Don’t Sleep on Trump’s CPAC Speech Calling For ‘The Final Battle’: This was Southern Strategy as Apocalyptic Promise

Donald Trump speaking at the 2017 CPAC Conference. Image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Donald Trump has, in the past, dallied with apocalypticism in his rhetoric and policy, but it was usually interpreted as a sop to his evangelical base. He made an excellent secular hero for evangelicals like Rick Perry, who referred to him as “the chosen one.” Rapture-focused evangelicals also saw him as fitting into biblical fan fiction like the “Left Behind” series. And he found a coterie to support him who also viewed apocalypticism as part of their identity: Mark Meadows texting Ginni Thomas, “This is a fight of good versus evil. Evil always looks like the victor until the King of Kings triumphs. Do not grow weary in well doing. The fight continues. I have staked my career on it. Well at least my time in DC on it”; Robert Jeffress and John Hagee’s comments on the movement of the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem; and, of course, Steve Bannon’s apocalyptic vision for the world. Apparently he was even good for the “apocalypse economy.”

All of this, of course, is the Trumpian zeitgeist—it’s not Trump, it’s the way the world around him sees him. It’s QAnon, it’s Jericho March, it’s the ongoing White Christian nationalist obsession with him. And despite all of his bombast and rhetoric, all of his violence and self-obsession, Donald Trump doesn’t usually get all apocalyptic himself. Until last week at CPAC

Many have focused on Trump’s statement “I am your retribution,” and that angle of divine vengeance is certainly worrisome. But we should perhaps pay more attention to the aggressively apocalyptic bent of his speech, full throated and violent and accelerationist. Because again, Donald Trump does not usually lean into the apocalyptic. It’s all around him, but that’s usually not what he is vomiting forth. The people around him hold him up as an apocalyptic totem, and he either conveniently ignores it or makes jokes.

This latest speech is only a joke in the sense of a DC comic—The Killing Joke maybe. 

The former president opened his speech—after a long list of far-right celebrity shout outs—by framing the 2024 election as a battle: “the greatest in our history, most important battle in our lives is taking place right now as we speak. For seven years, you and I have been engaged in an epic struggle to rescue our country from the people who hate it and want to absolutely destroy it.” The stakes aren’t just political control—though political control is part of it—but existential. It’s more than a victory in the election, it’s a victory about the future, about survival, a zero sum game: 

But we have no choice. If we don’t do this, our country will be lost forever. People are tired of RINOs [Republicans in name only] and globalists. They want to see America first. That’s what they want. It’s not too complicated. This is the final battle. They know it, I know it, you know it, everybody knows it. This is it. Either they win or we win. And if they win, we no longer have a country.

This is the final battle. An epic struggle, the most important battle, against “the people who hate it and want to absolutely destroy it.” This is the framework for Trump’s entire speech, an apocalyptic confrontation, the final battle between good and evil. 

It’s apocalyptic, but not out of the Christian Bible. There’s an entire strain of biblical theological apocalypticism, but this veers heavily towards straightforward ideological nihilism. Trump is happy to play with the optics of Christendom, and to hand over whatever he needs to his evangelical allies to keep them on his side. This is certainly not to say that Christian apocalypticism is not part of his repertoire. He surrounds himself with evangelicals that embrace it—the Robert Jeffresses, the John Hagees, the Mike Pompeos and the Michael Pences—but when they ceased being fellow travelers, he waited while crowds chanted “Hang Mike Pence” in the Capitol Building

Trump’s speech was not the apocalypse of Christendom, it was the apocalypse of QAnon. Trump’s playbook is not about the Kingdom of Heaven, it’s about America First—and the eschatology of QAnon ends in murder. Trump said, 

“I will totally obliterate the deep state. I will fire the unelected bureaucrats and shadow forces who have weaponized our justice system like it has never been weaponized before, these are sick people, and I will put the people back in charge of this country again, the people will be back in charge of our country.” 

