The army of Trumpists gathering at megachurch rallies build around myth of stolen election

The army of Trumpists gathering at megachurch rallies build around myth of stolen election

We’ve usually thought of Trumpism as being an essentially mainstream-conservative movement with expanding extremist elements. But its post-Jan. 6 metastasis, bringing these elements together, suggests it has become its own kind of extremism: wildly conspiracist, militantly if not fanatically religious, and fundamentally violent.

A recent New York Times piece about how evangelical churches are building an army of Trump fans who believe the 2020 election was stolen through fraud gives us a clear and disturbing portrait of the emerging shape of Trumpism. It is framed by three key elements that are merging into a whole: Christian nationalists, the authoritarian QAnon conspiracist cult, and the Proud Boys.

Playing a central role in the coalescence of these three elements under Trumpism are evangelical megachurches and the rolling tent revival-style political rallies that QAnon-loving Trumpists have organized as national tours, particularly the ReAwaken America Tour, “a traveling roadshow that has featured far-right Republican politicians, anti-vaccine activists, election conspiracists and Trumpworld personalities,” not to mention megachurch pastors like Greg Locke, who has a social media following in the millions.

Listen to Jennifer Fernandez Ancona from Way to Win explain how Democrats must message to win on Daily Kos’ The Brief podcast with Markos Moulitsas and Kerry Eleveld

ReAwaken America, as the story notes, has attracted massive audiences numbering in the thousands to these megachurch venues, held in nine states this year. All but one of the tour’s stops have been hosted by megachurches, and the tour is sponsored by a charismatic Christian media company.

The performances wrap the narrative of election fraud in a megachurch atmosphere, complete with worship music and prayer, and have drawn criticism from some Christian clergy. When the tour came to a church in San Marcos, California, this month, a local Methodist minister denounced it as an “irreligious abomination” in an opinion essay.

A central figure at the rallies has been Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s onetime national security chief who became a prominent QAnon promoter after being fired for lying to the FBI (and later pardoned by Trump). Flynn played a leading role in the QAnon-led campaign to overturn the 2020 election.

Locke, similarly, was present at the Capitol on Jan. 6—speaking alongside Alex Jones of Infowars at a “Rally for Revival” the night before, at which he offered a prayer for the Proud Boys and its imprisoned leader, Enrique Tarrio, who had been jailed two days before on charges related to his arson of a Black Lives Matter banner three weeks before. Since then, Tarrio has been indicted on conspiracy charges for his role in the insurrection.

Both Flynn and Locke appeared at the ReAwaken America event earlier this month in Keizer, Oregon, a Salem suburb. The rally was part of a nationwide tour by far-right “alpha male” Clay Clark, featured leading QAnon figure Michael Flynn and other Trumpist media stars: Eric Trump, “My Pillow” executive Mike Lindell, notorious homophobe Sean Feucht, and a large cast of others.

It was a nonstop circus of right-wing conspiracism and Christian nationalism. At one point, Flynn introduced a video appearance from Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the onetime Apostolic Nuncio to the U.S., who launched into a pro-Putin, anti-Ukraine rant. Viganò told the audience (as he has done elsewhere) that the Russian military is actually preventing Deep State aggression and combatting the “globalist cabal.” He also claimed that the Ukrainian neo-Nazi Azov Battalion were present at the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection.

The event drew about 4,000 attendees, with people arriving from around the Pacific Northwest. Counterprotesters also turned out. Left Coast Right Watch reports that “this was absolutely a QAnon event”:

It featured former QAnon promoters like Ann Vandersteel, Gene Ho, John Chambers, and cranks like Lori Gregory, who appeared on a QAnon show to promote antivaxx conspiracy theories. There were, in total, 38 featured speakers, at least ten of which were there specifically to promote antivaxx and COVID paranoia. It was also a highly religious event—six people on the list had “Pastor” in front of their names with other evangelical figures speaking as well.

Julianne Jackson, founder of Black Joy Oregon, told the Salem Statesman-Journal that the rally made her feel unsafe in her own community—particularly after social media postings advertised a post-rally celebration of “Anglo American identity.”

“It’s very important to read between the lines and know that means whiteness,” Jackson said. “And that means danger for people like me and people that look like me.”

