I have watched every Donald Trump rally, interview, and speech since he left the White House in Jan. 2021.
It’s certainly been interesting to observe the evolution of his political messaging over that time—as he went from desperately trying to resuscitate his political image and career in 2021 following the Jan. 6 attack, to reclaiming his role of Republican kingmaker through his use of primary endorsements in 2022, to crafting his rally speeches and policy positions in 2023 in preparation for another presidential run while fending off indictments and financially crippling civil lawsuits.
Perhaps most interesting to me, though, is how his messaging with evangelical voters has changed so dramatically from his first campaign in 2016.
Trump’s rallies over the past year have followed a familiar pattern. After flying into the area on his 757, he makes a prearranged stop at a local diner, fast food restaurant, or pizza joint where a group of rabid Trump supporters arranged by his advance team are on hand to sing his praises and pay homage to their hero. Then, Trump loudly proclaims for the cameras that he is buying food for everyone, he hands out a few slices of pizza or hamburgers, takes a bite himself—and then it’s off to the rally as his social media team posts clip after clip to show what a true “man of the people” Trump is.
While these visits are happening, the warmup acts begin at the nearby rally venue. That’s where things get interesting.
The rallies always begin with a local pastor taking the stage for an “Opening Prayer.” These prayers, however, are not the kind you would typically hear in most churches.
Opening prayer at Trump rally today: “We thank you for a man of God, Donald Trump, who stands with Israel. I ask this day God that you will be a wall of fire around him. Lord, I ask that you expose enemies and foes that seek to do secret things in secret places to thwart him.” pic.twitter.com/CagNnAWzTZ
— Ron Filipkowski (@RonFilipkowski) October 16, 2023
Even though there are different pastors giving these prayers at each rally, the theme generally remains the same—that there are dark, satanic, sinister forces who have taken over the government behind the scenes (the Deep State), and these forces are threatened by the only man capable of defeating them—Donald Trump. Attendees are then typically asked to pray to put a “hedge of protection” around Trump and his family, or to “put the Armor of God” on him to safeguard him, because the agents of the Deep State will stop at nothing to destroy him.
This particular prayer theme links up with a popular conspiracy theory advanced by the right that there are people inside the government plotting to assassinate Trump.
These various theories are all over right-wing media, podcasts and social media. Former presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy was even caught on tape espousing this plot to a voter in Iowa two days before the caucuses and was publicly rebuked by Trump himself. Trump supporters were angry that Ramaswamy would discuss a possible assassination of Trump. Trump himself was angry that his own pitch was being hijacked by someone else to lure away his voters.
Ramaswamy, realizing that he probably went a bit too far out of his lane advancing this conspiracy, did a mea culpa by dropping out of the race two days later and enthusiastically endorsing Trump in New Hampshire.
After explaining the satanic threat that the Deep State poses, the second half of the pastors’ prayers typically make the case that Trump has been chosen by God as the only one capable of defeating these dark and sinister forces.
He has been anointed by God for the task, and they often compare him to King David in this respect. The faithful are told the monumental task Trump is about to undertake on behalf of God cannot be accomplished by any other person because nobody else is willing to do what must be done. (This part of the message also connects with a theme in Trump’s speeches that only an autocrat or strongman who is willing to wield presidential power in an unprecedented way can destroy the Deep State once and for all.)
Trump then concludes his rallies with QAnon theme music playing, as many attendees hold one finger up in the air, which is symbolic of their “Where We Go One, We Go All” slogan.
When the crowd holds up their fingers again at the Trump rally tonight to give the QAnon sign, security moves through them and has them put it down. pic.twitter.com/FQVJVrJ1FX
— Ron Filipkowski (@RonFilipkowski) September 24, 2022
This new approach stands in stark contrast to Trump’s pitch to skeptical evangelical voters in 2016.
I recently went back and watched dozens of interviews Trump gave to a wide variety of Christian broadcasters and networks. The general theme was always the same.
Montage of Trump clips talking about his love of the Bible and reading in general. pic.twitter.com/VKXQdT5wLA
— Ron Filipkowski (@RonFilipkowski) December 25, 2023
Trump would emphasize that, while they may not agree with everything he has done and said over the years, if they gave him a chance, he would give them two things they badly wanted out of the federal government—the appointment of Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, and repeal of the Johnson Amendment that would strip churches of tax-exempt status if they engaged in overt partisan political activity.
The broadcasters would either preface or recap these interviews when Trump was not there by subtly acknowledging that they knew Trump didn’t go to church or read the Bible, that he wasn’t necessarily a kindred spirit as a Christ follower, but they should overlook that for what he could do for them. It was a message that worked.
While the Johnson Amendment wasn’t repealed, it also wasn’t enforced during the Trump administration. But evangelicals got exactly what they wanted with the repeal of Roe, in no small part thanks to Trump’s three appointees to the court.
But Trump had to come up with a new strategy to keep evangelical voters in the fold heading into the primaries against Republican candidates like Mike Pence, Ron DeSantis, and Tim Scott who were going to make a hard play for those voters. This time, instead of doing it with policy proposals, he took it to a different place.
Whether moderate swing voters who tend to pay attention later in the election cycle will recoil at the idea that Trump is presenting himself as the second coming of King David, this messianic messaging clearly appeals to the fanatics who attend Trump’s rallies.