During the 2016 Republican National Convention Donald Trump outlined his nationalist agenda, offering a neologism and the proclamation: “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo.” This credo provided the framework for much of the campaign’s message, articulated in its final video ad in which dramatic images of shuttered factories and an ominously dark sky over the US capital are contrasted with bright images of Trump campaign rallies. In the ad, “the global special interests” are blamed for supporting trade, immigration, and foreign policies over national interests. Despite a global scientific consensus of the increasing public health, economic, and ecological threats posed by climate change, this topic remained either ignored or ridiculed on the campaign trail. Instead, a consistent focus on borders framed immigrants and the “special interests” that supported immigration as the most significant threats facing the United States. Continually emphasizing this nationalist credo worked to unite disparate elements of the US right, including drawing support from the white nationalist and white evangelical movements.
Despite his ability to galvanize various aspects of the US Right, much of the popular liberal response to Trump’s victory focused on the issue of economic disenfranchisement. Despite its popularity, this analysis of class resentment as a driver of Trump’s success did not match the evidence. Exit polls showed that Trump did not have particular appeal among the white working class. In fact only around 35% of his supporters had incomes below $50,000 (Carnes and Lupu 2017). His support didn’t cluster around a class demographic, but did cluster around a racial one. He won every demographic of white Americans, with the one exception of college-educated white women. The resentment fueling his success is then both racial and economic (Brown 2018).
If Trump was the answer, then what was the question? This is important to ask because how we understand the appeal of this nationalist credo leads to very different analyses. The narrative of a working-class white revolt centers the crisis of class inequality as the key problem. From this, the coastal and college-educated elites, increasing class-stratification, and stagnating wages are the culprits fueling these roots of rage. In contrast, thinking about the Trump victory as centrally about race raises a different set of questions about what allowed for such widespread support among white Americans across class, regional, and educational demographics.
This isn’t to argue that class is irrelevant to the politics that brought Trump to the White House. As we discuss in the introduction, all authoritarian movements stems from a unique conjuncture of factors endemic to neoliberal economics. The shuttered factory in Trump’s final campaign ad signaled a broader critique of economic disenfranchisement that attended the shift from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. While not wanting to deny the relevance of this critique in the campaign, I show the ways that we cannot separate out race and class in our analysis of this movement. Rather, they must be understood together.
Trump’s rhetoric fits within a broader pattern of authoritarian and populist leaders engaging in what I am calling an economic critique for some. This pattern tends to involve a combination of economic critique embedded in a critique of the loss of another form of power. In Trump’s case, the campaign successfully merged fear of economic and racial change. If this was a revolt, then, it articulated a racial logic. This is a challenging argument to make as white people are seldom looked at as a cohesive group with their own interests. There is a long history of whiteness standing in for the norm and as the norm, whiteness is often conceptualized as an absence of identity, an absence that does not lend itself to any kind of self-conscious interest (c.f. Carter 2007; Dyer 1997; Frankenberg 1994).
In this chapter I seek to explore the racial dimensions of this nationalist credo, focusing specifically on the white evangelical and white nationalist movements, two groups that have remained some of Trump’s most loyal supporters. While white nationalists are overtly organized around defending white racial privilege, white evangelicals understand themselves as defending Christian interests, not racial ones. However, evangelical churches and political movements are deeply divided by race (Emerson, Smith, and Sikkink 1999; Emerson and Smith 2000; Edgell and Tranby 2002; Jones and Francis 2012). For decades white evangelicals have remained one of the largest voting blocs in the US, making up roughly a quarter of the electorate voting around 80% Republican. The white nationalist movement is minuscule in both numbers and influence compared to the Religious Right. They remain very different movements. Despite these important differences, both groups are animated by many similar hierarchies and ideologies. There is much to be said about the gendered politics of these movements as both movements are organized around defending patriarchal gender relations, something I write about elsewhere (Bjork-James, ND). Here, I focus on the ways that these two movements share a breadth of similar ideas and values.