Besides being present in the crowd, far-right candidate Marc Thielman was publicly endorsed onstage by speaker Kevin Jenkins, and happily acknowledged the plug. Also among the crowd: Dan Tooze, the Proud Boys organizer who is running for a state House seat from Oregon City’s District 40. He took a selfie there with the Oregon Proud Boys vice president, Carl Todd.

Thielman and Tooze have a well-documented relationship of mutual avid support. Thielman, the former superintendent of schools in rural Alsea who stepped down after defying COVID-19 mask mandates, is scheduled to speak at an April 15 fundraiser for Tooze. He’ll be joined by two local Republican candidates, Clackamas County Commissioner Mark Shull and commission candidate Steve Frost.

The Proud Boys-evangelical connection has been building in the past year, notably when pastors organize political events at which the street-brawling neofascists can provide “security.” There were two such events last year in Oregon.

The Times notes that white evangelical churchgoers are extremely prone to buy into the narrative of a stolen election. It cites one poll, released in November by the Public Religion Research Institute, which reported 60% of white evangelicals persist in believing that Trump was only beaten with fraud, compared to 40% of white Catholics, 19% of Hispanic Catholics, and 18% of Black Protestants who believed the same.

Another Trumpist evangelical organization, F.E.C. United (“Founded on the Three Pillars of Society: Faith, Education, and Commerce”), organizes events at megachurches and similar venues around the country. Among them is The Rock, a nondenominational evangelical church in Castle Rock, Colorado, which in February hosted an F.E.C. United event featuring two major figures in the stolen election narrative: Shawn Smith, a founder of U.S. Election Integrity Plan; and Tina Peters, the clerk and recorder of Mesa County.

Smith made headlines at the event when he accused Colorado’s Democratic secretary of state, Jena Griswold, of election fraud. He went on: “If you’re involved in election fraud, you deserve to hang.”

Peters, who first grabbed attention in January 2021 by claiming she had evidence that Dominion’s voting systems were producing fraudulent results, became a celebrity at Trumpist events last summer, appearing onstage with figures like Flynn and My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell, another “Stop the Steal” conspiracy theorist. Peters was indicted last month on charges that she devised a scheme to copy voting machine hard drives and share the data with prominent 2020 election conspiracists.

The rallies often operate under different names, but they seem to share a rotating cast of stolen election celebrities, including Douglas Frank, a former Ohio math teacher whose second career as a (widely debunked) elections “expert” has taken off; Seth Keshel, a former Army captain and military intelligence analyst who worked alongside Flynn spreading disinformation in the weeks immediately after the election; Lindell, Flynn, and various other QAnon-connected figures.

At the churches, pastors often step up and endorse the conspiracy theories. “This will be your opportunity to find out real information about what really happened at the polls,” D.J. Rabe, a pastor of The House Ministry Center, a nondenominational church in Snohomish, Washington, told his congregation at an August worship service featuring a talk by Keshel. “Here’s what we’re going to find out: What everyone thinks happened didn’t really happen. The information is coming out.”

The rallies are readily adapted to strictly political settings as well, such as the “Save the Vote” event (a “Restoring Faith in Elections Rally”) planned in Payson, Arizona, on May 15. Featuring Keshel and Frank as the headliners, it’s primarily a campaign booster for Trumpist Republicans like Mark Finchem, a state legislator who was present at the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington running for secretary of state; and Ron Watkins, the man closely associated with QAnon when he oversaw operations at the message board 8kun. Watkins is running for the GOP nomination for a congressional seat.

Finchem, for his part, filed a bill last September in the Arizona Legislature seeking to overturn the certification of the state’s 2020 presidential election count—even though the dubious “audit” he based the legislation on established again that Joe Biden had defeated Trump in the state.

Flynn turned up most recently in Ohio, where he campaigned for MAGA candidate Josh Mandel, who is seeking the nomination for a U.S. Senate seat with a Trumpist agenda—even though Trump himself endorsed his rival J.D. Vance. That did not daunt Flynn (“I think he’s been poorly advised,” he told reporters) or Mandel.

“Let me say it very clear: I believe this election was STOLEN, from Donald Trump,” Mandel told the audience, adding that even without the endorsement, he’s got the grass-roots. He’s “getting outspent heavily,” but is still “winning because we have this army of Christian warriors.”

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