Dissertation Title: Apocalyptic Authoritarianism in the United States: Power, Media, and Climate Crisis

With an unprecedented level of media attention regarding the climate crisis coinciding with the rise of authoritarian tendencies in the United States, how the threats of the climate crisis are represented and also how these representations shape responses are of paramount importance for analysis. Existing scholarship shows how in moments / events of disruption and uncertainty, various state, military, and/or corporate interests seek to harness authority over definition and control over response. Ultimately striving to flatten historical particularities and obscure structural causes of harm, these well-resourced actors—if successful—avoid accountability and systemic change by alienating those who are most impacted and vulnerable. This alienation effectively secures (and expands) a system of governance whereby the wealthiest profit and the poorest are further suspended into precarious conditions of risk. Yet despite this and the fact that media representations of the climate crisis are taking off during a time of such profound political and social strife in the United States, historically-contextualized, critical studies of discourse and power are consistently sidelined by climate communication scholars who favor a “problem solving” approach instead. My dissertation seeks to address this critical oversight.

My dissertation specifically focuses on the post-2016 “total crisis” United States media landscape—a landscape in which journalists are struggling to respond to and maintain legitimacy amidst the rising anti-democratic sentiments of an increasingly authoritarian government. Through historically-contextualized critical discourse analyses of contemporary media texts and images, I find three predominant tropes of representation: (1) the ambiguity of an all-encompassing, planetary-scale crisis, (2) the “visionary sage” figure, and (3) the dualism / “Othering” of “self” vs “Other” / “good” vs “evil” / “us” vs “them” / “moderate” vs “extreme,” etc. These three tropes reflect broader patterns for representing crises and conflicts, whereby words and images are used to obscure contexts and particularities of impact. All-encompassing, apocalyptic imaginaries proliferate, while only certain responses are elevated and certain discourses of dissent are recognized. In my dissertation, I argue that this and the tendency for popular United States environmental movements to veer towards the apocalyptic, are indicative of deeper structures in national identity and culture that draw upon, in part, the myth of Manifest Destiny – the national origins myth of Americans as a divinely chosen, exceptional people selected by God to bring the light and virtue of civilization across the westward frontier (and later, across the whole world). During the Cold War and then again during the Iraq War years, this 19th century myth of exceptionalism was re-activated and expanded with violent consequences still escalating today.   

Chapter One of my dissertation traces this historical relationship between American exceptionalism and apocalyptic environmentalism in the United States from the 19th Century to present day. Chapter Two discusses the ambiguity of an apocalyptic / planetary-scale perspective and how the zoomed-out lens of a “Whole Earth” way of seeing overlooks disparities of risk forged via long histories of racial, gender, and class discrimination. Chapter Three interrogates the elevation of the “visionary sage” figure as the ultimate authority of the climate crisis. Through this discussion, I examine the historical roots of this figure within American environmentalism more broadly. Chapter Four discusses the construction of dualisms and hierarchies in media representations of the climate crisis. I explain how this “Othering” is persistently leveraged to invoke fear of a racialized, gendered, and radicalized “Other” and to expand discriminatory claims. Chapter Five synthesizes together the three representational tropes discussed in Chapters Two, Three, and Four and introduces what I call “apocalyptic authoritarianism”—the anti-democratic and violent mode of governance in response to apocalyptic environmentalism. In this chapter, I also highlight cases from my critical discourse analyses that actively negotiate and contest American exceptionalism and apocalyptic authoritarianism. From this, I conclude with a discussion of the growing force and influence of eco-socialist “counter-discourses” that challenge the predominant tropes of representation I identify in my dissertation. 

Ultimately, I argue that today’s “total crisis” moment, like similar moments of crisis before, affords the possibility for fundamental change. There is a profound opportunity to move beyond the politics of nationalism and discourses of enmity. But this movement must begin from a place other than the end-times and other than the exceptionalism that orients much of United States media, politics, and culture.