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In my humble opinion, Donald Trump was the best president the United States has had since the Civil War. He was not particularly smart, noble, honest, or even endearing, but made up for these shortcomings by holding a superbly polished mirror up to the American people and refusing to let us look away from it.
From the moment people first saw their collective reflection, some concluded they did not like it. As a consequence, Trump became the enemy, the evil “other” whose erasure, banishment, or exorcism would solve so many problems. Though his rhetoric certainly emboldened and incited public displays of bigotry and prejudice, his primary offense was always that he showed the world who Americans are.
Even a cursory understanding of US history illustrates that bigotry was written into the country’s social contract from its inception. That bigotry arrived on this continent with Christopher Columbus in 1492. It motivated the genocide of the indigenous peoples who had lived here since time immemorial. It inspired the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of Africans. It persists because it provides many Euro-descended people a means to assuage their feelings of shame and guilt about their collective history on this continent, and because the prospects of reckoning with that history are too unsettling to bear.
The riots that graced the US capitol on January 6, 2021 are the most dramatic example of this. People across the country acted surprised by the insurrection that played out before their eyes. “This is not us!,” they insisted. If that were true, of course, the capitol siege would not have happened.
The presidency of Donald Trump brought to light many unsettling truths about the United States of America, often in dramatic fashion. The English language has a word for surprising or unsettling truths made known in dramatic ways. They are called revelations. For many this word has a distinctly religious connotation to it. When it was written into the Bible’s Book of Revelation, it was synonymous with another word that even more aptly captures the turmoil of our era: apocalypse.
Today we use the word apocalypse to refer to events marked by catastrophe, cataclysm, or destruction on a vast scale. Apocalyptic themes feature prominently in modern media—books, films, television series, podcasts. Collectively they are a multi-billion-dollar business. This says a lot about the subconscious fears consumers work so feverishly to keep hidden.
It turns out the meaning of apocalypse we are familiar with today is actually quite new. It supplanted the word’s original meaning in the 1800s. The Greek roots apo– (off, away from) and –kalyptein (to cover, to conceal) hint at the original meaning of apocalypse: “to uncover, to reveal, or to disclose”. Tellingly, the Book of Revelation is sometimes known by the alternative titles Apocalypse of John (scholars believe it was written by a man known as John the Elder around 96 CE), or simply Apocalypse.
The modern meaning of apocalypse is not unrelated to its original one. The revealing of unpleasant truths can profoundly destabilize people’s lives. Think of the spouse who learns their partner is cheating, or a loved one who receives a cancer diagnosis. The exposure of unsettling truths can also disrupt societies and cause a lot of suffering. History is littered with civilizations whose collapse is studied by anthropologists and archeologists. Today we are fixated by the collapses themselves, but often remain willfully ignorant of the revelations that triggered them. In the complex world we live in, catastrophe and revelation are often deeply intertwined.
As I publish this, Joe Biden has been the President of the United States of America for barely a week. More than a few people breathed a sigh of relief upon his inauguration. Even so, truths being revealed today—about the character of the nation’s people and its very sanctity as a political endeavor—threaten to destabilize the political workings of this country. Navigating these realities will demand all the skill and compassion we can muster. And, of course, we must navigate it while a global pandemic rages, the climate crisis escalates, and dozens of other predicaments more regional in their scope and scale beg for our time and attention. We live in apocalyptic times.
What tools, I wonder, might help us bridge the ideological chasms that divide this country? How might we quell the raging fires of bigotry? If we fail to bridge the chasms and quell the fires, what becomes of the United States of America? These are questions I carry with me each and every day. Perhaps they will prove to be good companions for you as well.