“Better than Jesus”: How far will the cult of Trump go?

Donald Trump is a human chaos engine. It is a function of both his personality and his politics. He has shown himself to be what mental health professionals describe as “hypomanic”: He has what appears to be an endless amount of energy. 

Trump is an instinctive authoritarian and a demagogue. Although he has no real ideology beyond amassing raw corrupt power for his own purposes, Trump’s political project is fascist. He hates democracy, the rule of law, and any other restraints on his behavior and goal of being America’s first dictator. Such political strongmen and their movements use chaos, confusion, and destruction as one of their primary weapons to exhaust any resistance to them. As he has shown throughout the last eight years (at least), Donald Trump is a master of this strategy.

In all, it has been very difficult for the American people, the news media, and the country’s responsible political elites to stop Donald Trump and the larger neofascist movement precisely because he and they are launching so many attacks simultaneously on the country’s democracy, institutions, political culture and collective sense of reason – and reality itself.

The Supreme Court’s decision on Wednesday to hear Trump’s absurd case about Jan. 6, where he is arguing that while president, he had some type of immunity from the law like a king or emperor who can order his political rivals killed by the military or accept money for political favors, being the most recent example.

“Christians are aware of Biblical cautions to beware of false prophets, but political zealots could care less.”

To that point, last week Donald Trump spoke at multiple events including the CPAC conference, the National Religious Broadcasters convention, and a gathering of black “conservatives” in South Carolina. At these events, Trump lied, engaged in gross distortions of facts and reality bordering on the delusional, made threats and promises of revenge and retribution against his “enemies”, and wallowed in his malignant narcissism and megalomania. Trump’s speech and memory also showed signs of what appears to be continuing cognitive decline.

Trump’s delusions of grandeur have been escalating as he continues to proclaim that he is some type of messiah-prophet, chosen by “god” and “Jesus Christ” to lead the MAGA movement in an epic End Times battle of good and evil against President Biden and the Democrats and “the left” to “save America” by winning the 2024 election. Trump is now also claiming that he is a “proud” Christian who is being persecuted – basically like Jesus Christ – by the courts and others who are daring to hold him accountable for his decades-long public crime spree.

None of this is normal despite how the mainstream news media as an institution, the other “guardians of democracy”, and too many everyday Americans have come to accept that it somehow is.

Of course, Donald Trump is not a king or somehow above the law. Trump most certainly is not divinely inspired or a messenger and tool of “god” and “Jesus Christ”. None of this should have to be stated, but we are not in normal times here in America. The Trumpocene is a time of collective confusion, disorientation, and shared pathology. Unfortunately, the American people are not as close to escaping the Trumpocene and its state of malignant normality as they and their leaders and other trusted voices would like to believe.

In an attempt to make better sense of Trump’s claims of personal divinity, his fascist plans and “Christianity”, power over the Christian right, and what may come next in the country’s democracy crisis, I recently asked a range of experts for their thoughts and insights.

Katherine Stewart is the author of “The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism.”

There’s a disconnect between the reality and the narrative framing that sticks to everything. For example, we continue to get horse race coverage that tells us about Trump’s “big win” in South Carolina as if this were just another normal election cycle. On the other hand, the combination of Trump’s legal jeopardy and his increasingly unhinged, overtly fascist rhetoric is indisputable evidence that what we are facing is anything but normal.

As for Trump’s claims about being a prophet or some type of messiah, I think we have here a convergence between what appears to be Trump’s mental disorder and the needs of a base that has been primed for fascism. The only surprising thing about Trump’s claims is he has not yet said he is better than Jesus. That is sure to come! 

It is what it is, and anybody who has been watching this unfortunate man for the past decades knows exactly what I’m talking about. It’s just sad. The more pressing problem is that fascism so often works through the cult of the leader. The leader is always one who suffers on behalf of the victim majority, but who nonetheless triumphs against the evil cosmopolitan elite. And Trump seems to understand this instinctively, which is why he insists that, in his legal struggles against a supposedly corrupt system of justice, he is standing up for the little guy. 

We can’t know the extent to which Trump believes his own lies. The more important point is that majorities of Republican voters believe him when he speaks. In last summer’s CBS News-YouGov survey, Trump supporters – astonishingly –tend to trust him more than they trust their family and friends, conservative media, or even their own religious leaders. We cannot overstate the role of conspiracism and disinformation in bringing us to the point we are in right now. Many MAGA voters have been drawn into a fear-filled, fact-free world. They continue to believe the Big Lie that the 2020 was stolen; they think Trump was the greatest president ever; they say that his indictments are just political persecution from a “weaponized” system of justice; and they have been persuaded that a global cabal is trying to strip away from them everything they hold dear – and that Trump is the savior who will face down the demons and set the world aright. 

