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Eschatologies of Democracy: Visions of the End of the American Experiment
Is there life after liberalism?
My undergraduate school was once nearly undone by a fight over eschatology.
Harding University, then Harding College, is a small, liberal arts school affiliated with the Churches of Christ. In the 1930s, then-President J. N. Armstrong refused to police the spread of premillennialism on campus, a decision that invited fierce criticism from many donors and alumni. Premillennialism is a doctrine of the end times taken from a literal reading of the Book of Revelation, maintaining that Christ’s physical return to earth will inaugurate a 1,000-year reign that will last until the Day of Judgment. In the end, premillennialism faded both at Harding and within the churches of Christ. And George S. Benson, who succeeded Armstrong at Harding, would go on to be a prolific operator on the American “Radical Right,” lending considerable energy to the conservative movement through his National Education Program and other efforts.
I grew up in a world where a lot of thought was given to the ending of things and a place that played an often underappreciated role in shaping the modern American right. I raise this anecdote because I’m now thinking a lot—fretfully and ruminatively—about endings in a political context.
So how does this all end? By this, I mean American democracy.
A vast body of academic scholarship, investigative journalism, and thoughtful commentary exists covering the various far-right thinkers, organizations, and extremist cells now arrayed against liberal democracy in this country. I would like to offer a pop analysis here that tries to categorize some of what we are seeing from the vantage point of how, according to each vision, American democracy functionally ends. I am not a theologian. I don’t consider this a scholarly assessment but rather a thought exercise for working through the truth of what these different extremisms all desire, whether they admit it or not: the end of America’s liberal democracy.
I want to lay out three broad categories into which I’ll fit some examples: the end as restoration, in which and older though often ahistorical America is returned; the end as annihilation, in which the end of American democracy is a usually violent cataclysm, one where institutions and laws of society are swept away and destroyed; and the end as transfiguration, wherein the republic and its structures are changed to serve new, anti-liberal ideals.
In many of its iterations, Christian nationalism sees the sanctifying of the American republic as a theological project in restorative terms. It is about returning the country to the Christological shape and purpose set forth from colonial times through the founding and having been wrongfully stripped from the constitutional order over time.
David Barton’s historical project is explicitly in this mold. What Barton styles as “historical reclamation” is little less than an exercise in myth-making. Barton claims his research proves not only the Christian faith of America’s Founding Fathers but the Christian nature of the founding itself. Barton is not a trained historian, and his work is largely maligned by serious scholars. As John Fea, a historian at a Messiah College, told NPR’s Barbara Bradley Hagerty in 2012, “David Barton is offering an alternative vision of American history which places God, the providence of God, Christianity, at the center.”
I would take it further. This “alternative” history is dangerous enough as a faulty account of the country’s past. But when it is infused with contemporary politics it becomes a blueprint for undoing some of the central protections that make American democracy liberal. Because the secularism of our system is inextricable from the pluralism it sustains.
Barton has worked hard to spread this fabricated reading of history as far and wide as possible. Despite his lack of training as a historian and the fundamental academic unsoundness of his works, he has served as an expert reviewer for the Texas Education Agency’s Social Studies TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge Skills).
Barton has spoken at my undergraduate school on a number of occasions, a fact that I found dismaying even as a young student. But his claims about America’s founding are widespread on the evangelical right, and it would be reckless to dismiss the danger posed by a program like Barton’s because of its academic insufficiencies.
Speaking at Sunset Avenue Church of God shortly before the 2022 midterms, Charlie Kirk proclaimed, “The Founders had trust in a constitutional style government because they always thought the church would be the counselor to the king.” Such a statement makes a mockery of the idea of separation of church and state, and Kirk wasn’t done. He continued the reworking of both the Bible and U.S. Constitution, declaring, “By the way, every single one of the separation of powers, checks and balances, independent judiciary, they’re all Christian, they’re all biblical.” The broader context makes clear Kirk didn’t simply mean these features were merely consistent with Christianity, which is how some use the qualifier “biblical,” but that the Bible is their conceptual source code.
These faulty assertions perhaps don’t merit much rebuttal from a scholarly point of view. But from a political one, they comprise a harrowingly naked statement of Christian nationalism. And we must remind ourselves of the implications of the truth being asserted here. If we are in fact a nation ordained and ordered along Christian lines, linked by American holy lines from biblical times to 1787 to now, what does that mean for all of those who do not now and perhaps never did fit into the conceptions of society offered by conservative religion?
It is not a harmless or laughable revisionism. The anti-liberal potential of infusing the institutions of law and government with the Christological thought of hardline agitators should be clear. And the pushback on LGBTQ rights is a good example of the very real and practical danger posed.
Here, we can also add gadflies like Matt Walsh and Michael Knowles. Both appeal to Christian theology to make their attacks on LGBTQ Americans and anyone they deem too liberal to be righteous. And they make no bones about the exclusionary consequences of entangling their politics with a warped view of Christianity as both deeply coercive and inseparable from America’s constitutional order.
