The cast assembles on the megachurch stage, each taking their turn in a pool of light.
There are doomsaying prophets with curved shofars, aspiring politicians lamenting election fraud, and naturopathic physicians warning of demonic invasion. Mike Lindell steps forward and says evil forces are undoing the nation. Roger Stone gives an apocalyptic homily. Michael Flynn lobs T-shirts into the pews. Scott McKay, alias Patriot Streetfighter, gyrates to the sounds of AC/DC while chopping a tomahawk in the air. In time, the Trump brothers appear and Eric puts his dad on speaker phone.
More from Rolling Stone
Praise music floats in the air and the crowd rocks back and forth. At one moment, a woman drops to the floor — “Hallelujah, hallelujah” — and speaks in tongues.
Standing at stage-right, surveying the festivities this July night in Virginia Beach, is a tall, bespectacled 41-year-old man named Clay Clark. With cropped blond hair and a toothy grin, he steps up to the lectern between each act, standing near a variety show gong. “Alright, ladies and gentlemen, how many of you believe Jesus is king? How many of you believe that Donald J. Trump is their president?” Whoops from the pews. “How many of you believe that Michael Flynn is America’s general?” More applause. “And how many of you believe in the power of prayer?”
Equal parts tent revival, campaign rally, and three-ring circus, this is the latest stop on the ReAwaken America Tour, a monthly MAGA pageant that fills megachurches across the country. Before last year, Clark was a provincial talk-show personality and business guru from Oklahoma; today he is a Vince McMahon frontman of a misinformation megashow. Here, the election was stolen from Trump; the pandemic is a horrific hoax; and a cabal of Luciferian cultists, including George Soros, seek world domination. There are End Times oracles, exorcists, multilevel marketers, New Agey health gurus, naturopathic bodybuilders, and QAnon crusaders all swaying together under one tent.
In Clark’s career, he has been a regional mogul and a self-help author; he oversaw a dog training company, a barbershop chain, and a photo business. He once ran for mayor. Now, he’s tapping into a mix of pandemic conspiracies, God-and-flag patriotism, Stop the Steal fervor, and spiritual supernaturalism — and reaping the benefits. He is not precisely a flame-breathing demagogue, but he is a capitalist who has found his product: culture-war spectacle.
Clark is the most American of all archetypes: the man-on-the-make. The fixer with the Rolodex. In Yiddish, the macher. Aspirational, a bit mercenary, ultimately effective. “Get-it-done-ers” is how he refers to himself and those around him: “I like the people who are always moving.”
The cast he has curated is a who’s who of the far-right, and reveals the oddball ecumenism of the movement. The retired general Flynn is the big-name headliner, joining dozens of other A- and B-listers like millionaire Overstock.com founder Patrick Byrne, anti-vaccine figurehead Andrew Wakefield, famed conspiracist Alex Jones, and Turning Point USA head Charlie Kirk. In-person crowds at each event swell from roughly 3,000 to 10,000, organizers say, with millions tuning in online. This is a networking opportunity and merchandising bonanza, with new and fruitful alliances taking shape at each stop.
In the months after the January 6 insurrection, Clark’s shows emerged as pandemic-era hubs for the MAGA faithful to gather and strategize. Liberal watchdogs and advocacy groups — Right Wing Watch, the Anti-Defamation League, and others — began raising the alarm about ReAwaken soon after its launch, describing Clark as an extremist agitator, whose tours could be bringing the country closer to more political violence. “These events add to the divisions in our country,” says Marilyn Mayo, an ADL researcher who compiled a report on Clark. “We very much need to be concerned.”
Each stop on the tour now draws protests, of varying size, and the show is sometimes booted from venues — as it was in upstate New York this summer — leaving Clark scrambling. In Virginia, a lone van sent by the liberal clergy group Faithful America, which has been organizing against the tour since early this year, putters past the location with a rented billboard denouncing the speakers. (No one from that group is in attendance, citing safety concerns.) Reached by phone, Nathan Empsall, Faithful America’s director, says, “This tour is the face of unholy Christian Nationalism and they are bringing this deadly message to many churches.”
The voices of ReAwaken’s opponents don’t make it past the parking lot. This is the sort of place where Fox News hosts are lambasted as liberal propagandists, face masks of any sort are strictly forbidden, and anyone found with one might be theatrically escorted off site. “I won’t allow you to wear one for the same reason I won’t allow people to defecate on the stage,” Clark says.
While there are precedents to ReAwaken, this show is not populated by the old-school stalwarts of the religious right (Jerry Fallwell’s Moral Majority feels a universe away) nor does it have the institutional heft of a CPAC (he joyfully sneers at such events as “staged, contrived, manipulated”). Clark prides himself on offering something stranger, livelier, and way more extreme.
