Trump as Jesus? Why He Casts Himself as a Martyr and Why Fans Go Along.

From a Washington Post story by Marc Fisher headlined “Trump as Jesus? Why he casts himself as a martyr, and why fans go along.”:

When Donald Trump’s civil trial on fraud allegations began in Manhattan last month, some of his most avid fans pictured him sitting alongside the archetypal martyr, Jesus. Trump quickly circulated the faux courtroom sketch to his social media followers.

At rallies, in fundraising letters and wherever he can find an attentive listener, the former president — who faces 91 felony charges, four criminal trials and, in the New York civil case, the prospect of a court-ordered dismantling of his financial empire — has taken up a new mantra: “They’re not after me; they’re after you,” said the headline plastered across the top of Trump’s campaign website when the trial began. “I’m just standing in the way.”

On his way into the Manhattan courtroom to testify Monday, Trump railed against New York Attorney General Letitia James, who brought the fraud case against him, declaring the trial “election interference” and “political warfare” and “a very unfair situation.” On the witness stand, Trump grumbled that “I’m sure the judge will rule against me because he always rules against me.” Last week, as his two elder sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, testified in the same case, Trump took to social media to slam the judge in the case, Arthur Engoron: “Leave my children alone, Engoron. You are a disgrace to the legal profession!”

Trump also portrayed James as a political enemy with an animus against him, calling her a “Corrupt Attorney General [who] sits on her ass in Court all day watching the Trump family be abused by a Trump Hating Judge.”

At a Michigan rally this fall, Trump told striking autoworkers, “Now I put everything on the line to fight for you. I’ve risked it all to defend the working class from the corrupt political class … I never heard of the word ‘indictment;’ now I get indicted like every three days.”

Over the past eight years, Trump has often devoted as much attention to touting his victimhood and the attacks upon him as to expressing his goals or ideals for the country.

The showman who parlayed his personal brand and a life in the gossip pages and on reality TV into the presidency has cultivated an identity as Trump the martyr. Claiming he has been “harassed, investigated, defamed, slandered, and persecuted like no elected leader in American history,” as he put it in a fundraising appeal last fall, Trump now routinely appeals to supporters to view him as the single figure who will weather attacks on their behalf, standing up for those who’ve been left behind by the country’s wealthy and powerful forces.

Trials — both the literal courtroom variety and the more abstract tribulations that test a person’s endurance — have always made him stronger, Trump has long argued.

From his earliest feuds in the New York real estate world half a century ago to his characterization of his 2024 presidential campaign as a “Final Battle” against those who would take him down, Trump has positioned himself as the one who will suffer on behalf of his followers or customers, said Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime fixer and attorney who broke with his former boss midway through the White House years and spent more than a year in prison after pleading guilty to campaign finance charges and lying to Congress.

“To protect his incredibly fragile ego, he needs to create this victimization,” said Cohen. “The problem can’t be him, so who else can it be? That’s where the martyrdom comes in: He has to shift the blame on someone else, and then he can say, ‘The only one standing in between them and you is me.’”

After his arraignment in New York in April in the case alleging that he made hush money payments to an adult-films actress, Trump clothed himself in the cloak of martyrdom. His campaign included a fake mug shot on a T-shirt they offered as a fundraising premium, though the Manhattan court had not taken any such photo that day.

Then, in August, after officials in Fulton County, Ga., released a mug shot of Trump when he was booked at the Atlanta jail on election interference charges, Trump put the image on his campaign website and his social media accounts — including his first post on X, formerly Twitter, since he was banned from the site in January 2021. In the 24 hours after that booking, the campaign raised more than $4 million, its largest one-day haul of the campaign, according to a statement by Trump.

With each new charge, Trump sent out fundraising letters in which he presented himself as a perpetual victim of the authorities’ attacks. “[N]o matter what our sick and deranged political establishment throws at me, no matter what they do to me, I will endure their torment and oppression, and I will do it willingly,” he said in a fundraising appeal last fall. “Our cruel and vindictive political class is not just coming after me — they are coming after YOU.”

