MAY 9, 2016
A FEW MONTHS AGO, in the course of reporting on the Iowa caucuses, I attended a caucus training for Trump supporters. It was held in the community room of a local bank in a small town. Thirty of us sat in folding chairs under fluorescent lights. A table offered snacks of homemade bars, potato chips, and summer sausage. Attendees were mostly older, white, and eager to be there.
Each of us in turn stood up to testify — to talk about the road that had brought us to Trump. People complained about radical Islamic seed cells across America, and about how “the illegals” get free health care. A man near me, by way of explaining his support, said, “I get pretty well educated by this ministry that comes on TV every Sunday morning.” Unlike the pastor at his church, this show addresses the threat of Islam in America. What show was that, I wondered. Moments later, I watched him bond with another Trump supporter who watches it, too. It’s called Jack Van Impe Presents.
I was astounded to learn that Jack Van Impe is still alive. When I was 12 and suffering from insomnia, in the mid-1990s, I watched Van Impe on network TV through the wee hours. I found his supernatural confidence queerly compelling. His proclamations of imminent doom for sinners invited me to look with a mix of narcissism and horror at my own sins. Even all those years ago, he looked elderly. I was sure that by now he would be dead.
As a sleepless 12 year old, I was riveted. I didn’t believe or disbelieve Van Impe. Instead, I loved the tidy ordering of the world, and the idea that with a brief prayer I could be transformed. It sounded scary, like falling in love. I was a voyeur peeping at the other side. The order, the faith, these were shields against an apocalypse that, to me, seemed like a metaphor for individual death, and I was terrified of death.
The Jack Van Impe Presents of today masquerades as a news show. Jack and his wife, Rexella, sit behind a desk and discuss the week’s “headlines.” Their headlines tend to be about Islam, including, for example, reports on ISIS’s beheadings, opinion pieces on Saudi Arabia and Sharia law, and investigations of preachers who claim that Allah and Jesus are the same God. Rexella — who is blonde and frail — editorializes with phrases of grandmotherly astonishment: “Oh my word” and “whoa boy.” She then turns to Jack for interpretation. Jack — whose website claims that his nickname is “The Walking Bible” — recites a string of verses that prove the headlines are signs of the rapture, Armageddon, and the second coming of Christ.
In the latest episode — which I found on YouTube — Rexella begins by reporting on the existence of “22 terror camps in the United States.” (The claims are baseless. She cites the conservative website WorldNetDaily, which also publicized the birther movement’s conspiracy theories about President Obama.) Jack leans toward the camera and says with venom, “The world’s in trouble. We need a strong president, a man who will stand for convictions, a man who will say, ‘You Muslims can’t do this and kill our people!’” He expresses astonishment that the United States has Muslim congressmen and condemns President Obama for “letting it happen.”
The show breaks to a commercial for Jack’s latest film, Islam Exposed. A voice-over describes how Jack was in the hospital, unable to talk for 60 days, but was “raised from his deathbed for the greatest challenge ever.” A map shows the crescent and star blooming across the United States.
Jack and Rexella return with more news about Islam. The camera then looks into Rexella’s eyes. She asks, “Have you opened your heart to who Jesus is? The Son of God, Savior of the World, died on the cross for you, willing to take away all your sins. If you pray the prayer that Jack’s going to pray right now, you’ll be ready, because the Lord will be in your heart. Will you pray this wonderful prayer of acceptance of Jesus?”
Jack prays, “I’m a sinner. Lord I want you, the world’s in such a mess. Soon Armageddon will be here. Soon bombs will be flying. But even sooner, we’re going to be taken away in the rapture.” He prayed the same prayer, or something very much like it, when I was 12.
Jack and Rexella have their roots in a brand of apocalyptic theology called dispensationalism. Invented by an Anglo-Irish Bible teacher in the 1830s, it divides world history into seven eras, or dispensations, beginning with creation and ending with Christ’s second coming. (We are in the sixth dispensation, which lasts until the rapture.) It went viral among evangelicals in the United States in the early 20th century. In 1970, Hal Lindsey’s best-selling The Late Great Planet Earth interpreted Cold War politics and Israel’s recent military capture of Jerusalem as signs of the end. Since 9/11, dispensationalists have focused on Islam. Politics change, but the story remains the same.
For an obscure theology, it has had an outsized influence on evangelism — and American politics. Billy Graham preached it. Media mogul and former Republican presidential hopeful Pat Robertson preaches it. Left Behind, a book series that narrates the events of the final dispensation, from the rapture to the second coming, has sold more than 60 million copies. A co-author of Left Behind helped found the Moral Majority, transforming evangelicals into a political force, uniting them with business conservatives to elect Reagan and form today’s version of the Republican Party.
Still, I wondered in that fluorescent-lit room back in January, what were Jack Van Impe’s viewers doing supporting Trump? What was drawing evangelicals to a billionaire who flaunts the Bible like a newfound prop and mispronounces II Corinthians? The more I listened, though, the more it made sense.
“We have lost our way,” said a woman named Mary, sitting near the front. “We have lost our way with religion. The Christians have not stood up to being browbeaten.” She noted that, first, prayer in schools came under attack, then the pledge of allegiance. “And now I hear they want to try to take away our national anthem.” A man’s voice echoed, “I did hear that.” There were murmurs of agreement. She continued, “And the Muslims say, ‘We will overtake your country, you will be us. You will not be America anymore.’”
In Left Behind, a small group of Christians, who convert after the rapture, form a militia to battle a hostile world — soon Armageddon will be here. Morally imperfect but virile leaders emerge with names like Rayford Steele and Buck Williams. Dispensationalism appeals to the sense of being among a besieged people, surrounded by chaos and decadence. It promises strong leaders who will guide the faithful to paradise. It has deciphered a pattern in the Bible, one that speaks, if in a very different context, to Martin Luther King’s “fierce urgency of now.” And it has deciphered a pattern in current events, one that tells the same story as the Bible: you are embattled, but the end is near, and you will be saved.
Trump, by fortuitous accident, has tapped into this narrative and the anxieties that drive it. He too depicts the world as chaotic and decadent — the irony! — and promises to restore order. His people are besieged by apparently inexorable forces. Salvation awaits the next election. We will all be saying “Merry Christmas.” Jobs will return. Threatening invaders will be repulsed by a big, beautiful wall. America will be great again. You don’t have to believe in dispensationalism to be seduced by this story, but it helps.
Many of the people gathered for the caucus training had lived hard lives. They had seen factories close, been laid off, worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. The key difference between Trump and Ted Cruz is that Trump has broken, at least in rhetoric, from the Republican Party’s economic orthodoxy. He calls for tariffs on Chinese goods and higher taxes for hedge fund managers. Decades of economic frustration have paved the way for this message to resonate. The New York Times sifted through census data and found “that Trump counties are places where white identity mixes with long-simmering economic dysfunctions.” Variables that make someone most likely to support Trump, according to the Times, include: identifying as white and having no high school diploma; living in a mobile home; working in agriculture, construction, or manufacturing; and being an evangelical. Trump’s salvation narrative recognizes these people — white, evangelical, working class — who feel forgotten, lost.
“We are the Titanic,” said the man in front of me, his voice trembling, “and we’re heading for the iceberg.”
When I was 12, I understood, in my gut, Jack Van Impe’s power. Call it a rage for order. When the rapture comes, we will know who the Christians are. When Trump is elected, we will have borders, and jobs, and we will know who the Americans are. All these years, Van Impe has been preaching a certain truth. It took Trump to make it revelation.