Skip to content
Make Awakenings Great Again
Go to my account

Make Awakenings Great Again

The Republican Party after Trump.

Former President Donald Trump wraps up a rally on January 06, 2024 in Clinton, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

From time to time, I think of a comment left by a reader at my old haunt following the 2016 election.

I had assumed Hillary Clinton would win. He, a devout Donald Trump fan, knew with spiritual conviction that his man would prevail. When he turned out to be right, his contempt for my political acumen was incandescent. “You should be retrained as a plumber,” he sneered.

I thought of it again recently, and not just because I’m guilty of having once believed that Ron DeSantis stood a real chance of peeling away Trump’s supporters this cycle. (Maybe I should be retrained as a plumber.)

It came to mind because people like me, as a class, increasingly seem unqualified to do the job of punditry. Following the news closely and knowing a bit of history is no longer enough to understand American politics. We pundits need to be retrained as psychologists.

On Monday, the New York Times published a terrific analysis of how evangelical identity in America has itself been “retrained” over time. “Being evangelical once suggested regular church attendance, a focus on salvation and conversion and strongly held views on specific issues such as abortion,” the paper reported. “As ties to church communities have weakened, the church leaders who once rallied the faithful behind causes and candidates have lost influence. A new class of thought leaders has filled the gap: social media personalities and podcasters, once-fringe prophetic preachers and politicians.”

“I voted for Trump twice, and I’ll vote for him again. He’s the only savior I can see,” one woman told the paper. There’s nothing punditry can do with a sentiment like that. It would take a theologian to explain it. Possibly an exorcist.

Republican reaction to the third anniversary of January 6 this weekend also demonstrated a striking amount of “retraining,” not coincidentally. The commenter who encouraged me to take up plumbing years ago believed that America would benefit if the entire “establishment,” from elected officials to institutional actors to media hacks like yours truly, were replaced with populists more in touch with The People. As we’ll see below, many GOP officials now sound, at least, as if they’ve been replaced by populists. Yet our politics doesn’t seem better for it.

The question raised by all of this “retraining” is this: If it could happen so quickly for the worse, might it not also happen again for the better?

Once Trump is gone, how long will it take for this perverted Great Awakening that the right is experiencing to be undone?

In case you’re under the impression that what we’re doing in 2024 still resembles normal politics, get a load of this:

That clip was made by a Trump fan, not by the campaign (as far as we know), but it was promoted on the great man’s social media feed just as an official ad might be. He may not have created the message, but he condones it.

His base is often described, including by me, as a “cult.” That’s unfortunate, because the term has lost some of its potency through overuse. In context it sounds like an offhand insult one might throw at any group of unusually ardent supporters, like, say, Taylor Swift’s fans. And making politics into religion, or vice versa, isn’t exclusive to the right. Remember those early Obama rallies?

But the Trump movement is different. It plays like a religious revival. It has a savior-martyr at its center, an involved mythology of “secret knowledge” surrounding major events in his heroic journey, absolute belief in his invincibility and ultimate triumph, and an apocalyptic desire to see enemies of the faith punished. The Times quotes an evangelical who said this at a recent rally: “This election is part of a spiritual battle. When Donald Trump becomes the 47th president of the United States, there will be retribution against all those who have promoted evil in this country.”

That was from the opening prayer at the event, mind you, not a quote given to the paper by some rando during an interview.

The gospel on all of this comes from the savior himself. He’s invincible, he frequently reminds us, having never been defeated fairly in an election. (Voters in Iowa are already being warned that if Ron DeSantis ends up winning next week’s caucus, there can be only one explanation.) And his greatest failure as a leader was actually nothing of the sort: Because he’s inerrant, he’s more a victim of January 6 than a perpetrator.

