As the first-year anniversary passes of Omar Mateen's deadly attack on the gay Pulse nightclub in Orlando, it's worth remembering Donald Trump's apocalyptic response. Out on the campaign trail, he used the tragic event to warn that Muslim terrorism could obliterate the United States. "There will be nothing, absolutely nothing, left," he said. "Can you imagine what they’ll do in large groups, which we’re allowing now to come here?"
Like many doomsday prophets, Trump alternates between fomenting fear and promising a perfect world to come. "We stand at the birth of a new millennium,” he proclaimed in his inaugural address. With God and guns on our side, he vowed to end the “carnage” in America’s inner cities, secure our borders and wipe radical Islamic terrorism “completely from the face of the Earth.”
Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric is rooted in a long American tradition that began with the Puritans. Convinced they had a special covenant with God, the Puritans set about to build a model Christian society that would show the world the way to the new millennium. In political sermons known as jeremiads, Puritan preachers blamed all kinds of woes—conflict, natural disasters, witchcraft, and war—on their flock's sinful ways. But if the community atoned for its sins, embraced its special mission, and followed its righteous leaders, the course would be set right again. Delivered during major public events like elections, jeremiads aimed to build consensus and control dissent.
The threat of apocalypse loomed over the Puritan experiment. Minister Michael Wigglesworth's epic poem The Day of Doom, published in 1662, warned of the "endless pains" and "scalding flames" that awaited the wicked on Judgement Day. Generations of Puritan children were made to recite it. As the best-selling book in the colonies for nearly a century, it presaged the popularity of modern apocalyptic tracts like the Left Behind series that has sold 65 million copies since the first book appeared in 1995.
The Puritans sowed the seeds of a national pathology of global significance. I call it the America Syndrome. Trump is its latest exponent, but most Americans, whether religious or secular, carry it in their psychic DNA. Its core elements are that we are God's chosen people, called upon to save the world, coupled with the threat of a coming apocalypse. History is an unfolding prophecy that propels us toward a hellish end or heavenly future.
In the America Syndrome, the ends justify violent means. War is God’s will, and its depredations not only punish but also cleanse us. The halo that shone over the brutal conquest of Native American and Mexican lands and the mass casualties of the Civil War has gone on to grace imperial adventures overseas. Patriotism is a sacred duty in a world sharply divided between good and evil, friend and foe. America First!