Donald Trump, Patron of the Deepfakes

AD (Artificial Devotion) prayed before AI could think

Donald Trump, Patron of the Deepfakes
Trump praying in a modified version of Hell by a Follower of Hieronymus Bosch, South Netherlandish, between 1450 - 1516,

EventDonald Trump posted an AI generated picture of himself praying on his far-right social media site, Truth Social. 

Date: March 23, 2023

Conditions: Small bank blight,  Reproductive healthcare drought , Geopolitical storm cloudsAI Misinformation Mists 

My thoughts: 

Earlier this week, Donald Trump posted an AI generated photo of himself on Truth Social. In the image, he’s on one knee praying, bathed in celestial glory. His clasped hands have the signature AI hand distortion. (And yes, I do think it’s some sort of omen that no matter how good AI models get at creating images, they cannot make human hands. And no, I do not know why we’re not heeding it.) 

I immediately thought of the early Renaissance nobles in the Southern Netherlands who thought portraits could save them from eternal torment. 

As devotion at home became more common, the Flemish elite began to fill their homes with religious images once reserved for inside churches. They used art the same way the church and state did - to prove their affluence and authority. Well, with one important addition - themselves. They’d commission a painting of the nativity and then have themselves painted in at Jesus’ feet, praying in all their velvet and lace. It must have been something to kneel before a triptych that held you and the savior of all mankind.

In the Southern Netherlands, the Catholic Church had state power as well as heavenly power. When a nobleman was painted at the feet of Christ, he was asserting his own power and authority by association. I guess one modern day equivalent of this is when a lesser known influencer tags a more well known influencer. 

The Adoration of the Magi with Emperor Frederick III and Emperor Maximilian, Circa 1510. The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

Like a social media post, this art was also made to influence the public. The very rich and powerful didn’t keep their devotions at home. Artists were commissioned to create overwhelming religious scenes. Those scenes were also designed to move the viewer to support the Catholic Church and its state representatives over the burgeoning Protestant Church. And in a world where the powerless had relatively little access to large scale produced images, it was not hard to become overwhelmed and then moved. 

It wasn’t just about the power. It was also about purgatory. Praying before holy scenes was one way to express the kind of devotion that saved your soul. And it didn’t just save your soul, it could save the souls of the dead too. By the early Renaissance, Catholic people pretty widely understood purgatory as a place where a somewhat sinful soul went to be purified before ascending to heaven. The purification was fairly hellish. 

Intercessory prayers were offered to help ease the suffering of the dead and help shorten their time in purgatory. The more prayers, the better off the soul - whether it was yours or anothers. And, at one point in history, the prayers didn’t have to come from a human. They could be symbolically prayed by a portrait. 

When a noble person was painted in prayer, they created AD - artificial devotion.There are a lot of debates right now about whether AI will become truly sentient. I don’t know what the debates were like over AD. But I do know where they landed for a time - AD was truly spiritual. 

When a noble person was painted in prayer, they created AD - artificial devotion.

Even the most devoted AD couldn’t keep you out of purgatory. But it could help you move through it more quickly. As long as your praying portrait continued to exist, the simulated devotion continued to intercede on your behalf. Even after you were dead. 

Elon thinks he’s on the cutting edge of technology when he talks about uploading his mind to some future framework. But the Flemish had already figured out how to capture their faith in a frame over 600 years ago. 

Trump’s AI portrait is an iteration of this old tradition. His chosen faith tradition isn’t Catholicism. It’s Christian Nationalism - a far-right political ideology that’s Christian in name only. Unconcerned with heaven, Christian Nationalist’s are intent on building hell on earth. 

In the image, Trump kneels in one of Christian Nationalism’s holiest scenes - a dark hall of power. By depicting himself in an act of devotion in the aesthetic popularized by artists like Jon McNaughton is one way to assert his authority to his base. The scene isn’t painted because being a patron of the arts is no longer the best way to influence the public. But being a patron of the deepfakes? Well sure. That’ll do. 

I don’t think that Trump believes in anything but himself. Still. There’s the artificial light falling on his twisting hands. What does he think his simulated prayer will save him from? Prison, oblivion, purifying torment?

Donald Trump is 76 years old. His AI portrait will kneel in prayer for longer than he’s alive. And while neither sentient AI nor spiritual AD feel possible to me, I can’t help but feel a chill when I think about where that portrait’s prayers will keep him. 

Further Reading 

Sinners, Saints, Lovers and Fools

What Have Humans Just Unleashed?

Purgatory by BBC’s In Our Time

How Hieronymus Bosch’s Hell Lives on Today