In this chapter I will compare two iconic texts that help to define these movements: the white nationalist The Turner Diaries (Macdonald 1996), broadly known as the Bible of the racist right, and the white evangelical Left Behind Series (LaHaye and Jenkins 1995), a sixteen-book franchise that includes several movies and a stand-alone children’s book series. Through showing the similarities of these texts—particularly their views on international governing bodies, a distinction between grievable and ungrievable life, and understandings of the environment—I show the underlying ideologies that structure these movements and how they resonate with Trump’s Americanism. These texts demonstrate the ideology that animates these movements and how this ideology primed movement members to support Trump’s campaign.
Each text frames their protagonists as victims of an aggressive enemy, and thus does the difficult work of reframing a privileged identity (Christian and/or white) as a persecuted group. Turning dominant groups into victims justifies a wide variety of violence, something I explore in detail in this analysis. It also produces a sense of justified anger. In effect, both texts rest on the idea of a chosen people who are threatened by groups that are immoral, inferior, and evil. The political thrust of these novels is found not in their advocacy of a particular political position, but in their construction of this notion of a chosen people who are imperiled and thus whose violence is justified. In these constructions class is not a concern, rather group similarities are stressed, and problems stem from either outsiders or in-group members who don’t defend the group. Democracy here, including global democratic institutions, becomes a dangerous obstacle, for why would one want to share political power with a foreign enemy focused on destruction?
I explore how this stoking of anger and false sense of persecution relates to Trump’s rhetorical Americanist credo. For, just as in each text, the Trump campaign framed an implicitly raced nation as persecuted by foreign enemies harboring ill will and threatening plans. And cultivating this sense of victimhood on the campaign trail procured a paired anger against these imagined threats.
I have researched these two movements for over ten years, having studied an online white nationalist website with over 300,000 members since 2004, and white evangelical megachurches in Colorado since 2008. During the 2016 presidential campaign I was caught off guard seeing both movements so completely rally around the same candidate. These movements tend to support different political actors, largely over divergent perspectives on US foreign relations with Israel. White evangelicals are deeply committed to US military support for Israel and white nationalists are equally committed to anti-Semitism.1 In my decade studying these movements I have never seen them rally support for the same candidate, although the Tea Party movement did galvanize both groups in different ways. However, analyzing these texts points to the unifying principles shared by these movements that the Trump campaign worked to mobilize.
Both texts were written by movement leaders intent on converting new members and encouraging their movements. Tim Lahaye described his goal with the novels as helping people to “be prepared.” A 2007 Time magazine article quotes an evangelical stating, the novels “helped me to look at the news that’s going on about Israel and Palestine,” seeing it as “just ushering in the End Times, and it’s exciting for me” (quoted in McAlister 2007, 213). Pierce similarly wrote Turner Diaries with the hope of inspiring converts and movement members. Pierce went so far as to say that McVeigh’s bombing, clearly inspired by his book, overall helped the movement. These texts are also wildly popular within these movements. Though not everyone in each movement ascribes to all ideas in these texts, they have had significant real-world effects in shaping how members of these movements understand the world around them.
In many ways these are very different texts. William Luther Pierce first published the Turner Diaries in serial form in the racist magazine Attack!, of the National Alliance, using the pseudonym Andrew Macdonald. The novel became central to white supremacist circles in the 1980s and 1990s, coming to national attention when Timothy McVeigh brought photocopies of the novel in a manila envelope and a massive homemade bomb to the federal building in Oklahoma City. The bombing closely resembles a bombing described in the novel. The book is also linked to dozens of bank robberies and over two hundred murders in forty terrorist attacks (Berger 2016). While it is popular amongst the racist right it far from a commercial success. It is not widely available, but used copies can be purchased online and are circulated among recruits. It is however widely revered in nationalist and neo-Nazi online forums. It can also be delivered via interlibrary loan, where I received a copy. The Anti-Defamation League describes the novel as “probably the most widely read book among far-right extremists.”2 Aside from McVeigh, a number of white nationalist groups have formed over the last forty years inspired directly from the novel.
