The Messiah of Nihilism
Everything about this image is fake.
1. The Holy Sinner
I had a different post lined up for this week – in fact I’ve written over half of it – but then this image came into my life and I can’t get it out of my head:
As you can see, this is an image of Trump praying. Only it is fake – or, as we call it these days, generated by AI. Trump’s right hand has six fingers, which is a common mistake that AI image generators often make, but which is also ironic given his insecurity about having small hands. Also, if you look more closely, you’ll see that Trump is facing backwards in the pew. I guess he’s worshipping Satan.
I can’t get this image out of my mind.
Trump reposted this image on Truth Social without comment. It was originally created by a (presumed) fan with the username Patriot4Life, presumably sincerely. I don’t know whether Patriot4Life, or Trump for that matter, intended to deceive people into thinking it was a real photo or not. But whatever deception that non-disclosure may represent, behind it lies an even greater one: that Trump is religious, pious, even a savior.
Everyone who pays any objective attention to Trump knows that this is both utterly false and dangerously true.
It is false because Trump is the most irreligious president in history. He is a serial adulterer who brags of committing sexual assault, and has been convicted in court of doing so. He worships wealth, greed, and power. His partnership with the Christian Right is transparently transactional and opportunistic. The actual pictures of Trump attempting to pray, or holding the Bible aloft, are cringe-worthy; the guy is clearly out of his element, and shows it. For God’s sake, he doesn’t even know that 2 Corinthians is pronounced “Second Corinthians” and not “Two Corinthians.”
But of course, it has also been well-established that Trump is regarded as a savior, as God’s chosen one, by his religious followers - many of whom believe the world is literally ending and the apocalypse is nigh. Indeed, the more Trump’s failings are made clear, the more they prove that he is in this position of power because God willed it, not because he earned or deserved it. However false Patriot4Life’s AI-generated image is as a matter of fact, it is quite true as a matter of perception.
The Unification of Opposites
That, I think, is what a lot of progressives, liberals, and moderates simply cannot reconcile.
Trump is so transparently, obviously a con man, from his fake hair and fake tan to his fake religiosity and business acumen, to his fake populism (my personal obsession) and fake healthcare plan. The cons are all right in the open for anyone to see, yet Trump’s supporters either don’t care or don’t know the difference between fake and real anymore.
Of course, non-conservatives and conservatives who care about American democratic institutions are also afraid of what a second Trump administration might mean for this country. But I think we’re also profoundly confused. Around a quarter of Americans think this man is the messiah – either literally, in the case of many of Trump’s religious supporters, or figuratively, as with the millions of disenfranchised-feeling “white working class” Americans who feel that Trump speaks for them, and is the best or only chance for saving America.
Even beyond the Trump base, another 20-30% of Americans are thinking of voting for this guy, not because they agree with everything he says or does, but for bizarrely prosaic reasons like he’ll handle the economy better than Joe Biden. I mean, first of all, he obviously won’t, but more to the point, that decision is like letting a Rottweiler babysit your kids because it’ll do a better job playing catch.
Don’t these people see this? Apparently they do not.
My guilty-pleasure substack is’s everyone is entitled to my own opinion. In a sense, Tiedrich represents all that is wrong about our political discourse: he’s one-sided, crude, and extreme. But he’s also hilarious, and often far more astute than supposedly reasonable journalists. Besides, he’s my extreme, and I love his takes.
This week, Tiedrich wrote a typically crackerjack rant both about that Trump AI photo and about his ability to “bluff and bluster and try to convince us he’s something he’s not.” Specifically:
Trump is the chickenshit coward draft dodger who pretends to have the courage to disarm a school shooter.
he’s the illiterate C-minus student who pretends to be a genius.
he’s the half-a-billion-inheriting nepo baby who pretends to be self-made.
he’s the failed casino operator and game show host who pretends to be a success.
he’s the grifter and fraud who pretends to be honest.
he’s the angry rapist who pretends to be irresistible to women.
he’s the soft, pampered weakling who pretends to be the apex of masculinity.
he’s the traitor who pretends to be a patriot.
he’s the aging dotard, lost in an ever-thickening haze of dementia, who pretends that pointing at a drawing of a camel is proof of his mental acuity.
and he’s the two-time popular vote loser who pretends to be a winner.
