Seriously, literally, this is a cult.
Donald Trump, who regrets not ordering the White House flag to be flown at half-staff to mourn Ashli Babbitt, the rioter and Qanon believer killed while storming the U.S. Capitol, is determined to create a narrative that his idiot insurrectionists are in fact part of an army of holy MAGA warriors.
“I would venture to say it was the largest crowd I had ever spoken before… It was a loving crowd too, by the way. Many, many people have told me that was a loving crowd. It was too bad, it was too bad that they did that” Trump said in one of his post-presidency interviews from Mar-a-Lago. He didn’t mention the violence, but insisted that, “In all fairness, the Capitol Police were ushering people in… They were hugging and kissing. You don’t see that. There’s plenty of tape of that.”
You don’t see that tape because that didn’t happen, but that’s the point of this cult: Never mind your lying eyes, have faith in your Dear Orange Leader.
“Personally, what I wanted is what they wanted,” he concluded, meaning to overturn the results of the election because he’d said there was fraud and never mind all of the judges appointed by Republicans and Republican state and election officials who said there was no evidence of any of that. Heretics. The GOP is dead, and there’s only the MAGA movement now, as the party’s “leaders” sojourn to his sacred golf clubs to confess their sins.
Kevin McCarthy, who briefly knew better before remembering his place and getting on his knees, saw the same religious iconography I did when Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol Building in the hopes of installing their reality-TV hero as a sick new sort of American Idol. Men wore “Armor of God” patches and someone carried a “Jesus 2020” banner. Sure, the idea that Trump was leading a death cult had been batted around for some time, but Jan. 6 was something new in its religious fervor and Trump knew it too, which is why he’s been fighting to make Babbitt into the first MAGA martyr.
Now that he’s a certified loser, a twice-impeached, one-term historical freak show of a president, his only hope as a political leader is to turn his movement into a cult, worshipping himself of course. It’s the Trump Steaks of religion.
In March, during the height of the pandemic, Gallup released a poll showing Americans’ memberships of religious institutions (churches, mosques and synagogues) had declined by more than 20 percent since the turn of the century to the lowest level they’d ever recorded. During a time of despair and hardship, Americans were rejecting religion. Only 47 percent of Americans belong to some religious institution and, as Public Religion Research Institute chief Robert P. Jones told the Washington Post, “White evangelical Protestants have been losing ground among young people. As they have shrunk over the last decade, their median age has risen from 53 to 56, compared to a median age of 47 in the country overall.”
That same month, his group released a poll showing that one in five Americans believe in Qanon and agreed with the statement, “There is a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders.” So one in five Americans believe in a kind of weird hybrid of religion and politics, centered on the idea that Democrats are a secret cabal of child sex traffickers.
At CPAC last weekend, thousands flocked to Dallas as if joining a religious pilgrimage. They displayed Q slogans, bought Trump merchandise and delighted in booing the name of Anthony Fauci as if he were Haman and harassing journalists.
There was a lot of trying to relitigate the election that Trump won’t admit he lost. A seven-point plan to reinstate Trump was circulated with its first order of business being “Reveal ACHILLES’ HEEL: Pull back the curtain on the horror show that is today’s ‘Democrat Party.’ Watch Pelosi melt, like the Wicked Witch of the West. See the Black Caucus and other key groups flip, unexpectedly, and watch the tables turn.” Yes, Pelosi is going to melt, as speakers of the House often do. It promoted a website full of videos explaining how Mary Jo Kopechne was a reincarnation of the Virgin Mary, and how that connected to the moon landing and 9/11 and the death of JFK Jr. (which, given the Q people’s insistence that he’s still alive, maybe counts as a form of progress).
But Trumpworld is rife with this kind of magical thinking, if you can even call it thinking, from people desperate to connect random dots to find meaning—and finding a perverse sort of community in their crazed conspiracizing, to replace the sort that perhaps they would have once found in a house of worship.
And Trump, of course, was happy to play into people’s most desperate and disconnected hopes. As the pandemic took hold here, he was talking about an Easter reopening with “packed churches,” and about how COVID would “disappear one day," "like a miracle." More than a year later, it’s pretty clear the miracle was the vaccine that 47 percent of Republicans refuse to take.
The CPAC before Dallas had featured a gold Trump, since no religious movement would be complete without a false icon—in this case one that was made in Mexico.
So if he’s got a martyr, a golden calf, and worshippers, does that make Trump a religious leader? Nah, in America religions have tax-exempt status and we all know that Trump doesn’t have that. Then again, he didn’t pay any federal taxes for 10 out of the last 15 years so maybe Trumpism really is a religion after all.