In contrast, the Left Behind series is the most popular Christian fiction franchise of the past thirty years. Total sales for the series are estimated around 80 million copies and seven books made it to the number one spot on the New York Times bestseller list. For some measure, this is more sales than either the Little House on the Prairie franchise or the Hunger Games books. Religious Right leader Jerry Falwell commented on the first book, "In terms of its impact on Christianity, it's probably greater than that of any other book in modern times, outside the Bible.” Several prequel books supplemented the original twelve-book series, a separate set of kids Left Behind novels were published, and several feature films based on the books have come out. The novels were written by Bob Jones university graduate and theologian Tim LaHaye and the novelist Jerry B. Jenkins. LaHaye, along with his wife Beverley, were longtime Religious Right activists. He was widely regarded as a theologian, minister, and an expert in prophesy within conservative Christian circles. He founded the Tim LaHaye School of Prophecy at Falwell’s Liberty University. His standing as a well know theologian and expert in prophesy provided the novels with a sense of theological legitimacy so that many read them not merely as fiction, but as a prophetic blueprint. The novels are credited as widely inspiring a fascination with eschatology within evangelicalism. One can still go to leftbehind.com to find a piece by LaHaye and Jenkins saying, “Many are asking, “How long can it be until the end of history, the end of life as we know it?” Indeed, in my research among megachurches in Colorado Springs, Sunday morning sermons frequently involved some form of prayer asking for Jesus’ speedy return, praying for the end of days to be upon us soon.
Let me next outline the similarities between these texts, which are substantial. Each text is authored by an activist who has crafted their narrative with the goal of recruiting new members. Each focuses on a small revolutionary group of white male leaders fighting a morally corrupt global governmental force, although Left Behind includes several people of color in the larger military group, and both groups include white women as subordinate members. Each narrative is premillennial, in that the goal of the group is achieving a utopian society birthed out of apocalyptical destruction (Brodie 1998). Creating the utopian society requires the death of the majority of people on the planet, and the destruction of all or most of the world’s environment. Each tells the story of a government set on confiscating guns, which is followed by widespread repressive actions by the state. Each involves a successful love interest for a protagonist, and each book ends with a heroic white male leader dying in battle, in whose death he secures immortality. Israel and Jewish people are a focus of each, although in different ways. In one, victory is achieved through the destruction of the nation of Israel, whereas in the other victory is achieved through the destruction of the whole of the world except for Jerusalem, when a third of Israel enters heaven. In each, war creates a lasting peace, and the world is clearly divided between grievable and ungrievable life. Both novels glorify violence, both going so far as to describe a key battle as creating “rivers of blood” and violence is described in gory detail in each text.
Despite celebrating death, the authors of each book frame their armies as engaging in moral work. Death and destruction, including the destruction of the environment, are necessary steps in achieving this utopia. And the enemy lines are always crystal clear, with the protagonists always and only on the side of good. Violence here is both moral and necessary. To understand this seeming contradiction we can turn to historian Claudia Koonz’ work on Nazi Germany. Koonz argues that morality is rooted in an agreement of reciprocity that is exclusive. As she writes, the “universe of moral obligation, far from being universal, is bounded by community” (Koonz 2003, 5). Thus, each narrative divides humanity very clearly into an us and them, with morality defining the us, and evil defining the them, and military might, war, and death become requirements for winning against evil.
Despite their differences these novels show that white evangelicalism and white nationalism are organized around similar apocalyptical narratives. Each text adheres to a premillennial apocalyptic belief, where achieving the group’s goals will result in both an apocalypse and a long period of peace for the victors. And for our topic, both prioritize a moral order worth dying for. Both see global forces as evil, and frame the destruction of the earth as a utilitarian requirement for achieving utopia. Exploring these understandings of the future, the nation, and the environment help to show how Trump’s Americanism credo fostered such widespread support amongst these two movements. Comparing these texts shows that despite their differences, they share similar apocalyptical narratives, ideologies, ontologies, and understandings of the future. Next let me introduce these texts in more detail.
The Turner Diaries
On the first page of the narrative the US government bans all guns for private citizens. The government is controlled by “the System,” a group of Jewish politicians supported by people of color, with white liberals in subordinate positions and the banning of guns is an act of aggression against white power. The novel is organized around diary entries from the protagonist, Earl Turner, who joins a white nationalist military force—the Organization—that forms to challenge the Jewish-led government. Led by a secretive group of men called the Order, it engages in a variety of military actions, eventually creating a white enclave in Southern California.
