WASHINGTON – For the most devoted Trump conspiracy theorists, there are no coincidences and timing is everything.
So when ex-President Donald Trump was arraigned Tuesday on charges that he falsified business records to obscure hush money payments in an effort to influence the 2016 election, some of his most ardent followers quickly noted the court appearance came during Christianity’s most sacred week, Holy Week, when many Christians commemorate Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.
“Seems there was someone else who was tortured and crucified this week,” read one post on Gab, a platform popular with Trump supporters. A similar post on Telegram put Trump's case in apocalyptic terms: “Good vs Evil. Biblical times. Divine timing.”
Comparisons likening Trump to Christ were among the top online narratives about the Republican former president and his criminal charges circulating in the last several days, according to an analysis of online and social media content conducted by Zignal Labs, a media intelligence firm, on behalf of The Associated Press.
Zignal’s analysis found tens of thousands of mentions calling Trump a martyr. The number more than doubled immediately after Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., linked the prosecution of Trump to the persecution of Christ during an interview.
Trump pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to 34 felony counts alleging he hid payments made during his 2016 presidential campaign to two women — an adult-film actor and a former Playboy model — who claimed they had sexual encounters with him, as well as to a Trump Tower doorman who claimed to have a story about a child Trump fathered out of wedlock.
Greene, who traveled to New York City to protest Trump's arraignment, noted the timing of the arraignment during a broadcast interview before bringing up the Christ comparison.
“Jesus was arrested and murdered by the Roman government," she said. "There have been many people throughout history that have been arrested and persecuted by radical corrupt governments, and it’s beginning today in New York City.”
The comparison was denounced by Episcopal Bishop Reginald T. Jackson, who oversees more than 500 churches in Greene’s home state and called her comments blasphemous and disgusting.
“While Marjorie Taylor Greene may put her political loyalty ahead of God, Christians do not," Jackson said. "Those of faith believe Christ always has, and always will, stand alone."
Trump's personal, political and professional history make him an odd choice to stand in for Christ, Christianity's savior and central figure. Yet it's an outgrowth from Christian nationalism, a movement that fuses traditional Christian themes and imagery with conservative candidates like Trump, according to John Fea, a historian at Messiah University in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, who has researched evangelical Christianity's role in American history.
“They see this as spiritual warfare, and Trump is on the side of the angels,” Fea said. "In this view, Trump is politically a savior, he is going to restore America, and he will rise from the ashes in November despite the persecution and the suffering."
Trump has encouraged such beliefs by claiming he is uniquely qualified to lead the country, by calling his 2024 campaign to retake the White House a “Final Battle” against his enemies and by praising QAnon, a movement that views him as a crusader against what it says is a secret, child-sacrificing cabal that controls world events.
He embraced the role of martyr again on Tuesday, when his campaign created a fake mug shot and included it in a fundraising email, even though no mug shot of the former president was taken that day.
In the Christian nationalist view, Trump's return to New York could be seen as an echo of Christ's triumphant entry to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Fea said, with the exception that Christ rode a donkey and Trump arrived in a motorcade.
Behind the religious metaphors, the online reaction of Trump supporters to Tuesday's arraignment was mixed, fragmented by competing conspiracy theories and Trump's own complicated role in the movement he helped build.
While many far-right commenters decried the charges, others said Trump deserved no sympathy after he didn't pardon defendants charged in the failed Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Some pointed to the charges as one reason why they now support Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' expected bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
Some Trump supporters promoted peaceful protests as a way to send a signal to the nation, yet others cited debunked claims about Jan. 6, arguing that any protests could be traps staged by federal agents.
“Watch out for infiltrators, the minute they want to start trouble call it off and everyone go home,” a poster wrote on Gab in response to a post announcing Greene's protest in Manhattan.
Still other commenters dismissed the very real legal jeopardy facing Trump, saying he is orchestrating the entire prosecution as a way to ferret out his enemies.
The last was a sentiment especially popular on QAnon message boards, where Christian imagery regularly mixes with fantasies about one-world governments, child sacrifices and blood rituals.
"All a MOVIE!!” one Trump supporter wrote on Telegram. “Trump is writer, producer and director!!! Get your popcorn!”