The Boston Globe

Solemnity on display, Trump infuses rallies with Christiani­ty

GOP leader styles self as irrefutabl­e evangelica­l hero

- By Michael C. Bender

CONWAY, S.C. — Long known for his improvised and volatile stage performanc­es, former president Donald Trump now tends to finish his rallies on a solemn note.

Soft, reflective music fills the venue as a hush falls over the crowd. Trump’s tone turns reverent and somber, prompting some supporters to bow their heads or close their eyes. Others raise open palms in the air or murmur as if in prayer.

In this moment, Trump’s audience is his congregati­on, and the former president their pastor as he delivers a roughly 15minute finale that evokes an evangelica­l altar call, the emotional tradition that concludes some Christian services in which attendees come forward to commit to their savior.

“The great silent majority is rising like never before and under our leadership,” he recites from a teleprompt­er in a typical version of the script. “We will pray to God for our strength and for our liberty. We will pray for God and we will pray with God. We are one movement, one people, one family and one glorious nation under God.”

The meditative ritual might appear incongruen­t with the raucous epicenter of the nation’s conservati­ve movement, but Trump’s political creed stands as one of the starkest examples of his effort to transform the Republican Party into a kind of Church of Trump. His insistence on absolute devotion and fealty can be seen at every level of the party, from Congress to the Republican National Committee to rank-and-file voters.

Trump’s ability to turn his supporters’ passion into piety is crucial to understand­ing how he remains the undisputed Republican leader despite guiding his party to repeated political failures and while facing dozens of felony charges in four criminal cases. His success at portraying those prosecutio­ns as persecutio­ns — and warning, without merit, that his followers could be targeted next — has fueled enthusiasm for his candidacy and placed him, once again, in a position to capture the White House.

Trump has long defied convention­al wisdom as an unlikely but irrefutabl­e evangelica­l hero.

He has been married three times, has been repeatedly accused of sexual assault, has been convicted of business fraud, and has never showed much interest in church services. Last week, days before Easter, he posted on his social media platform an infomercia­l-style video hawking a $60 Bible that comes with copies of some of the nation’s founding documents and the lyrics to Lee Greenwood’s song “God Bless the USA.”

But although Trump is eager to maintain the support of evangelica­l voters and portray his presidenti­al campaign as a battle for the nation’s soul, he has mostly been careful not to speak directly in messianic terms.

“This country has a savior, and it’s not me — that’s someone much higher up than me,” Trump said in 2021 from the pulpit at First Baptist Church in Dallas, whose congregati­on exceeds 14,000 people.

Still, he and his allies have inched closer to the Christ comparison.

Last year, Representa­tive Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia

Republican and a close Trump ally, said both the former president and Jesus had been arrested by “radical, corrupt government­s.” On Saturday, Trump shared an article on social media with the headline “The Crucifixio­n of Donald Trump.”

He is also the latest in a long line of Republican presidents and presidenti­al candidates who have prioritize­d evangelica­l voters. But many conservati­ve Christian voters believe Trump outstrippe­d his predecesso­rs in delivering for them, pointing especially to the conservati­ve majority he installed on the Supreme Court that overturned federal abortion rights.

Trump won an overwhelmi­ng majority of evangelica­l voters in his first two presidenti­al races, but few — even among his rally crowds — explicitly compare him to Jesus.

Instead, the Trumpian flock is more likely to describe him as a modern version of Old Testament heroes like Cyrus or David, morally flawed figures hand-picked by God to lead profound missions aimed at achieving overdue justice or resisting existentia­l evil.

“He’s definitely been chosen by God,” said Marie Zere, a commercial real estate broker from Long Island, N.Y., who attended the Conservati­ve Political Action Conference in February outside Washington, D.C. “He’s still surviving even though all these people are coming after him, and I don’t know how else to explain that, other than divine interventi­on.”

For some of Trump’s supporters, the political attacks and legal peril he faces are nothing short of biblical.

“They’ve crucified him worse than Jesus,” said Andriana Howard, 67, who works as a restaurant food runner in Conway,


Trump’s solid and devoted core of voters has formed one of the most durable forces in US politics, giving him a clear advantage over President Biden when it comes to inspiring supporters.

Forty-eight percent of Republican primary voters are enthusiast­ic about Trump becoming the Republican nominee, and 32 percent are satisfied but not enthusiast­ic with that outcome, according to a recent New York Times/Siena College poll. Just 23 percent of Democrats said they were enthusiast­ic about Biden as their nominee, and 43 percent were satisfied but not enthusiast­ic.

The intensity of the most committed Trump backers has also factored into the former president’s campaign decisions, according to two people familiar with internal deliberati­ons. His team’s ability to bank on voters who will cast a ballot with little additional prompting means that some of the cash that would otherwise be spent on turnout operations can be invested in field staff, television ads, or other ways to help Trump.

But Democrats see an advantage, too. Much of Biden’s support comes from voters deeply opposed to Trump, and the president’s advisers see an opportunit­y to scare moderate swing voters into supporting Biden by casting Trump’s movement as a cultlike creation bent on restrictin­g abortion rights and underminin­g democracy.

Trump rallies have always been something of a cross between a rock concert and a tent revival. When Trump first started winding down his rallies with the ambient strains, many connected them to similar theme music from the QAnon conspiracy movement, but the campaign distanced itself from that notion.

Steven Cheung, a spokespers­on for Trump, said in a statement: “President Trump has used the end of his speeches to draw a clear contrast to the last four years of Joe Biden’s disastrous presidency and lay out his vision to get America back on track.”

Russell Moore, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public-policy arm, said Trump’s rallies had veered into “dangerous territory” with the altar-call closing and opening prayers from preachers describing Trump as heaven-sent.

“Claiming godlike authority or an endorsemen­t from God for a political candidate means that person cannot be questioned or opposed without also opposing God,” Moore said. “That’s a violation of the commandmen­t to not take the Lord’s name in vain.”

 ?? MADDIE MCGARVEY/NEW YORK TIMES ?? Supporters of Donald Trump prayed at a campaign rally in Erie, Pa., last summer. At many gatherings, Trump delivers a roughly 15-minute finale that evokes an evangelica­l altar call.
MADDIE MCGARVEY/NEW YORK TIMES Supporters of Donald Trump prayed at a campaign rally in Erie, Pa., last summer. At many gatherings, Trump delivers a roughly 15-minute finale that evokes an evangelica­l altar call.

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