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A video making the rounds online depicts Trump as a Messiah-like figure

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

A video making the rounds online depicts Donald Trump as a messiah-like figure.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: God looked down on his planned Paradise and said, I need a caretaker. So God gave us Trump.

MARTÍNEZ: The video comes from the Dilley Meme Team, a group of video creators that support Trump for president. It's called "God Made Trump" and it's played at some Trump campaign events. So we wanted to dig into how its message is playing with an important group of Trump supporters - white evangelicals. Robert Jones is the president and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute. He spoke with our colleague Steve Inskeep.

ROBERT JONES: I think it's in line with really a long set of appeals to kind of square the circle of why white, evangelical Protestants have been one of the most stalwart supporters of a candidate and president such as Donald Trump. We see this presentation of Trump as a kind of messiah figure, but it's notable that it's not really Jesus that we're getting the comparison to but, you know, the one you hear in evangelical circles more often is a comparison to, like, the Persian king Cyrus from the Book of Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible. And that's important because there, Cyrus is presented as an ungodly king who nonetheless frees a group of Jews who are held captive in Babylon. So by comparison, Trump here is the powerful, strong, authoritarian liberator, someone who by definition and maybe even by necessity is even above the law and who alone is capable of liberating conservative, white Christians from their oppressors.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: God's unholy tool. You know, a couple of years ago, we had on the program Kristin Kobes Du Mez, who wrote a book called "Jesus And John Wayne" about the evangelical movement. She's from an evangelical background, and she describes evangelicals who feel that they're fundamentally in an evil world, in a bad world. And part of the logic here might be that you need a bad person to protect you. And so if Trump is corrupt, if he's evil, if he's cruel, if he's even indicted as he's since been, that's good, not bad, to some people.

JONES: I think that's the most accurate characterization. In fact, what the data, you know, shows, again, that it really isn't about character. It's, you know, and this is remarkable - right? - from a group that previously talked about itself as so-called values voters. But with Trump at the top of the ticket, they really wholesale abandon this idea of a candidate's character. In fact, we see this in public opinion polling. In 2011, we asked a question at PRRI about whether a political candidate could commit an immoral act in their personal life and still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public life. In 2011, only three in 10 white evangelicals thought this was possible. Once Trump gets to the top of the ticket in 2016, we asked this question again, and the number of white evangelicals who said they thought that a candidate could commit an immoral act in their personal life and still perform their duties in their public life jumped from 30% to 72%, largely in response to Trump.

INSKEEP: Is this just an act of partisan rationalization? People are going to be for Republicans, no matter what, and they come up with this rationalization after the fact once Trump becomes the nominee.

JONES: You know, I do think a large part of it is partisanship, to be sure. It's worth remembering that white evangelicals used to be stalwart Democrats. But really, in reaction to the Civil Rights Movement, began moving into the Republican Party and finally solidified under Reagan. But I think with Trump, there's something much stronger than that. It's not just partisanship. It really does hinge on this idea of Trump as the protector of this worldview. We have majorities of white, evangelical Protestants telling us that they believe that God intended America to be a promised land for European Christians. Even when we put it that starkly on a public opinion survey, we have majorities of evangelicals affirming that view.

INSKEEP: If you were an opponent of Trump, if you were Nikki Haley, who's still in the race, or if you were Joe Biden, what, if anything, would you try to do to peel away even a small slice of that evangelical support? Because a small slice could make a difference.

JONES: It could make a difference. And particularly in some Midwestern states - Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina - these are places with significant numbers of white, evangelical voters. It's really tough, I have to say. They've been so consistently - and in fact, their support for Trump went up slightly between 2016 and 2020. If anything, I think there is the appeal to, you know, just a different vision of the country. So I think that's where the Biden campaign and really Haley has to engage Trump. I think the biggest mistake the Democratic Party could make here is trying to run a campaign that's all about economic well-being, that ignores these deeper cultural claims about who we are as a country and who this country is for and what our future is going to look like together.

INSKEEP: Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute and author of the new book, "The Hidden Roots Of White Supremacy." Thanks so much.

JONES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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