Born in 1980 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Clark and his family moved when he was a kid to Cokato, Minnesota, a one-stoplight town an hour outside Minneapolis. In a 2010 memoir, Make Your Life Epic, Clark described his family as humble churchgoers of modest means. His role models were friends who, unlike his parents, had bravely struck out on their own. By the time Clark was in high school he was selling candies and home-printed T-shirts out of his garage. When he began DJing dances — hyping sweaty gymnasium crowds and riffing on the microphone — he found his passion at the intersection of entertainment and enterprise. “I wanted to be a millionaire by the age of 30,” he wrote.
In 1999, Clark returned to Tulsa to attend the Pentecostal college Oral Roberts University. The school had strict codes of conduct, but Clark bristled against them. He continued to DJ parties, and courted his wife-to-be Vanessa, a cheerleader studying broadcast journalism. “He was an all-in or all-out guy,” Vanessa says. They married a year after meeting.
In 2000, Clark produced and recorded a parody rap song (doing a passable Eminem over the Real Slim Shady beat) in which he described his dislike of ORU life, cursing and skewering the lavish lifestyle of the school’s then-president, Richard Roberts. Thanks to Napster, the track was a viral hit on campus. Clark was asked to apologize or leave. (ORU representatives declined to comment.) Clark says at this point he packed his bags. “School was an epic, complete waste,” he says now.
Clark then floundered for a time, finding bits of work in Tulsa. When a friend introduced him to the self-help work of Napoleon Hill, the author of the 1937 bestseller Think and Grow Rich, he felt like he found his lodestar. He re-dedicated himself to his entertainment business, DJ Connection, which he revamped into a small mobile empire. “I learned about the ‘deal wheel,’” he later wrote of this time, “the process of taking a ‘hard no’ and turning it into a ‘yes.’”
In 2007, Clay and Vanessa’s second child, Aubrey Napoleon-Hill, was born with a genetic disorder that doctors anticipated would leave him blind. The family was bereft, but Clark says he and his wife began praying for Aubrey’s health. The boy’s sight eventually recovered, an event that the family recalls as a bona fide miracle. “It was the first time I believed that God was active in our lives,” Clark says. At this time, Clark’s mother and father were attending Christian Chapel, an Assemblies of God congregation in Tulsa. When Vanessa and Clay joined this church, Aubrey’s story was the kind of uplifting testimony they might share at luncheons. The event was also woven back into the expansive brand; both Vanessa and Clay wrote about this religious awakening in their respective memoirs, put out by Clark’s publishing company, Thrivetime Edutainment.
By then, his DJ company alone was bringing in more than $1 million dollars a year, largely from wedding gigs. He opened a coaching outfit where he advised business owners and took a percentage of profits. A realty group and a barbershop chain followed. Local press lauded Clark as a scrappy millennial hustler in the Mark Zuckerberg mold. In interviews, Clark would recount a daily regimen of waking each morning at 3:00 a.m. to soak in the tub for three hours, typing to-do lists for the day ahead. “I am an enemy of average,” he told an interviewer, repeating a slogan he would also stencil on his office wall. He bombed around town wearing a customized jersey, “DJ CLAY” printed on the back.
Clark came under the tutelage of a local optometrist named Robert H. Zoellner, an entrepreneur who also ran a small constellation of businesses. Together, in 2014, Zoellner and Clark launched a website, Thrive15, which offered short how-to business videos for a monthly subscription and then an AM talk show called ThriveTime where the two swapped finance advice and irreverent banter.
In 2020, when Covid-19 began to spread, Clark saw that his businesses stood to take a hit. Clark had always fashioned himself an autodidact and proceeded to scour the murky corners of the web looking for answers. “I just obsessively deep-dived,” Clark says.
By this time, outré theories about the virus were proliferating and Clark drank from this deep well. A network of pandemic defiers — churches refusing to close, alt-health physicians hawking treatments, politicians grandstanding about the incursions on personal liberties — was coalescing. Depictions of the pandemic as part of a scam to control the population swirled about and Clark seized the idea that the official narrative about the virus was not to be believed.
He then pivoted his media operation towards the new conspiratorial theme.
“I look at things like, how can I franchise?” Clark says. “How can I scale, using the four steps to entrepreneurship? Step one, find a problem, and everyone has a problem. Step two, solve the problem. Step three, you sell the fix. And then step four, nail it and scale it.”
