On the night of the 2020 election, Patricia Piñón walked into the cool, dimly lit Adoration chapel of St. Mary Catholic Church in Kalamazoo, Mich. It was 6 p.m. EST and her mission was simple: to pray for a Trump victory. With an almost mystical intensity, she’d go on to pray deep into the night, imploring silently as Americans across the country obsessively refreshed internet browsers and watched state projections flip back-and-forth between light blue and pink. By the time Piñón left the chapel, it was after 11 p.m.
The granddaughter of Mexican immigrants who fled the brutality of Pancho Villa, Piñón wasn’t alone in her zeal for a second Trump presidency. Despite incessant charges from the media of President Donald Trump’s racism and white supremacy, exit polls demonstrated a significant uptick in his support from Latino voters – including a bump of five percentage points from female Latino voters alone. A Politico analysis articulated the comprehensiveness of the trend: Trump increased his margins in an eye-popping 78 of the nation’s 100 majority-Hispanic counties, and he improved his standing with Latinos in exit polls of 10 battleground states, including Piñón’s own Wolverine State.
The support for Trump among Latino voters – many of whom derive from historically Catholic countries like Mexico and Cuba – comes at the same time that the Catholic Church is facing its own, at times painful, “red-pill moment.” In a piece for Vanity Fair in October, Kathryn Joyce described a crisis of division between left and right in the Catholic Church as a “cold civil war” – one that parallels the political divide in the United States. Ignited in large part by the transfer of power in 2013 from the baroque papacy of Benedict XVI to that of the folksier Francis, the rift pits social-justice minded, eco-friendly progressive types against anti-abortion, globalist-wary right-wingers (“trads”), who tend to favor an old-school Catholic aesthetic complete with chapel veils and the Latin Mass.
Among younger adherents to the traditionalist countermovement, the faction is steeped in meme culture. What’s edgy and rebellious for “trad teens” isn’t sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but the opposites. Trad social media accounts that describe drug use and premarital sex as “cringe” rack up thousands of young followers. Gregorian chant and Crusades imagery, as Joyce points out, are hallmarks of such profiles, and “Deus vult” (“God wills it”) is a rallying cry.
But whereas Joyce and others have characterized the movement as racialized, many of its adherents would vehemently disagree. Instead, it seems the movement’s most salient inroads have come from reactivating dormant faith among cradle or cultural Catholics who hail from countries that were historically Catholic but are now fallen away in a post-1960s world. These would include Ireland and France as prototypes, but also Mexico, Cuba, Guatemala, and other Latin American countries. And for as often as cries of “Deus Vult” can be heard ringing throughout this fringy ecosystem, exclamations of the Spanish counterpart, “Viva Cristo Rey” – a slogan meaning “Long Live Christ the King,” which finds its most significant origins in the Mexican Revolution and proceeding Cristero War – are just as loud.
As political consultants analyze shifts in voting demographics in the wake of the election, the growth of Catholicism’s right-wing trad movement among formerly fallen-away or “mainstream” Catholics – of all ethnicities – should not be overlooked. After all, it wasn’t overlooked by the Trump campaign. As the Vatican seemed to draw more and more inspiration from the United Nations and less from Church tradition – inviting such figures as Jeffrey Sachs to give workshops on “inclusive economies,” for example – and as suggestions of misbehavior and corruption among its “establishment” hierarchy continued to mount, Trump’s campaign advisors saw an opportunity. They began to understand what the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) was failing to see: that Trump’s “deep state” and “swamp” language could offer disillusioned, battered Catholics a lens for interpreting some of the divergences in their Church.
In July, a Catholic News Agency article described how Trump, after trying to court the USCCB and coming up empty-handed, quickly grasped that he could achieve greater traction with this (swiftly growing) trad countermovement of the Catholic voter base than he could with Catholics loyal to the more mainstream, center-left arm. Tweeting out an open letter he had received from Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, a controversial Italian prelate seen as a key leader in the trad movement, and inviting the pro-life “soldier, sister, nun,” Sister Deirdre Byrne to speak at the Republican National Convention, Trump played a symbiotic role in the growth and visibility of the Catholic trad movement. In turn, the movement’s major figures, firebrands like Fr. James Altman and Dr. Taylor Marshall, galvanized their audiences to “stay salty” and vote for Trump. Along the way, Trump earned new support from bewildered, disheartened conservative Catholics who, despite themselves, came to see the spray-tanned former reality star as the unlikely beacon against Francis’s increasingly unfamiliar, UN-inspired “deep Church.”
As Peachy Keenan put it in an article for the American Mind: 2020 is the year the trads got “MAGAfied.”
