Donald Trump’s hair is a sacred matter. Not too long ago, our Center for Global Culture and Communication at Northwestern University held a fascinating conference on popular culture, populist politics, and media ethics in the age of Trump. There were excellent presentations from a wide range of scholars. As I was the only Religious Studies scholar in attendance, I raised my hand to bring up the specifically religious dimensions of Trump’s populist devotion. It may seem an odd choice, but as an entrée into discussing connections between populist politics and media to religion and Trump, I pointed to the powerful mediated religious rhetoric of Donald Trump’s hair.
One of the reasons I began with Donald Trump’s hair is that a conference presenter had shown a slide comparing the overplus of hair sported by a variety of populist figures.
The speaker had also raised the perplexing question of why Trump has so easily maintained a “Teflon” coating with his base―one that remains devoted even as his multiple moral failings have been made public. Unlike those who have been indicted by supporters for far more minor offences, Trump merely sloughs off anything smacking of scandal or screw up.
The photo of Trump’s crazy hair elicited chuckles from the conference audience, but during question and answer, I pointed out that, yes, while there are complex, multifaceted reasons for the continued loyalty of Trump’s base, his hair is doing serious rhetorical “work” both to attract and shore up that loyalty. This kind of “work” is frequently overlooked, but the televangelistic mega preacher aesthetic he evokes ties him into a powerfully resonant visual rhetoric of white American evangelicalism. If one examines the presentation of Trump in the context of transmediated American evangelical aesthetics, intimate connections emerge between his Teflon coating, his public presentation of self, and white evangelical audience loyalty and devotion.
The composition and styling of Trump’s hair boldly communicates a powerful religious visual rhetoric that makes him read iconically as an evangelist, as a preacher, as a worker of miracles, as a leader divinely raised up to deal ruthlessly with terrorists, while working miracles with the economy―the two top issues Pew polling research tells us overwhelmingly drove his evangelical base to vote for him.1
Trump’s hair powerfully echoes, for instance, the aesthetics of such mega-mediated Pentecostal faith healers as Rev. Billy Burke.
Like Burke and other televangelists, Trump splendidly sports the classic mega preacher hairdo―the so-called “preacher man mullet”―or what has even been dubbed on Pinterest simply as the “preachullet.”2
Some may find these resemblances humorous, and certainly jokes about Trump’s hair are in no short supply, but this is serious business. The visual rhetoric of Trump’s hair is doing critical religious work and concomitantly powerful political work on his behalf. His hair indeed taps into a rich history of unconventional and exuberant televangelist and evangelical preacher hair.
The old expression, “Hair up to Jesus” exists for a reason. This famed Florida rocker-turned-evangelist Wayne Cochran (below), for instance, sported a “preacher pompadour” that was legendary.
Here is Billy Graham’s famous “preacher pompadour,” side by side the Rooster statue of Trump in China.
Our Hollywood images of popular culture faith healer/preachers also look uncannily like Trump. Here is Steve Martin in the 1992 film Leap of Faith, the trailer for which describes Martin’s character in what sounds strikingly like terms applied to Trump: “Part showman. Part Salesman. Messiah of the Interstate.” In the case of the current President, the trailer might be only slightly modified to read “Messiah of the Internet,” or at least of Twitter.
Street theater activist “Rev. Billy” well understands that embodying the theatrical essence of the American evangelical preacher as an “authentic fake” in his parodies of revival meeting/street actions is all about the hair.3
Trump very visually and performatively reads to his base, 81% of white evangelicals who voted for him, as “tribal”―as “one of ours,” the one who works miracles and saves and does battle with dark forces.4
This televangelist persona of course involves much more than hair, but the hair remains a critical marker. Trump’s seemingly magical “Teflon” resistance to scandal and screw up is no mystery. When mega preachers sin and screw up, there is an effective public mechanism for legitimating their continued leadership.
Adultery, assault, stealing, prostitutes, drug use―you name it―can all be explained as the consequences of the mega preacher having trigged “spiritual warfare” attacks by the very virtue of their godly efficacy.5 Those not steeped in Christian media might commonly assume the notion of spiritual warfare constitutes a marginal evangelical phenomenon. On the contrary, explanations, commentary, explorations, and prescriptions of antidotes to spiritual warfare, have saturated programming on Christian video streaming services, a bumper crop of print and audio books, countless Internet sites, blogs, and posted online videos. Here is just a small sample of the current obsession with “spiritual warfare,” and these examples are drawn solely from print media.
Women also have a critical legitimating role to play for both the preacher and the husband who is victim of spiritual warfare, and that is to “cloak their man” in prayer to protect and shield him from assault.
Prayer cloaking as a shield against spiritual warfare is precisely what the Internet-based Pentecostal organization POTUS-Shield.org has done for Trump.6 The more scandal emerges in the Trump presidency, the more it is testimony to his success in triggering dark forces of attack by virtue of his potent efficacy. That is, from a spiritual warfare perspective, if he were not making such headway, “the enemy” would not be striking back so hard.
Who needs a “Teflon” coating when you have “POTUS Shield” instead? The more scandal and the more guilty Trump appears in terms of a variety of publicly aired moral failings, the more it evidences to his base his authentic anointedness.7
These powerful rhetorical dimensions, however, do not surface in academic or public discussions of media and populist political fervor unless someone in the room is paying attention to mediated rhetorical dimensions of religion. This is where the scholar of religion, media, and culture can play a critical role in furthering public understanding.
This presentation was delivered at the Prague meeting of the ICA in May 2018.
1 Myriam Renaud, “Myths Debunked: Why Did White Evangelicals Vote for Trump,” Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion, January 19, 2017, https://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings/myths-debunked-why-did-white-evangelical-christians-vote-trump.
2 See the “preachullet” pinned here: https://www.pinterest.com/search/pins/?q=preachullet&rs=typed [Accessed January 9, 2019].
3 For more on Rev. Billy and his embodied performance of evangelical preacher aesthetics, see Billy Talen, What Would Jesus Buy?: Reverend Billy’s Fabulous Prayers in the Face of the Shopocalypse (New York: Public Affairs, 2006); and Jill Lane, “Reverend Billy: Preaching, Protest, and Postindustrial Flânerie,” The Drama Review, vol. 46, no. 1 (Spring 2002):60-84.
4 Jacqueline Thomsen, “Poll: White Evangelical Support for Trump at Record High,” The Hill, April 19, 2018, http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/383886-poll-white-evangelical-support-for-trump-at-record-high”.
5 For example of virtuous godly work specifically triggering “spiritual warfare,” see Jason Bivens’s description of how those who create witnessing tracts are able to gauge how effective they are by virtue of how much spiritual warfare the authors incur while producing them. See Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 50; and more generally, Sarah Diamond, Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right (Boston: South End, 1989).
6 POTUS-Shield.org was started by Pastor Frank Amedia, who says that the Lord commissioned POTUS Shield on election night, giving this revelation to Amedia and instructing him to set up the force field of prayer to protect Trump. See “The Birth of POTUS Shield,” posted to YouTube.com on February 14, 2017, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZuWDqsF7VGQ> [Accessed May 10, 2018].
7 “Viva President Trump” original posting of Jesus guiding Trump’s hand in the Oval Office, posted January 20, 2017, https://www.facebook.com/Vivatrump/photos/a.1666350363609195.1073741829.1632681870309378/1844359922474904/?type=3&theater [Accessed May 10, 2018].