In establishing this racist utopia, Pierce lays out a map of the types of political murder and ethnic cleansing that are required for creating such a society. One of the most violent examples is described as the “Day of the Rope,” in which tens of thousands of race traitors are hung from lampposts across LA. Describing the gruesome violence Turner writes, “It is frighteningly clear now that there is no way to win the struggle in which we are engaged without shedding torrents—veritable rivers—of blood” (79).
Unlike the Tribulation Force, the militia leading the fight against the antichrist in Left Behind and focuses on the importance of conversion to Christianity, the Organization introduces its readers to both a racial conspiracy and instructions on building a militarized force, from storing caches of weapons to building bombs. A theme of the book is the conversion of former white liberals into activists espousing the importance of a white racial identity. The love interest in the novel, Katherine, is described in this way, moving from an apolitical worker into a dedicated white supremacist activist after encountering a conspiracy that Jews control society. In this claiming of a racial identity, characters find a profound sense of meaning and peace in the world. Katherine’s conversion is described in this way: “Most important, she began acquiring a sense of racial identity, overcoming a lifetime of brainwashing aimed at reducing her to an isolated human atom in a cosmopolitan chaos” (29).
The environment becomes a useful tactic in this race war. The Organization eventually secures several nuclear bombs, detonating them in NYC, Detroit, and Baltimore. The southeast US becomes uninhabitable after being hit by several nuclear bombs. Puerto Rico is described as a new all-white colony by whites fleeing the radioactive southeast.
Alongside this widespread destruction we learn that members of the system have killed Katherine. This is the only death in the book that is mourned, and Turner goes through a devastating depression after her death. This is contrasted to the coldness with which the destruction of whole cities, including widespread radiation sickness among the white people in these regions, is justified as necessary and deserving.
In a passage explaining that tolerating the System is just as bad as supporting it, Turner writes, “talk of ‘innocents’ has no meaning. We must look at our situation collectively, in a race-wide sense. We must understand that our race is like a cancer patient undergoing drastic surgery in order to save his life. There is no sense in asking whether the tissue being cut out now is ‘innocent’ or not” (198). Innocence and suffering are not concerns of this movement, moral righteousness is instead the focus. And death is portrayed as cleansing.
Eventually Turner joins the Order, the elite military cabal that leads the Organization, where he is offered a suicide mission to deliver a nuclear bomb to the Pentagon, to sound the death knell of the System. Through this suicide bombing he achieves everlasting life. The eventual global success of the System is accomplished through widespread environmental destruction. After Europe is taken over by the Organization, China attempts to invade “European Russia,” to which the Organization responds with “chemical, biological, and radiological means” so that “some 16 million square miles of the earth’s surface, from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific and from the Arctic Ocean to the Indian Ocean, were effectively sterilized” (210). This destruction is celebrated in the text as part of a global victory for white supremacy. Again, carnage is portrayed as cleansing.
The novel ends with an epilogue in which a future society reflects back on the importance of Turner in ensuring that “the Order would spread its wise and benevolent rule over the earth for all time to come” (211). Millennial themes are central to the structure of the text (Brodie 1998).
The Left Behind Series
The novels begin when millions of people around the world are raptured to heaven as a sign of the beginning of the end of days. In the wake of the disappearance, a group of primarily white Americans begin to unite and form a secretive militia called the Tribulation Force. The core group is made up of European Americans, with significant interactions with African Americans (first appearing in book four), a Native American, Muslim-American converts, and several Israelis. Just as in the broader white evangelical culture, the leaders of this book series are all white, American men (see Frykholm 2004).
