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The Politics of Apocalyptic Millennialism

The period immediately prior to a millennial date can be marked by people turning inward in preparation, removing themselves from society, and in extreme cases, committing suicide. Conversely, some who believe the end of time means there will be literally no time for punishment, may act out on their anger by killing their enemies. Other people swept up in millennial expectation target demonized groups for discrimination or violence to cleanse the society, or push it toward the final showdown. During the post-millennial period, people can turn outward, and express anger over failed expectations by blaming scapegoated groups for having prevented the transformation.103

In Robert Fuller's view, apocalyptic fervor is complex, and part of a "literary and theological tradition," that is "transmitted through a variety of cultural institutions that are relatively immune" to certain "social or economic forces."104 Philip Lamy agrees that millennialism has many sources, but contends it generally can be tied to societal conflict and resistance to change.105 An early study of millenarian "Cargo Cults" in the Pacific Islands showed how they grew as a resistance movement against colonialism.106

Millennialist movements in the US often have reflected a manichaean framework of absolute good versus absolute evil. As Jeffrey Kaplan notes:

"A manichaean framework requires the adherent to see the world as the devil's domain, in which the tiny, helpless "righteous remnant" perseveres through the protection of God in the hope that, soon, God will see fit to intervene once and for all in the life of this world."107

This perspective can promote a passive, fatalist response, or can lead some to be pro-active and interventionist, seeking to prepare the way for the anticipated confrontation. Believers can be optimistic or pessimistic about the outcome.

Fuller ties the millennialist viewpoint to the larger issues of demonization and scapegoating when he argues that:

"Many efforts to name the Antichrist appear to be rooted in the psychological need to project one's "unacceptable" tendencies onto a demonic enemy. It is the Antichrist, not oneself, who must be held responsible for wayward desires. And with so many aspects of modern American life potentially luring individuals into nonbiblical thoughts or desire, it is no wonder that many people believe that the Antichrist has camouflaged himself to better work his conspiracies against the faithful."108

In many cases the worldview of the reader or listener determines who gets scapegoated by the conspiracist narrative. Some people exposed to the same conspiracist article or radio program might decide the villains are generic new world order secret elites who are manipulating the government, while others will be convinced it is demonic forces of the Antichrist signaling the apocalyptic End Times. Some, inevitably, will blame it all on the Jews. A skillful wordsmith can address all three audiences at the same time by using coded rhetoric.

The book Trilaterals Over Washington appears to be a secular critique, but it takes on a new dimension when the illustration on the cover is identified as the [many]-headed beast mentioned in Revelation, which in turn gives added meaning to the inside graphic with the headline: "The Trilateral Commission: the Devil's Triangle of your future."109

In some cases the audience provides its own overlay that extrapolates beyond the intended message. C. Wright Mills, G. William Domhoff, and Holly Sklar have written structural and institutional critiques of power that eschew conspiracism.110 Yet right-wing populists cite these works, then claim that more informed research has exposed the nest of secret elites at the source of the conspiracy. Antony C. Sutton's Wall Street and the Rise of Hitler even features a chart showing Sutton names more "conspirators" than Domhoff, meant to prove that Sutton has the superior analysis.111 Both Domhoff and Sklar have expressed exasperation at having their work touted by right-wing conspiracists.112

In November, 1997 the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University held an international symposium to discuss the historical dynamics of apocalypticism. Most of those at the symposium agreed that the track record is bleak. Center director Richard Landes expressed his concern that "most people don't understand how quickly demonization and scapegoating can gain an audience in millennial times, particularly when believers become disappointed and frustrated."

Landes hopes the current millennial moment can have a positive outcome, and that apocalyptic fervor can be directed away from scapegoating and toward constructive and self-reflective renewal projects.113 Stephen O'Leary points out that this will be tricky, "the study of apocalyptic argument leads to the conclusion that its stratagems are endless, and not susceptible to negation through rational criticism."114 He suggests patience, a sense of tragedy in history, and a sense of humor in interaction as the best strategies for mending communities that have experienced the trauma of apocalyptic confrontation.

