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When prophecy fails. The apocalypses that did not happen on November 8, 2016

The conservative predictions of their own destruction didn’t come true. The liberal anticipation of the utter destruction of their enemies failed to be consummated.

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Sticky note put up in Union Square Subway Station corridor after the Presidential election. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions


The tears were real. The disappointment  was deep among the young Hillary Clinton supporters at Columbia University. The emotional reaction was so deep that it reminded me of the emotions described in Leon Festinger’s little book When Prophecy Fails.

The social psychologist was trying to figure out how apocalyptic thinking adjusts after the apocalypse doesn’t happen. He and his colleagues studied a flying saucer cult which believed that space ships would soon arrive to rescue them from the end of the world. The 1950s and the 1960s were polka-dotted with politically liberal and conservative groups who felt that a nuclear holocaust or a defeat by Communism was imminent. Their fixation on apocalyptic narratives percolated even into mainstream politics.

Who can forget the television ad of a little girl counting off daisy petals merging into a countdown to a nuclear explosion that dissolves her? The ad summed up all of the liberal fears about the 1964 GOP presidential candidate, the hawkish Barry Goldwater. The Republicans cried foul at this sixty second apocalyptic advertising that was released during the presidential campaign. But the GOP had their own end-of-the-world scenarios in response to a Russian (Soviet) leader who cupped his hands above his head in 1956 as he told Western leaders face-to-face that “we will bury you.”




More recently, two versions of secular political apocalyptic narratives were developed, tested, and then, found wanting in the 2016 presidential election.

There was an apocalyptic narrative of their own destruction that was consuming conservatives. Many of them figured that the 2016 election was going to doom conservatives, Christians, and the nation.

These pessimistic prophetic voices arouse during the election campaign of Barack Obama in 2008 and worked its corrupting nihilism into the Christian right and other conservatives.

It started with hints that Obama was the anti-Christ or a Muslim fundamentalist in disguise. After he won two elections, some conservatives thought that they were truly doomed to be a persecuted minority and that the nation was in its final days. Some declared a withdrawal from politics --- “it always disappoints.” Others declared it was time to go back to the monasteries  ---  the church would survive by weathering the storm of persecution and social anathema.

However, at the same time, some of the liberal disappointment with Obama was feeding a growing desire for a different type of apocalypse – you might call this an optimistic prophetic narrative of the destruction of the religious, the misogynist, and anti-gay enemies followed by a near heavenly government unhindered by conservatives and wishy-washy Democratic politicians who compromised too much.

Neither of these apocalyptic narratives came true on election day of November 8th. The conservative predictions of their own destruction didn’t come true. The liberal anticipation of a new day after the destruction of their enemies failed to be consummated.

Festinger had in mind the wider cultural question about how does a society cope with apocalyptic  predictions that don’t come through. Do the apocalyptic political movements like the conservative doomsayers and messianic liberals or religions like the UFO cult lose their appeal and disappear? What he found was that people with cognitive dissonance (the disconnect between prediction and reality) develop typical ways of relieving the disappointments. The apocalypse may not come, but the effects of its prediction live on. There may be lingering deep disappointment, hurt, and disorientation.


Sticky notes proliferated on wall in Union Square Subway Station corridor after Presidential election. The originator of the notes saw himself as a sort of amateur counselor helping people get through their worries, fears, and sadnesses. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religioins


Those believers who stay in the bubble of the believing world eventually re-orientate their narrative to say that despite appearances the prophecy of apocalypse will come true and that the destruction of the enemy and the rise of a heavenly kingdom is surely coming. Their intense hurt and anger at the devils, increases, so that their hearts are steeled against their opponents. The believers will work really hard to bring the apocalyptic conditions to a crisis to match their rationalizations about history. This reduces their cognitive dissonance, said Festinger.

Some believers, who actually come back into contact with the disbelieving world, may recover by leaving the apocalyptic world for the ordinary world. Then, there are those who are so isolated by their disappointment from other people that they don’t recover well and drift into cynicism and social isolation.

Going into the election, the conservatives were every bit as depressed as the disappointed Clinton supporters. Eight years of Obama filled them with an angry dismissal, desperation, and a growing belief in an apocalyptic narrative of destruction of themselves and the nation. Their liberal opponents surely added fuel to the conservative nihilism with their posters showing Obama with a halo and headlines like “The Second Coming,” which blared from Newsweeks’ cover.

The liberals had trouble settling into an apocalyptic hopefulness because Clinton was not the best candidate for the apocalyptic narrators. Her campaign seemed to emerge from the backrooms of global power elites. But she had one quality, her gender, that rose her up like the Virgin Queen Elizabeth.

