He wore the same doofy, slightly cross-eyed smile that accompanies many of his sporting shots —an avid outdoorsman, Jr. is wont to pose with fish, deer, guns, and, infamously, the severed tail of an elephant. He raised the muzzle in the air, and wore noise-dampening headphones perched like Mickey Mouse ears on his baseball cap. But this photo had an aura of menace not reflected in the toothy grin, or the caption (“Nice day at the range”). Fitted on the AR rifle he held was a custom well, on which was emblazoned a Jerusalem cross, a symbol of the Crusades dating back to the 11th century. On the gun’s stock, a Crusader motto was engraved: “Deus Vult.”
“Deus Vult”— translated from Latin—means “God Wills It.”
Its most famous historical usage was as a battle cry, a rallying call for soldiers in the First Crusade, launched in the 11th century by Pope Urban II. According to numerous historical accounts, the Pope, at the Council of Claremont in 1096, gave a rousing speech summoning Christian soldiers to the aid of their coreligionists to the east. As one 19th-century history of the Crusades quoted the speech, Urban urged his flock to “go and fight against the barbarians, go and fight for the deliverance of the holy places.” An account from 1100, the Gesta Francorum, recorded the battle-cry of Christian warriors in the years of warfare that followed: “Deus vult!” In the context of Donald Trump Jr.’s Instagram post, it bore an unsettling resonance with holy war—after his father had committed an escalatory act of war against the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Like many people with large Instagram followings, Trump Jr. appears to have been acting as an “influencer. But instead of hawking laxative teas or lip fillers, he appeals to an audience concerned with outwardly signaling just how impeccably masculine they are. In this post, he credited two companies, Rare Breed Rifles and Spike’s Tactical, for the gun swag. Rare Breed sells an entire line of Crusader rifle paraphernalia. “Inspired by some of the most fierce warriors who fought in nearly 200 years of epic conflicts known as the Crusades,” the product description reads, “This lower honors the warrior mindset.” Spike’s Tactical distributes the Crusader products, as well as firearms and an apparel line custom-designed to appeal to culture warriors. In particular, Spike’s Tactical T-shirts lean heavily on Islamophobic themes. One shirt features an AR-15 rifle with the slogan “Stops ISIS on contact.” Another says, in Arabic plucked clumsily from Google Translate, “If you can read this, you’re in range.” Others appeal directly to the Crusader mindset, with one shirt featuring a bucket-helmeted Knight Templar carrying an automatic rifle and a quote from Psalm 144: “Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for battle, my fingers for war.”
The company also displays an overt affinity for far-right extremism: in one poster the company sells, entitled “Not Today Antifa,” a scene depicts men armed with automatic rifles confronting masked protesters. The text above the scene: “Berkeley Portland Charlottesville Boston: Not Today Antifa.” It’s an explicit, gun-happy appeal to far-right extremists at the infamous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and their sympathizers.
This isn’t the first time far-right violence has come enrobed in Crusader imagery. In particular, white supremacists online have spread the “Deus Vult” slogan through memes, posts, and screeds. During the 2016 election, “Deus Vult” became a rallying cry on Twitter for supporters of then-candidate Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States. This week, just days after Trump Jr.’s Instagram post, a teenager in Delaware threw an incendiary device—a home-brewed Molotov cocktail—at a Planned Parenthood facility. On the building, he graffitied a clumsy Templar Cross and the words “Deus Vult.” It’s symptomatic of the way that, over and over again, the Crusades emerge as a nexus of white supremacist fascination, a motif folded in to other expressions of grievance—against Muslims, against feminists, against the supposed degeneracy of modern culture. After all, bigotry seems nobler when retrofitted to a millennia-old tradition of holy struggle.
But more pressingly, Trump Jr.’s Instagram post raises an urgent question: just why have we embarked on a new era of Middle Eastern adventurism? War is a lot of things: it’s hell; it’s violence; it’s expensive, ruinous to cities and countries and whole states. For two decades, the United States has been in an endless war on the nebulous concept of “terror” that has upended the Middle East; this week’s incendiary provocations have the potential to escalate the grinding conflict into something even more barbed and devastating. But for some, war is holy—a clash of religion against religion, like the spark of blade on blade. It’s a Knight Templar with an AR-15; it’s Arabic script as a signal of enmity. That’s the signal Donald Trump Jr. was sending, with his snug Crusader gun-helmet. And it may be ensconced even deeper in the halls of power, with those formally entrusted with our nation’s security under the Trump regime.