In the aftermath of the chaos caused by the disappeared, the fictional former president of Romania, Nicolae Carpathia, begins a rise to global power. He first becomes the Secretary General of the UN, and it is in his workings in the UN that the nationalist vision of the series is laid bare. As the newly appointed Secretary General, Carpathia puts forward several positions that fit within a leftist agenda, but in this telling they are part of a sinister plot to persecute Christians and to achieve satanic global domination. As head of the UN, Carpathia convinces world governments to abolish 90% of their weapons and to donate the remainder to the UN. He calls for a “global village,” wants to end hunger, and asserts his goal is world peace. Carpathia then disbands the UN and replaces it with a new global government titled, the “Global Community.” It soon becomes clear that Carpathia is actually the antichrist incarnate. A prominent Muslim character, the Pakistani Suhail Akbar, become Carpathia’s chief of security.
The Global Community disbands old nation-states and establishes new territories, including the United North American States. While the apocalyptical story begins in the United States, with characters from California and Illinois, Israel quickly becomes a key site of the story. In the twelfth book, Carpathia, who was killed in an earlier book, is resurrected as Satan himself and wages a battle against Christ.
In the graphic depictions of this battle, the Global Community—the rebranded UN—serves as an agent of evil, working to implement Satan’s goals. In this text the death and murder of Carpathia’s army, known as the Global Community Peacekeepers, is understood as the work of God. In one passage, the death of a carload of Global Peacekeepers is described in gruesome detail as they are turned into skeletons, made no longer human through a gruesome death. This death is not mourned but glorified, the authors write: “The declared enemies of God were being decimated around the world” (279).
In this series death is the requirement for creating peace. In book three, twenty-five percent of the world’s population dies after an earthquake, after which the sun goes red. In book six, horsemen destroy another twenty-five percent of the world’s population, although Christian lives are spared in this battle. In the final apocalyptical skirmish, Jesus has returned and the antichrist’s army is experiencing defeat. The authors describe this as a celebratory carnage. They write, “The great army was in pandemonium, tens of thousands at a time screaming in terror and pain and dying in the open air. Their blood poured from them in great waves, combining to make a river that quickly became a swamp” (249). Such death and suffering is celebrated in the text. In a subsequent scene Jesus appears, and the writers have Jesus condemn those who have died.
The narrative then quickly turns from a celebration of carnage to exaltations of love. The authors cite extensively from 1st John 4, with no recognition of the overt shift in tone from the former scenes of carnage, quoting: “Beloved, love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (259). The text is portrayed as if there is no contradiction between celebrating murder and commandments to love, as Carpathia’s army is portrayed as outside the bounds of moral reciprocity.
Similar to the Turner Diaries, the destruction of the earth serves a utilitarian function in this cosmic war, and it is in these descriptions that life is clearly divided between grievable and ungrievable. Just before Jesus wins this battle with Satan, a global earthquake occurs: “Islands disappeared. Mountains were leveled. The entire face of the planet had been made level, save for the city of Jerusalem itself” (275). Here the rendering of the earth as unlivable is not a cause for concern but for celebration. For the Lord appears in the sky celebrating Jerusalem, and the faithful Tribulation Force who have all long converted to Christianity are joyously awaiting their conversion into martyrs. They wait impatiently in a cosmic queue to meet their loved ones in heaven. In this story the earth is no longer relevant, heaven is promised, and is elsewhere.
There are several lessons that stem from exploring the similar themes that span these narratives, particularly in comparing their millennial understandings about war, the earth, and the future. In this next section I turn to these similarities, focusing on three themes that animate each text and the movements they inspire. These similarities demonstrate a wide array of objectives that unite these two disparate movements, showing how this ideological training can direct their supporters in a similar political direction.
While both texts are structured around millennialist narratives, millennial movements vary significantly. The Christian Identity movement, a white supremacist movement that is rooted in Christian beliefs, rejects the understandings of the rapture promulgated by much of the white evangelical movement (see Barkun 1997, 103–5). The Turner Diaries is not officially a part of the Christian Identity movement, but it has been widely read within it. Nazism itself was structured around a millennial narrative, employing both apocalyptical plans and the promise of a “Thousand-Year Reich” (Redles 2008). Millennial movements can lead to very different political outcomes, but this analysis points to a variety of similarities that cross these movements.
The Nation Against the World
Both texts renounce international obligations and portray global governing bodies as resolutely evil. And in each, destroying these bodies is a key strategy for achieving movement goals. In the Turner Diaries “the System” is an international Jewish cabal. In Left Behind, the UN and its efforts to alleviate hunger and reduce conflict become strategies of the antichrist to establish global domination and to attack Christianity. Thus, in both texts international bodies are conduits of evil.