They are not shy about denying the very right of trans people to exist as themselves, a position that can only be taken as a call for their elimination when placed under any serious scrutiny. Knowles has said, “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.” And Walsh, now hocking a film entitled What Is A Woman?, has declared, “You shouldn’t be allowed to change your gender at all.”
I have seen people suggest that those calling this language genocidal and eliminationist are responding intemperately. But what, really, is the result of banning the procedures by which those with gender dysphoria obtain a fuller expression of their individual selves? What can it be called when this logic is applied categorically? Knowles’s anti-trans rhetoric also comes packaged in Christian spiritualism. On his Daily Wire show, Knowles argued that artistic depictions of demons “are always trans” because “the Devil hates humanity and so he tries to cut away at the very core of humanity.”
The truth here is that the restorationist cause of figures like Barton, Kirk, Walsh, and Knowles to recommit America to a values based on Christian principles is actually an attempt to totally refashion the republic. It is a departure presented as a return. And it is now bursting forth with an energy that increasingly threatens to turn violent and already has on a number of occasions.
Christian nationalism poses a distinct risk to American democracy. Former Arkansas State Senator Jason Rapert recently proclaimed the need for “Christians running every single public office in this nation.” And yes, he means every one, as he rattles off positions from county sheriff to the presidency. Back in 2016, Rapert, along with David Barton and over a dozen other figures on the religious right, signed a “Declaration of Dependence” on God, asserting, “We therefore respectfully reserve the right to refuse any mandate by the government that forces us to fund or support abortion. We also oppose same-sex marriage, polygamy, bestiality, and all other forms of sexual perversion prohibited by Holy Scripture.”
But a democratic takeover of Christian nationalism, like the kind desired by Rapert and the National Association of Christian Lawmakers, is not the most severe threat.
Philip Gorski and Samuel L Perry, two of the world’s leading experts on American Christian nationalism, have said that observers are right to worry about the rising threat of these ideas. In The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy, they argue “[White Christian nationalism] is reactionary. It does not seek to preserve the status quote. Rather, it seeks to destroy the status quo and return to a mythical past … they are even prepared to use violent and revolutionary means.”
Whereas the restorationist camp has positive ideas about what comes after secular, liberal democracy, other anti-democrats work mainly toward a goal of negation. Many far-right, particularly neo-Nazi and white nationalist, groups harbor dreams of dismantling the state, killing members of the government, and bringing forth their desired future in jubilatory expressions of ethnic violence.
It’s true that many of those who stormed the Capitol on January 6 did so under the banner of taking their country back. But, for all the talk of saving America, it was a deeply destructive day.
The federal agents and prosecutors charged with pursuing the January 6 insurrectionists have explicitly argued that the capture and killing of government officials was a central goal for many in the mob that day. With regard to the case Jacob Chansley, the “QAnon Shaman,” prosecutors said, “Strong evidence, including Chansley’s own words and actions at the Capitol, supports that the intent of the Capitol rioters was to capture and assassinate elected officials in the United States government.”
Neo-Nazi and other white nationalist accelerationists greeted the January 6 assault with glee. This unfolded in real time. As Ben Makuch and Mack Lamoureux reported for Vice on the afternoon of January 6, communication channels among these far-right groups were teeming with excited and celebratory messages:
Many of the online accelerationists, who believe acts of terror can lead to the collapse of Western governments, see today’s actions by Trump supporters as the moment violence will be accepted by mainstream conservatives. That lust for chaos and violence was seen on several publicly facing accelerationist channels on Telegram Wednesday afternoon.
In Germany, a similarly annihilationist and accelerationist vision animates the concept of Day X, an extremist far-right conspiracy fueled by a desire to restore German prestige lost to the injustices of two world wars and an internal Jewish menace. As Lauren Jackson summarizes for The New York Times,
Both this alleged plot and the insurrection at the Capitol could be cited as examples of an ‘accelerationist’ ideology, in which far-right groups promise a moment when the institutions of government, society and the economy will be wiped out in a wave of catastrophic violence, clearing the way for a utopia that will supposedly follow.
This obsession with a purifying and clarifying burst of violence is common across white nationalist groups. In The Turner Diaries—the feverish ur-text of accelerationist hate for many modern white supremacist terrorists, including Timothy McVeigh—William Luther Pierce, under the pseudonym of Andrew Macdonald, writes of a future day widespread racial killings carried out as lynchings called “The Day of the Rope.”
One particular group, The Base, has stood out in recent years as a prime example of the accelerationist mindset. Reporting for The New York Times, Neil MacFarquhar and Adam Goldman note that experts “describe the Base as an ‘accelerationist’ organization, seeking to speed the collapse of the country and give rise to a state of its own in the Pacific Northwest by killing minorities, particularly African-Americans and Jews.”