Her gender was also rouged up with just enough suffering and liberalism to snatch a positive apocalyptic narrative from a male messianic figure, Bernie Sanders. In the general election, Trump’s boorish behavior annealed Clinton with the aura of an heroine.  This was particularly true for younger White women.

The thing about apocalyptic narratives that capture hearts of younger voters is that they are about creating a heroic, forward-looking identity. One is part of something greater than oneself. There is pure self-identity against the nay-sayers.

However, when the apocalyptic narrative of the vanquishing of enemies by heroines and heroes doesn’t happen, one’s identity is just smashed. As one young woman told me, “I felt like I was just smashed to bits.” Others told me – no secret here, of course – that they couldn’t stop weeping. In fact several wept or almost did as we talked.

The apocalypse did not happen; the new dawn did not rise. Worse, the negative apocalypse of the destruction of the good people and the triumph of the Devil (recently labeled the Fascist by leftist activists) did happen! The road of destruction would wind its way through a railroad station hotel, named after the Devil, down the street to the White House.

This is where we are. The aftermath of disappointed apocalyptic prophecies.

Some are hurting – it is a real, deep hurt – and truly need a comforting human touch from others. An ear and a touch is more important than words. Perhaps, a reminder that the mourners can be remember that their idealism is inspirational and that their lives up to now have contributed such value to others. Trump does not define them.

The other group that was disorientated by Trump’s victory was the conservatives who expected the dark apocalypse of destruction.  They were disbelieving after the elections. What happened? Can this be real? What do we do? One man, a very religious Catholic, told me, “I thought we were doomed, and then…” His voice trailed off in speechlessness.

Now, the aftermath of the apocalyptic narratives are playing themselves out. Those who lived in the bubble recovered their belief in their certain victory with an anger to make the positive apocalypse happen. The next years will see a war of attrition leading to the supposed last battle, Armageddon. The prospects of such a strategy are not good. Their opponent is well-practiced in war by attrition. And these never-Trump liberals will damage their own values.

Already, some liberal apocalyptics seem ready to give up on democracy as we know it. Continuing Clinton’s dismissal of the “deplorables,” several journalists have called on their colleagues to help destroy Twitter so as to deny a public forum to Trump and his “cess pool of alt-right supporters.” Their twitter hastag is #shutdowntwitter2017.

Some conservatives are beginning to do some breast beating that will grow louder as we get closer to the inauguration of Trump as president. By now, many conservatives are shifting gear to fast consolidate their victory. Some, who never wanted a Trump victory, have tried to run off with their own self-centered agendas. Trump handily won his first battle with the House Republicans who tried to throw out their independent ethics overseer.

Some, particularly those who interact daily with liberal apocalyptics, have retreated into their negative apocalyptic bubble to await their slaughter when Trump fails, as he is doomed. A few conservatives speak and write as if authority must be temporarily put into the hands of elite autocrats if democracy will be saved.

But there are some on both sides who will come out of their apocalyptic funk better than others to the extent that that they reach across political lines and recognize each other as human. Not devilish but hurt, needy people also.

Some disappointed liberals will journey to the never-no-never land of Trump. These liberals will recover some of their identity with ordinary people and receive a more gentle, compassionate self-identity.

The conservatives will not have as much incentive to travel to the Sodoms and Gomorrahs of the coasts, but they should if they want to win elections with a majority of the popular vote. The conservatives can start by getting to know the East and West coast working class, conservative religionists, and the immigrants.  Religious leaders need to finally recognize that working class leadership models need to be taught in seminaries, Bible institutes, and conferences and not just corporate and professional leadership models.

Toward the end of his life after a stint at the New School for Social Research, Festinger turned away from social psychology and the militant atheism of his father. His explorations turned toward theology and religion. His new scholarly path took him among the theologians and seemed bound toward raising up a different option for apocalyptic thinking. If the timing of the apocalyptic judgement is left in the hands of God, could this impel humanity to urgently look after the well-being of each other and the world? He explored questions of human nature and the potency of prophetic religion for shaping scientific thinking. He may be the only social psychologist to whom is dedicated a book on Catholic canon law.

In 2017, wouldn’t it be lovely if chastised liberal and conservative apocalyptics at Columbia University and elsewhere could recognize each other as humans and not objects of destruction? Wouldn’t be great to have optimism grounded in real accomplishments of religious believers and the non-religious working together rather than nihilistic visions of the future?


Sticky note put up in Union Square Subway Station corridor after Presidential election. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

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