A spokesman for the Trump campaign, Steven Cheung, responded to questions about Trump’s rhetoric by referring The Washington Post to the former president’s recent speeches, which Cheung said provide “a pretty good indicator about how he’s presenting himself.”

Although Trump has recently stepped up his portrayal of himself as a martyr, the instinct to tout his suffering on behalf of “the forgotten men and women” has been a mainstay of his rhetorical repertoire throughout his venture into politics. In his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly offered himself as the one candidate who would absorb the disdain that the country’s elites aimed at the “deplorables,” the mantle many Trump supporters adopted after Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton tarred them with that description in a fundraising speech.

At rallies after allegations emerged that Trump had groped or forcibly kissed women, he recast himself as a martyr: “I take all of these slings and arrows, gladly, for you,” he told a crowd in West Palm Beach, Fla. “I take them for our movement, so that we can have our country back.”

That showy language is part of a pattern of self-importance and grievance that Trump deploys to ride the hills and valleys of his turbulent life, said Paul Elovitz, a psychohistorian at Ramapo College in New Jersey who specializes in profiling presidents.

“When he’s on the rise, he talks about how important he is, how he has $10 billion,” Elovitz said. “But when he’s in trouble, he goes back to this sense of grievance and the grandiose language. Grandiosity is a coverup for a hurting little kid who can never fill that pit of neediness, that sense of grievance that goes back to when his mother couldn’t give him the love he needed at a very young age.” Trump’s mother, Mary Anne, underwent a series of debilitating operations when he was a toddler, several Trump relatives have said.

Trump regularly positions himself as the one man who will selflessly sacrifice on behalf of “the forgotten men and women of this country.” Yale historian Timothy Snyder has called Trump “the martyr in chief, the high priest of the big lie,” creator of a sacred cause — the reinstallation of Trump in the Oval Office — for which his followers sacrificed themselves on Jan. 6, 2021, during the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Although Trump is not particularly religious and privately scoffs at the devout, he has happily adopted apocalyptic language and welcomed comparisons to Jesus.

When Trump was arraigned in New York in April, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a Trump acolyte, said he was “joining some of the most incredible people in history” who “have been arrested and persecuted by radical corrupt governments …, including Nelson Mandela and Jesus.”

During Trump’s first impeachment, in 2019, Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.) argued to House colleagues that Jesus had been afforded more rights at his trial than Democrats had given Trump during their investigation.

“There is a kind of theological motif to his rhetoric, oddly enough for Donald Trump,” said Roderick Hart, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has written extensively on Trump’s use of language. “When you see Trump in church, he doesn’t know what to do. He stands there totally perplexed.

“But he uses the language of the martyr, who so thoroughly believes in his propositions that he’s willing to die for it. But the thought of actually sacrificing himself is not likely to occur to him. He says, ‘I’m taking this for you,’ but then he says, ‘Now let’s talk some more about me.’”

Unlike many charismatic figures, Hart said, Trump wins supporters not by saying what he will do for them, but by promising to withstand pain for them.

Trump’s use of religious imagery has not convinced many devout Christians that he is one of them; rather, many evangelical leaders who have been supportive of Trump say that although he is a flawed person, he is valuable to their cause because of his willingness to break norms and ally himself with conservative Christian policy preferences, including by installing three conservative justices on the Supreme Court.

Some on the Christian right reject Trump’s use of religious analogies. “For Republicans, [Trump’s indictment] means admitting that even if Trump is preferable to Biden (or any Democratic candidate), he is far from the martyr he so often paints himself to be,” Daniel Bennett, a political scientist at John Brown University, a Christian college in Arkansas, wrote in Christianity Today.

But to many followers, Trump’s presentation of himself as a strongman who stands up to the nation’s elites on behalf of the common folk feels emboldening and empowering.

