Trump wants Americans to think society is an apocalyptic wasteland: Mass shootings help him

Gun paralysis isn't just about the NRA — Republicans are convinced they win when voters feel helpless and afraid

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published March 29, 2023 5:45AM (EDT)

Police work near the scene of a mass shooting at the Covenant School on March 27, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
Police work near the scene of a mass shooting at the Covenant School on March 27, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

"We're not gonna fix it."

Rep. Tim Burchett of Tennessee was blunter than some of his fellow Republicans, who mostly ran away from reporters or offered bland "thoughts and prayers" in response to Monday's school shooting in Nashville that left three kids, three school employees and the shooter dead. But Burchett, a hardline Trumpist who voted in support of Donald Trump's attempted coup in 2021, was certainly on message with what the Republican Party is telling America: Abandon all hope. 

"I don't think you're going to stop the gun violence," he continued, arguing that the only thing that could possibly work is mass conversion to his version of Christianity. "As a Christian, we talk about the church. I've said this many times, I think we really need a revival in this country."

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This religious pablum is just a fig leaf, of course, for what is essentially a nihilistic message. It's as if Burchett took Karl Marx's saying about the "opiate of the masses" as a blueprint. This rhetoric is about denying that change on Earth in possible, and suggesting that people focus on praying for miracles that never come. 

This is grim stuff, but very on-brand for Republicans. They are, after all, a party still completely in the thrall of Trump, whose main campaign message is that America is a hellscape beyond redemption, and that the only viable response is about "retribution." Last Saturday, his "burn it all down" message assumed a new metaphorical meaning, as he held a rally in Waco, Texas, on the 30th anniversary of the FBI's standoff with a group of doomsday cultists who ultimately chose to die by fire rather than surrender their illegal weapons. Trump's speech was a cut-rate version of the apocalyptic ravings of Waco cult leader David Koresh, full of talk of how the country is "failing," our society has "collapsed" and the upcoming presidential election is its "final battle." The trappings of the rally, which opened with a video montage of the Jan. 6 insurrection, only enhanced the Armageddon messaging

There is little doubt what mental space Trump wants his followers in: Rage. Despair. Fear. Trump's policies may not be all that different from the far-right views of Ronald Reagan, but as Heather Digby Parton noted at Salon recently, the sunny optimism of Reagan's "morning in America" rhetoric has been uprooted and replaced with a doom-and-gloom message. The last thing MAGA stands for, in fact, is making America great, much less "great again." These are people caught up in a dark fantasy that they live in a zombie movie. 

Trump wants his followers in a state of constant rage, despair and fear — but he only harnessed and exaggerated an existing apocalyptic mindset on the right that goes back at least to Obama.

Trump has his own self-interested reasons for the doomsday messaging, especially in light of the growing possibility that he may actually face legal consequences for his life of crime. But he didn't invent these ominous attitudes among modern Republicans. He instead has harnessed and exaggerated an existing apocalyptic mindset on the right that dates at least back to the ugly "Tea Party" reaction to the election of Barack Obama. For more than a decade now, Republicans have felt (with some justification) that they benefit if voters feel assailed by fear and despair, and have done everything in their power to create and augment those vibes.

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Turn on Fox News on any given night, and you'll get a full blast of it. In the fantasy America of that network's talking heads, American cities have been burned to the ground and residents can't leave their homes without being shot or robbed. Viewers are encouraged to believe they're one stray "politically incorrect" word away from being "canceled" by "woke mobs." A firehose of lies about antifa, Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ activists paints a profoundly delusional picture of an America taken over by criminals and degenerates. Schools, they're told, are "grooming" kids for sexual abuse. 

No one doubts that the U.S. has problems, but none of these hysterics reflect the reality outside of Republican TV screens. Even crime, although rising in response to the global pandemic, remains exponentially lower than it was in the 1980s and '90s. Like most of the fears that animate the right, that's a phantasm, propped up to keep their adrenaline coursing and their rational faculties shut down. 

Mass shootings, which are both legitimately terrifying and attention-grabbing, are a boon to a party that thrives on fear and anguish. Unlike most of the terror porn churned out by right-wing media, the horror of Monday's shooting in Nashville was all too real: The shooter blowing out windows and stalking hallways. The fleeing children. The weeping parents. The cops rushing the building to take the killer out. Unlike antifa riots or the fictional fires burning down American cities, that actually happened. 

It's no wonder the immediate Republican response to mass shootings is to fight like hell to block anyone who tries to slow down the mayhem. This isn't not just about the political power of the NRA anymore — the gun lobby has lost much of its financial clout. But Republicans believe that mass anxiety benefits them, so anything that keeps the public on edge is a political win. Most of the time, they have to make up the threats to scare people. Not with mass shootings, though, which are real and occur day after day, week after week in America. 

Even before Monday's shooting, we had another round of discussions about the need for a ban on assault rifles, driven by a Washington Post report about how guns like the AR-15 are even deadlier than handguns. As Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said on Twitter, guns like the ones used in Monday's shooting are "weapons of war." They exist only for the purpose of mowing down large numbers of people quickly and have no relationship to the "self-defense" claims of the gun rights lobby. 

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Of course, the reason Republicans are so eager to defend the supposed right to own assault rifles has nothing to do with self-defense. As Trump's Waco rally demonstrated, there's a concentrated effort to convince Republican voters that this is a country already at war with itself. Trump was unsubtly invoking the vibes of far-right militia movements, which arm themselves explicitly because they imagine militaristic conflicts such as race wars or violent clashes with federal authorities. Taking assault rifles off the streets would be a direct attack on one of the most powerful propaganda techniques Republicans use to keep their voters in a combative state of mind. 

In response to this, progressive activists and Democrats must resist giving into despair. Yes, it can feel hopeless at times, especially when Republicans have far more political power than their numbers really should grant them, thanks to gerrymandering, voter suppression and the undemocratic nature of the Senate and the Electoral College. But forlorn and adrift is exactly what the right wants. Depressed people give up. Hopelessness feeds itself. The only way to break the cycle is to believe that things can get better with enough hard work. Look to places like Michigan, where a big Democratic win in the midterms has already led to rapid change. Optimism isn't foolish. It's the best weapon — really the only one — the left has to defeat Republican nihilism.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Commentary Donald Trump Gun Control Gun Violence Mass Shootings Nashville Trump Rally Waco