Given that global bodies are portrayed in these texts in such a negative light, it should not be surprising that these political movements also tend to oppose international obligations and organizations. For the white nationalist movement, international governing agencies are frequently derided for supporting the state of Israel, and are seen as an anti-white effort to challenge the rule of European countries and people of European decent. In conservative evangelicalism, the discourse of American exceptionalism inspires a focus on the nation form, and a disavowal of international obligations.
In 2007, Richard Cizik, the then Vice-President of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the largest evangelical body, invited Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General of the UN, to a meeting to discuss climate change. Cizik said of the meeting, "My joke is, some people will say the evangelical Christians have invited the Antichrist to the Last Supper” (quoted in Milbank 2007). The popularity of Left Behind among evangelicals has inspired a broad disdain for the UN, for obvious reasons. Cizek’s leadership focused on shifting the culture of evangelicalism to support environmental protections, garnering the nickname the “green evangelist.” His efforts to expand evangelical politics beyond a Religious Right agenda made him increasingly unpopular within the NAE. He eventually left the NAE in 2008, due to increasing conflicts particularly over his stances on same-sex marriage and climate change.
Given the wide disdain for international governing bodies in these novels, it is clear why Trump’s nationalist message might be appealing to these movements. Trump’s criticism of global special interests fits well within each narrative. White nationalist can read this as a critique of a Jewish-run system and white evangelicals can understand it as a critique of a liberal order susceptible to evil.
Grievable and Ungrievable Life
The next theme that unites these texts is a very clear demarcation of grievable from ungrievabel life. As Judith Butler (2016) reminds us, this distinction is not the exclusive domain of these movements, but it remains a central theme in them. And in these narratives death and destruction are required for establishing utopia, they thus encourage celebration not grief or mourning. Tim LaHaye described the bloodshed of his books in this way: “The Rapture is a time of incredible mercy and grace. If you only look at the people who defy God, it's a negative time. But if you look at the whole population, it's a blessed time” (BeliefNet 2003). And as the interpreters of this biblical story, LaHaye and Jenson revel in this death. Death is cleansing, and offers immortal life.
In both texts it is not just that certain lives are worth living, but that death and destruction are necessary steps to creating a utopian end goal. This understanding is part of a modern, European and European-American understanding of the regenerative properties of war. In Society Must Be Defended, Foucault (2003, 257) writes, “In the nineteenth century—and this is completely new—war will be seen not only as a way of improving one’s own race by eliminating the enemy race… but also as a way of regenerating one’s own race.” This theme is also found in Richard Slotkin’s (1973) far-reaching history of the role of the idea of the frontier in US culture. Slotkin argues that the frontier serves as a space for a particular type of American masculinity to be formed based on what he calls “regeneration through violence.” Through venturing out into the perceived space outside of civilizing influences, white men achieved a form of masculinity through the enactment of violence on others dubbed uncivilized. Through spatializing this violence, white masculinity was defined as virile and strong, while simultaneously innocent and morally pure. The frontier and the uncivilized living on it became the source of violence, whereas white masculinity only travels there temporarily, returning to civilization pure and cleansed. This spatiatlization of violence did the crucial work of justifying colonial expansion as morally necessary, and the violence perpetrated by European-American men was deemed justified and provoked.
Both texts perpetuate this notion in extraordinarily similar ways. In each, excessive violence enacted by white male protagonists is projected as stemming from their enemies, and is thus always already justified. Their violence then acts as a source of moral action, and thus as in each celebrating love alongside destruction is not contradictory. Indeed, the excessive violence outlined in gory detail in these texts is understood by readers as attributable to these evil others, and not an explicit product of the imagination of their white male authors. Thus, both LaHaye and Pierce can describe their imagined rivers of blood as securing moral purity for their protagonists, perpetuating a long history of understanding violence as regenerative. Cruelty, pain, and despair are understood as promulgated by those deemed other, even as the violence is generated from their respective author’s imaginations. Both texts thus prime their readers to justify war, to disregard the harm caused by military actions, and to disregard the suffering of others, so long as the harm is perpetrated against those outside of the moral community. And in each, the destruction of the earth and resulting human suffering is understood as acts of a moral force, not a cause for grieving.
