As he prepared for his second criminal arraignment of 2023, Donald Trump duly loaded up his Truth Social account with all-caps messages to his followers bemoaning his legal martyrdom at the hands of a corrupt and thuggish Biden Justice Department. Most of those exhortations, though, felt phoned in. Perhaps Trump was all too aware that he’d only reached the midpoint in his pending series of legal crucibles and needed to conserve his sloganeering energy. While he’s now been arraigned in Manhattan and Miami, he’s facing a likely indictment in Fulton County, Ga., this August as well as in another federal case, both stemming from his efforts to overturn the result of the 2020 election and reassume the presidency via a coup.
Whatever the reason, Trump was left barking out semaphoric versions of his usual grievances on the morning of his arraignment for Espionage Act violations and obstruction of justice: “WITCH HUNT!” “ELECTION INTERFERENCE!” “AMERICA FIRST!” “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” The cumulative effect was a bit like seeing a series of greatest-hits song titles scroll by during an infomercial for a vintage CD box set.
Against this pro forma backdrop, one post-arraignment Truth Social message stood out in especially high relief. “NOW THAT THE ‘SEAL’ IS BROKEN…,” the outburst read in part, “I WILL APPOINT A REAL SPECIAL ‘PROSECUTOR’ TO GO AFTER THE MOST CORRUPT PRESIDENT IN THE HISTORY OF THE USA, JOE BIDEN, THE ENTIRE BIDEN CRIME FAMILY, & ALL OTHERS INVOLVED WITH THE DESTRUCTION OF OUR ELECTIONS, BORDERS & COUNTRY ITSELF!” Journalist Jeff Sharlet, a close student of religious movements on the American right, noted that the broken-seal reference echoed the language of the Book of Revelation, which was sure to resonate with Trump’s fundamentalist or conspiracy-minded base. Following his earlier invocation of the approach of World War III and a pledge that he was the “only one” who could reverse America’s rapid plunge into the cosmic abyss, Trump’s vow of legal vengeance on his Democratic persecutors doubled as a “claim to divinity,” Sharlet wrote.
For all the procedural intrigue surrounding Trump’s escalating legal woes, the former president’s ongoing apocalyptic makeover is likely to be the most troubling and enduring legacy of his tour through the justice system. Even before he left office in January 2021, Trump had increasingly adopted the messianic imagery and rhetoric of the QAnon movement, which foretells an imminent eliminationist purge of liberals for their coordinated sexual predation and sacrifice of children, among other ghastly trespasses. Trump all but formalized his alliance with QAnon forces during the 2022 midterm campaign. As claims of persecution and deep-state martyrdom have become his main line of defense against increasingly unanswerable criminal charges, the chiliastic phase of the Trump movement will likely dominate right-wing messaging in the coming presidential election.
And the QAnon and militant white-nationalist elements of the evangelical world are heeding Trump’s call. After his arraignment, Trump walked into a Miami cafe, where supporters swarmed to lay hands on and pray for him. That same evening, a group called Pastors for Trump hosted former national security adviser Michael Flynn, himself having pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents about trafficking in classified intelligence, in a Twitter Spaces event devoted to national prayer and unity—which of course translated into more biblically themed vows of retribution for Trump’s political enemies. (Sample Flynn homily from the digital gathering: “We want to pray for President Donald J. Trump, his entire family, and all those that are part of this war we’re involved in, this spiritual war we’re facing…. This is good versus evil—an America First, if you will, versus a globalist elite.”)
Trump’s own televised statement that night hammered away at the same points, railing against “the misfits and Marxists” engineering his indictment and denouncing special prosecutor Jack Smith as a “deranged lunatic,” a “thug,” and “a raging, uncontrolled Trump hater.” He decried federal agencies for “running illegal psychological warfare campaigns against the American people” before he built to the revival-style climax: “We have a nation in serious decline. If the communists get away with this, it won’t stop with me. They will not hesitate to ramp up their persecution of Christians and pro-life activists, parents attending school board meetings and even future Republican candidates, which they do. We must end it permanently and we must end it immediately.” And he once more pledged to appoint a special prosecutor to target Biden “now that the seal—so important—the seal is broken by what they’ve done…. When I’m reelected—and we will get reelected, we have no choice, we are not gonna have a country anymore—I will totally obliterate the deep state.” To send off his crowd of ardent supporters, Trump again invoked Revelation to offer himself as a propitiatory sacrifice for a nation of despised and persecuted believers.
This is more than just a split-screen ideological divide or an alternate timeline tracing the prerogatives of executive power; it’s a cult of personality morphing into a hard-core formation of divine messengers firmly convinced they are standing at Armageddon. Far from being defeated by subpoenas and indictments, the Trump movement draws an endlessly renewable sense of righteous retribution from the fable of its own persecution. Unless and until we’re able to recognize these basic truths, Donald Trump’s legal travails will produce no better outcomes in our politics.