Clark started small. In August 2020, he banded together with Zoellner and other local businessmen to sue the city of Tulsa over their mask mandate. They held a press conference at Clark’s compound and, speaking to reporters, argued that face masks posed an unlawful hazard. (The suit was dismissed five months later.) He also self-published a Covid-19 book titled Fear Unmasked: Discover the Truth about the Coronavirus Shutdown and spoke with upstart outlets like One American News and Newsmax to plug the work.
Clark voted for Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020 and traveled to the capitol to speak on Jan. 5, 2021 at the invitation of the group known as the Black Robe Regiment. With Stop the Steal flags billowing behind him, he spoke to an assembly about how Covid-19 was a fraud and the sickness was nothing to be afraid of. Clark was there on Jan. 6 to hear Trump speak, but says he did not make it to the site of the Capitol breach itself. “I don’t know what really happened there,” he says. “It seems like some bad stuff.”
Back in Tulsa, Clark had begun holding churchy town hall gatherings in his office, bringing together the local business crowd with other like-minded conservatives, like Zoellner’s friend, ORU alum and Christian rocker Sean Feucht, who had launched his own anti-lockdown music show, and local pastor Jackson Lahmeyer, who was then running in the Republican primary. It was at one of these gatherings where Clark connected with Flynn, who had been impressed after hearing him speak on a podcast with QAnon booster Ann Vandersteel. “He could tell I was a knowledgeable guy,” Clark says. The two discussed what would become the ReAwaken tour. “I said to General Flynn, ‘Hey, you know, I felt God wants us to do a tour,’” Clark recalls. “And the general said, ‘Yeah, I know.’”
Their first large event, then called Clay Clark’s Health and Freedom Conference, was held in April of 2021 at Rhema Bible College, a Pentecostal landmark in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. Tickets for that show, and future ones, were tiered: $500 for front-row VIP and $250 for general admission, with pay-as-you-can discounts. Some speakers were compensated for travel, organizers say, and also given the opportunity to sell their wares. The event drew thousands and garnered headlines with promises of a ritualized face-mask fire. (Clark says the bonfire didn’t materialize, after all.) “Hug somebody you don’t know,” he told the crowd that weekend. “Covid won’t kill ya.”
Clark’s vision for the show would gradually take on a more supernatural aura. Encouraged by his wife Vanessa and other friends, he began checking out a steady stream of prophecy-themed content — published by Pentecostal outlets like Charisma Media and Elijah Streams — where self-proclaimed oracles viewed current events through an otherworldly lens and heralded Trump as a divinely-ordained leader.
One of the more celebrated of these self-styled Trump prophets was the late South African pastor Kim Clement, whose old clips are still revisited for new insights by the faithful. In one video, from 2013, Clement made a seemingly offhand mention of a “man by the name of Mr. Clark” and “a man by the name of Donald” and said, in part, “You have been determined through your prayers to influence this nation.” Vague as it may sound, to Clark and those around him, the implications were clear. Clark integrated clips of the Clement prophecy into his promotional videos, grafting himself into a supernatural storyline, and invited several pastor-prophets to join his fledgling tour. “After that, God started opening all these doors for me,” he says.
The evening before the show kickoff in Virginia, Clark’s phone is ringing. One California woman, claiming to be a modern-day Biblical Esther, has been calling Clark persistently, hoping to get a slot on the ReAwaken stage. He finally answers and listens politely before turning her down. “It’s like a rock show or a rap concert,” he says after he hangs up. “Not everyone gets to be the star of the night.”
When not on the road, the nerve center of the ReAwaken tour is Clark’s clubhouse-like headquarters in Tulsa, what he calls “Tulsa-rusalem.” His employees work here at a humming bank of computers and the office walls are lined with framed awards, newly-minted ReAwaken-branded hockey jerseys, and stenciled Bible quotes. (Clark opened a proper church on the property last year.) A blinking fluorescent sign reads: “Rise and Grind.”
On one side, there is the glassed-in room where Clark records hours of podcasts and videos each day. His microphone persona has neither the barrel-chested roar of Alex Jones nor the brooding self-seriousness of Stephen Bannon, though he has been on both of their shows several times. Instead Clark pulls off a Jim Carrey-esque slapstick, waving popsicle-stick puppets of Bill Gates or imitating monkey howls. Clark fancies himself a stand-up buff and studies old clips of Jerry Seinfeld and Steve Martin. He’s cycled through several catchphrases and mantras, and repeats one that sounds like a cross between glossolalia and a surf’s-up salute: “Dude, are you ready to have your mind blown?… Shakababa”; “You feelin’ the flow?… Shakababa”; “It’s my job,” he says, “to bang the gong and wake America up… Shakababa.”
