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Apocalypse Not
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Apocalypse Not

Presidents don’t matter as much as they would like you to think.

Donald Trump 2024 signs displayed on a pickup truck on Super Tuesday. (Photo by Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Well, here we go. 

I’m not going to tell you how to vote. I am going to tell you how to think about voting. But I’m going to take you on a journey to get there. 

Let me skip ahead. Five years from now, America will be okay. You’ll probably be okay. And if you are not okay, it will in all likelihood have nothing to do with who was elected president in 2024. 

Those of you who think I’m trying to reassure anti-Trump people (like me), despondent over the prospect of another Trump presidency, you’re right. But I’m also talking even more to pro-Trump folks, convinced that America can’t survive four more years of Joe Biden. 

All of you need to get off the ledge. 

Let’s start with the fact that Donald Trump told you in 2020 that if Biden was elected it would be the end of us. In 2020, then President Trump said that if Biden won America would be destroyed, wrecked, and ruined. “Joe Biden and the Radical Left want to Abolish Police, Abolish ICE, Abolish Bail, Abolish Suburbs, Abolish the 2nd Amendment — and Abolish the American Way of Life,” he tweeted in the summer of 2020. “No one will be SAFE in Joe Biden’s America!”

Outside the White House, he yelled, “Joe Biden and his bosses from the radical left want to significantly multiply what they’re doing now and what will be the end result is you will totally destroy the beautiful suburbs. Suburbia will be no longer as we know it.”

When Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris as his running mate, his campaign declared “Biden and Harris’ disastrous proposals of defunding the police, increased taxes, job-killing policies, and opening our borders are just a few of the many ways they would destroy America.”

If you look around, America has not been destroyed. 

But let’s look more closely at the specifics in those various claims. They’re a mixed bag. Biden wants to curtail gun rights, no doubt. But no such curtailment has occurred. The Second Amendment is still there. So are ICE, bail, and the police. Indeed, Biden never proposed defunding the police—Biden ran against that in the 2020 primaries. (But, of note: The Republican speaker is proposing significant cuts to federal law enforcement.)

Biden didn’t run on opening the borders, but he did do some very bad things that made the border far more porous, and he’s now trying—or talking about trying—-to reverse some of them. Biden did want to raise taxes, but except for some provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act, he didn’t actually raise taxes. He couldn’t get his other tax hikes through a Democratic-controlled Congress. The taxes he did raise—on fossil fuels and some other business taxes, according to the Heritage Foundation (hardly a pro-Biden outfit), amounted to about $60 billion on paper in 2023. They probably destroyed some jobs—all taxes do, to one extent or another—but they were in the aggregate a rounding error. 

Other policies killed jobs too. Killing the Keystone pipeline was a very bad policy and it surely killed some jobs. But, contrary to what Donald Trump and other Republicans constantly say or insinuate, we didn’t stop drilling for oil. In fact, we’re producing more oil and gas today than we did under Trump—or any other president. Also, Biden has arguably the best record of job creation on his watch as any president in modern American history, including Trump.

Crime went up after Biden was elected. It is now going down while Biden is still in office. I don’t think he deserves much blame for the former or much credit for the latter, in part because presidents don’t deal with crime very much and in part because it seems incredibly obvious to me that the pandemic was the prime cause of spiking crime rates. 

The suburbs have been growing over the last decade or so. That trend has continued in the Biden years (the pandemic even accelerated the trend), but not because of anything Biden has done or not done. Suffice it to say, they haven’t been destroyed either. 

The point here isn’t to defend Joe Biden. Okay, maybe it is—but only against the charge of destroying America and related nonsense. I didn’t like Barack Obama’s presidency, but he didn’t destroy America, either. Nor did George W. Bush, who was often denounced with similar language from the left. In fact, looking over the long list of American presidents, good and bad, none of them destroyed America. 

And just in case you missed the point: Donald Trump didn’t save America, but he didn’t destroy it either. 

