"They’ve told me he’s Jesus": Unpacking Trump's empty pseudo-religion

Evangelicals have embraced a "despot wrapped in piety" — and our expert panel says that's exceptionally dangerous

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published March 6, 2024 5:45AM (EST)

Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Barring an unforeseen event, Donald Trump will be the Republican Party’s 2024 presidential nominee. Last week, Trump defeated Nikki Haley by 20 points in her home state of South Carolina, and among non-college educated Republican voters, Trump's margin was an astonishing 50 points.

This past weekend, Trump dominated Republican contests in Michigan, Idaho and North Dakota, and will almost certainly lock down the nomination after this week's Super Tuesday primaries in 15 states. In the end, Haley and the other Republican primary candidates were just auditioning for a role in his second regime — despite her protestations against Trump, Haley will likely accept such a position if the ex-president and would-be dictator offers her one.

Yet for all Trump’s power over the MAGA cultists, the Republican Party and the so-called conservative movement, he appears vulnerable in several respects. As seen in South Carolina and other primaries, there are a significant number of Republican voters and right-leaning independents (perhaps 45 percent of the total) who do not support Trump. Polls suggest that as much as one-fifth of Trump's voters say they will be less likely to vote for him if he is convicted of a crime before the November election. Trump is one of the most polarizing figures in American history and, as such, his appeal is limited beyond a core group of enthusiastic followers. This translates to a political scenario in which Trump is reliant on his MAGA followers and neofascist cult members — including his supporters on the Supreme Court — to pursue both legal and extra-legal methods to ensure his electoral "victory." 

Members of the “resistance,” however, must guard against too much "hopium" in celebrating Trump's perceived electoral weakness. A recent analysis in Roll Call observes that "history suggests the vast majority of Republicans will support him, even if they preferred an alternative in the primary or have concerns about his character and candidacy. The bottom line is that party unity in the general election is powerful. In 2020, 94 percent of Republicans voted for Trump and 94 percent of Democrats supported Biden," according to exit polling. 

The most zealous and most extreme of MAGA supporters are white right-wing evangelical Christians, who have sought to identify Trump as a messiah or prophet, blessed and ordained by God as their weapon in an end-times battle against "evil," whose goal is to conquer American society, end multiracial democracy, and transform the country into an authoritarian theocracy. These fantasies and delusions are shared, at least to some extent, by Trump himself. 

In an attempt to make better sense of Trump’s claims of personal divinity, his fascist plans and use of "Christianity", I recently asked a range of experts for their thoughts and insights. 

Marcel Danesi is professor emeritus of linguistic anthropology and semiotics at the University of Toronto. His new book is "Politics, Lies and Conspiracy Theories: A Cognitive Linguistic Perspective."

Trump is a master at creating what Daniel Boorstin called, in the 1960s, “pseudo-events,” that is, events intended solely for publicity and self-aggrandizing purposes. From his angry tirades in front of the television cameras after a court session to his blistering oratory at rallies filled with hateful allusions to whoever stands in his way, Trump has grasped intuitively that pseudo-events, like any form of spectacle or performative fiction, have great appeal, and can be deployed to tap into the tendency of people to react in unison as a group, as audiences in a theatrical setting. Over time the pseudo-events become ritualized. As Neil Postman put it in 1985, since P.T. Barnum, America has evolved into a world in which there is “no business but show business,” descrying the descent of politics into mere performance spectacle.

"When the con-artist despot comes wrapped in piety, he is at his most dangerous. This is a warning found throughout history."

In 1967, French philosopher Guy Debord used the expression “society of the spectacle” in reference to the circus-type fantasy world that had evolved in modernity — a world in which spectacles influenced worldviews, beliefs, and behaviors, rather than rational discourse or logical argumentation. Spectacles obfuscate the past, producing a type of never-ending present. Aware of their power to enfold people’s attention and affect their view of the present, Trump has used spectacles and hate-spewing humor to keep people engaged in his shenanigans.

When the con-artist despot comes wrapped in piety, he is at his most dangerous. This is a warning found throughout history. Trump’s pious façade is not unlike that of Molière’s character Tartuffe in his 1664 play, whose subtitle is "The Imposter." Tartuffe is the embodiment of the master con artist — a pretentious person who fakes religious devoutness, convincing a benefactor that he is a moral person. Once invited into his house, Tartuffe uses every nefarious scheme possible to steal from his benefactor, creating chaos for everyone around him. The havoc that a false-pious hypocrite wreaks is astounding, and a constant threat we all face with Trump lurking in the background.

Before Trump’s rise to power, the mass media hardly paid attention to the radical white evangelicals, generating a perception among its members of media bias toward a liberal secular agenda and worldview. The sense of exclusion that this demographic continues to feel, and the sense that America’s moral standards are decaying, allows Trump, through his Tartuffe-like tactics, to assume his “spiritual leadership.” Once he enters your mind, like Tartuffe did with his benefactor, he will reside there manipulatively, never letting go.