Trump’s mythology about January 6 and the “rigged election” of 2020 no longer shocks for the same reason that his mockery of John McCain’s torture as a POW no longer shocks. Through grim repetition, we’ve all been inured to it. (Eventually, we’ll also be inured to him claiming that Lincoln should have negotiated with the Confederacy, although that’s a new one to me.) What does still retain the power to shock is watching Republican figures who once behaved normally sounding like preachers for this new Great Awakening.

Here was Elise Stefanik on Sunday, formerly the picture of a “moderate” Republican.

When she was asked to pledge that she’ll certify the results of the coming election, she declined.

Here was Nick Ayers, former chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, commemorating the day his onetime boss was nearly lynched by an angry mob driven to madness by Trump.

Here was Vivek Ramaswamy, who once called Trump’s behavior on January 6 “downright abhorrent” and the riot itself a “dark day for democracy.”

And here was Mike Lee, who—well, you know about Mike Lee.

Not very long ago, these were sensible Republicans and sensible-ish people. Even Kari Lake once sounded lucid, more or less, as a news anchor in Arizona. Now she sounds like this:

On Friday we considered what this year’s Republican presidential primary campaign was “about.” It wasn’t about policy, I concluded. If it were, the robust MAGA legislative agenda that Ron DeSantis advanced in Florida would have been worth more than 11 percent in national polling.

The sample of reactions above is further proof that Republican populism isn’t fundamentally concerned with policy. Compare how they marked the occasion to how Sen. Tom Cotton did.

“Biden can scream about the end of democracy, but people remember when President Trump was in office. The sky didn’t fall,” Cotton wrote. “Inflation was low, the border was secure, and our enemies were deterred. We were far better off than we are now.” That’s a weak, weaselly response to the threat Trump presents, but it does have the virtue of not adopting the Great Awakening mythology about January 6. He’s not claiming that the insurrection was overblown or a frame-up, merely that it’s been overtaken by more pressing national problems to which populist policies, allegedly, have solutions.

That’s what it sounds like when you’re doing politics, not religion. Even Mitt Romney(!) can go along with it, sort of.

But Trumpist Republicans are doing religion. They’re not going to convince swing voters that the people responsible for this …

… are political prisoners, yet they feel obliged to push the point. Prattling on about it only reminds Americans what the stakes of a second Trump presidency would be, which is exactly what Democrats want the general election to be about.

If you find yourself on Meet the Press droning on about the January 6 “hostages,” it’s not because you’re trying to help your party win. It’s because you’re now a member of a faith that requires adoration of the “martyrs” that were made that day. You’re doing your religious duty, whether as a matter of earnest conviction or (as is almost certainly true in Stefanik’s case) for the sake of getting ahead in the new church.

It’s the same reason she and others won’t criticize Trump for declining to sign an oath pledging not to advocate for the overthrow of the government. That may be outrageous as a matter of American civic tradition but it’s unremarkable in the context of a religion, where loyalty is owed to the savior, not the state.

Given how quickly figures like her, Ayers, Ramaswamy, and Lee were turned into converts by the Great Awakening, it’s natural to ask how quickly and easily they might be turned again. If Trump passed from the scene and a charismatic libertarian-minded conservative emerged—an American Javier Milei, if you like—would Trumpism give way to a Reaganite restoration?

I’m skeptical.

What’s unusual about Trump is that he hasn’t just changed the ideological orientation of his party, as Ronald Reagan did. For many of his admirers, he’s changed the very point of politics.

Reagan had an agenda. He wanted to shrink the federal government and win the ideological battle with communism. Trump 2016 also had an agenda, restoring border security and repatriating American jobs.

Trump 2024 doesn’t have much of an agenda beyond “retribution.”

There are still cursory assurances about building the wall, of course, but his policy slate this time is lighter on details than it was eight years ago. He’s going to end inflation and bring peace to Ukraine and deter China … somehow, through the sheer force of his very masculine persona.

Even the “retribution” agenda rarely gets into specifics. He intends to fire many federal workers, but beyond that? Unclear. The chief form of retribution involved in reelecting him, it seems, is simply thwarting the federal government’s efforts to prosecute him.

