“Othering” and Concretized Evil as Political Rhetoric and Meaning-Making

Farragutful, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Apocalypticism is a framework through which people make sense of the world around them, the invisible forces they face, and the tides of history. Literally, apocalypticism means the “unveiling” or revealing of secret truths about the future of human destiny. It is not necessarily religious, nor is it essentially a destructive or cataclysmic end to world events. Rather, it focuses on what happens after “The End.” What is the new world to look like? In the contemporary American thought world, this anticipation of ultimate things blends together many elements, including religious commitments, social expectations, political persuasions, and many others. This blending looks to the future for a world without the present evils, however those evil factors are conceived and whoever is deemed responsible for them. The result is an apocalyptic ideology that crosses the boundaries of the most important aspects of human identity, and through which people decide what is ethical, right, true, and pragmatic. As a scholar of religion and apocalyptic movements, I believe the current American social and political milieu can best be described as a type of civic apocalypticism. One tell-tale sign that this apocalyptic ideology is at work in American political rhetoric is the discord in the national political conversation and the partisan blaming that — while long a staple of American politics — has become increasingly palpable.

Apocalyptic ideas of a secret revelation or knowledge of things to come, and a dichotomy between right and wrong, are not in themselves necessarily wrong or bad or unhelpful. Indeed, these ideas help groups coalesce, they motivate adherents to persevere through difficult times, and they give groups a sense of urgency. However, apocalypticism can become violent and deadly. This violent apocalypticism is what Dr. Francis Flannery has termed “radical apocalypticism,” and it goes beyond the basic apocalyptic formula in several ways. For example, in radical apocalypticism the group believes that only they have the authoritative understanding of the nature of human destiny. They also believe that their actions are required to bring about the transformation to the new world, where their views will be vindicated and they will hold special status. They also believe that violence can be retributive and, specifically, their violent acts are essential to bringing about the transformation they foresee happening in social, religious, and/or political arenas. In my recent essay on the Governor Whitmer plot, I showed how radical apocalypticism is a factor in recent extrajudicial political actions. But one other element of radical apocalypticism that bears more discussion is the role of “othering” political opponents, who then become viewed as “concretized evil.”[1]

The elements of radical apocalypticism compound each other. For example, the certainty adherents have concerning the secret knowledge that has been revealed to them also magnifies differences between themselves and non-adherents, and marks them as irreconcilable, evil, and totally “other.” Two recent examples of this phenomenon are QAnon and the Pizzagate conspiracy theories, both of which use intricate symbols and interpretations of current events to cultivate insider/outsider dichotomies that give adherents a sense of purpose and special knowledge about evil forces at work against them. Likewise, these conspiracies also give adherents simple answers to why their views are not more widely shared and what they can do about the divergence between the world they believe to be righteous and the world as it actually is. Simply put, both conspiracy theories believe a secret cabal of liberals, one-world-order supporters, and pedophiles, are ingrained in the government apparatus and are working to undermine traditional values and American liberties. But this cabal can be overthrown if the right group of political leaders clean out the corrupt ones and replace them instead with their own like-minded politicians and bureaucrats who will safe-guard their vision of the American way of life. In these conspiracy theories there is a very real belief that evil agents are actively working to corrupt the United States, and, whether they know it or not, democrats of all stripes have been duped into supporting this evil system, or else they are themselves evil.

In western apocalypses, especially, there is a firm dualism between good and evil, and apocalyptic groups often use dualism as a way to understand the continued existence of non-believers, the continuation of corruption in human affairs despite the revelation of the secret knowledge, and importantly, what will happen to enemies when the righteous are finally and inevitably triumphant. “Othering” a particular group can support the idea, though often tacit, that violence against “enemies” is justified. This glamorizing of violence against opponents is the very defense being offered by the attorneys of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17 year old who killed two protestors in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and finally shot and injured a third armed man who attempted to intervene. In a now deleted tweet by his lawyer, Rittenhouse is portrayed as an “American patriot” akin to the volunteer soldiers who fought against the British in the American Revolution. In other words, shooting and killing Black Lives Matter protestors, according to Rittenhouse’s lawyers, was a noble act performed in defense of the community.

