“The Trump Prophecy” opened in theaters this month. The film, which purports to be based on true events, depicts the story of retired firefighter-turned-political-prognosticator Mark Taylor. On April 28, 2011, Taylor claims to have received a communique from the Holy Spirit predicting that reality TV star Donald Trump would become president.
If the film is anything like Taylor’s co-authored 2017 book, “The Trump Prophecies: The Astonishing True Story of the Man Who Saw Tomorrow . . . and What He Says Is Coming Next,” viewers can expect plenty of grand predictions about the future of the United States. According to Taylor, he was told in 2011 that, through a two-term Trump presidency, “America was going to prosper like never before; Israel and America, the ties between the two countries would be stronger than ever before; the dollar would be the strongest it’s ever been.”
“The Trump Prophecy” shares two things in common with the many Trump-based conspiracies floating around on the right: buoyant optimism regarding the Trump experiment and a deep religious impulse at its core. These conspiracists exude confidence that Trump is fulfilling his campaign promises and God’s plan for the world, which many Trump supporters see as one and the same.
But the film also underscores an important link between conspiracy theories and Christianity that has shaped the historical trajectory of both: the idea that the world may not be as it seems and that there exists knowledge that, when attained, will compel action.
For centuries, conspiracy theorists have used religious terms and symbolism to transform fear into political activism. And from the earliest days of Christianity, when followers discerned divine significance in the smallest details of scripture and current events, conspiracy helped Christians interpret events in a way that propelled their religious interests forward, showing them that conspiracy could be harnessed as a potent religious — and political — force. “The Trump Prophecy” reveals, again, that conspiracy theorists and certain Christian practitioners share a desire to disrupt reality with a new story that motivates believers to take political action.
Conspiracy theories that combine religion and politics date far back in history. Consider, for example, one of the longest-lasting and most pervasive conspiracies of any era, dubbed Nero redivivus (“Nero resurrected”). This conspiracy held that the powerful (and insane) Roman emperor Nero did not commit suicide in 68 A.D. or that he did die by suicide or some other means but would rise again and lead a massive army to wreak vengeance on his foes and retake Rome.
Several Nero pretenders in the decades after the emperor’s death manipulated this belief for their own purposes. Uncertainty about the exact circumstances about the emperor’s death allowed space for the conspiracy. Most biblical scholars believe that the author of the book of Revelation seized upon some version of the Nero conspiracy to speak ambiguously about a villainous figure with a head wound who would recover and persecute Christians. The author was able to co-opt the Nero story and all of the emotional frenzy surrounding it to question the Roman economic system and promote the Christian faith, even as its practitioners were persecuted by the Roman government.
So potent was the Nero conspiracy that it flourished for at least 350 years. Expectation of Nero’s resurrection and return eventually subsided, but the idea that a powerful leader who appeared to be dead would return to exact divine vengeance on the world had deep staying power in Christianity. It bolstered the core premise of Christianity; while Jesus shared little in common with Nero, the Christian anticipation of his return continues to inspire political action in many forms.
Modern conspiracy theories have also used religious imagery or artifacts to lend credibility to far-fetched stories and inspire political action. Speculation about secret societies or religious orders influencing the trajectory of the nation (or even the world) is threaded throughout American history. Whether the theories involve Salem “witches,” Freemasons, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Skull and Bones or even rock music played in reverse, there seems to be an endless supply of creators and perpetuators of stories about small groups that, through some engagement with the spiritual world, shape the nation — for good or ill.
These stories are often promulgated by those with a political agenda, hoping to use fear to propel their cause to victory. The 1903 election of Latter-day Saint Reed Smoot to the U.S. Senate inspired conspiracy theories about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Most held that the church was trying to control Utah and eventually turn the entire United States into Mormon theocracy. Newspapers carried political cartoons depicting a nefarious figurehead of a “Great Mormon Conspiracy,” pulling the strings of Smoot, who was (according to conspiracy theorists) a puppet of the church, a proponent of polygamy and an opponent of the separation of church and state. Protestant Christian organizations actively spread these theories and encouraged resistance to Smoot.
These far-fetched conspiracies serve as a window into anxieties experienced by the general population. Theories about Mormons or Catholics or Jews taking over American financial institutions or government posts can be understood as a demonstration of deep fears about religious and cultural difference. These theories flourish at moments when anxieties are high. For example, Protestant conspiracy theories about a Roman Catholic takeover of the American experiment abounded in the 19th century as the nation received an influx of Catholic immigrants from Europe.
“The Trump Prophecies” follows in this tradition. In addition to reflecting the fears of (mostly white) Pentecostal-charismatic Trump supporters about a supposedly increasingly secularizing nation, the film also displays their theological aspirations and tastes. Taylor’s vision includes a typically Pentecostal appreciation for the prosperity gospel, support for the state of Israel and a belief that Trump’s surprising win — despite his overt rejection of traditional Christian morals — offers proof of the president’s status as God’s chosen leader. Indeed, the film transforms the ambiguity surrounding Trump’s election into the certainty of a divine plan, not unlike the way the ambiguous nature of Nero’s death fueled grandiose projections about his return to wreak vengeance on his foes.
Maybe most important, Taylor’s purported revelations frame Trump’s Christian supporters as spiritual, political and perhaps financial “winners.” As Taylor put it: “The Army of God will have victory after victory after victory — and I love what President Trump always says … you’ll get sick and tired of winning, if there is such a thing!”
“The Trump Prophecy” may also reveal how some Trump supporters combine a belief in the divine orchestration of the presidency with a commitment to political activism. Early reporting suggests that the film is galvanizing certain Christian audiences by employing a potent mix of spirituality, appeals to authority, nationalism and classic conservative-evangelical politicking. Indeed, if Nero redivivus sets any kind of historical precedent, grand theories about divinely inspired leaders have political payoffs in this world. In the film’s trailer, those who believe that the divine is at work in the Trump presidency “pray for this country, its leadership and those in authority over us.” Such Americans may take the film as a call to additional political action.
The potency of conspiracy theories to inspire action was tragically on display in April, when a conspiracy-believing creator of fitness videos stormed YouTube headquarters, wounding three and killing herself. If this, and the many twists and turns of the QAnon saga are any guide, the meaning and call to action inherent in the “The Trump Prophecy” will continue to develop and grow as its narrow audience widens. That, in itself, is worth watching.