Amanda Berg for NPR
Since early last year, some of the most prolific spreaders of conspiracy theories have been barnstorming across the country alongside a stacked cast of pro-Trump speakers, preachers and self-proclaimed prophets.
Each stop of the ReAwaken America Tour is part conservative Christian revival, part QAnon expo and part political rally. It features big name stars in the MAGA galaxy, including MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, Trump adviser Roger Stone and former President Donald Trump’s son, Eric. There are meet and greets, a buffet and, lately, baptisms and the casting out of demons.
The show was conceived in the months after former national security adviser Michael Flynn received a pardon from Trump. Flynn connected with Clay Clark, an Oklahoma man who had been hosting local, anti-lockdown gatherings during the pandemic. The two put on their first event in Tulsa in April 2021. The most recent stop in Pennsylvania Amish country was their 16th show together.
“Here, we go through two days of probably the best education you’re ever going to get,” Flynn told the audience.
Between stage calls, “America’s General,” as he’s known in these circles, paced through the sports complex in a suit and red, white and blue sneakers. His partner, Clark, raced on and off stage with a clipboard and the unshakeable cheerfulness of his former career as a wedding DJ, to coordinate the speaking slots of the more than 70 presenters over two days. Clark is also a podcaster who is being sued for defamation by a former executive of Dominion Voting Systems over claims that aired on his show.
“I don’t take any income or salary from these events and I do that because I’m not trying to get rich, I’m not trying to make it as a firebrand. I’m trying to save this nation,” Clark told the crowd between acts.
$500 handbags and $3,300 exercise equipment
Plenty of money does change hands though. Dietary supplements, fluoride-free toothpaste, patriotic coffee and children’s books like “The Cat In The Maga Hat” are all on sale. Bedazzled purses in the shape of a gun or the Titanic (a metaphor for the country) cost $500.
Carson Massie was selling vibrating platforms you can stand on instead of exercising. “Ten minutes on this is equal to an hour at the gym,” said Massie. The units go for $3,300 each, a steal compared to other models on the market, he said. Their stand sells about 150 on an average ReAwaken day.
After his speech, Roger Stone remained near the stage to pose for pictures with attendees. On either side of him were two people holding open large, clear garbage bags who collected cash donations toward Stone’s legal and medical bills.
But not everyone was there to sell a product. Attendees get free books, including a 2-pound tome about the nation’s top infectious disease doctor and presidential adviser, Anthony Fauci, and a war led by “globalists” against Trump and freedom using facemasks and COVID-19.
“I sell nothing. I refuse donations. I know what I know could save a lot of lives because there’s a scripture that says, my people perish for lack of knowledge,” said Everett Triplett in a crisp, white cowboy hat and bolo tie.
His booth is covered in enlarged copies of Bible pages bearing his hand-scrawled notes and colorful highlights. Triplett believes God has shown him that a massive nuclear attack on the United States is imminent, all of which is explained in a free, glossy booklet. He said he wondered about some of the working-class attendees he sees stocking up on T-shirts and precious metals.
“Passionate people are easily talked out of their money when it comes to the things they’re passionate about. They’re generous. And so all these T-shirts, political stuff that has on it, the content that makes them go, whoop, whoop, whoop, they like it. They spend money,” said Triplett, who admits he’s bought a thing or two.
COVID, Satan, pedophiles
In the very back of Triplett’s free handout were his research recommendations. The list included Alex Jones’ InfoWars, a John Birch Society speech and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious, century-old antisemitic hoax. Its themes of a secret, Jewish plot for “global domination” and specifically, preying on children, all echo in the conspiracy theories of today.
This is Mark Abrahams’ second time at a ReAwaken tour stop. He says he’s a big fan of one of the speakers, a British QAnon personality whose videos feature fictions about COVID-19, global currency upheaval and Satanic pedophiles.
“When you come to these places. You feel at home. You really do feel like you’re in and amongst good people and that’s a big difference,” said Abrahams.
Outside of events like the tour, Abrahams complained that there are no civil conversations anymore, just accusations of racism and homophobia. With his next breath he started to describe the need for vigilance on a hypothetical family trip with his grandchildren and his fears that his granddaughter would be assaulted by a transgender person.
“My granddaughter goes in and I see a masculine looking woman going into that bathroom. I’m stopping them. And if that person has not completed their transformation, I will physically finish it for them,” said Abrahams.
Minutes later, he invoked the Golden Rule of treating others as you’d want to be treated. Asked how he squared that with his own violent threats, Abrahams said, “I square that with the Golden Rule because, if you know right from wrong, you’re not a lady. You’re not a woman. You’re a man,” and continued sharing his thoughts on transgender people.
In reality, transgender people have been murdered at record numbers in the last two years and face disproportionally high rates of assault and other forms of abuse.
In an interview later, Clay Clark, the organizer, said he doesn’t agree with anyone who “endorses violence as a means to end disagreement.” But pressed about the weekend’s prominent strain of anti-trans and homophobic rhetoric, and what responsibility he assumes for any messages about evil, demons and pedophiles his audience may leave with, Clark finally offered this:
“I agree with what you just said. Yeah, I think you saw it in Nazi Germany. You put a star on people and you dehumanize them,” said Clark. “I also think putting a mask on someone is dehumanizing.”
Last year, Georgia U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene had to publicly apologize for repeatedly making the same comparison, and said the remark was “offensive.” But at the ReAwaken tour, the analogy was commonplace.
God “doesn’t need an election”
Despite repeated false claims from the speakers onstage that the 2020 election was stolen, most attendees said they plan to vote in next week’s midterm elections. Speakers like Flynn urged them to add poll watching and continued political organizing to their schedules. “Local action equals national impact,” Flynn has said throughout the tour.
From the same stage, earlier that day, Julie Green, an ally of Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, told the audience God had spoken to her and sent a prophecy.
“These are the days for you to control the governments of this earth,” said Green to huge applause.
She continued, “God said he can take this country back in unconventional ways. He doesn’t need an election to do it.”
Events like ReAwaken serve as a kind of worship service, said Anthea Butler, chair of the University of Pennsylvania’s religious studies department,
“There are all the elements of Christian churches, except it’s not in the church. Right? So all of those things that people get sociologically from church connection, validation, affirmation, all of those things are happening in these sorts of places,” said Butler.
She traced the prophecies and charismatic preaching to a movement from the 1990s called the New Apostolic Reformation. Its leaders believe there are present-day apostles and prophets fighting evil forces. Add in election denial, vaccine and anti-government conspiracism and it’s a very potent mix that Butler says the Republican Party has largely embraced.
“You’ve always had conspiracy theories in American religion,” says Butler. “There’s always been people who have thought about, ‘what is going to happen in the end times’ or ‘when is the world going to come to an end.’ The real question you want to ask is, why aren’t they talking about that anymore?”