March 29, 2024 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

More Republicans are literally demonizing opponents

We laugh about the Satanic Panic, but we're living through something much worse, writes Lindsay Beyerstein.

Father David Fulton, courtesy of Seeing Red.
Father David Fulton, courtesy of Seeing Red.

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I will not feed a demon,” Ruby Franke told her son. The former YouTube influencer starved, kicked and bound the 12-year-old, and twisted him into stress positions. When the boy’s restraints lacerated his flesh, Franke rubbed honey and cayenne pepper into the wounds and let them suppurate until the whole house stank. 

Franke pled guilty to four counts of aggravated child abuse. Last week prosecutors released the underlying evidence in her case, including a diary in which she records the degradation of her children in meticulous detail and justifies it in the name of exorcism. 

Franke believed that her children were possessed by demons that could only be cast out by horrific abuse and neglect. There are many similarities between Franke’s case and that of Lori Vallow, a cult leader who orchestrated the murder of her two children, her lover’s wife, (and probably her ex-husband,) and justified the slaughter by claiming her victims were possessed.

It’s hard for secular folks (or even worldly Christians) to relate to those who explain mundane events in terms of demons, but just because we can’t relate doesn’t mean it’s not happening. 

There’s no indication that Franke or Vallow had a partisan political agenda, but demonization is becoming a partisan political problem in its own right. 

As Donald Trump seeks a second term, more and more high-profile Republicans are literally demonizing their political opponents. The candidate kicked off his reelection campaign in apocalyptic terms promising to be his voters retribution in the “final battle,” implicitly likening himself to a returned Christ in the final battle against the Antichrist. 

Trump confidante Roger Stone claims to have seen a swirling demonic portal over Joe Biden’s White House. Trump strategist Steve Bannon has been railing about spiritual warfare and Democratic demons since at least 2021, according to an analysis by Media Matters. 

Earlier this month, Republican senatorial hopeful and supreme Trump toady Kari Lake blamed demons for stealing the 2020 election. “We have to continue fighting. The devil is working. Evil is working. Those stolen [2020 and 2022] elections were meant to make us feel like we have been beat down and there’s no hope,” Lake told a podcaster.

Trump lawyer Alina Habba tried to deflect criticism of her dismal courtroom performance by blaming Trump’s legal woes on demons. 

You might think this is just the usual overheated sulfurous political rhetoric. After all, demons can be a potent metaphor for everything from the psychological problems of rock stars to the laws of thermodynamics. It’s hard for secular folks (or even worldly Christians) to relate to those who explain mundane events in terms of demons, but just because we can’t relate doesn’t mean it’s not happening. 

Last week, Republican operative Charlie Kirk was babbling about Haiti being demonically possessed. “Haiti is legitimately infested with demonic voodoo” that allows practitioners to do “quasi-levitation stuff,” Kirk proclaimed. And furthermore, Kirk continued, he knows a guy who knows some guys who say Haitians turn into cats at night. Kirk also claims that witches made him sick in Albuquerque. When Fox News host Jesse Watters accused a Trump grand jury foreperson of witchcraft, Kirk amplified his charges. 

Since the 1980s, growing numbers of Americans have embraced the idea of “spiritual warfare” against demons, which they believe to play active roles in politics and everyday life. 

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The fastest growing and most influential contingent of demon-believers is found in independent charismatic Christianity, including the radical movement known as the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). In NAR theology, demons command physical locations and worldly institutions such as journalism, academia and the government. 

Anything a believer doesn’t like can be framed as demonic. Biden getting more votes than Trump is a “stolen” election in Lake’s mind because it was the result of demonic influence. Anything that doesn’t go their way is demons. Car breaks down? Demons. Depressed? Demons. Kid gay? Demons.

Thousands of protesters were enticed to Washington on January 6 by NAR leaders who promised to lead them in spiritual warfare against the demons that supposedly possessed the Capitol. The shofars honking around DC were NAR battle calls. For some, spiritual warfare spilled over into literal combat. This can easily happen when followers are steeped in violent rhetoric and their opposition is portrayed not as misguided or even malicious, but as demonic 

An estimated 10 million Americans identify as independent charismatic Christians. However, a preoccupation with demons is not unique to the NAR. A Catholic priest from Nebraska (pictured above) told a videographer on January 6 that he had exorcized a tattooed demon named Baphomet from the Capitol. Trump’s circle of demon-pushers includes Baptists like Greg Locke and Robert Jeffress and Roman Catholics like Mike Flynn. Franke and Vallow identify as Mormon.  

In the nineteen eighties, millions of Americans became convinced that satanists had infiltrated key sectors of society, including the C-suites of Fortune 500 companies, the recording industry, and the nation’s daycare centers. We laugh about the Satanic Panic, but we’re living through something much worse.

Lindsay Beyerstein covers legal affairs, health care and politics for the Editorial Board. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, she’s a judge for the Sidney Hillman Foundation. Find her @beyerstein.

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