Elizabeth Tagg is a graduating senior in the Department of Religious Studies,
writing a thesis on apocalyptic rhetoric in the age of Trump.
Donald Trump built his reputation as a political outsider who could “drain the swamp,” fix a broken system, and make America great again. Indeed, in his 2016 RNC speech, he declared that “[he] alone could fix it.” Many believed him, and many still do. For example, when the pandemic and instructions to quarantine were in full swing, Trump started to frame the coronavirus pandemic as a “great and powerful plague” which had come to destroy the world, but America would rise from this “death and destruction” to become “greater than ever before.” One particular response on Facebook read “God chose you, Mr. President… you are working unto God, not unto men.” The confluence of spiking death tolls and a plague of biblical proportion created a moment of disillusionment where zealotry, and even millenarian thinking, could thrive. Millenarian movements are based on critiques of power culminating in social protests against oppressive systems. In New Heaven New Earth, Professor Kenelm Burridge analyzes millenarian movements, highlighting the ways in which the millenarian critiques initiate a “redemptive process” in which the old moral order is cast off to make way for a new society. At the heart of the millenarian movement is the prophet, whose divine revelations almost always refer to a prosperity and prestige that define the new conditions of being, the new social order.
Could Trumpism be analyzed as a millenarian movement? Can this help us predict the future of Trump’s base, post-Trump? Burridge simplifies the millenarian pattern into three phases which help us to better understand millenarian movements and their application to Trump: feelings of disenfranchisement, battle with oppressors, and triumph of the new order.
Phase 1 encompasses feelings of disenfranchisement, whereby individuals become disillusioned with their assumed or assigned roles in society. In this context, the slogan “Make America Great Again” appealed to an underlying dissatisfaction on the part of many citizens; it both amplified a perceived loss of personal power and prestige for many of Trump’s followers, and also accentuated contempt for “outsiders.” Last year’s election was framed to incite fear of immigrants, liberal progressives, and African Americans. The philosophy informing MAGA insisted that illegal immigrants and marginalized communities were stealing white American jobs and livelihoods. Trump promised salvation from this dilemma by eliminating those threats to his followers, garnering prestige and prosperity to those who supported him and returning America to the idyllic ‘good old days’ of American invulnerability and whiteness. At a time of global pandemic that resonated with biblical accounts of plagues and apocalyptic scenarios, Trump motivated his followers through fear of unrighteous adversaries and the hope that by following him, they and their loved ones would be saved from their enemies, thus undergoing a redemptive process and receiving a kind of “salvation.”
In the weeks leading up to the Capitol riot, accusations that Antifa planned to intercept alt-right groups on their way to the Capitol spread across alt-right social media outlets. In response to the rumored attack from the left, “Rally to Save America” leaders urged their followers to “travel in packs” and not let themselves be disarmed “without stacking bodies.” Burridge’s Phase 2 describes the battle between the righteous millenarian prophet with their followers and the unrighteous “oppressors.” Rumors concerning Antifa’s plan to destroy their new society only reinforced the narrative of oppression to which Trump’s followers adhered. It highlights the successful completion of Phase 1, during which the “us vs. them” battle lines have been drawn. Trump’s followers have come to recognize their marginalized condition, have identified the enemy, and now feel empowered to confront that enemy in solidarity with one another. To followers of the Trump movement, these rallies were revolutionary steps in opposition to the oppressors: the deep state democrats with a penchant for child predation. Both the loss of the election and especially the Capitol insurrection were battles for their new society through Trump and attempts at actualizing their new order.
Finally, Burridge explains that Phase 3 comes to fruition when the new movement triumphs over the old and establishes a new social order. If the millenarian movement fails, the process reverts to Phase 1, where individuals are left disillusioned by the prophet and remain within their self-identified oppressed condition. With the failure of the Capitol insurrection, and their leader out of office and banned from Twitter, what will become of Trump’s base?
Stefan Brandt suggests that Trump portrayed his supporters as heroic defenders of traditional American values. Trump instilled them with the conviction that the only way to save America was through revolution, even if that meant sacrificing their lives for their country in the process. Mob leaders called storming the Capitol “a warning shot from ‘we the people’” and that they were willing to give their “life for this fight.” They were willing to die to actualize the myth of America Trump promoted. Thus, when Trump failed to join their fight and his followers failed to overthrow the government on January 6th, members of his movement were left to confront the aftermath. And so, following Burridge’s model, the millenarian process starts over again with a campaign aimed at the 2024 election cycle.
While the Trumpism includes many of the characteristics of a millenarian movement, can we classify what we’ve seen recently with Trump and his followers as millenarian? Movements classified as “millenarian” often occur among groups that have experienced colonial violence and oppression (e.g., the Ghost Dance movement among Native Americans). But is perceived oppression, actual or imagined, enough to result in a revolution? Trump’s base certainly views themselves as victims of an unfair and corrupt system, and battle lines have been drawn against the “other,” in which violent rhetoric is used against immigrants and other marginalized communities. But will Trumpism deflate without Trump as a prophetic leader, or will a new group rise from the ashes of Trumpism stronger than before?
This is the first of a three-part series drawing parallels between the “millenarian movements” of Trump, Jonestown and themes within the Book of Revelation. By identifying patterns and discrepancies between movements in history and applying Burridge’s frameworks to these examples, these posts will argue that Trump and his movement should not be described as millenarian, but why these instances of social unrest continue.
Brandt, S. L. (2020). Donald Trump, the reality show: Populism as performance and spectacle. Zeitschrift Für Literaturwissenschaft Und Linguistik, 50(2), 303-321. doi:10.1007/s41244-020-00170-3
Burridge, K. (1986). New heaven, new earth: A study of millenarian activities. Oxford: Blackwell.
Extremists and mainstream trump supporters plan to protest congressional certification of Biden’s victory. (2021, January 04). Retrieved March 05, 2021, from https://www.adl.org/blog/extremists-and-mainstream-trump-supporters-plan-to-protest-congressional-certification-of
Moore, S. D. (2020). Beastly boasts and apocalyptic affects: Reading revelation in a time of trump and a time of plague. Religions, 11(7), 346. doi:10.3390/rel11070346
Pullman, W. (2021, January 10). Trump’s militias say they are armed and ready to defend their freedoms. Retrieved March 09, 2021, from https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/trumps-militias-say-they-are-armed-and-ready-to-defend-their-freedoms-8ht5m0j70
Riotta, C. (2020, May 03). Trump calls coronavirus pandemic a ‘great and powerful plague’ in bizarre tweet storm. Retrieved March 08, 2021, from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/trump-coronavirus-plague-outbreak-pandemic-white-house-task-force-death-toll-latest-a9496731.html
Superville, D. (2020, October 29). Trump paints apocalyptic portrait of life in US Under Biden. Retrieved March 09, 2021, from https://apnews.com/article/election-2020-joe-biden-donald-trump-police-economy-3082b995c1fd89129671b245797bc902
Trisha Cole. (2020, May 3). God chose you, Mr. President, to lead our great country through this tumultuous time …. you were hired for the job, and you are fullfilling it’s (sic) job description amazingly and to the best of your ability. You are working unto God, not unto men. [Facebook update]. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/DonaldTrump/posts/and-then-came-a-plague-a-great-and-powerful-plague-and-the-world-was-never-to-be/10164587325505725/.