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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Ed Pilkington in Branson, Missouri

‘He was chosen’: the rightwing Christian roadshow spreading the gospel of Trump

Eric Trump on stage at the event in Branson, Missouri. He said: ‘I promise you, we are going to go and get those bastards, I promise you we will.’
Eric Trump on stage at the event in Branson, Missouri. He said: ‘I promise you, we are going to go and get those bastards, I promise you we will.’ Photograph: Ed Pilkington/The Guardian

“There is a man by the name of Donald,” the voice on the recording says. “God said, ‘You have been determined through your prayers to influence this nation … I will open that door that you prayed about, and when it comes time for the election you will be elected.”

Three thousand people are packed into an overflowing auditorium, many with arms raised and eyes closed in prayer. The recording to which they are listening is from April 2013 and of Kim Clement, a late South African preacher, as he prophesies the first coming of Donald Trump.

In a clip from the following year, Clement again purports to channel the word of God: “Hear me, for I have found a man after my own heart and he is among you. He is one of the brothers, but singled out for presidency of the United States of America.”

There is excitement in the theater, with talk of a “red wave” at Tuesday’s midterm elections that will set America back on a righteous path after two years in the progressive wilderness. There is also palpable expectation that victory next week will be followed soon after by Trump’s second coming.

The audience erupts in a mighty cheer as Clement’s speaking as God is beamed down to them from large flat screens while he says: “Hear me today. I have the whole thing planned out. I have looked for a man who would restore the fortunes of Zion.”

So begins the ReAwaken America tour, a Trump-adoring, rightwing roadshow that has come for its 17th and last pre-election stop to Branson, a deeply Christian, deeply conservative town in Missouri. Over the next two days the crowd, swathed in Stars and Stripes T-shirts and Make America Great Again (Maga) hats and paying up to $500 for a “VIP” ticket, will be treated to speeches from the far-right stormtroopers of the Trump revolution.

A selection of the merchandise on display.
A selection of the merchandise on display. Photograph: Ed Pilkington/The Guardian

They will hear the former president’s first national security adviser Michael Flynn, who is revered in this setting as “America’s general”, warning that a new world tyranny is approaching. They will listen as Mike Lindell, the so-called My Pillow Guy, launches an incoherent rant about how foreign forces are infiltrating voting machines and using them to subvert US elections.

They will give a standing ovation to the beloved leader’s son, Eric Trump, who will fire them up almost to the point of ecstasy with talk of “doing it all again”. And at the end of the day more than 200 of them will line up by a swimming pool for a full-body immersive baptism in the name of the Lord, spiritual and political.

The show is part Trump Stop the Steal rally, part charismatic religious service, part QAnon and anti-vaxxer conspiracy theory all rolled into one. It also subscribes heavily to the church of merchandising – there is a large vendors’ tent with several stalls devoted to the peddling of snake oil (“Redox Worx: patented cell-signalling technology. Improve health on a cellular level”).

This heady brew is the creation of Clay Clark, a former wedding reception DJ from Oklahoma turned ThriveTimeShow podcaster who came to prominence protesting Covid lockdowns. Together with Flynn, he launched the ReAwaken America tour in April last year, just weeks after Trump supporters staged the January 6 attack on the US Capitol in a desperate yet unsuccessful attempt to keep Joe Biden out of the Oval Office.

Since then the show has crisscrossed the country like a merry band of minstrels, honing the look, feel and message of Trump 2.0. There is less arch humour in the mix than there was when Trump descended the golden escalator in June 2015 – now it’s more resentment and menace.

The speakers talk about a battle for America’s soul, literally, as though an aspiration that was floated at the start of the Trump experiment has gelled into something concrete. The regular tussle between Republicans and Democrats has distilled into a concoction that is far more potent: the fight of good versus evil.

“We are ready to go to war with the enemy, to bring this country back,” Clark says as he orders the blowing of the shofar – horns seen as spiritual weapons that herald the unleashing of God’s power.

“How many of you believe that Jesus is king, and that Donald Trump is the president?” he asks. Almost every hand in the house shoots up.

There is more dystopian paranoia in the room, too. America’s general, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia but was pardoned by Trump, tells the rapt crowd that “these people” – unnamed but indicative of global elites – “have a plan to take this country over. They are moving to impose a new world order.”

There are signs on the front of the theater pronouncing: “No guns”. Yet guns are plentiful inside the theatre as fashion appendages. One woman sitting on the stage as a “VIP” is wearing a T-shirt that says: “Guns don’t kill people. Biden does.”

There is a pulsing sense inside the ReAwaken America arena that the world outside, the world surrounding them, is wholly against them. There is some reason to that.