In particular, as Keenan found, the trad moms got MAGAfied. And this included Latina trad moms who have latched on to the Catholic traditionalist countermovement and who see themselves as duty-bound to pass along to their children a faith for which their ancestors died in bloody 20th-century revolutions.
For Rosa Esquivel, a young Mexican-born mom in Florida, Super Tuesday was special not just because it was the day of the election – an election she and her family hoped Trump would win – but because it was her first time attending the traditional Latin Mass instead of the “Novus Ordo” Mass, a move seen by many trads as a major step in the Catholic “red-pill” journey. A casual adherent to trad media figures like Marshall and Altman, Esquivel attended the Mass at Christ the King Church in Sarasota, hoping to experience a version of reverence that would exceed what she was finding in her local Novus Ordo parish, where post-Vatican II innovations like female altar servers and lay Eucharistic ministers – considered almost comically verboten in the trad memeosphere – are the norm.
“When I got back to my car after Mass,” she said, “I just started bawling. The experience of reverence in the Latin Mass is indescribable and cannot compare to what’s found in mainstream Novus Ordo parishes these days. The Latin Mass offers a form of beauty that inspires deep holiness – it’s a beauty you would die for. I’ve found my home. I’ll never go back to the Novus Ordo.”
Esquivel’s preference for the Latin Mass was echoed by Mexican-born Amparo Valdivia, another trad mom who also hoped (and prayed) for a Trump victory. Living behind what might as well be “enemy lines” (as her wry smile suggested to me) in Gavin Newsom’s California, Valdivia told me about her transition towards the trad arm of the Catholic Church – and expressed her fear that a Biden-Harris administration would pose a threat to her religious freedom to continue worshiping accordingly.
She particularly felt that government overreach in Democrat states in response to COVID-19 resembled socialism and offered an eerie foretaste of what was to come.
“States that have had all these mandates unfortunately were [run by] Democrats. Our churches are being closed. It’s very scary. It’s socialism,” she told me. “I can only imagine all the people that came from socialist countries and they’re coming here and they’re fighting for their lives because they know what’s coming. It’s very scary.”
As for “what’s coming,” Valdivia spoke of her homeland – and hearkened back to that most popular of trad social-media motifs: the Cristero War.
“It happened 100 years ago in Mexico during the Cristero movement,” she said, referring to the bloody period in Mexico’s history of anti-Catholic persecution, during which many Mexican clerics and laypeople died at the hands of a totalitarian regime with “Viva Cristo Rey” on their lips.
“If most Mexicans recall, they have already experienced [church closures] 100 years ago,” she explained. “Lots of laws started to happen where priests weren’t allowed to celebrate Mass. So this is just another straw, another recall of that experience, that Mexico has already experienced and that America is now experiencing, where the churches are being closed. And that is very scary. When you take God away from a nation and people’s lives, then people suffer the consequences.”
In contrast, Valdivia had hoped for a presidency that would espouse, as she put it, “pro-religion, pro-nation, pro-life, and pro-family” values. “Once you violate those essential, fundamental rights,” she told me, “it’s a free-for-all.”
Unfortunately for Piñón, Esquivel, and Valdivia, it seems their prayers are as yet unanswered; the Biden administration is preparing to take office this month. But just in time for the holidays, Trump offered a parting gift to the traditional Catholics who supported him: a hearty contrast to the postmodernism inflecting the Vatican’s Christmas celebrations. As the Vatican unveiled a Nativity scene last month that was widely criticized by horrified conservative Catholics as absurd and irreverent, the man who will be remembered for defending “Merry Christmas” offered an emotional reflection that reiterated Christ’s birth as the reason for the season. A few weeks later, he followed it up with a proclamation celebrating St. Thomas Becket, a Catholic 12th-century bishop, as a martyr for religious freedom.
“Does America even deserve this man?” tweeted Michael Matt, another prominent trad media figure.
As Trump looks ahead to the future, much is up in the air. But one thing is certain: trad moms around the country, of all ethnicities, will be praying perpetually – with the fervor of great Mexican martyrs and Spanish saints – for the man whom they believe offered a perfect foil to their pope’s increasingly off-kilter agenda, and who stood up for national sovereignty and religious freedom when no one else would.
“He is a man that is a simple man just like everybody else. But [his enemies] forget to realize that even God works with sinners,” Valdivia explained, wiping tears from her eyes as she reflected on Trump’s presidency. “He has definitely shown a love for this nation. This nation is his home. And if you love your home, you’re going to protect it. And that’s exactly what he did.”
Nora Kenney is a press officer at a think tank in Manhattan.