The details of the Rittenhouse case are still being worked out and the defense has begun to fashion a self-defense argument. However, when ideas like this one enter into the public discourse, lionizing violence against one’s opponents as good and noble, as opposed to simply an unfortunate but necessary act, then an ideology that justifies violence against “them” has clearly worked its way into the apocalyptic framework. From there, the more radical elements on both sides will be emboldened to commit further acts of violence against those they vilify.

Violent apocalyptic frameworks can arise on both the left and right of the political spectrum. While some violence has been attributed to left-wing Antifa-aligned individuals, most of the domestic terrorism and social and political violence in recent decades comes from the right-wing of American politics, which is why the examples given here have focused on these right-wing forms of violence. However, a radical apocalyptic ideology is prevalent on both sides of the political spectrum and while it is already bubbling over in cases like the Gov. Whitmer kidnapping plot and in some left-wing, anti-government activity, there is potential for further violence in response to the November 3 election. It is already the case that, however close the presidential election turns out to be, political candidates are preparing rhetorically to dismiss the results if they are unfavorable. This is a dangerous tactic, and one that supports violence against political opponents. While often seen in fascist and autocratic countries, this is the first time in the history of the United States that a presidential candidate is holding out the prospect of not accepting the results of the election and is actively undermining the bulwark of American democracy: free and open elections. Meanwhile, many supporters of the candidates, on both sides, are already preparing to reject the election of the opposition candidate should it happen. Over 40% of Joe Biden’s and Donald Trump’s supporters have said they would not accept the results of the election if the other side won. Further, 16% of Trump supporters and 22% of Biden supporters have said they would do something to challenge the results if the other side won. If by “doing something” about the election these supporters mean the types of actions that build democracy, like peaceful protest, principled civil disobedience, and grass-roots political advocacy, then the energy could be positive.

However, with the radical apocalyptic framework already in place for a relatively small percentage of the most radical supporters suggests that violence as a response is not only possible, it is likely on election day and as the results become known.

Social and political violence is terrorism that undermines the functioning of a free society. Retributive actions against political opponents are antithetical to the types of civic discourses (i.e. debate, peaceful protest) that are effective in changing public opinion and expanding civil rights.

Politicians do have a responsibility for the actions of their supporters, especially when politicians send mixed messages that seem to encourage the radical, violent extremes of their supporters. While the ideology that supports violence cannot be unwound quickly, the following are steps that can lessen the current threat of violence:

· Political candidates must clearly and definitively reject the use of violence or intimidation by their supporters. They must commit themselves to accepting the results of the election and the process. These statements must be made in every single public engagement.

· Voters must realize that the nature and tone of a candidate’s rhetoric is just as important as their policies. Voters must reject candidates who imply extrajudicial violence may be justified or whose rhetoric undermines democratic institutions.

· Supporters of losing candidates must use established legal channels for challenging results, should there be sufficient cause. They must support the results of the election and work democratically to advance the causes they find most important.

· Political leaders and candidates must start holding as a value an empathy for the whole of the nation, not just their base.

The tone of the American democracy is set by its leadership. Research into apocalyptic movements has shown that leadership can make a significant impact on the actions of even the most radical elements of these movements. It is for this reason that the candidates themselves must make unequivocal statements condemning violence among their supporters. Unfortunately, candidates fixate on the violence committed by their opponent’s supporters while ignoring the violence among their own. Instead of delegitimizing the perspectives of political opponents, they should be given a hearing and evaluated on the basis of our legal and moral values. Instead of “othering” political opponents, the diversity of views that support civil liberties must be upheld. None of this can happen overnight, but a firm commitment to peaceful engagement can support an environment where bipartisan trust can be rebuilt. Without this, the long-term future of the American project is under threat.

[1] Francis Flannery, Understanding Apocalyptic Terrorism: Countering the Radical Mindset, (Taylor and Francis, 2016), 67–68.

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Jon R. Kershner

Jon R. Kershner

I am a theologian, father, husband and baseball lover. I like to think about living intentionally and well. about.me/JonRKershner