The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Much of the 2024 GOP field focuses on dark, apocalyptic themes

Many of the declared and potential Republican hopefuls feature rhetoric focused on existential dangers and demonizing Democrats

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., this month. (Lauren Justice for The Washington Post)
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Speaking to conservative activists this month just outside of D.C., former president Donald Trump promised to be “your warrior” and “your justice,” vowing: “And to those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”

The same day, speaking to a group of conservative donors in Florida, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley (R) warned, “Joe Biden and the Democrats are destroying our people’s patriotism and swapping it out for dangerous self-loathing.”

And speaking at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California on March 5, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) argued that his state offered a refuge from a Democratic-led “dystopia, where people’s rights were curtailed and their livelihoods were destroyed.”

The trio of comments from 2024 Republican presidential hopefuls — either declared or expected — underscore the dark undertones and apocalyptic rhetoric that have pervaded much of the Republican Party in the era of Trump.

President Biden and Democrats often engage in their own existential messaging, warning that some Republicans — whom they deride as “extremists” — are out of step with most Americans, eager, for example, to cut programs like Medicare and Social Security.

Pointing to the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob, some Democrats and activists have also dismissed the former president as an autocrat and authoritarian who must be stopped at all costs.

But much of the rhetoric from the declared and potential Republican candidates so far is remarkable for its dystopian tone. In many high-profile moments, these Republicans portray the nation as locked in an existential battle, where the stark combat lines denote not just policy disagreements but warring camps of saviors vs. villains, and where political opponents are regularly demonized.

They warn that Biden and a “radical,” “woke mob” of liberals are determined to “destroy” and “ruin” the nation.

Frank Luntz, a pollster and communication analyst who said he “came of age in the days of Ronald Reagan,” said that in the current Republican Party, gone is the era of Reagan’s sanguine optimism.

“Trump has turned Republican politics on its head, ” Luntz said. “We were so much more positive and hopeful, and it was Republicans who looked to the future with excitement and energy, but those days are long gone.”

Now, Luntz added, the cycle of darkness is self-perpetuating. “Pessimism and negativity breeds more pessimism and negativity,” he said. “You get darker and darker and go deeper and deeper into a hole, and you cannot emerge.”

Cliff Sims, a former Trump White House official, pushed back on the notion that only Republicans are using overheated language. He pointed to the recent comments by actor and liberal activist Jane Fonda on ABC’s “The View,” in which she suggested the “murder” of antiabortion politicians — she later said she was using hyperbole and had made the suggestion in jest — and what he called “the never-ending drumbeat of Democrats who call Trump ‘Insert Authoritarian Phrase Here.’”

“There’s no shortage of smoking hot rhetoric on either side,” he said.

While Trump is the undeniable champion of the vilify-your-opponent style of politics, he is hardly its only practitioner.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who served as White House press secretary under Trump, delivered the Republican response to Biden’s State of the Union speech last month and used the prime-time spotlight to portray “the radical left’s America” as descending into mayhem where the federal government “lights your hard-earned money on fire” and “children are taught to hate one another on account of their race.”

“The dividing line in America is no longer between right or left; the choice is between normal or crazy,” Sanders said, ominously warning that “the Biden administration is doubling down on crazy.”

Alexa Henning, Sanders’s communications director, defended Sanders’s language in an emailed statement.

“The governor accurately described the Biden administration’s record of failure and woke policies that call for crazy things, such as banning gas stoves or being unable to define what a woman is,” Henning wrote. “In contrast she offered uplifting policies that defend our freedom and give everyone in our state access to a quality education and greater prosperity.”

Even Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), a potential 2024 candidate who has largely intertwined his personal story with that of the nation — speaking of both in optimistic terms — recently traveled to Iowa to offer a more combative vision for retaking the White House.

Biden and the Democrats, he said, are enacting “a blueprint to ruin America,” rife with “empty calories of anger,” borders that are “unsafe, insecure and wide open,” and “fear and chaos” replacing law and order.

The risk of such rhetoric, some experts say, is that it strips political discourse and debate of its empathy and even humanity.

“At its worst, it divides and excludes,” said Alison McQueen, associate professor of political science at Stanford University and author of “Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times.” “It casts one set of people as heroes and saviors and another set of people as beyond the pale and evil. It’s good and evil rhetoric, and once you see your opponents as evil or the belligerent side in a war, that seems to legitimize treating them in ways we’d otherwise find very objectionable.”

Of course, Democrats also deploy hyperbolic and dark language against their Republican foes.