Recent reporting has indicated that the biggest driving force behind the Solemani strike in the Trump administration was Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State; officials told the Washington Post that Pompeo spoke to Trump daily in the run-up to the strike, coaxing him into this course of action. A prior avoidance of a retaliatory strike on Iran left Pompeo reportedly “morose”; according to a senior U.S. official, Pompeo has been pushing for the Soleimani strike for months. In recent years, Pompeo has openly expressed his fondness for the Rapture, the eschatological doctrine that will see righteous Christians vacuumed from earth to heaven in the end of days; at a rally in 2015, he described life as a “never-ending struggle” until “the Rapture.” These apocalypse-courting views appear to have influenced his views on Iran, specifically. In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, he smiled, nodded, and agreed fulsomely when asked whether Donald Trump had been “raised for such a time as this, just like Queen Esther, to help save the Jewish people from the Iranian menace.” A New York Times reporter who interviewed Pompeo in 2019 found “an open Bible in his office, with a Swiss Army knife marking his place at the end of the book of Queen Esther.”
A Christian Zionist, Pompeo adheres to an ideology in which Israel is a crucial piece in the set-up to the Rapture: the Jews, in their homeland, converting en masse to the doctrine of Jesus is a crucial, prophesied herald of the end times. The story of the Book of Esther takes place in ancient Persia, under the reign of Xerxes I (486–465 BCE), a lascivious, feast-loving king who passively allowed his chief advisor to plot a genocide of the Jews; conflating that decadent and capricious reign with the modern leadership of Iran displays as much Biblical literacy as it does profound disconnect with contemporary geopolitics. Pompeo’s affinity with the Book of Esther seems to indicate that his politics hover in the sacred realm of holy war—where a drone strike can bring the eschaton closer and closer. It’s a stark, Christ-soaked worldview in which Iran is a menace to that long-awaited prophecy—one which prioritizes the prophecies of yore far more than the contemporary lives of unbelievers.
As such, Pompeo has been known to make extraordinarily Islamophobic statements. In 2014, he told a Wichita church group that there are Muslims who “abhor Christians and will continue to press against us,” encouraging his audience to “make sure that we know that Jesus Christ as our savior is truly the only solution for our world.” He has become the administration’s official voice of war apologetics on the Sunday shows—the mouthpiece of policies that would see Iran dismantled utterly.
It seems that this worldview has coincided nicely with a hawkish right that has long pushed for war with Iran—an answer, as the Daily Beast national-security writer Spencer Ackerman put it, to the “cultural insult” of an intact Iran decades into a tense relationship with the United States. In the Trump era, Ackerman asserts, the subtext of the unending War on Terror has been made text: it is “a clash of Western Civilization against supposed Islamic Barbarism, against which anything is permissible.” It is a Crusade conducted under a Jerusalem Cross, fire streaking across the sky at infidels, the first salvo of the eschaton. Historians estimate that nearly two million people died during the two hundred years the Crusaders fought for Jerusalem; our own conflicts in the Middle East have claimed as many lives in 20 years. For believers, this new phase must be exhilarating; for war hawks, an enthralling fulfillment of years of bloody fantasy. For the rest of us, for the civilians of Iran and Iraq, for those who wish for an end to war and not its newest incarnation, it heralds another verse of the Book of Esther: a time of “great mourning, and weeping, and wailing.”
Talia Lavin is a writer based in Brooklyn. Her first book, Culture Warlords, is forthcoming in 2020 from Hachette Books.
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All he ever wanted was to make his dad proud, but things have never turned out quite right for Donald Trump Jr. Even now, despite finding his purpose as a bombastic star of the far right, Junior’s personal life is in shambles and the specter of Robert Mueller looms large. As Julia Ioffe discovers in talking to old friends and Trump World insiders, it’s never been trickier to be the president’s son.
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