In my senior year of high school, our beloved Humanities teacher took us through a process establishing that Elvis worship and University of Alabama football are both religions. It was a fun exercise as part of a (thoroughly secular) unit about religious studies, but also… I mean, y’all… Have you ever been to a UA football game?
[Hrmph]teen years later, though, the sanctity of The King and The Tide have been overshadowed by the sanctity of The Donald. And going by an outline similar to the one from that class lo so many years ago, it might be argued that Trumpism isn’t just a figurative cult — it could be a literal one.
To be clear, not every Trump supporter is a full-on fundamentalist. I’ll even say that most Trump supporters aren’t Trump fundies. (In before #notallTrumpsupporters.) But the true believers of Trumpism truly believe truly (and they’re not shy about saying so). Here’s what we’re working with:
1. Belief in supernatural beings
This, of course, is one of the biggest differentiators between a religion and a fandom (which is why the ghosts of Elvis and prayers to Bear Bryant would make the cut). In Trump’s case, few have claimed that he’s actually a god, but a lot of godlike powers have been attributed to him. The ability to revive the economy with punitive tariffs, to revive the coal industry while killing it to save the steel industry, to rescue America’s benighted Everymen through the magic of trickle-down economics — that’s nothing if not supernatural. And while we’ve seen no proof that he’s actually achieved these things, we’ve also seen no proof that bushes can talk and people can rise from the dead, so that’s not a disqualifier.
2. Sacred vs. profane objects, places, and times
No observance is more sacred to the hard-core Trumpist than the campaign rallies that have never abated, going uninterrupted from the 2016 campaign to the 2020 campaign so Trump never lacks for people telling him how awesome he is. They wear their sacred MAGA hats, surround him with adulation, and unquestioningly accept his every word, no matter how completely ridiculous it is. Sometimes, a prominent minister will lead a prayer before Trump’s grand entrance, and if y’all Christians aren’t uncomfortable with your religion basically being used as an opening act for a a night of evangelical Trumpism, you’re deeper in it than I’d thought.
3. Ritual acts focused on sacred objects, places, and times
You can’t have a religious service without some good chants, and Trump rallies have more than their fair share. Adherents rebuke the Enemy with chants of “Lock her up,” scold blasphemers with “CNN sucks” and “Go home, Jim” (aimed at CNN’s Jim Acosta), and of course praise Trump’s greatness with “Build that wall” and “Nobel” and, naturally, “Trump!” They put on their “Trump That Bitch” (begone, Satan!) garb and red “MAGA” head coverings to come together and literally praise his name.
4. Moral code with supernatural origins
Many Trump supporters claim that even though Trump exhibits some truly despicable behavior, regular people know they’re not supposed to act the same way. That’s belied by the behavior of his supporters and underlings. See Sarah Sanders and Kellyanne Conway blatantly lying at the behest of the compulsive liar in the Oval Office. See schoolchildren screaming Trump’s favorite racist epithets at their fellow students. See “very fine people” feeling empowered to march with tiki torches and white-power chants. Hell, see government officials putting toddlers in cages because of an order from on high. Just like anti-choice activists would never scream at people on the street but are happy to do it outside abortion clinics because their religion tells them to, Trump supporters have been given permission by their supreme being to be just as horrible as he is.
5. Characteristically religious feelings
This can be harder to define — what is “characteristically religious?” — but Cline offers a sense of mystery, a sense of guilt, and adoration as examples. Adoration is clear at his rallies and any time a Trump supporter is given access to a news camera. (And that’s not to mention the nauseating praise his cabinet heaped upon him at that first creepy cabinet meeting, or toadies like Paul Ryan and Scott Pruitt and others who have literally given thanks to God — the Christian one — for giving us Trump.) There’s also a sense of mystery — we don’t know how he achieved such wondrous success in business, or how he heroically rescued the U.S. economy before his tax cuts had even taken effect, outside of his being generally awesome, but that’s enough. And you can frequently observe a sense of guilt in supporters who disagree with things he does (tear families apart, try to dismantle the ACA, publicly act like an asshole) but still feel obliged to maintain the same dedicated level of worship.
6. Prayer and other forms of communication
Outside of the standard chants at rallies, this is largely observable in the constant string of tweets aimed at Trump by his followers, as if he actually reads all of them (or any of them) and might respond or change his actions because of them. Supporters also frequently tweet at Donald Jr. and Ivanka, encouraging them to intercede with Trump on their behalf. (The only exception to this is the hosts of Fox & Friends, who are able to speak to Trump through his TV and get an actual response, which I guess kind of makes them prophets?)
7. A worldview and organization of one’s life based on the worldview
Even though Trump claims that his goal is to support his people, it’s actually the other way around — they support him unquestioningly, even as he consistently screws them over. They give tithes, attend services, and vote for the candidates he ordains. They pit themselves against heretics like the liberals, the socialists, and the coastal elites, because they know that theirs is a life of truth and that any message that threatens that is wickedness to be overcome.
8. A social group bound together by the above
Blessed are the cheesemakers.
All of this is why his overall approval rating tends to hover at ’roundabout 40 percent, no matter what atrocious things he does, while his approval rating within the party stays in the mid-80s. It’s why his Evangelical Christian supporters twist themselves into knots trying to excuse his unashamedly un-Christlike behavior. Just as Catholics raked their own Pope across the coals for saying there isn’t a literal hell, questioning the Trump doctrine or the infallibility of His Orangeness (I tried for a Pope/POTUS pun there, and it just didn’t happen) is unfathomable for a true Trump believer. Don’t get me wrong — most Trump supporters are open to reason and can be convinced. But fundamentalist Trumpists can only be converted, and that in and of itself would take a miracle.
[h/t Austin Cline at ThoughtCo., whose list was entirely apolitical and used solely for reference, so don’t try to saddle him with any of this]