Unfortunately, a cynical faction of affluent supporters don’t believe a word Trump says, but they support him anyway because they are under the impression that he will deliver economic policies that benefit them. I think of this as the tragedy of unenlightened self-interest – or the stupidity of greed. America’s economy under the Biden administration is actually doing very well, with many investments in infrastructure and local development delivering economic benefits to red states. But that message doesn’t seem to penetrate to the multi-millionaire and billionaire funders of the Christian nationalist movement, who want low taxes for the rich, minimal regulation of businesses, have no concern for the environment, and who seek to erode the rights of the workforce so that they can further increase their already substantial fortunes. To that end, they are investing their money in the destruction of democracy, and it’s a mystery to me why they think that will ultimately benefit them, their children and grandchildren, or anyone else.   

At this point the focus should be, first and foremost, to get out the democratic base of voters, as well as to engage those who feel politically disenfranchised. They are in the majority of this country, so voter mobilization is key. 

Second, we need to engage the “principles first” conservatives, the ones who for some reason can’t sign up for the rapist-insurrectionist-business fraudster and soon-to-be felon nominee. They are basically the latest iteration of the never-Trumpers, and if we can peel off a few percentage points of Trump support that can make a real difference in the election cycle. We need as big a tent as possible and should focus on what we have in common. 

As for the base of staunch Trump supporters, I’m sorry to say, but I think we should have very little hope of reaching them given the propaganda to which they have been subject over time. Many are locked into this idea that Democrats are baby killers, and anything is better than a baby killer. They have been successfully programmed into this type of very simplistic binary logic. 

Some of the newer messages focus on the fiction that Democrats want open borders in order to replace “real” Americans. It’s a lie, of course. A recent bipartisan Senate border security bill would have tightened the flow of daily crossings and made it easier to deport migrants. Trump tanked it because he didn’t want to hand the Biden administration a win; he wanted to keep campaigning on this issue. 

The one sliver of hope for reaching members of Trump’s fan base follows paradoxically from the fact that a large number of those folks live within very thick-walled information silos. In their world, everything Trump touches turns to gold. So that means a significant number have not assimilated basic facts about Trump’s predicament: that he is likely, at the end of the day, to be convicted of crimes and that he is indeed a huge national security risk. So, it’s just possible that a salient event, like a felony conviction, could penetrate the silo and change a few minds. But I still think the best use of energy right now is to create as big a tent as possible and to motivate all the people who want to make sure Trump is never near the White House again. 

Dr. David P. Gushee is a distinguished university professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University and chair of Christian social ethics at the Free University of Amsterdam. He is the author of several books including his most recent, “Defending Democracy From Its Christian Enemies.”

Trump is consolidating his grip on the GOP, though Nikki Haley has cut into his vote totals in a not insignificant way. I believe that Trump has a hardcore base that is with him no matter what; this base would not be enough to win an election, but if you add the partisanship factor in a general election, and the relative weakness of Joe Biden as a presidential candidate at this point in his career, Trump (unbelievably) has a serious chance to win. 

I hate to say it, but it sure looks like his notable appeal to the non-college white male is connected to a certain credulousness on the part of his base to Trump’s increasingly outlandish religious appeals. And his supporters either don’t know or don’t care that he is articulating cruel positions on such matters as deporting undocumented immigrants and abandoning Ukraine and maybe Europe as a whole to the Russians. 

Idolatry is when a false god or no god is worshipped as God. Trump’s narcissism enables him to see himself in idolatrous ways. Trump is using increasingly idolatrous language to describe himself. I think this may be because he actually believes it but it certainly is because he finds that the language works with a part of his base. 

The will-to-believe that we find in some of these followers is a classic precursor to idolatry. A lack of serious knowledge of the historic Christian faith is also a precursor to people being attracted to the use of religious symbols and language even when they should be repelled by what the faith itself would describe as an obvious misuse. e.g., just because someone uses religious language that does not mean they are a friend to faith or to believers. They may be a predator to faith and the faithful. But you have to actually know something about the religion to be able to tell the difference. Many scholars are trying to make sense of this, and here an internal Christian theological perspective is the most help. That is, we know that what Trump is doing religiously is parasitic on, rather than an expression of, vibrant and real Christian faith. 

Nothing I have seen to this point shows me that Trump’s hardcore religious base can be pried away from him. Not even imprisonment is likely to make a difference with this base. Sometimes in politics, and in history, a malignant force must simply be defeated, and then defeated again, and then defeated again. That is where we are. 

Jared Yates Sexton is a journalist and author of the new book “The Midnight Kingdom: A History of Power, Paranoia, and the Coming Crisis.”

