Political discourse has taken on a certain shade of Camus. The term existential threat is fertile of late, especially among Democratic presidential hopefuls. It has become a set term in reference to climate change, as used by Governor Jay Inslee and by Senator Elizabeth Warren, both on Twitter and in speeches, while Mayor Pete Buttigieg has used the variation existential security challenge. Former Vice President Joe Biden refers to President Donald Trump as an existential threat to the nation, and Senator Cory Booker widens the lens, applying the term to the opiate crisis, suicide rates, and even our general lack of civic unity. It isn’t only people left of center who are newly fond of the term: According to a National Rifle Association spokesman, Senator Kamala Harris is an “existential threat” to the Second Amendment.
Of course, it is perfectly logical to see climate change, the current president, and possibly other matters as existential threats. However, the nation has surely encountered quite a few dire circumstances in the past, and yet it is only lately that the specific term existential threat has been on the tip of so many tongues.
Winston Churchill’s famous speech to the House of Commons in 1940, best known for its “We shall fight them on the beaches” passage, referred to the “menace of tyranny,” but not an existential threat, despite the very real one Britain then faced in Hitler. The term existential became well entrenched in Anglophone discourse after World War II, when Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, and especially Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Albert Camus’ works such as The Stranger, were widely read.