Again, Claudia Koonz’s (2003) work is important in understanding how moral communities justify violence through defining who belongs and who remains outside the community. Koonz writes,
Conscience, as we usually think of it, is an inner voice that admonishes ‘Thou shalt’ and ‘Though shalt not.’ Across cultures, an ethic of reciprocity commands that we treat others as we wish to be treated. Besides instructing us in virtue, the conscience fulfills a second, and often overlooked, function. It tells us to whom we shall and shall not do what. It structures our identity by separating those who deserve our concern from alien ‘others’ beyond the pale of our community. Our moral identity prompts us to ask, ‘Am I the kind of person who would do that to this person?’
With this moral demarcation in mind, we can see that both texts are teaching their movements to similarly see the world as divided between a moral “us” and an immoral “them.” In this way love is an appropriate emotion for those recognized as belonging to the shared community. Outside of those bounds, evil awaits, and requires violence.
A final theme undergirding both texts involves a particular aspect of their millennial visions: each portrays the destruction of the environment in utilitarian terms. In each, it is not only violence against humans that is portrayed as regenerating. This idea is actually extended to include the natural environment, so that the destruction of nature involves cleansing properties. In each, achieving utopia is only possible through the destruction of the earth.
Here I show how these ideas relate to what scholars of religion and race describe as platonized theology. Kelly Brown Douglas (2006) refers to this theological tradition as a separation of body from mind so that, “The body is condemned as a source of sin.” This European tradition shapes much of North American Christianity and manifests, as Douglas argues, in an understanding that sexual desires are a primary source of sin. Through this division the body becomes the site and source of evil, while the spirit alone is the site of potential purity. In these texts we can see the operationalization of these ideas onto a broader environmental ethic. Understanding this division helps to elucidate far more than why sexuality is so prevalent in contemporary Christian politics.
In both The Turner Diaries and the Left Behind series we can see this platonized cultural logic from the denigration of the human body to the denigration of nature. What then becomes important is beyond the confines of life on earth. Corporeality itself loses significance in contrast to a separated and pure moral realm that is elsewhere. In this way, the place where one lives, the broader ecosystem that one resides within, the networks that ensure drinkable water and food, become insignificant. Instead the apotheosis of their movements is elsewhere, or nowhere.
This occurs in different ways in these two narratives, and in thinking about these texts through this lens it is the Left Behind series that is far more violent. For in Left Behind the earth is merely a holding cell where battles occur between good and evil so that those who prevail receive the real reward, a heaven elsewhere. This understanding is shared widely by white evangelicals, and speaks to why white evangelicals remain fairly politically silent on matters of environmental protection. As an example, 2014 PEW poll found that only 28% of white evangelicals believe that climate change is caused by human activity (Funk and Alper 2015). This makes white evangelicals the single largest demographic group in the US to doubt the reality of human-caused climate change.
In my research on evangelicalism in the US, I rarely saw evidence of concern for the environment. Evangelicals who do advocate for environmental protections, such as the group Young Evangelicals for Environmental Action, refer to this broader evangelical eschatalogical tradition as an “escape ship theology.” They critique the idea put forward by LaHaye and Jenkins and many others that the end of times will lead to the end of the earth. Many evangelical environmentalists offer a competing theological interpretation that believes that heaven instead will be made here on earth. This framing challenges the platinized theological stance and thus centers a need to care for the environment.
This separation of body and earth from spirit is also placed on a grid which deems the present as less significant than a future end goal, thus the planet and planetary suffering are not causes of concern but are steps for securing an end goal. The Turner Diaries poses a different understanding of the earth and the end times, so that the future paradise takes place on the earth, but is contained to the areas not sacrificed by nuclear war. And to achieve this, the land worth living on is the property of whites and much of the world becomes uninhabitable in the process.
