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American Gnostic

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This long piece by Jeff Sharlet on the part of Trump’s base that travels to his rallies is legitimately disturbing, assuming you have any psychic room left for yet more disturbance.

One of the rules of our discourse is that, if your paranoid delusions are characterized as a religion, they can’t be called that. (A religion is basically a cult with a good PR department). Many of Trump’s evangelical supporters are, in the technical DSM-V classification scheme, flat-out nuts. These people mix their strong tendency toward magical thinking with various strains of esoteric garbage that are always showing up on the heterodox fringes of more respectable religious traditions:

At a rally in Mississippi, Pastor Dave met the Cowboy, who had taken under his wing a group of boys from Kentucky. Pastor Dave and the Cowboy began traveling the Trump trail together, serving as chaperones for the kids, who became known as the Trumped-Up Teens. The Cowboy personally paid for the boys’ airfare and put them up in tents in parking lots outside the arenas. “Look,” Dave says, gesturing toward the stage. Near the front stand the boys, eight of them wearing matching shirts from the Cowboy. Dave reads the shirts aloud: “Trump’s. Tweets. Matter.” The Cowboy, Dave says, found the boys in the woods. (Or maybe, he says later, it was actually at a Trump rally in Lexington.) “Now he flies them to these rallies.” To spread the word.

“The tweets?” I ask.

“Yes,” says Pastor Dave. “They matter.”

“Right,” I say.

“They mean things,” he explains. He points. There: a shirt. And there, up in the seats. Another shirt. And there, and there, and there. As if repetition itself is all the proof needed

“It’s not a joke?” I ask Dave. The shirts seem like a rebuke to Black Lives Matter.

“No!” Dave isn’t offended. It’s unthinkable that anyone down here, so close to Trump’s podium, could really believe that. “It’s like—” he looks for a word.

“Scripture?” I say.

“Yes,” he says with a youth pastor’s grin. “Like Scripture.” Every tweet, every misspelling, every typo, every strange capitalization—especially the capitalizations, says Dave—has meaning. “The truth is right there in what the media think are his mistakes. He doesn’t make mistakes.” The message of the shirt to Dave is: Study the layers. “Trump is known as a five-dimension chess player,” Dave says later. And he’s sending us clues. About the Democrats and Ukraine and his plans. “There are major operations going on,” Dave tells me months later, suggesting that Trump is using COVID-19 field hospitals as “a cover” to rescue children from sex trafficking.

Sharlet’s investigations suggest that QAnon is just part of a much larger picture: most of people he interviewed didn’t identify with or were necessarily even particularly familiar with the most publicized online branch of the Trump cult. And it absolutely has become that:

Two weeks after the rally in Bossier City, I travel to the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida, for another gathering of the faithful. In the parking lot I meet Ed Himmelman, a Biker for Trump. Beneath his MAGA cap he wears his white beard in two braids adorned with red, white, and blue beads. His camouflage vest declares him a member of the Last Militia, founded in 2009 to champion a more masculine America, one “where men can wear knives and guns.” The Second Amendment, in Ed’s book, is second only, to, well, the first. Freedom of religion—or, as Ed thinks of it, religion as freedom. So it has been in Ed’s life, a far rougher proposition before he came to the Lord. “I am not quite a priest,” he tells me. “But I am a brother of the Franciscan order.” When he isn’t in camouflage, he wears a monk’s brown robe. “I’ve taken my vows,” Ed says. Just as Trump has. “God is using him,” Ed explains, nodding serenely.

“The chosen one?” I ask.

“He may be,” says Ed, stroking his beard braids. He doesn’t want me to misunderstand. “I’m a chosen one too.” We’re all chosen by God, each given a mission. Trump’s? “He’s the chosen one to run America.”

Sharlet’s article makes a good companion piece to Umberto Eco’s essay “Ur-Fascism:”

In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero. In every mythology the hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death. It is not by chance that a motto of the Falangists was Viva la Muerte (in English it should be translated as “Long Live Death!”). In non-fascist societies, the lay public is told that death is unpleasant but must be faced with dignity; believers are told that it is the painful way to reach a supernatural happiness. By contrast, the Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.