Last year the the Anti-Defamation League compiled a report on ReAwaken America that accused the tour of spreading disinformation. “This phenomenon underscores the extent to which the line separating the mainstream from the extreme has blurred,” it warned.

Twice the event has been shut down or forced to relocate, in New York and Washington states. Now when you are sent your ticket it is labelled as a “Fresh-roasted coffee-fest and expo” to disguise the show’s real focus.

Misinformation flows freely inside Trump 2.0. Lori Gregory, who produces films for Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced British doctor who was struck off from medical practice in 2010 for fearmongering about links between the MMR vaccine and autism, tells the crowd that 10 years from now one in two children will be on the autistic spectrum as a result of vaccine injury.

A later speaker, Sherri Tenpenny, says that Covid vaccines were turning people into “transhumanist cyborgs”. Covid shots have killed 20 million people around the world and caused 20 billion injuries, she says.

Kash Patel is next up, fresh from the immunity deal he has cut with federal prosecutors that will see him testify about how Trump hoarded top-secret documents at Mar-a-Lago. Patel doesn’t want to talk about that.

The Trump administration’s former chief of staff at the Department of Defense wants to empathise with his audience over how they are maligned by Biden and the media: “You guys have been labelled domestic violent terrorists because you dare to support the Maga movement.”

He also wants to talk about the “two-tiered justice system” that has put many loyal Maga supporters behind bars without bail after the violent attack on the Capitol. He does not mention the more than 140 law enforcement officers who were injured on January 6 nor the seven people – at least – who died as a result of the attack.

What Patel really wants to talk about is his latest children’s book that purports to enlighten school kids about how the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Trump and rigged in Biden’s favor. “King Donald had taken the lead, getting an unprecedented amount of votes,” as the story goes in The Plot Against the King: 2000 Mules. “Poor Joe was trailing so far behind that the result seemed to be obvious. The winner was …”

Patel wants his book to be taught in schools, replacing the critical race theory and gender realignment that he laments is being forced down children’s throats. When he has finished speaking, he goes outside to sell signed copies of the 36-page book to a long line of attendees, at $60 each.

People who had travelled from all over Missouri and beyond to attend the show expressed happiness that for once they were understood. “I feel encouragement, I feel truth. We don’t get much of that any more,” says Ruth Denham, who sits on the local Branson town council.

Attendees at the ReAwaken America tour in Branson, Missouri.
Attendees at the ReAwaken America tour in Branson, Missouri. Photograph: Ed Pilkington

Denham has stopped consuming mainstream media – she gets her news from Trump’s social media platform, Truth Social, and from Kash’s Corner, Patel’s podcast. Nor does she call herself a Republican any longer, there are just too many Rinos, or “Republicans in name only”. She considers herself a “constitutional conservative”.

Mark Trudo, who runs his own swimming pool construction company near St Louis, is more optimistic, saying: “Right now I’m hopeful, I think things are going to turn around, a great awakening is taking place.”

Like most of his ReAwaken peers, he sees the current politics in apocalyptic terms: “The country is being taken away from us from within. This is good versus evil.”

Actual evil? As in satanic evil?

“Is God real, is Satan real? Yes, I believe they are,” he says.

Is Biden satanic?

“I don’t know he is actually satanic. He is compromised. He knows what the evil side, the satanic forces, that control him tell him to do.”

And Trump?

“As a believer, I believe God knows the future. Trump was chosen. Even though he didn’t look like a Christian figure – he was foul-mouthed and a playboy – it’s obvious God knew what he was doing and put him in.”

And now God is potentially poised to put Trump in a second time. That’s a theme that Eric Trump picks up when he takes the stage.

He talks about the 2016 election, how Hillary outspent his father five to one and yet Trump still won. “We had the best out of all, which was the guy up there,” he says, pointing a finger heaven-ward. “Believe me, there was divine intervention, there was somebody watching over him.”

Then came the biggest cheer of the day: “That’s why we have to do it again. It’s why we have to do it again.”

On Thursday night Trump addressed a rally of his supporters in Sioux City, Iowa, and said: “I will very, very, very probably do it again.” There is speculation he will announce another run for the White House on 14 November, the week after the elections.

“Guys, we will never ever, ever stop fighting for this country,” Eric Trump says, prompting chants of “USA! USA! USA!”

“It’s unthinkable what these people are doing to this nation,” he says. “This is cognitive war, and I don’t say that lightly – I’m not, like, a tin-hat wearing guy.”

Eric Trump concludes by telling the reawakened crowd that he loves them, saying: “I know you guys have our back 100%, and we have yours. I promise you, we are going to go and get those bastards, I promise you we will.”

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