Last week, as news spread of the successful American drone strike that killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, “WWIII” began trending on social media.
It wasn’t just the Pavlovian conditioning of Twitter that triggered such a dramatic response. “How close are we to World War III?” asked USA Today. In the Boston Globe, Yvonne Abraham was so distraught that she turned her column into a letter to God, writing, “Things seem a bit End Times-y right now, what with that almost-war against Iran and the Antipodean conflagration.” And writing about the ongoing fires in Australia, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman declared, “Apocalypse is the new normal.”
Everyday End Times rhetoric used to be relegated to the fringes of doomsday preppers, fundamentalist religious sects, and cults. How has apocalypticism gone mainstream?
It’s not only war; in recent years, countless situations have been declared hallmarks of the End Times: climate change, technology surveillance, the lack of affordable housing, eating meat, the death of the mall, the decline in the number of insects worldwide, the state of journalism, the rise of robots, and even the flattening of human consciousness itself. And, of course, Donald Trump’s election to the presidency, just before which Hillary Clinton infamously told The New York Times, “I’m the last thing standing between you and the apocalypse.”
If everything is an apocalypse, then nothing is. But despite the hyperbole, the rush to End Times thinking in recent years signals broader cultural anxiety.
In the political sphere, apocalypse-mongering has intensified as political polarization has increased, and it’s a game both sides play (in a 2013 tweet, Trump himself suggested President Obama would spark World War III). As Yuval Levin argued recently at The Dispatch, “This rush to apocalyptic rhetoric is both a cause and an effect of the paralyzing polarization of our politics. It is a way to sustain the partisan intensity and justify the outrageous levels of mutual animosity required to keep all arguments at a fever pitch on cable news, on social media, and on the campaign trail.”
Apocalyptic rhetoric prompts people to make snap judgments based on tribal loyalties or fear rather than reasoned debate, which in turn encourages politicians to respond with even more hyperbole in a kind of rhetorical feedback loop. The result for the public isn’t clarity but confusion. Consider a recent USA Today poll about the Soleimani killing that found that although 42 percent of Americans approved of the strike, 55 percent “believe the attack that took his life has made the United States less safe, rejecting a fundamental argument the Trump administration has made.” As well, “Just one in 10 said it had made the U.S. ‘much more safe;’ three times as many said it had made the nation ‘much less safe.’”
Moreover, pessimistic rhetoric takes its toll on voters’ perceptions of government and their hopes for the future of their country. A Pew Research poll taken just before the last presidential election found that 75 percent of Trump supporters say “life for people like them has gotten worse.” Another survey conducted by Pew in 2019 showed just how deep pessimism about the country’s future had grown on both sides of the political aisle.
Apocalypticism has infected more than just our politics. Apocalyptic themes have been a mainstay in popular culture for decades. As The Guardian noted recently, though, end times scenarios among sci-fi movies set in the year 2020 project a particularly grim future for humanity. As well, dystopian entertainments like Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” have been embraced by activists in real life who sincerely believe that they live in equally terrible times.
Celebrities have also embraced doomsday rhetoric. At the recent Golden Globe awards, actress Patricia Arquette used her time at the podium to fear-monger about war and “people not knowing if bombs are going to drop on their kids’ heads” in a speech that Vox described, “warned of a world on the brink of apocalypse.” (Earlier in the evening, Arquette chatted with entertainment reporters about the whiskey and karaoke she indulged in before the event and the “really fun night” she planned to have, so perhaps the apocalypse wasn’t that imminent).
One reason apocalyptic rhetoric has increased in recent years is that in an age of information overload, to make oneself heard above the din, you have to shout. We used to talk about “crises” or “problems.” Today, to gain attention for one’s cause, it must be hyped as an imminent disaster or world-destroying force.
There is cultural myopia (or narcissism) at work as well. We are used to a personalized, convenient, on-demand existence, where a swipe or a tap of a device solves most problems, and we need not leave our homes to do many things (like become keyboard-warrior political activists). The only way to rouse people to get out and actually do something is to declare your cause an existential one.
Technology and its many platforms accelerate both these impulses by privileging content that prompts the most “engagement”—negative or positive—from users by rewarding the sharing of it. Apocalyptic statements quickly become mundane, as anyone who scrolls through Twitter can attest, but also engaging to users when they reinforce existing beliefs.
Trafficking in doomsday scenarios and overheated rhetoric gives people a sense of purpose and control in an age of anxiety. By embracing the fight against existential threats, they believe they are taking on a cause more important than themselves. Such efforts also offer a sheen of moral righteousness to otherwise secular causes at a time of declining faith in institutions, in our leaders, and, all too often, in each other. Maybe a zombie apocalypse isn’t so terrifying after all.