Because Clark’s road show began as a flamboyant provocation in the heat of the pandemic, there was some question if the pageant would lose steam as mandates were lifted. Yet Covid-19 has proven to be just one plot point in a pliable story that Clark is successfully marketing to his audience, with new paranoias being stoked and new miraculous salves proffered with each month. “I really do believe we are approaching the end of America and I’m trying to stop that,” he says. “You just pick a side, do your research and pick a side.”
There are still some pesky plot holes, most glaringly being that Donald Trump, in fact, championed the vaccine that Clark decries as demonic. Yet Clark sits in numerous other contradiction: he’s a Pentecostal college dropout who owes his new popularity to the church; a business bro who has turned on his former idols, like Zuckerberg or Gates, as part of an evil cabal; and an assailant of all media whose success owes much to his own media savvy. ReAwaken is ostensibly agitating for a right-wing political takeover, but in private moments Clark can sound more fatalistic. “I don’t think America is savable,” he tells me. “I think all the Christians get slaughtered. I’ve read the whole Bible, I’ve read what happens.”
Clark’s pandemic pivot seems also to have put him at odds with older friends and collaborators. For all the months Clark has been crusading against masks and vaccines, Christian Chapel, his onetime home congregation, followed health mandates to the letter, the church says. And coworkers from Clark’s DJ days now look on with some embarrassment. Jason Bailey, who purchased DJ Connection from Clark in 2009, says he now must assure concerned customers the two are no longer affiliated. “These are not events that I would ever go to, or want to be a part of,” he says. “There are so many conspiracy theories one after another after another,” Bailey goes on. “Clay has got to hype and flip-flop around, staying on top of what’s good and what’s evil. It seems like such a mess.”
There are moments when it seems Clark may have bitten off more than he can chew. The shows bring in $300,000 on average, but he says that money normally goes straight into expenses such as security, rental fees, and reimbursing speakers. Clark looks to be betting on some hazy payoff down the line, but for now says he’s losing money. In February of 2022, Clark was sued by a former executive from Dominion Voting Systems, Inc. for defamation — “defendants have monetized a false election fraud narrative,” the complaint reads — and says that he is facing about $90,000 a month in the ongoing suit. (Clark has raised $77,000 towards his defense on one crowdfunding site, with an unmet goal of $1 million.) Other ReAwaken cast members recount their financial woes on stage, too. Flynn, who is looking at several million in legal fees of his own, regularly urges the crowd to support the greater cause by donating to speakers. “You have to decide who you’re going to support,” he says. “Put everything you’ve got into it.”
Internecine squabbles also break out, and the tour has seen some tragedy. The conspiracy crew can often turn their paranoid gaze on one another and Mark Taylor, a former firefighter and now prophecy-themed author has taken up the idea that Clark is, in fact, an Illuminati stooge. And in December 2021, after a handful of attendees got sick in Texas, preposterous rumors circulated that the crowd at the event had been poisoned by anthrax. Some weeks later, one speaker, the anti-vaccine podcast host Doug Kuzma, 61, died after testing positive for Covid-19. Clark maintains Covid isn’t fatal, the tests are a sham, and says Kuzma was just a sickly man. “If you have 5,000 people somewhere, someone is eventually going to get sick,” Clark says.
Events are planned down to the wire, schedules changing hours before the doors open, with some speakers never showing up at all. The ReAwaken staff is ragtag — made up of about a dozen workers, paid about $15 an hour, plus commissions — and travels with Clark to and from venues in a rattling eight-person van, the floor cluttered with supplies, sleeping in the back between shifts at the wheel. One employee, Derrick Sisney, tells me staff turnover is quick. “This work is not for everybody,” he says.
Back at the Virginia megachurch, Clark and the staff stand inside the dim auditorium considering a promo image that is displayed on a glowing screen. Flynn, flanked by guards, hovers nearby. Early birds and vendors have begun arriving outside, yet Clark is still putting the finishing touches on this image, which he has been working on for months. He still keeps an early sketch in a battered journal nearby, and shows me with some pride. He says, “This is my art.”
The graphic has the soaring feel of a Marvel knockoff. On one side, the villains: George Soros, Bill Gates and others from the Davos set. Opposing them: the ReAwaken lineup. It suggests a Clay Clark Extended Universe of never-ending culture war spinoffs and side quests, a doomsday forever fast-approaching yet never arriving. A Bible floats above the heroes, a venomous snake above the baddies. Explosive lightning bolts frame the scene.
“Sweet, right?” he says. “It’s us versus them.”
Clark adjusts his glasses, gives a satisfied nod, then returns to work.
Best of Rolling Stone