In 2020, when Trump contracted covid-19, he said he felt compelled to fight the illness publicly: “I had to confront [the virus] so the American people stopped being afraid of it,” he said. Almost immediately after Trump left the hospital, a commemorative “President Donald J. Trump Defeats Covid-19” coin became available online for $100.

Rich Logis, a former right-wing podcaster in South Florida whose show billed itself as “dangerous and inappropriate to Democrats,” voted for Trump four times, counting primaries and general elections. “I viewed myself as a patriotic soldier in a war to save America, with Trump as my general,” he said. “My entire life was MAGA: I woke up thinking about it, spent the day thinking about it. When they were coming at him, I saw him as fighting for me. Every attack on Trump strengthened us, made us feel like we’d made the right choice.”

To his supporters, “Trump is a martyr; in his mind, he has been sacrificed,” said Hart, the Texas professor. “He’s profoundly cynical, but he really believes someone with his stature can’t possibly be rejected by sentient human beings.”

When Trump describes the court cases against him as “an attempt to hurt me in an election,” when he calls polls that show him to be unpopular “fake,” when he contends baselessly that the election he lost in 2020 was “stolen,” he comes off to those who loathe him as a dangerously paranoid narcissist. But to those who admire him, he is a righteous warrior martyred by people who want to undermine their country.

“He is adored,” said Elovitz, the psychohistorian who has explored the mentalities of every president since Richard M. Nixon. “The public really looks to presidents to be strong. We humans struggle with failure, with suffering. Trump doesn’t even acknowledge failure. To him, John McCain was a loser. Trump says, ‘They’re out to get me, but they’ll never get me,’ and to his supporters, he is their savior.”

He certainly was to Logis. “He was the political messiah to me, the bulwark against the existential threats of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden,” he said. “He was like a cult leader, the savior who all those political leaders were trying to take down.”

Logis volunteered in Trump’s campaigns, wrote phone scripts for calls to encourage supporters to vote and cut off contact with many Democratic friends. But in the summer of 2021, Logis, now 46, broke with Trump. Logis said he watched Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) “flip from pro-vaccine to anti-vaccine, and I never believed the vaccine was killing anyone,” he said. “I came to see that there was no one coming for our guns, no one coming to replace White people.”

Now, he plans to vote for Democrats “up and down the ballot” even though he doesn’t feel a part of either party. He’s created a nonprofit, Perfect Our Union, seeking to persuade Trump supporters that they’ve been hoodwinked into devoting themselves to a man who cares not a whit about them.

“There is self-doubt creeping in to many MAGA people,” he said, “but it’s hard because we all bought into the mythology that he was sacrificing his friends and money to fight for us. The attacks on him didn’t make us doubt him; they were why we were there. My entry into MAGA world came because he was hated by both Democrats and Republicans. My attitude was, ‘Both parties don’t like him? I’m in.’”

Positioning himself as the embattled renegade has worked for Trump for the better part of half a century.

Even in his early days as a developer who fought the municipal powers in Manhattan to renovate a decrepit hotel near Grand Central Terminal and defied the authorities to tear down an old department store so he could erect his gleaming Trump Tower, Trump portrayed himself as the visionary who had to suffer to bring good things to people who didn’t have the financial freedom to say what they really believed.

Now, as he travels to early primary states, Trump repeatedly pounds the message that he is under attack like no previous politician, and that his people will thank him for taking the heat.

“I’ve been investigated by every investigator in the history of our country,” he told a rally in Waterloo, Iowa, last month. “I’m the only man in the history of politics in the United States of America who got indicted four times … I’m the only one who got indicted whose poll numbers shot up through the roof, because the people of our country, they know me, and they say, ‘Wow.’”

Marc Fisher, a senior editor, writes about most anything. He has been The Washington Post’s enterprise editor, local columnist and Berlin bureau chief, and he has covered politics, education, pop culture and much else in three decades on the Metro, Style, National and Foreign desks.

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