The Trump movement isn’t fundamentally about policy, as the Reagan revolution was. It’s about community, the “us” in “us vs. them.” All politicians practice “us vs. them” politics, especially populists, but the “us” is typically defined by substantive criteria. For Bernie Sanders supporters, “us” refers to those who want to confiscate the riches of the wealthy “them” and redistribute it to the working class.

With Trump, “us” doesn’t require much more than admiring Donald Trump and hating the right’s (read: Trump’s) enemies. A Black Lives Matter activist can be one of “us” if he meets those criteria. Even Supreme Court justices are now understood in terms of “us” and “them,” never mind the legal merits of the cases before them.

How would a Javier Milei figure coopt that dynamic, exactly?

A few weeks ago, our friend David French wrote about “bespoke realities,” a term he borrowed from Renée DiResta of the Stanford Internet Observatory. Each of us now inhabits an information ecosystem that can be tailored to our prejudices as precisely as we like, David observed. Curate the right “news” sources, patronize the right message boards, trust in the algorithms, and you might never encounter a piece of news that confounds your view of the world.

People who create similar bespoke realities to feed their bespoke grievances will find each other online eventually and form virtual communities. Increasingly, they find each other in real life too, thanks to the long American trend in geographic self-sorting along ideological lines. If you’re a Democrat or a Republican, chances are you live in a place where most of your neighbors think like you do. If you’re online, you definitely “live” in a place where your “neighbors” think like you do.

Is it any wonder that as evangelicals have become unchurched and lost their religious community, they’ve migrated toward a like-minded virtual community around Trump? Or that those who didn’t attend church often in the first place, having since joined the same virtual community, might derive from their newfound kinship that they’re now “evangelical”?

The best argument that the right’s Trumpist Great Awakening might eventually end and transform into something else is that the “bespoke reality” phenomenon is destined to continue. Trump will leave us eventually, but the algorithms will not. There’s no logical reason that a charismatic conservative ideologue couldn’t inspire Trump supporters to tweak their information diet to favor news/propaganda that’s flattering to him. New virtual communities devoted to supporting him would form in the process. Extant communities devoted to Trump might shift toward supporting the new leader as membership churns.

But an ideologue won’t command the same “us vs. them” power that reinforces Trump’s community, the same way that garden-variety politics doesn’t inspire adherents the way religious fundamentalism does. The “us” created by conservatism is weak, organized around ideas and incremental policy changes; the “us” created by the Trumpist narrative is comparatively epic, an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil roiling with cultural persecution, injustice, and martyrdom. “Certainty, ferocity, and solidarity” are the three traits of fundamentalism David has identified as key to why Trump’s followers bond to him as they do. Mundane policy disputes seldom lend themselves to such things; imagine Paul Ryan trying to build a Trump-style movement around tax cuts or entitlement reform.

Once you’ve gotten a taste for politics as religious fundamentalism, politics as usual just ain’t going to cut it. Which means, given the trends away from church attendance and toward “bespoke realities,” things could get considerably weirder in red-state America than they already have.

All of which makes me think the future of the GOP after Trump will be less a matter of some new ideology supplanting Trump’s than a matter of warring over who should be seen as his “true” heir and successor. That’s how it tends to be with religions: Muslims have been split on the subject since Muhammad’s death. And ideologies in politics aren’t easily dislodged. Reaganism lumbered on until 2016, long after it had stopped attracting popular-vote majorities in presidential elections and decades after the Gipper had left office.

If the Great Trump Awakening is ultimately undone, it’s far less likely to involve a repudiation of Trump and Trumpism than some dynamic new leader colorably claiming to be carrying Trump’s mantle while quietly leading on the merits in a more reform-minded way. That’s how DeSantis’ conservative apologists in the right-wing commentariat envisioned his candidacy at the start of last year, I suppose. If only he’d been about a billion times more charismatic.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.