to a question about his opinion of same-sex marriage—that "P.C. culture" is "destroying this nation." In the August debate in Cleveland, the neurosurgeon stated that continuing the policies of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will "destroy this country." In September, at the Reagan Library, Carson said "our children will have no future" unless we kill off the "global jihadists who actually want to destroy us."
There is a fate worse than mere destruction, of course: A country could become actively and murderously evil, a result of too many good men doing nothing in the face of corruption and hatred. America, Carson said in a March 2014 interview, is "very much like Nazi Germany."
Was that a one-off rhetorical slip of the tongue? No. "I know you're not supposed to say 'Nazi Germany,'" he continued, "but I don't care about political correctness. You know, you had a government using its tools to intimidate the population. We now live in a society where people are afraid to say what they actually believe. And it's because of the P.C. police, it's because of politicians, it's because of news. All of these things are combining to stifle people's conversation. The reason that is so horrible is because the only way you have harmony and reach a consensus is by talking. But if, in fact, people are afraid to talk, you never reach consensus. And instead you grow further and further apart. And that's exactly what's happening, creating a horrible schism that will destroy our nation."
In 2004, long before attempting a career in politics, Carson said that people who "accept the evolutionary theory" therefore "eliminate morality and the basis of ethical behavior." Since becoming a presidential contender, he has described Obamacare as "the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery" and warned that America should never have a Muslim president because of the disputed Islamic notion of taqiyya, or lying about your religion when inside enemy territory.
The striking thing these statements have in common is a lack of confidence that America, its Constitution, and the entire Western liberal project are strong enough to endure the latest perceived challenge to their righteousness. As this month's cover boy, Darth Vader, famously said in the original Star Wars, "I find your lack of faith disturbing."
Not just disturbing, but disturbingly popular. At press time, Carson—whose very candidacy rests on his outsider, anti-P.C. approach and all the unvarnished hyperbole that comes with it—has not been lower than third place in any national GOP poll since mid-August. But even if he were to suddenly drop out, rampant apocalypticism would still dominate campaign 2016, on both sides of the aisle.
"Our country today faces a series of unprecedented crises," the Vermont socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders said at the October Democratic debate in Nevada. "[The] middle class in this country is collapsing. We have 27 million people living in poverty. We have massive wealth and income inequality. Our trade policies have cost us millions of decent jobs. The American people want to know whether we're going to have a democracy or an oligarchy as a result of Citizens United."
Well, at least we'll still be able to breathe, right? Think again: "If we do not address the global crisis of climate change, transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to sustainable energy," Sanders warned, "the planet that we're going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be habitable."
And that's the kind of pessimism coming from the party that has controlled the White House for the last seven years. What about the loyal opposition? Hoo boy…
"Right now, we don't have a country, we don't have a border," longtime frontrunner Donald Trump said at the Reagan Library. "This country is in big trouble," he pronounced at the August debate. "We don't win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody."
"We're not going to destroy our economy the way the left-wing government that we are under now wants to do," Sen. Marco Rubio said at the Reagan Library. Sen. Ted Cruz echoed that sentiment the following month, accusing Democrats of peddling "a recipe to destroy a country."
And don't get them started on foreign policy. "We have a world that grows increasingly dangerous, and we are eviscerating our military spending and signing deals with Iran," Rubio said in September. "And…if this thing continues, we are going to be the first Americans to leave our children worse off than ourselves." Carly Fiorina sounds similar notes. "When America does not lead," she said in August, "the world is a dangerous and a tragic place."
Ben Carson is hardly alone in his invocation of Nazi Germany. Mike Huckabee in July said that with the Iran nuclear deal, President Obama "will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven." Cruz in March said the deal was "reminiscent of Munich in 1938" and warned that "there is one threat, and one threat only, on the face of the globe with the potential to once again annihilate 6 million Jews."
Some of this is just normal election-year opportunism. Politicians are forever warning that our generation really will be the first to leave a poorer world for our kids, centuries of evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Every sitting president from the other party is busy making the world a more "dangerous" place; every unsatisfactory geopolitical negotiation is invariably compared to Neville Chamberlain's sellout of Czechoslovakia.
But when such sentiments and views become the explicit selling points for utterly inexperienced candidates who between them garner 50 percent of public support for months on end, something genuinely new is at play. Fifteen years of lousy wars and lousy economic policies, coupled with pie-in-the-sky political rhetoric and pigs-in-the-mud crony capitalism, has produced a political alienation arguably more vast than anything we've seen since the 1970s.
In September, Gallup found that a record-high 60 percent of Americans agree with the statement that Democrats and Republicans "do such a poor job that a third major party is needed." In October, the polling organization found that the same percentage of Americans also agree that "the federal government has too much power," also a record high. As Bernie Sanders observed at the October Democratic debate, "I think that there is profound frustration all over this country with establishment politics."
How will that alienation translate into electoral results and public policies? The answer to that question may tell us whether this time it really will be the apocalypse.