Nothing can pull the radical white evangelicals away from Trump. They are hard-wired to see Trump as the only one who can set things right in America. The radical white evangelicals firmly believe (ordesperately hope) that there will be a moment of vindication that will prove their beliefs to be right. This will happen after Trump becomes leader for life in America, as some have openly stated. Trump perpetrates the same sense of retribution, equating his problems with theirs, cleverly including a reference to an epic apocalyptic battle with the "deep state" that is coming with the election. This rhetoric is dangerous, because it is not limited to online communications among believers but has spread to radical conservatives in the U.S. Congress.

There is only one way to defeat Trump — to make sure that he does not win the election. After a while, communal memory diminishes, and hopefully, dialogue between the divisions sowed by Trump will be bridged gradually on their own.

Federico Finchelstein is a professor of history at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College in New York. His most recent book is "A Brief History of Fascist Lies."

The trope of sacrifice and persecution is serially abused by Trump and his cronies. Nobody outside his cult of personality can really believe that he is like Christ or Navalny or whoever he chooses to identify with, but within the realm of MAGA circles Trump can use hyperbolic comparisons without consequences. These statements not only signal to his declining perception of reality but also the constant attempt to replace reality with his cult.

Not everyone within MAGA circles believes Trump’s outrageous statements about God and Jesus Christ but no one is offended. And of course, if we want to see historical precedents for this sacralization of the leader, the history of fascism tells us a lot about what Trump is doing. He is not original. Trump is simply following the fascist playbook of Hitler and Mussolini.

Robert P. Jones is the president and founder of Public Religion Research Institute. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller "The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future," as well as "White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity."

By my lights, Donald Trump is in a stronger place with the GOP base than he was at this time during his initial rise to power. While he had serious challengers in 2016, he’s waltzing through the GOP primaries this year, largely due to strong support from white evangelical Protestants. Ahead of Super Tuesday in 2016, there was still a robust debate among white evangelical Protestants about whether people who had branded themselves “values voters” could in good conscience vote for a candidate like Trump. People like Russell Moore, then the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, made a robust case that they could not. He’s now left his post, in large part because of the conflicts between that stance and the flood of support for Trump among his former constituents.

There are virtually no prominent voices today in the mainstream white evangelical world making a theological or moral case against supporting Trump. Through it all — scandals, lewd behavior and crass language, a conviction for sexual assault, four indictments, you name it — Trump’s favorability rating has never dropped below 60% in PRRI polling among white evangelicals, with churchgoing evangelicals generally registering higher support. According to exit polls, their support for Trump went from 81% to 85% between 2016 and 2020. They are not holding their nose in order to vote for Trump. They are embracing him.

It’s no accident that the theological rationales for supporting Trump have been all over the map. He’s been cast as a modern-day messiah, as white evangelicals’ own King Cyrus, or — my favorite—as a “baby Christian.” This conceptual disarray is a clear indication that these are not rigorously developed religious rationales but rather theological fragments that are serving as backfill to support fealty to Trump. I think this is often missed. Most observers either take the theological language too seriously or dismiss it altogether.

"It’s no accident that the theological rationales for supporting Trump have been all over the map. These are not rigorously developed religious rationales, but theological fragments serving as backfill to support fealty to Trump."

But if you turn this kaleidoscope theology over enough, you can see that it is pointing to something bigger: the worldview of white Christian nationalism, the idea that the U.S. was designed by God to be a kind of promised land for European Christians. This week, PRRI released a groundbreaking survey of support for Christian nationalism in all 50 states. We found that two thirds of white evangelical Protestants — far more than any other religious group — support the basic tenets of Christian nationalism (e.g., that U.S. laws should be based on the Bible; that Christians should exercise dominion over all areas of society). We also found that support for Christian nationalism nearly perfectly correlates with vote for Trump in the 2020 election, particularly among white Americans, all the way down to the state level. Trump understands the power of this appeal, which he’s consistently deployed particularly with white evangelicals and other conservative white Christian groups.

Just last week, Trump told the leaders attending the conservative National Religious Broadcasters Association meeting, “If I get in, you’re going to be using that power at a level that you’ve never used before.” And he wrapped his speech with a flourish: “We have to bring back our religion…. We have to bring back Christianity.” This broad appeal to transforming the country into a white Christian America — more than any particular theological assertion — is the glue binding white evangelicals to Trump.

I’d be surprised if anything puts a serious damper on white evangelicals' embrace of Trump. Even knowing what they know about Trump, in PRRI’s American Values Survey last fall, nearly half of white evangelicals who hold favorable views of Trump overtly declared there was virtually nothing he could do to lose their support. Six in 10 white evangelicals believe the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, and two-thirds disagree that there is credible evidence that Trump committed serious federal crimes. Actual court convictions seem unlikely to dislodge these preemptive judgments. By promising to usher in a new era of white Christian America, Trump has already lured most white evangelicals into his alternative reality funhouse, and it seems unlikely that many will find their way out.

Gregg Barak is an emeritus professor of criminology and criminal justice at Eastern Michigan University and author of "Criminology on Trump." His new book, "Indicting the 45th President: Boss Trump, the GOP, and What We Can Do About the Threat to American Democracy," will be published in April.