As is often the case with Tiedrich, beneath the hilarious hyperbole, this rant is actually totally on point, factually speaking. Trump is all of the things Tiedrich says, and he presents himself as the diametrical opposite. It’s really quite remarkable.
Now, as I’ve said before, I remain optimistic that the sanity of moderates will prevail and that Biden (or whoever isn’t Trump) will win this election. Biden’s current poll numbers are the ‘Before’ part of a ‘Before and After’ picture; he hasn’t begun spending money or campaigning in earnest. He’s biding his time (sorry).
Tiedrich thinks similarly: the rest of his post is full of statistics that show that Trump is way out of step with the electorate. For example, citingat , he notes that “Nearly half (47%) of GOP primary voters said that Trump would not be fit to serve as president if he was convicted of a crime… And a Fox News (!) analysis of 1,800 GOP primary voters found that more than a third of them would never (ever) vote for Trump.
And yet – and yet. There are still a lot of reasonable people who seem willing to look past the obvious cons that Tiedrich lists, and a lot of unreasonable ones who have fallen for them hook, line, and sinker. This is both head-scratching and heart-wrenching.
Which brings me back to that photo.
Redemption through Inversion
There’s a poignant moment at the end of the hit Wind of Change podcast, which investigates the rumors that the CIA had something to do with the Scorpions’ massive, and world-transforming 1990 power ballad, when, after investigating a century of misinformation and espionage, host Patrick Radden Keefe interviews a Russian activist who said that, at the end of the Cold War, he hoped that Russia would become a bit more like America: a bit more free, more open.
Instead, he told Keefe, you’ve become more like us.
Indeed, some of the most prophetic and insightful analyses of our disorienting moment of nihilistic carnival have come from Masha Gessen, who has brilliantly written first of Putin’s and then of Trump’s successful campaigns to utterly separate fact from fantasy, history from conspiracy. We are living in the world that Putin has created – both narrowly, with Russian disinformation campaigns pervading the American Left and Right, and broadly, as the endless conspiracy-mongering and dissimulation that characterized Putin’s Russia now characterizes the Trump movement.
In the end, I’m not sure which interpretation of Trump-at-Prayer is most disturbing: absurdist propaganda, Putinesque inversion — or a kind of truth.
So twisted has Christianity, patriotism, and morality become in the last decade that, in the Trump universe, this image makes a kind of sense. After all, Trump ended Roe v. Wade, he is for traditional masculinity, he will Make America Great Again and fight the literally Satanic forces arrayed against it – and therefore he is a Christian savior. None of his deadly sins – not his wrath, envy, greed, lust, or pride – matter. Nor do his attacks on democracy or his inflammatory rhetoric against anyone who opposes him. Christian nationalist messianism is an inversion of Christianity, in which Christian identity politics is the only religion.
While purporting to depict piety, really this image is of the utmost nihilism.
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Hi everyone. It’s a curious thing to work in disparate fields, as I do, and find them come together. Maybe some day I’ll do a subscriber-only piece on the messianic similarities between Donald Trump and Sabbatai Zevi, the 17th century Jewish messiah who sought the unification of opposites and the reconciliation of good and evil.
Also at the intersection of politics and spirituality, I’m co-teaching an online class with Sharon Salzberg at the New York Insight Meditation Center on February 27 about the strong, difficult, and important emotions that politics evokes, and sharing practices that help us to cultivate resilience, compassion, and coexistence. Details and registration are here. And watch this space for upcoming events in Brooklyn and Boston.
Thanks for your support!