Look out the window if you don’t believe me.

I’ve been arguing for my entire adult life that presidents don’t matter as much as presidents—and the journalists who write about them—want you to believe.  Presidents don’t have a machine in the basement that “creates jobs.” They’re not America’s father. They’re not the embodiment of the American spirit or the voice of the American people. Yes, as a practical matter, they do speak for the U.S. government on the international stage. But domestically, they run just one of the three branches of the federal government, which itself is only one of the governments in American life. What governors, state legislatures, and mayors do often has as much—and sometimes more—influence over the quality of life of Americans. But their influence over your life probably pales compared to that of your boss, your colleagues, friends, doctor, and, of course, your family. Changing technology very often has a bigger impact on employment and life-quality than government regulation. 

Look back on your own life. How responsible was the occupant of the Oval Office for the highs or lows? For some people, it probably mattered a lot. If you were in the military or worked for a government agency, you can surely point to some stuff. 

In short, presidents are important. They have outsized influence in all sorts of ways. But in general, if you’ve invested a huge amount of meaning in the presidency, that’s a choice, not a necessity. 

The cult of politics.

For many people it’s not the presidency per se they’ve imbued with outsized meaning, but politics generally. And that’s the real problem. Politics has become a stand-in not only for religion but also in the primary arena for kulturkampf. Having a president of the other party in the Oval Office is for many like having a king of the wrong religion on the throne. It pets the cat of the cosmic order backward, eliciting shrieks and claws at every turn. 

Apocalypticism and catastrophism are often products of a religious mindset. Even more often, they are the product of a religious mindset when that mindset is unconstrained by reason, dogma, right instruction, and, most of all, the caution brought by self-awareness that one is indulging metaphysical instincts. In an age when so many serve as their own priests, seeking reassurance and wise counsel from informed, sober-minded, priests seems like a waste of time. 

I should explain what I mean. Think of it this way. I subscribe to the view, common on the right, that environmentalism often serves as a kind of secular religion. I don’t think it’s true of every environmentalist or climate change alarmist. But if you don’t think it’s true of any environmentalist, you should consider the fact that many environmentalists admit as much. But my point is about the environmentalists who don’t admit it—to themselves. Self-awareness is indispensable to seeing the lines between what you want to be true and what is actually true. Overly impassioned environmentalists who think they are cold-eyed realists are often blind to such lines. The same can be said for all sorts of secular faiths, from Marxism to nationalism to various forms of intersectionality. Zealots of totalizing visions of life or the universe almost by definition are blind to the limits of their worldview.  

Just as the conspiracy theorist rejects a priori the possibility of coincidence, the zealot cannot comprehend that any important facts can contradict his or her theory of everything. The Marxists and critical theorists insist that the dissent of the working class from their program is proof that the working class is so oppressed by the system that it cannot see its own interests. For the environmental zealot, drought is proof of climate change and so is heavy rain. I am fascinated by the anti-Israel fanatics of the far left who are convinced that the fight against Zionism is the fight for queer rights. But search “Zionist” and “queer” on Twitter or Google and strap in. 

Belief in the unity of goodness—all good things go together—is a fundamentally religious mindset, but in my experience, it is at least as common among the un- or anti-religious as the faithful. (Indeed, one of the great contributions of Christianity is its recognition that the secular and sacred do not always work in tandem.)

This is what I am getting at when I say that catastrophism and apocalypticism are features of the unconstrained religious mindset. Climate change is not an existential, extinction-level event. But acolytes of the faith need it to be to justify their faith and their actions.  

I think Trumpism operates like one of these totalizing worldviews. I could spend the next thousand words nutpicking the idiotic and deranged statements from people like Mike Flynn and various QAnon freaks to demonstrate the point. I could also quote Trump himself ad nauseum, immunizing myself from the charge of nutpicking, since he is the de facto Republican nominee for president. 

