Apocalyptic Authoritarianism In The United States: Power, Media, And Climate Crisis

Hanna Elizabeth Morris, University of Pennsylvania

Abstract

This dissertation explores the historical roots, construction, and contours of United States climate media discourse. It analyzes how dynamics of power influence representations of climate change and, in turn, how these representations shape responses to the threats of the crisis. In particular, this dissertation examines the post-2016 “total crisis” U.S. media landscape following the election of President Trump—a landscape on which journalists struggled to respond and maintain legitimacy amidst the rising anti-democratic sentiments of an increasingly authoritarian government.

Through a historically-contextualized critical discourse analysis, this dissertation argues that the myth of American exceptionalism steers (and limits) media representations of the climate crisis through three predominant tropes: (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 stem from an image of Manifest Destiny and reflect broader patterns of representation whereby crises and conflicts are represented through words and images that obscure contexts and particularities of impact.

Ultimately, this dissertation identifies the rise of “apocalyptic authoritarianism”—an oppressive mode of discourse and governance that impedes the equitable development and design of climate policy and response. It shows how U.S. climate media discourse entrenches an exclusionary regime of representation through binaries of good versus evil, moderate vs extreme, right vs wrong, self vs other. Across ideologically diverse publications, the climate crisis is celebrated as an opportunity through which the U.S. can regain its global position of moral, economic, and political leadership. This suggests that a nostalgic desire for U.S. hegemony—often attributed to the postwar time period—guides media representations of climate change and obstructs a more inclusive, equitable, and robust form of climate politics.