Sharlet’s narrative can of course be minimized or dismissed as an elaborate exercise in nut-picking, but he argues that such a response is actually a form of denial. Take Diane, who is convinced that the Clintons and their Democrat supporters have questionable gastronomic habits that go beyond the lattes and the brie with cream cheese:

Diane lacked the language of structural critique; she had only the blunt terms of her faith, good and evil and spiritual war. The Clintons’ mistakes were not errors, they were sins. They were evildoers. Thus the logic and theology of the Democratic Party’s dissolving margin: the arrogance of good intentions, followed by incompetence, leading to the conclusion that the system must have been rigged all along.

Enter the businessman. “Trump is not my God,” says Diane. “But God put him there.” God put him in power and planted a seed of faith in his heart. If you knew how to look, you could watch it grow. “It’s amazing,” Diane shouts. She takes hold of my arm, squeezing. “It gets bigger and bigger!”

As her faith in Trump grew, so too her certainty that what she’d witnessed abroad had been not just wrong but wicked. “They’re raping and pillaging Haiti!” she tells me.

It’s too terrible to speak of. She turns away, to the happiness of a small circle of new friends she’s made at the rally, a whole family decked out in Trump wear. But she keeps coming back. “The truth and the lies,” she says. I don’t know what she means. She turns away again, returns again, her eyes watery. “I’m going to say it,” she decides. But she can’t. She walks away. Her friends seem worried. She comes back, leans in. “They eat the children.” She shakes with tears. Her friends nod. . . .

“The Great Awakening?” I say, referring to a Q meme she’s searching for on her phone, tying Trump’s ascendancy to the religious revival that preceded the American Revolution.

“Exactly!” Diane says, proud. She points to the kabbalistic discipline of alphanumeric codes known as gematria, in which numbers and letters are treated as interchangeable. “The numbers tell us certain things,” she says. “And the capital letters”—the tweets, just as Pastor Dave had told me in Louisiana. “Anything capitalized,” Diane says, “we add up as a number.” Such codes are a baseline of conspiracy theories going back centuries. To Diane and other Q believers, this does not disprove the system; it is evidence of how deep runs the struggle. “Two thousand years,” says Diane. Christianity, roughly speaking.

“It’s a lot to take in,” I stammer. “I didn’t know Q had anything to do with God.”

“It’s all about God!” Diane shouts. “All about spiritual warfare. Trump will tell you that. Over and over and over.”

“But he didn’t talk a lot about God—”

You’re not listening.” The knowledge is waiting for me, she whispers, moved again nearly to tears: awaken.

Later, as I listened to my recording of our conversation (made with Diane’s permission) I found myself thinking, I can’t use any of this. It’s too much. This doesn’t represent anything but one woman’s delusions. Then I googled the Las Vegas shooting. And holy shit—Diane is far from alone. The belief that the Vegas massacre was the work of a nefarious “they” is actually much closer to the world most of us inhabit than the outer reaches of QAnon. It began with Alex Jones, then gathered force via a 51-page PowerPoint document by a retired senior CIA officer and Rich Higgins, Trump’s former director of strategic planning for the National Security Council. The theory notes that the Islamic State claimed credit for the attack; that a man on the same floor as the shooter had reportedly eaten Turkish kebab; and that this man was also known to have supported transgender rights on his Facebook page. Which adds up to—obviously—an ISIS-antifa attack on American soil. From Jones to Higgins and then to Tucker Carlson, who several months after the shooting invited Scott Perry, a GOP congressman and retired Army National Guard brigadier general, onto his show to promulgate what he described as “credible evidence of a possible terrorist nexus” behind the massacre.

Which may seem to you insane. But it is also, compared to this article, “mainstream.” Carlson’s show alone has three times the viewership of this magazine’s print circulation. Add to that Jones’s Infowars empire, and countless tweets, posts, and threads online—not to mention the conspiratorial anti-Muslim musings of Trump himself—and what you get is this: Diane is not fringe. She may be closer to the new center of American life than you are.

One of the defining characteristics of cults is that, as the Leader gets crazier, his followers have to get crazier right along with him, because otherwise their entire belief system and indeed their very identities will implode. Thus what is by any rational standard Trump’s almost indescribable degeneracy becomes, to the faithful, yet more evidence that he is indeed the Chosen One. (That such a man should come forth to save us is proof of the ultimate mysteriousness of God’s plan).

This is where the Republican party is now. The money men who have thought all along that they could manage and control Trump are either going to have to get right with Donnie, or be cast into the outer darkness of the Deep State, along with the rest of the betrayers of America.

This country has always been beset by religious lunatics — indeed it was in no small part founded by them — but now they have their own personal Jesus in the White House.

There will be blood.

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