Donald Trump’s closing message in Iowa before the first votes of the 2024 presidential election was a familiar one. He’s convinced his supporters that his legal problems are their own, and that he’s the only one who can stop them, while stringing along a fake narrative that the 2020 election was stolen from them.
As he targets a key Republican voting bloc of evangelical Christians, the former president is leaning into a fantasy among supporters and social media influencers depicting him as something of a messianic figure, who was sent by God as a “shepherd to mankind” who ends his week in the Oval Office “by attending church on Sunday,” according to one video shared by his campaign.
Mr Trump never joined a church during his presidency, nor was he seen attending services more than a handful of times. Nevertheless, he shared the video, from a group of meme creators who have worked closely with the former president’s campaign, hours before votes were cast in Iowa.
The caucuses are “your personal chance to score the ultimate victory” against his political enemies, he told a rally crowd on 14 January. “The Washington swamp has done everything in its power to take away your voice,” he said.
His campaign has relied on the mountain of criminal charges and lawsuits against him to cast himself as a victim of political persecution. His evangelical support has cast him as a Biblical David against the “deep state” Goliath, while he echoes white supremacist manifestos and plots his revenge against the justice system.
In 2016, with evangelical Christian voters making up roughly two-thirds of votes cast, Mr Trump lost the Iowa caucus to Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
Eight years later, polls show the former president consolidating support among evangelical Christians in the state. Fifty-one per cent support Mr Trump. Ron DeSantis, who has spent months in the state visiting every count and courting evangelical support, trails with 22 per cent.
“It’s disheartening, if not surprising, that Donald Trump and other MAGA politicians have been able to consolidate so much evangelical Christian support in Iowa, following years of lies that portray their violent cause as a holy war,” Rev Nathan Empsall, executive director of Faithful America, told The Independent.
In Iowa, the number of people who associate themselves with a congregation has fallen nearly 13 per cent from 2010 to 2020, opening a vacuum for fringe influencers on social media, and making political partisanship – not religion and community – a governing identity.
Roughly half of evangelicals surveyed in an AP-NORC poll in October said they have a favourable view of the former president. That view is even higher among white born-again Christians, at 56 per cent.
“When we elected Donald Trump in 2016 … we didn’t know what we were gonna get,” according to Iowa’s Rob Vander Plaats, the influential right-wing Christian leader of the Family Leader, who endorsed Mr DeSantis.
Mr Vander Plaats argued in an op-ed for the Des Moines Register that the “system” and “sheer number of Trump haters will never allow him to win the presidency,” and that Mr DeSantis could “ensure justice” for Mr Trump. But Mr Trump is similarly arguing to evangelicals that those are the very same reasons he should be elected instead while promising “retribution” for his supporters, undercutting arguments from a kingmaker among Iowa Christians.
“I think they are doing the same thing they did to Jesus on the cross,” one Christian voter told the Associated Press.
“I am being indicted for you’. My first thought went to, ‘Well, Jesus Christ died for my sins. Jesus died for me,’” another voter told MSNBC. “So it connects in my brain that way, like, OK, he’s doing this for us … and he’s the target, where we don’t have to be.”
Right-wing Christians achieved a long-held victory with Mr Trump’s appointment of three justices to the US Supreme Court, where the new conservative supermajority revoked a constitutional right to abortion care by overturning the decades-long precedent in Roe v Wade. He also recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and endorsed a plan to annex large swaths of the West Bank, measures he promoted to evangelical Christians as he campaigned for re-election in 2020.
He also has characterised immigrants, civil rights for marginalised Americans, and the federal government itself as threats to Christian America, telling supporters in Iowa this month that “Christians and Americans of faith are being persecuted and government has been weaponized against religion like never before.”
Those supporters, seeing the criminal indictments against him, are resolute in their support out of “loyalty” to him, and “having his back, and saying, ‘if the government’s going against you, if it’s weaponized against you, it’s actually weaponised against us, so therefore we’re going to have your back,’” according to Mr Vander Plaats.
His support among white evangelicals in Iowa tracks alongside national polling. The Public Religion Research Institute’s 2023 American Values Survey found that 44 per cent of white evangelical Republican voters preferred Mr Trump.
“People think it’s all a good-and-evil election” and “need a strongman,” according to Tim Lubinus, executive director of Iowa’s Baptist convention, speaking to The New Yorker.
Mr Trump was courting evangelical votes in Iowa hours before he was planning to appear for the opening day of a second defamation trial in New York, where a woman he sexually assaulted could be awarded damages for his statements about her. His lawyers spent the weekend trying to convince a judge to postpone the hearing so he could attend his mother in law’s funeral. His campaign, however, continued to schedule events through the rest of the week.
He also tried to postpone closing arguments in his civil fraud trial last week for similar reasons. He also attended that, falsely claiming that he was forced off the trail to be there, and then used the courtroom as an extension of his campaign.
Mr Trump’s language is echoed by Christian nationalists in Congress and among elected officials across the country, intersecting with rampant election denialism and conspiracy-mongering that risks inflaming threats of political violence, according to a coalition of faith leaders who are warning their congregations about threats to faith communities and democracy from Christian nationalist campaigns.
“While most of his opponents may not share his vulgarity or bombast, Donald Trump is not the only dangerous Christian-nationalist candidate in this race,” Rev Empsall told The Independent. “Most American Christians reject the Christofascism and Christian nationalism that Trump and MAGA stand for, and will continue to do so throughout this election season and beyond.”