A Short History of the End of the World

President Trump faced two tests this week, and failed both so spectacularly that the world feels closer to doomsday than it has in some time.

Things took a turn this week.

Since Donald Trump’s election, there have been so many turns that it’s enough to give a person the sensation of being sucked down a drain. But this week, even by those standards, has been dizzying.

President Trump faced two tests this week, and failed both so spectacularly that the world feels closer to doomsday than it has in some time.

From his New Jersey pleasure palace, President Trump promised to return North Korean aggression with “fire and fury and, frankly, power.” Later, The Daily Beast and others would report that the president’s “fire and fury” line was improvised; as any student of improv or nuclear escalation will tell you, rule number one of both is “yes, and.”  

But Trump wasn’t done instilling apocalyptic fear in the masses. Thursday, after what one might assume was an extremely frustrating round of golf, the president made himself available to the press twice, after months of press complaints about Trump’s lack of availability. He said or joked—who can tell, really? He’s got a sort of anti-comedy delivery style—that his initial “fire and fury” statements didn’t go far enough. Maybe instead he should have said fire, and fury, and, oh hell, force. Three f’s for the guy who doesn’t care if he f’s the world. Friday, he tweeted that America was “locked and loaded,” which he pilfered from a John Wayne movie. Even his chest-puffing is unoriginal.

If Trump engages nuclear-enabled North Korea, he could possibly pull China in, endanger the immediate safety of South Korea, of Japan, of Guam, of millions of lives that could wind up unfortunate expenditures in a despot dick-measuring contest. Future historians could remember Twitter as the Franz Ferdinand of World War III. If, you know, the future happens at all.

Several news outlets helpfully picked up the nuclear football and ran it all the way to the end zone. One published a guide to responding to a nuclear explosion. A person would have about fifteen minutes post-blast to get inside someplace safe. Social media users disseminated a map that showed a nuclear blast zone imposed over a map of DC, assuming that the blast centered on the White House (no such map of Seoul or Guam made the rounds, to this writer’s knowledge).

These bits of information are helpful in a choose your own adventure book several poor choices down the storyline that ends with a two sentence chapter that describes the last scene in the noir classic Kiss Me Deadly. “A flash ignites the horizon. You stumble vainly down the beach.”

Then came the nuclear holocaust jokes, the performative ironic detachment about everything evaporating in hot nuclear wind. How silly one would feel about weight loss goals knowing their future is collateral damage on a megalomaniac’s joyride. How ridiculous a student loan with a decades-long repayment schedule looks when there's 24 hours left to breathe. How bleak and affirming to learn unproductive time wasn't any more a waste than a scientific breakthrough. If the world ends, slackers get the last laugh.

Being on the brink of a nuclear standoff would have dominated a news cycle for longer than 48 hours under almost any other president. But by Friday evening, all eyes turned to Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists who call themselves nationalists but are actually more like Nazis marched carrying tiki torches and Confederate flags their feelings inflamed by the city’s imminent removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The get over it, you lost crowd was not over it.

On Saturday, while Charlottesville police looked on limply, 20-year-old Ohioan James Alex Fields, Jr. drove a Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old paralegal Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. Earlier that day, Fields was photographed holding a shield containing a white supremacist emblem.

President Trump, in the past, has named and condemned everything from Arnold Schwarzenegger to sharks to Graydon Carter to not allowing people to clap during the “In Memoriam” section of The Oscars. But during his statement on Charlottesville yesterday, he stared, dazed-looking, into the news cameras and said that there was violence on many sides. On many sides.

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Reality feels like it’s hurtling toward something terrible, pulled by the unseeable and unknowable. On many sides.

Every generation and every ideology has, at some point or another, felt the end was nigh. This generation worried about that on 9/11, or when Bush was elected again in 2004, or, for others, when Obama was elected in 2008. They worried when healthcare reform was passed, or almost repealed, or when Russia shot down a passenger plane over the Ukraine, or when a white supremacist shot up a black church, or videos of ISIS beheading prisoners were uploaded to YouTube, or when Ferguson erupted, or when gay marriage was legalized, or when a truck plowed down a crowded pedestrian thoroughfare in France, ebola. The world was supposed to end on December 21st, 2012, and then didn’t.

The first time I ever thought the world might be about to end, I was in elementary school. President Bush had just sent troops to fight in Iraq. It was all over the news. I stood in front of the clear-doored hutch in the living room where my father kept his guns, imagining men crawling across my lawn with them. I imagined escaping soldiers by hiding in the culvert down by the river in the woods around our house. I imagined that I’d take our dog, a very fat Brittany Spaniel, with me, for protection.

In the 1980’s, CNN made a video to be played only in the case of the end of the world. In 2015, the website Jalopnik posted the “Turner Doomsday Video,” which was stored on CNN’s internal system with the note “HFR [Hold For Release] until end of the world is confirmed.” The video is a minute long and features a marching band playing “Nearer My God To Thee.” It’s almost cute now, because the world didn’t end then and the video’s resolution doesn’t quite work for non-tube TV’s. Fox News’ Roger Ailes, now deceased, told Vanity Fair’s David Friend that he believed Fox cameras would capture the end of the world and broadcast it live. “When the end of the world comes, we’ll be able to cover it live until the last camera goes out. I believe I mean it literally.”

The government was more optimistic than cable news about surviving annihilation. CIA documents declassified this year shed a little light on how they think that could happen. Foreign Policy’s Marc Ambinder writes that, in part, “In an emergency, or a changing of the Defense Condition status, the Joint Chiefs of Staff would order 60 officials to primary relocation sites. The government operated a so-called special facility atop Mount Weather in Berryville, Virginia, where a cadre of top executive branch officials would ride out a nuclear war. Other standby relocation sites were near Hagerstown, Maryland, and Martinsburg, West Virginia, at the Marine base near Quantico, Virginia (for the FBI), and Front Royal, Virginia, near a facility where the State Department was supposed to reconstitute. Still others were hidden at colleges inside or near the Beltway.”

Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Directive 58, which addressed the government’s contingency plan, went into effect in the late 1980’s. Elements of the Carter-era plan—it’s unclear which—are still in effect today.

Little people, too, think about the end of the world. My parents, children of the Cold War, learned how to hide under their desks during an imaginary air raid, as though a wooden box with paperclip-scratched elementary swears could hold off a bomb. My grandfathers were in the military, one stationed with the Navy in San Diego, ready to fight in the Pacific until the war ended, the other was in Korea a decade or so later. One was from a construction family, the other a farming family. They were from families of eight children and thirteen children. Their lives were dangerous on a daily basis.

Their fathers fought in World War I. Between the world wars, Yeats wrote The Second Coming, a poem about the horror of entropy informed by World War I’s fresh memory, a poem that’s been so battered to death as a reference point for chaotic change that The Paris Review called it the “most pillaged poem” back in 2015, before any of this.

Before the world wars came the brutality of rural immigrant life, crossing the Atlantic in boats, the potato famine. Another thread were French fur traders in Canada, killing and skinning to stay alive. My existence, every person’s existence, with rare exception, arose from generations of people who were pretty sure something much bigger than them was going to wipe them out.

The difference between this particular knot and others is that this one is happening now; the others we can recount with the numb comfort of knowing how it all turned out.

Tragedies that we couldn’t possibly have seen coming, a lightning strike, a car crash, an explosion, are unmooring. But it’s almost worse to have time to think about it before it happens, to watch one’s creeping doomsday anxiety arranging itself on the horizon like a wall cloud. Would we rather the cameras simply flicker out, or lull us with a song once the moment of inevitability has passed?