Apocalyptic Picture Trump Paints For Evangelicals Shows Where Campaign Is Headed

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Donald Trump’s late February speech to the annual National Religious Broadcasters’ convention received a short-lived spurt of media attention, largely for its menacing pledges to protect Christians from supposed persecution by a “wicked system” and the “radical” left. But it would be a mistake to consign this speech to one-day-on-the-campaign trail status. Despite some assessments of the speech as “rambling,”wild,” and “incoherent,” it actually lays out a cogent, comprehensible narrative — for evangelicals. 

As the presidential campaign heats up, his seemingly bizarre oratory is a critical window into how the Trump campaign plans to maintain and mobilize his core base of white evangelicals, and potentially peel off more Black and Latino evangelicals along the way.

The NRB’s yearly convention is the premier gathering of Christian talk show hosts and influencers celebrating its mission of promoting “Christian broadcasters’ right to communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost and dying world.” The 80-year-old organization, with over 1,100 members and a robust presence in Washington, represents the local and national Christian media landscape, from televangelists, radio sermonizers, podcasters, and social media influencers. NRB claims that 141 million Americans listen to or watch religious broadcasting at least once a month, on more than 4,000 Christian television and radio stations across the country. In his speech, Trump praised the talk show hosts as “brave independent Christian journalists,” and “pastors, podcasters, producers, and patriots” who are doing “an incredible thing for humanity.” The NRB speech gave Trump’s megaphone a ripple effect to others with smaller, but cumulatively powerful megaphones of their own.

While much of the coverage of the speech focused on his promises to end supposed anti-Christian persecution, Trump had been sounding those themes for months before the NRB speech, ratcheting up his attacks on Biden and the “radical left” as his own legal perils accumulated. The full speech, with characteristic digressions, incomprehensible improvisations, and outrageous lies on matters of both great and minimal importance, reveals how what outsiders see as Trump’s deficits are seen by evangelicals as heroism and even divine inspiration. 

(Photo by KEVIN WURM/AFP via Getty Images)

White evangelicals are Trump’s most reliable supporters. Prominent evangelicals and televangelists kept his presidency afloat through scandals and impeachment, stood by him on and after January 6, and persist in repeating his stolen election lies and conspiracy theories. One of his lead boosters is his long-time friend Paula White, the controversial televangelist with a peppy self-help message for women and a penchant for turning sinister spiritual warfare themes into patriotic cheerleading for Trump. After a close relationship to the Trump administration, including a stint as advisor to Trump’s Faith and Opportunity Initiative, White has returned to her Florida church — and to leading the National Faith Advisory Board (NFAB), a nonprofit organization that claims to be continuing the work “we began at the White House.”(Although the NFAB’s website lists an Arlington, Virginia post office box as its address, the Florida incorporation papers for the NFAB list the same address as White’s City of Destiny church.)

The week after Trump’s NRB speech, the NFAB’s email newsletter boasted that its own members — including Texas megachurch pastor Jack Graham, Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), and author and television and radio host Eric Metaxas, a prominent election denier — were on hand. The email linked to a recap of Trump’s remarks, compiled by the Christian right legal firm First Liberty Institute, condensing “religious liberty highlights” of the speech into digestible and familiar bullet points: support for “people of faith;” Trump’s accomplishments protecting “conscience,” banning abortion, defending Israel, and stacking the federal bench.

The First Liberty/NFAB summation provides useful talking points for Trump surrogates who might have difficulty reprising a meandering monologue that went on for more than an hour, or at least making it seem less unhinged. A crucial element of his NRB speech was centering his support for Israel, even calling “my David,” his former ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, to the stage to praise him as “the greatest friend that Israel ever had in the Oval Office, by far.” Trump’s claimed support for Israel (in reality support for Israel’s far right) is charged and symbolic for evangelical audiences, who are steeped in lurid Christian Zionist narratives foretelling the second coming of Jesus and his victory over the Antichrist. They believe that the Bible commands Christians to support Israel — in practice, to support Israel’s far-right governing coalition — and that Israeli consolidation of its occupation and annexation of Palestinian land is a precondition of Christ’s return.. Israel, they believe, is where their actual messiah will return. In the meantime, while they wait, Trump stands in as a messianic figure saving Christian America from “the toxic poison of gender ideology” and “from the Communists and the freaks.”

Just like evangelists portray Satan as both all-powerful but ultimately falling to the godly forces of good, Trump makes Biden seem both capable of destroying America in a short time but also “an incompetent president who doesn’t know what the hell he is doing. He will not lead us to the promised land.” At one point, Trump “joked” (to laughter) that he wasn’t even sure that Biden knew he was alive.

(Photo by KEVIN WURM/AFP via Getty Images)

Yet this supposedly feeble man and his allies have caused, according to Trump, 38% inflation, the war in Ukraine and Hamas’s attack on Israel, among other things. (Needless to say, none of this is true, including the cited inflation rate.) Trump’s enemies have also “thrown open our borders to an illegal alien invasion by the world’s most sadistic criminals and savage gangs, while putting peaceful pro-life citizens behind bars” and “unleashed mobs of foreign jihadists to praise Hamas in our streets.” Trump portrayed schools as hellscapes teaching “critical race theory, transgender insanity and other inappropriate racial, sexual or political content,” and promised to “restore the timeless truth that God created two genders, male and female” and to “sign a law prohibiting child sexual mutilation in all 50 states.”

In Trump’s twisted, false narrative, Christians are “hunted down by the Biden regime,” by “the same Biden DOJ that dropped charges against Antifa, where they kill people.” He then claimed that, in Portland, because of Antifa, “they don’t even have storefronts anymore,” and because of the “invasion” of immigrants, “cities are being inundated, they’re being overrun, they’re taking the parks from children, there are no more baseball fields, no more soccer fields.”

However macabre this sounds to outsiders, to evangelicals steeped in end-times prophecy, these nightmarish scenarios are real. They believe they are waging spiritual warfare against demonic spirits bent on destroying an America God intended to be a Christian nation. For them, Trump’s accomplishments are more than just a checklist of judges and abortion policy; his entire being is a divinely ordained force powerful enough to upend Satan’s plans.

Between now and November, mobilizing his spiritual warriors by continually divorcing them from reality will be the most potent get-out-the-vote tool he has. And if it turns out not to be enough, he always has this constant reminder, as he told the NRB: “They rigged the election.”

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