In May, after six months of research, Biden unveiled the descriptor “ultra MAGA” to attack the pro-Trump “Make America Great Again” portion of the Republican Party, which he described as “mean-spirited,” “extreme” and “beyond the pale.” Then during a September speech at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, he said Americans were in “a battle for the soul of this nation.”

“Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic,” Biden intoned.

But some Democrats, including Biden, have also sought to distinguish between what they dismiss as the extremist wing of the Republican Party, and those Republicans who they believe they can work with to cut deals and govern. In that same Philadelphia speech, for instance, Biden was quick to note that he was the president “of all America.”

“Now, I want to be very clear — very clear — up front: Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans,” Biden said at the time. “Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology. I know because I’ve been able to work with these mainstream Republicans.”

Trump ran his 2016 presidential campaign predicated on the idea that, as he put it at one point, he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue, shoot people and not lose votes. His 2017 inaugural address offered a populist and forbidding vision of the country, in which he vowed to end “American carnage.”

But now — despite Republicans underperforming for three elections in a row and losing the White House — the former president has doubled down on his dark predictions and dire warnings, with much of his party following suit.

If Trump embodies the most extreme side of the rhetoric, gradations within his party do exist. Some, like Haley and Scott, have simply sprinkled their speeches and comments with newly ominous undertones. DeSantis, despite his dire warnings, continues to tout Florida as a successful blueprint for the nation.

Former vice president Mike Pence — who is also expected to announce a 2024 bid in the coming months — has largely avoided apocalyptic predictions, instead presenting himself as a stalwart conservative and trying to distinguish himself with his long-held policy positions.

And Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is similarly eyeing a Republican 2024 primary bid, has specifically called for “alternatives” to Trump, writing in a tweet, “The Presidency is not and should not be an office of vengeance or retribution.”

Spokespeople for DeSantis and Scott declined to comment, and a spokesman for Trump did not respond to requests for comment.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference gathering on March 4, Trump warned of another global conflagration — “You’re going to have World War III, if something doesn’t happen fast” — and attacked members of his own party from the years before he became its standard-bearer: “We had a Republican Party that was ruled by freaks, neocons, globalists, open border zealots and fools.”

At one point, Trump declared, “This is it — either they win or we win. And if they win, we no longer have a country.”

Some of the Republican Party’s rhetoric has taken on a particularly menacing tenor following the Jan. 6 insurrection.

“It’s authoritarian purity,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist and senior adviser to the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group. “It’s what happens when you have to intensify the rhetoric to get the same response, and so it’s a downward spiral.”

He added, “Trump realized that there was gold in the hills if he could stoke fear and anger and amplify it. And most of those who thought that was the wrong direction for the party either left or were chased out, so then you spiral, you get darker and darker.”

In her 2024 presidential announcement speech last month, Haley warned that under the Biden administration, “a self-loathing has swept our country.”

“America is on a path of doubt, division and self-destruction,” said Haley, who earlier in her political career was known for a more moderate message.

A Haley spokeswoman noted that in the same speech, she also offered many optimistic and hopeful notes, recounting that her parents always taught her and her siblings “that even on our worst day, we are blessed to live in America.”

“They were right then — and they’re right now,” Haley said.

McQueen noted that other periods in American history — the Puritans arriving in New England, the Civil War and the post-9/11 era — have featured similarly dark and foreboding political language.

The grim undertones pervading Republican messaging are simply a sign of the current moment, she said.

“When I look at the resurgence of dark, apocalyptic rhetoric among Republican politicians, what it signals to me is that the country is gearing up for a presidential race and that some of the Republicans are willing to use the Trump apocalypse playbook again, because Trump used this in his first presidential campaign to great effect,” McQueen said.

Maeve Reston, Michael Scherer and Dylan Wells contributed to this report.

2024 presidential candidates

Several major Republican candidates and three Democrats have officially declared they are running for their party’s 2024 presidential nomination, and plenty of others are making moves. We’re tracking 2024 presidential candidates here.

Republicans: Top contenders for the GOP 2024 nomination include former president Donald Trump, who announced in November, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Here is The Post’s ranking of the top 10 Republican presidential candidates for 2024.

Democrats: President Biden has officially announced he is running for reelection in 2024. Author Marianne Williamson and anti-vaccine advocate Robert Kennedy Jr., both long-shot candidates, are also seeking the Democratic nomination. Here is The Post’s ranking of the top 10 Democratic presidential candidates for 2024.