Dennis C. Sasso

Donald Trump as a messianic cultic figure

In the former president, echoes of another figure in history who left a polarizing trail of broken communities, conspiracies and heresy accusations
US President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he visits St. John's Church near Lafayette Park across from the White House in Washington, June 1, 2020. (AP/Patrick Semansky)
US President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he visits St. John's Church near Lafayette Park across from the White House in Washington, June 1, 2020. (AP/Patrick Semansky)

Franklin Graham, a committed Trump supporter and the son of famed evangelist Billy Graham, castigated the ten Republicans who voted for the impeachment of Donald Trump, comparing them to Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus. This elevation of Trump to a Jesus-like figure in certain right-wing evangelical circles is an assertion that would offend most faithful Christians.

Donald Trump’s self-proclamation as a religious model came on June 1st, 2020, when during racial protests across the country, he proclaimed in the Rose Garden: “I am your President of law and order,” and then proceeded, with an entourage of aides and security personnel, to march across Lafayette Square and to stand for a photo opportunity in front of the iconic St. John’s Episcopal Church, holding a Bible in his hand, ironically, upside down. Episcopal Bishop Marianne Budde described this as an “abuse of sacred symbols…to justify…rhetoric…antithetical to everything we stand for.”

A pseudo-religious cult has developed around the person of Donald Trump. The failed president is being revered, absolved of any flaws, and said to be persecuted and misunderstood. His true believers continued to praise him despite recent events and even as he was set to depart from office. Eric Trump, one of Trump’s sons, once asserted that his father “literally saved Christianity.” Overt and nuanced references make it evident that in the eyes of many of his followers, Donald Trump is seen as a cultic figure of redemptive proportions, like many false messiahs throughout history who continued to be worshipped and followed after their missions failed.

An instructive example is the aborted career of Shabbetai Tzvi, the Turkish mystic who in the 17th century claimed to be the long-awaited Messiah. Banished from his hometown of Izmir (Smyrna) for his eccentricities, Tzvi continued to travel through Turkey and Greece during the decade of the 1650s.

Historians describe Tzvi as suffering from severe mood swings expressed in elevated episodes of religious “illumination” and alternative periods when the divine presence was “hidden” from him. Tzvi saw himself above the constraints of the law and willfully engaged in prohibited practices and bizarre rituals. Excommunicated from the Jewish communities of Salonica and Constantinople, he traveled to Egypt. There he met Nathan of Gaza, himself an ascetic and mystic, who served as Tzvi’s spiritual mentor and counselor, helping him through moments of emotional malaise. Nathan convinced Tzvi to proclaim himself as the long-awaited Messiah who would assume the Sultan’s crown. One wonders, who have been Trump’s Nathans?

Tzvi continued to engage in ecstatic practices, stormed the synagogues of his opponents, declared his rabbinical critics to be “unclean animals,” and declared himself to be “anointed by God” as the Messiah. Despite opposition and ostracism, Tzvi’s movement took on a life of its own. Many communal leaders were hesitant to criticize him or his followers for fear of violence and reprisals.

Imprisoned in Constantinople in 1666, Tzvi continued to affirm his Messianic pretensions and took to signing his name as “I am the Lord your God, Shabbetai Tzvi.” Accused of fomenting sedition, Tzvi was brought before the Sultan, in whose presence, in a submissive moment, he renounced his messianic claims. He was given the option of death or apostasy. He chose the latter. However, living on a royal pension, Tzvi continued secretly to affirm his messianic mission till his death in 1756.

Shabbetai Tzvi’s episode left a polarizing trail of broken families and communities, conspiracies and accusations of heresy. It seeded other messianic claims, evoked reactions and responses in other movements that spanned the spectrum from charismatic spirituality to secularism.

While the historic and cultural circumstances of the careers of Shabbetai Tzvi and Donald Trump differ, one cannot but take note of the parallels in their respective trajectories: narcissistic assumptions of grandeur, claims of being above the law, denial of failed mission, incitement of violence against opponents, and the faithful commitment of followers despite the loss of credibility and status. These parallels invite concern about the former president’s image as a cultic figure along the lines of false prophets and messianic pretenders, and caution about the potential for divisive and perilous outcomes. Upon departing Washington DC on Wednesday, Donald Trump vowed, “we will be back in some form.”

We have yet to find out what consequences Donald Trump’s failed presidency and ongoing claims will continue to have for his followers, for American society and politics, and indeed, for the world. But recent developments and the lessons of history warrant vigilant attention.

About the Author
Dennis Sasso is Senior Rabbi Emeritus at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, Indianapolis, Indiana. He is Affiliate Professor of Jewish Studies at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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