But I want to address neither the fringe believer nor the titular deity of their faith. Instead, I want to address the normal voter, specifically the normal Republican voter. In virtually every speech, including last night’s victory speech, Trump insists that the stakes couldn’t be higher. The very existence of America is on the ballot. It’s all bullsh-t. Worse, it’s familiar bullsh-t. Again, he said it in 2020 and 2016. His enablers wrote and popularized paranoid nonsense about the “Flight 93 Election.”

The enablers, who used to heap scorn on the idea that a “crisis is a terrible thing to waste” are now fanatical crisis-mongers of the first order.

The key rhetorical gimmick of catastrophists is to operate on the assumption that you agree with their apocalyptic premise. This gimmick is essential to overcome the practical objections to their call to action. If I say that banning the internal combustion engine is folly for all sorts of obvious and practical reasons, the response from the Greta Thurnberg types is some variant of “you don’t care about climate change” or “you’re fine with the destruction of life on earth.” 

Similarly, nearly every time I tell a true-believer that I will never vote for Trump, the response is some variant of “you want to destroy America” or “you must love Biden.” Neither are remotely true. A second Biden presidency, whether he is capable of finishing a second term or not, will be bad in myriad ways. But it won’t destroy America. 

It’s probably more controversial for me to say I don’t think a second Trump presidency will destroy America, either. But that is what I believe. And while I think the arguments about the dire consequences of a second Trump presidency have a lot more merit, I reject the Church of anti-Trumpism as much as reject the Church of Trumpism. Still, a second Trump presidency, I believe, is far, far, more likely to do more harm to the country that I love and the ideals I hold close to heart. 

Doomsdayism drenches our politics and our politics are worsened by it. Because the whole point of crisis-mongering is to give yourself an excuse to abandon the rules and do whatever it takes. This is symbiosis of left and right today: “Our enemies are so terrible we can behave like them for we are just.”

The irony of doomsdayism is that it is deployed to arouse strength, will, and commitment to a political cause, but it carries within it the permission structure for despair and surrender. If all it takes for America to end is electing the wrong president, then America is already over. If Trump is sworn-in on January 20, 2025, the last thing anyone who loves America should do is behave like that America is lost. Because that is the suicidal choice for a democracy. 

“From whence shall we expect the approach of danger?” asked Abraham Lincoln. “Shall some trans-Atlantic military giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe and Asia … could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men we will live forever or die by suicide.”

Short of suicide, figurative or literal, no cause is truly lost. As T.S. Eliot says, “there is no such thing as a Lost Cause, because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause.” In other words, the struggle for what is right is eternal, not final—in life and at the ballot box. 

Last night Trump crapped on the idea of the American experiment. “Some people call it an experiment—I don’t call it an experiment,” he said. It was George Washington who called it that (“The establishment of our new Government seemed to be the last great experiment for promoting human happiness.”), and he was right. It’s an experiment in that the duty to keep it going falls afresh on every generation.

I think Democrats are wrong about a lot of policies. But if you think the goal of every Democrat is to destroy America, you’ve got doomsday-poisoning. Not voting for Trump doesn’t mean you agree with Democrats about taxes or schools or anything else. Claims otherwise are appeals to the Manichean tribal logic that reduces everything and everyone to good versus evil. Some good people are going to vote for Trump and some bad people are going to vote for Biden and vice versa. But voting isn’t baptismal. You are not submitting to a faith when you fill in the oval or pull the lever. Likewise, you are not committing heresy or betraying your tribe. You’re making a choice about a person or party and how you think they might govern in a specific office for a specific period of time. 

At least that’s how I think you should think about voting—or not voting—in every election. Give yourself permission to ignore the fear-mongering doomsdayism, the finger-wagging guilt, and religious zealotry that turns political allegiance into something metaphysical. Ignore the Jeremiahs and vote your interests and values based on facts and reason, not hysteria. And if the election goes the wrong way, do not despair. You’ll probably be okay—so long as we don’t give up on the experiment. 

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.