As we approach the millennium, there is an increase in, and a convergence of: apocalyptic thinking, demonization, scapegoating, and conspiracism. At the same time we are in the midst of the longest right-wing backlash movement since the end of Reconstruction. Ritual purification campaigns by the Christian Right continue to spread divisiveness. For some apocalyptic Christians, the End Times have arrived, and the witch hunt for satanic agents has begun in earnest. A right-wing populist revolt against globalization blames secret elites and sinister conspiracies. Clinic attacks, terrorist bombings, and racist murders can be linked to increasing apocalyptic preparation or retribution. Yet there has been reluctance to recognize the pattern and face the dilemma, despite numerous books on the subject by serious scholars.

Apocalyptic conspiracy theories played a role in the criminal cases of John C. Salvi, 3d, convicted in the murder of two reproductive health center workers and the wounding of five others, and the case of Francisco Martin Duran, who sprayed the White House with bullets. Duran was known to listen to a conspiracy-mongering right-wing Colorado-based radio talk show hosted by Chuck Baker that broadcast conspiratorial claims by adherents to the Patriot and armed militia movements.115 Both Duran and Salvi showed signs of psychological disturbance.

Salvi was arguably mentally ill, and later committed suicide in jail. Prior to his deadly rampage, Salvi distributed lurid photographs of fetuses from Human Life International. He began quoting from Revelation and warning about the need for increased vigilance and action among devout Catholics.116 He had expressed interest in the armed militia movement. Much of John Salvi's rhetoric about the corrupt money system echoed themes in the Michael Journal. Magazines found in Salvi's residence included The New American and The Fatima Crusader, both published by right-wing groups promoting conspiracist theories and vociferously opposing abortion and homosexuality.117 One issue of The New American found in John Salvi's possession contained an article exploring the idea that killing an abortion provider might be morally justified, an idea promoted in some militant anti-abortion circles.118

Some people with a mental illness who carry out acts of violence cannot successfully control their fears and anger and act them out against real targets. Salvi's psychological condition was not demonstrated by his claims about a banking conspiracy, which are commonplace in the Catholic apocalyptic right, nor was his choice of targets random.119 Certainly a person like Salvi does not represent the mainstream of Catholicism, the anti-abortion movement, or the US political right, but he expresses the views of a durable subculture with conspiracist views that target scapegoats.

This dynamic of rhetoric triggering violence functions more easily among the mentally ill. But scapegoats can be injured or killed by those people--no matter what their mental state--who act out their conspiratorial beliefs in a zealous manner. The failure of political and religious leaders to take strong public stands against groups and individuals that demagogically spread scapegoating conspiracist theories encourages this dangerous dynamic. Yet when President Clinton spoke out against the rhetoric of demonization following the Oklahoma City bombing, he was criticized by pundits across the political spectrum.120

Many questions need more study. When does demonizing rhetoric by demagogues motivate action among followers who are not mentally ill? Why and when do seemingly sane followers of ideological leaders begin to act out their beliefs through violence? When and how does apocalyptic violence become a mass movement? How and when can it become state policy?

Right-wing populist movements can cause serious damage to a society because they often popularize xenophobia, authoritarianism, scapegoating, and conspiracism. This can lure mainstream politicians to adopt these themes to attract voters, legitimize acts of discrimination (or even violence), and open the door for revolutionary right-wing populist movements, such as fascism, to recruit from the reformist populist movements.

According to Richard K. Fenn:

Fascist tendencies are most likely to flourish wherever vestiges of a traditional community, bound together by ties of race and kinship, persist in a society largely dominated by large-scale organizations, by an industrial class system, and by a complex division of labor. Under these conditions the traditional community itself becomes threatened; its members all the more readily dread and demonize the larger society.121

Fenn argues that apocalyptic themes that lead to this tendency can be found in all three of the political tendencies examined in this study: the Christian Right, Patriot and armed militia movements, and the fascist right.122

By understanding the apocalyptic and millennialist roots of the conspiracist narratives peddled by right-wing populist forces, we can better understand why their claims--that seem on the surface to be outlandish--nonetheless resonate in certain alienated sectors of our society.123

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