In conclusion let me go back to the Trump campaign and to one of the questions guiding this volume, specifically the role sentiments play in shaping contemporary nationalist movements. Many have commented on the centrality of anger associated with the Trump campaign. I argue that part of the appeal of Trump’s Americanist credo is that it portrayed the nation as both persecuted and dominant. This is embedded in the promise to Make America Great Again! The again is the crucial word in the phrase in that it contains the promise of American dominance alongside a narrative of decline. The ambiguousness of the term great is also part of the appeal, in that its meaning is dependent on each listener. The unifying message is one of decline and a promised ascendance, the causes and consequence of the decline and the ascendance can vary based on constituent interpretation. Just as in the novels, this message primarily reframes the nation as persecuted, and the anger rallied about this decline remained a driving force of the campaign.
In relation to the question of emotion and politics, we can narrow this to ask: how does emotion shape understandings of truth? And what are the political effects of this epistemological and affective training?3 In a discussion of the role of anger in feminist politics, Sara Ahmed (2004, 171) writes: “It is not that anger at women’s oppression ‘makes us feminist’: such anger already involves a reading of the world in a particular way.” In this way Ahmed directs the analysis away from emotion as the primary site of political mobilization, but instead directs us to the interpretive training that allows us to understand political messages in particular ways, eliciting particular feelings. Ahmed (2004, 171) continues, “emotions are what move us, and how we are moved involves interpretation of sensations and feeling not only in the sense that we interpret what we feel, but also in that we might be dependent on past interpretations that are not necessarily made by us, but that come before us.” Thus, even in seemingly non-political arenas, emotional-ethical interpellations shape the possibilities of political behavior in significant ways, largely through forming interpretive frames to shape specific emotional responses.
Thinking about interpretive framing in relation to the content of the novels analyzed here helps to show how the very different movements of white nationalism and white evangelicalism could so clearly be mobilized by the same message. A primary focus of these novels is the cultivation of a justified anger and a sense of persecution, a reframing of dominant identities as victims. This message of both moral superiority and victimhood maps well onto the MAGA credo, particularly when we also consider the gendered politics of these texts, which center the actions of white men.
We can also see in the Americanist credo elements of each of the three dominant themes from the novels, specifically: the denunciation of international obligations; the construction of a moral national community where some lives matter, some lives are welcome, and others should be sacrificed; and a trivialization of the physical places where we reside and that nurture us.
Framing conservative politics as rooted solely in working class anger ignores the centrality of race and gender in conservative mobilizations. It denies the broader ideological training that is fostered by various conservative movements that work to reframe whiteness, and white Christianity, as a persecuted identity and not one benefiting from a variety of institutionalized privileges. Class inequality is indeed a significant problem, and the deindustrialization of the United States has had wide-ranging negative impacts. However, class and race are difficult to separate in the US context, and class alone is not the main factor shaping Trump’s political success. It seems clear from the analysis here that he was successful at mobilizing conservative agendas that frame white masculinity or white Christian masculinity as threatened. And just as in Left Behind and The Turner Diaries, the threats stem from a morally inferior other. And just as in the novels, environmental destruction remains ungrievable.
Locating Trump’s appeal in a class critique misses much of the causes of anger that fueled his campaign’s success. Trumps campaign was able to frame the racially privileged in the US as though they are under threat. Thinking through Trump’s authoritarian bent alongside these novels, we can also see a deeply anti-democratic tradition sponsored by these movements. Recent research shows an inverse relationship between white racial prejudice and support for democratic values (Miller and Davis 2018), a concern made clearly visible in these works of fiction, and made manifest in Trump’s campaign success.
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A common believe in white evangelicalism is that Israel, as a Jewish state, will play an important role in the return of Jesus and that US support for Israel needs to be strong (for context see Spector 2008; Wilkinson 2007).↩
Affect theory breaks down into two basic camps. One understanding, articulated in Massumi’s (2002) work, argues that bodily sensations are autonomous from thought and will determine the possibilities of action. Another camp, articulated in the work of Ahmed (2010)and Berg and Zayas (2015), instead understands affect as something closer to a “structure of feeling” (Williams 1977). My approach to affect follows this latter understanding, that recognizes affect as intersubjective and produced through material encounters.↩