The basis of striving for political power within the evangelical world is based on an entrenched sense of martyrdom and suffering. This, by design, means that every issue and every policy, every minute part of society, must be controlled by Christians or else persecution is a foregone conclusion. With this mindset, Donald Trump has been able to insert himself, through sheer shamelessness and an acute ability to message to the prejudices of white evangelicals, as a “divine agent,” or a man sent by God to carry out his will on behalf of evangelicals. His continued insistence that he is the victim of persecution only activates that perceived persecutorial reality in the head of evangelicals and makes the bond grow and grow. Sadly enough, the evangelical mindset is ripe for manipulation. Hence why we’ve seen so many cult leaders who were able to destroy lives simply because they claimed to be a prophet or messiah. Trump’s shamelessness is what seals the deal.


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David L. Altheide is the Regents’ Professor Emeritus on the faculty of Justice and Social Inquiry in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University and author of the new book “Gonzo Governance: The Media Logic of Donald Trump.”

Ray Bradbury’s novel cautions us about wishes and danger behind smoke and mirrors. Donald Trump’s fantasy has gotten more extreme in his positions to solidify his standing among followers. His agenda, aided by entertainment-oriented media awash in the politics of fear, appears to be capturing more attention, including fear of crime and immigrants.   He blames law enforcement and justice officials for enforcing the law against him, he demeans most authorities, etc. His buddies accuse librarians and educators of miseducation. What is most disconcerting is that his gonzo governance approach—essentially, attacking our major political, social, and legal institutions as illegitimate—is being supported by many Republican officials at the national, state, and local levels, including school boards. They oppose policies and projects that were established by Republican predecessors such as foreign policy and supporting allies, equal rights, voting rights, the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as education. The long-standing US tradition of supporting Amnesty is denigrated even by some Democrats, who shamelessly chase media talking points.

The media continually play the horse race theme and celebrate Trump by showing his impromptu statements each time he loses a legal challenge. Avoid being dominated by numerous polls and focus on issues and policies. Major media, with exceptions, do not separate political decisions from basic issues of human rights and U. S. citizens’ rights. His promise to deport people will impact American citizens, especially Hispanics. Audiences should be told this and shown many examples. Access to clean water, good education, and safety is not a political issue, not liberal or conservative, but a matter of basic human and Constitutional rights. The same with voting rights; this should not be cast as merely a political issue. Very little attention is given to how his legal defense expenses are eating up the Republican National Committee funds and the affect this could have on other Republican candidates.

There has been little systematic reporting what Trump’s proposed policies and budget cuts would mean for Americans.  There should be reports about the role of the Environmental Protection Agency and what it does. Journalists should explain what disbanding the Department of Education would mean for children, parents, and schools. Immigration has not been explained: All we see are crowds at the border! There should be daily reporting on the types of immigrants and their aims, including those wanting temporary work, and how the economy depends on—and benefits—from this.  But there is so much more that is missing and is replaced by disinformation: We get little systematic information about what the infrastructure funding means for local communities, including transportation, water, and clean air. False reporting about crime increases is trumped by sensational video coverage of theft. Coverage about right-wing holdup of Ukraine funding should emphasize the threat to the U. S. and especially those in the military. 

The disinformation about Trump’s defense of Christianity from leftists who want to tear down crosses is key to so-called Christian Nationalism. There is scant evidence that Christianity is under attack in the United States. But in true gonzo fashion, Trump creates a false image that appeals to extreme Evangelicals and Pentecostals. He is their savior. His effort to paint himself as a victim of political persecution plays to religious fundamentalists and others who have supported exclusionary and discriminatory policies. Many of his supporters fear ongoing rapid social change in our culture, including social media, the push for more rights by women, workers, and minority groups. And like Hitler, his sanctimonious appeal for strong resistance to guilty verdicts and criticisms of his racist policies is justified by the Divine, and that we all “answer to God in heaven.” When Trump refers to Jan. 6, 2021, insurrectionists as “persecuted Christians” he is following Hitler’s lead of defending racist policies with holy appeals. In 1936, Nazis claimed that God revealed himself “through our Fuehrer, to enable us to accomplish our great mission in the world.” Churches were tolerated as long they did not interfere with the state and did not oppose German racial ideals.   

Most of Trump’s rhetoric to religious zealots is intended to solidify their support. Trump’s minions are not likely to be dissuaded by anything since, in their support for a man who asks no forgiveness of numerous sins, they have already compromised many basic Christian ideals and standards of morality and conduct. Christians are aware of Biblical cautions to beware of false prophets, but political zealots could care less: They are political and will support anyone who advocates for their right-wing views of abortion, America as a white Christian nation, patriarchy, and discrimination against foreigners, most immigrants, and racial minorities. However, this extreme rhetoric can also create some discord with less radical Christians, who still believe in women’s rights and civil liberties. The recent Alabama court ruling about IVF is a case in point. Trump quickly distanced himself from this invitro crime since most Americans support this common fertility practice. It remains to be seen if his savior fantasy repels more sensible Americans. Let us hope.

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