These annihilationists don’t desire to reclaim America so much as to obliterate it. And there is often hope that the chaos created by the country’s disintegration will provide the opportunity for a cleansing period of violence. What they hope to build in the aftermath is without moral content, without basic humanity. Their civilization would be the erection of temples of hate and rage atop the rubble of the republic.
But all authoritarians do not come jackbooted, armed, and impatient for bloodletting. Some see themselves as intellectual pioneers, ready to advance our current system to a morally superior—albeit, inevitably less free—stage by fitting it with new ideas. Here, I want to highlight, as I have done before, the so-called postliberals.
Patrick Deneen has become a leading figure among these thinkers. In this world, an admixture of peculiar Catholic thought and New Right provocation offers what is still base anti-liberalism with a philosophical sheen.
Deneen himself has said, “I don't want to violently overthrow the government. … I want something far more revolutionary.” What exactly is that revolution? Well, it starts with unburdening ourselves from the false pieties of liberalism. As Deneen wrote back in 2021 for the Substack he shares with Vermeule and Pappin, “Liberalism offered to humanity a false illusion of the blessings of liberty at the price of social solidity. It turns out that this promise was yet another tactic employed by an oligarchic order to strip away anything of value from the weak.”
In a deeply compelling new profile of Deneen for Politico Magazine, Ian Ward summarizes the “postliberal” agenda as Deneen sees it:
Instead, the country is split into two warring camps: ‘the Party of Progress’ — a group of liberal and conservative elites who advocate for social and economic “progress” — and the ‘Party of Order,’ a coalition of non-elites who support a populist agenda that combines support for unions and robust checks on corporate power with extensive limits on abortion, a prominent role for religion in the public sphere and far-reaching efforts to eradicate ‘wokeness.’ In his new book Regime Change, out this month, Deneen calls on anti-liberal elites to join forces with the Party of Order to wrest control of political and cultural institutions from the Party of Progress, ushering in a new, non-liberal regime that Deneen and his allies on the right call ‘the postliberal order.’
This infatuation with Orbán is common now on the anti-liberal right. And I’ve written a few times here at Arc about the role of Budapest as both a philosophical and physical Mecca for interlocutors like Dreher, Pappin, and others in that milieu.
Gladden Pappin has praised Hungary’s success in throwing off both its communist and then its liberal shackles. Pondering whether the United States can embrace a liberation from liberalism he writes:
Having become a superpower through the Cold War, the United States produced left-wing and right-wing versions of its ruling ideology, to the exclusion of more ‘strategic’ strains of the American political tradition. Each of those versions of American ruling ideology was endowed with so much in the way of resources that both now weigh down on the body politic as albatrosses, hindering the development of properly strategic thinking. In recent years, the outlines of a more strategic view of American political strength have been put forward by (among others) Julius Krein in the policy space and Adrian Vermeule in the legal arts. … A silhouette of the “white stag”—the mythical deer that drew the brothers Magyar and Hunor to the Carpathian Basin—stands alert at the end of the street, waiting for the reader to give chase. Will Western conservatives abandon liberal democratic ideology and follow the way of political strategy? Hungary, it seems, has already given its answer—yet American conservatives could hardly find a shrewder guide.
Let us take a moment with Adrian Vermeule’s legal thinking, which Gladden alludes to positively above. Vermeule has argued that it is time for the right to abandon originalism as an approach to the U.S. Constitution in favor of an approach he calls “common-good constitutionalism.” It’s a turn of phrase that obfuscates the particular and circumscribed nature of its tenets.
Ian Ward is helpful again here, this time summarizing the thrust of Vermeule’s “postliberal” theory:
In practice, Vermeule’s theory lends support to an idiosyncratic but far-reaching set of far-right objectives: outright bans on abortion and same-sex marriage, sweeping limits on freedom of expression and expanded authorities for the government to do everything from protecting the natural environment to prohibiting the sale of porn.
The interest of self-styled postliberals like Deneen, Vermeule, and Pappin in a kind of sovereign “good” is in a sense a call to transfigure the secularism of liberal constitutionalism into a divinely ordered thing. Deneen objects to this characterization, but all the insistence that there is something genuinely universal about the project is a sleight of hand.
There is no real place for pluralism in their notions of a society ordered around the common good. And it takes only a little lingering to see the dark underpainting bleed through their pastoral portraits of how such a society might look and feel. Homosexuals and trans people? They will be codified out of existence—or anything accounting an existence with meaning and purpose.
Not the End Yet
What I have laid out is a way of thinking about some of the different permutations of anti-democratic extremism and how these strains contemplate the end of American democracy as such.
There is nothing eternal about the system of free government we now enjoy. And that means we can’t afford to treat even the maddest and most profane visions of the political future as impossibilities.
I tend to think that none of these particular doomsday visions will come to pass. I am, at this point probably incurably, an optimist. But I hope that this crude typology is useful for some in thinking through some of the different individuals and ideas menacing our democracy.