As someone who generally sees the glass as half full rather than half empty, I presently have mixed feelings about the upcoming election, Trumpism and the bipolarity in American politics.

After the first primaries and caucuses, as Trump is about to wrap up the Republican nomination, I am feeling good about the fact that Trump is underperforming as an “incumbent” candidate who has mismanaged and criminalized the presidency once before. I also feel good that the number of never-Trumpers seems to be growing, especially in swing states like Michigan and elsewhere. At the same time, I am feeling particularly good about the fall election because the party is stuck with the man rated by historians as the worst president in U.S. history, rather than Nikki Haley or a ham sandwich. It is also comforting to learn that at least 25% of Republican voters will note vote for Trump in the 2024 general election, and this is before Trump’s first criminal trial begins in Manhattan, with his likely conviction by a jury of his peers coming in early May. That percentage of Republicans will only grow. 

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I also feel good because not only is Trump a terrible human being and a worse candidate, he is revealing in public places his apparent growing dementia, as evidenced most recently at CPAC and the National Religious Broadcasters Association meeting, where he continued to engage in incoherent rants, awkward moments of silence and disorientation, and often displays cognitive gaffes that will only get worse between now and November. I hope the mass media will begin focusing on Trump’s diseased mind and Biden’s superior performance in office, despite “Sleepy Joe’s" advanced age, as well as on Biden's historical wisdom as contrasted with Donald’s historical ignorance.  

On the other hand, I feel terribly depressed that some 1,500 or more people in attendance at these rallies eat up all the liar-in-chief’s rhetorical nonsense. To put it simply, they love everything that the insurrectionist in chief loves, including Vladimir Putin and deporting Muslims from the country. Likewise, they hate everything the sociopathic Trump hates, such as the “crooked” and “weaponizing” Biden, the imaginary deep state, Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Ukraine.

While I believe that the end is near for Donald Trump, who will go down in flames, along with the present GOP, on Nov. 5, I also believe that Trumpism and the desire for an authoritarian leader or an anti-elite strongman is as strong as ever among most of his deplorable and moronic MAGA base. 

"Not only is Trump a terrible human being and a worse candidate, he is revealing in public his apparent growing dementia, by continuing to engage in incoherent rants, awkward moments of silence and disorientation."

There's no need to deconstruct Trump playing the Jesus Christ persecution-and-victimization card as a means of covering up or denying his corruption and criminality before crowds of sycophantic followers who mostly consist of white Christian nationalists, neofascists and QAnon adherents, and who subscribe to one or more absurd conspiracy theories in lieu of the racketeer in chief's actual conspiracy to steal the 2020 election in plain sight.

What I find particularly rich about the sociopathic fraudster is his ability to consistently pull off the Jesus shtick. Trump has been a non-practicing Christian his whole life, and allegedly changed faiths from Presbyterian to nondenominational Christianity at some point. In reality, he has always been an atheist who thinks that everything associated with religion is “bull***t,” according to investigative journalist David Cay Johnston, who has spent 30 years chronicling Trump. 

In light of the two "favorable" rulings, one in response to Trump's appeal in his half-billion-dollar civil fraud decision and the other on his immunity appeal to the Supreme Court, I am disgusted by the former ruling — which still could be overruled but likely will not — and I very bothered by the Supreme Court making the likelihood of Trump being tried and convicted before the November election far less likely. Most important, I am truly disturbed by the Supreme Court's right wing supermajority so obviously weighing in on Trump's side by not taking up the case and dismissing it in a few days' time. Finally, I'm not sure what these legal decisions will mean for the upcoming election, other than to further intensify things between the two political parties.

Joe Walsh was a Republican congressman and a leading Tea Party conservative. He is now a prominent conservative voice against Donald Trump and the host of the podcast "White Flag With Joe Walsh."

Donald Trump is not a religious man. He’s not anything. He’s incapable of worshipping a god because he’s only capable of worshipping himself. But Trump knows what his supporters believe so he’s spent the past seven or eight years convincing them that he’s Jesus Christ — or a much bigger deal than Jesus and certainly more persecuted than Jesus. If you think I’m kidding, I’m not.

I come from the MAGA base. They’ve told me on a regular basis that no one who’s ever walked this earth has been more persecuted, been treated more unfairly and taken more slings and arrows than Trump. They’ve told me he’s been chosen by God to take all these punches and attacks for them. They’ve told me he’s Jesus. They’ve told me he’s like a god. They’ve told me he’d die for them. They’ve told me no human could endure what he’s endured.

Trump knows they feel this way. So he feeds this narrative. He allows it to grow because he knows it protects him. He knows he can commit crimes, he can lie, he can attack our democratic institutions, he can engage in corruption, he can try to overthrow an election, he can say ugly, cruel things, and his supporters will never abandon him. Because he’s the great persecuted one. He’s their great martyr. He’s replaced Jesus Christ. He can continue to be completely unrestrained, above the law, and un-American and never pay a political price. Because he’s fooled them into making him more than simply a cult leader, he’s fooled them into making him a subject of their most intense, even religious, worship.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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