The “deep state” is of course a conspiracy theory in the United States, and certainly the focus of QAnon, believed by more than 1 in 3 Americans according to a 2020 NPR/Ipsos poll. And by “deep state” he is not simply referring to the bureaucracy. It goes far beyond that:

“The sinister forces trying to kill America have done everything they can to stop me, to silence you, and to turn this nation into a socialist dumping ground for criminals, junkies, Marxists, thugs, radicals, and dangerous refugees that no other country wants. No other country wants them. If those opposing us succeed, our once beautiful USA will be a failed country that no one will even recognize. A lawless, open borders, crime-ridden, filthy, communist nightmare. That’s what it’s going and that’s where it’s going… We’re now in a Marxism state of mind, a communism state of mind, which is far worse. 

We’re a nation in decline. Our enemies are desperate to stop us because they know that we are the only ones who can stop them. They know that this room is so important, the people in this room. They know that we can defeat them. They know that we will defeat them. But they’re not coming after me, they’re coming after you and I’m just standing in their way. That’s all I’m doing. I’m standing in their way. And that’s why I’m here today. That’s why I’m standing before you, because we are going to finish what we started. 

We started something that was America. We’re going to complete the mission. We’re going to see this battle through to ultimate victory. We’re going to make America great again. With you at my side, we will demolish the deep state. We will expel the warmongers. They are people that don’t get it, although, in some cases, they get it. They get it for their wallets, but we can’t do that. We can’t let that happen. 

We will drive out the globalists, we will cast out the communists. We will throw off the political class that hates our country. They actually hate our country. No walls, no borders, bad elections, no voter ID. We will beat the Democrats. We will route the fake news media. We will expose and appropriately deal with the RINOs. We will evict Joe Biden from the White House. And we will liberate America from these villains and scoundrels once and for all.”

QAnon’s argument is here (dished up with a host of antisemitic tropes). Donald Trump is the savior, the totemic leader “standing in the way” of the deep state, the criminals, the communists, the thugs, the globalists, the political class, the Democrats, “the villains and scoundrels” that will be defeated once and for all. This is a war that goes well beyond politics, and it’s well beyond normal political rhetoric. This is the rhetoric of incredible violence, of political opponents as monsters, as enemies of the country trying to destroy the nation. It’s Trump as a savior, yes, but it’s a war. It’s a war to destroy part of the country, the part that is not on their side. Trump may talk about World War III in the speech, but it’s not a world war that he’s threatening, it’s a civil war. 

This is crucial. The discussion of fascism in America is long and complex and ongoing, but Trump is making his call for the Thousand Year Confederacy. There’s an eschatology to it, a teleological end point, not just the Day of the Rope for his opponents, but the (White) Kingdom at the end:

We started a great, great, positive revolution. Nobody’s ever seen anything like it before. It’s called Make America Great Again. We want to make America great again. We will cross the finish line. We will dismantle the deep state. We will demolish woke tyranny, and we will restore the American republic to all of its radiant glory, and with God’s help and your support, we will make America powerful again. We want to have a powerful country. We need to have a powerful country.

We will make America wealthy again. We will make America strong again. That’s what we want. We want strength. Think of your heart pounding, we will make America proud again. We will make America safe again, not like our streets of the cities which are a disgrace for the entire world to watch, and we will make America great again.

This is the vision he calls for: the QAnon Reich, the thousand year millennial kingdom—the Klan’s Kingdom. “Dismantle the deep state.” “Demolish woke tyranny.” “Restore the American republic,” in a way that hearkens back to a “glorious past” that is very much the era of the Second Klan. How can you tell? It’s law and order rhetoric tacked onto The Ending—“make America safe again,” the Southern Strategy as apocalyptic promise. 

CPAC is now the venue where calls for violence are made, either alongside or else by, the power brokers of the Republican Party; where far-right ideas are laundered into the mainstream. This year, Donald Trump made it the venue for his apocalyptic bid—not for the New Heaven, but for the New Earth, christened by the blood of his enemies. Less a New Jerusalem than a New Elohim City. His speech was more than just factually inaccurate, it was quite literally apocalyptic.