The Chilling Similarities Of Trumpism And Cults
Trump and his followers are not unlike a cult whose religion is a (misguided) sense of “patriotism”
If you voted for him, are you still with him? If not, are you able to let down the hackles you wore while you were with him, and admit you were maybe a little bit wrong — or at least misguided? Maybe your vote came from good intentions. Maybe you just wanted to push back against liberal BS. Whatever it was that compelled you to leave, congratulations. You escaped just in time before it was too late.
If you’re still with him though, what more will it take? What is even left to push the outrage threshold any farther? If the leaked audio of crying babies and young children at the southern border, pleading desperately for their parents or relatives whom they were just torn away from didn’t sway you to sanity, what more will it take?
Little by little, as events have unfolded over the past 517 days since Trump was sworn in, we’ve seen factions of people reach their limits and put some distance between — if not totally abandon — the Republican party. In fact, its not even fair to call Trump supporters “Republicans” anymore; they’re now the party of Trump, or “Trumpism,” i.e., Cult 45.
Trump and his followers are not unlike a cult whose religion is a (misguided) sense of “patriotism.” They idolize typical patriotic symbols like the American flag and the national anthem. And by idolize, I mean that they worship the tangible objects, but ironically, they fail to understand the meaning behind those symbols. Observe long enough and you’ll see their behavior betray the values they claim to revere.
(Think: folks who come unglued over athletes taking a knee during the national anthem. They say things like, “Everyone must stand for the national anthem!” But attend one of their Sunday night football parties and you’ll quickly notice that the party does not stop for the playing of the national anthem on TV; these people do not rise from their lazy boy recliners to stand and salute from the comfort of their living rooms, nor do they turn away from their beer or halt their concession stand purchase to turn, face the flag, and pay their patriotic respects.)
These cartoons I saved two years ago from Twitter pretty much say everything about that whole debate:
Consider that cults have the following social characteristics, and compare those to the social characteristics of Trumpism:
- Absolute Authoritarianism: Dangerous cults are founded and led by commanding authority figures who gain complete control over their members. A cult leader is typically preoccupied or obsessed with fantasies of unfettered power, and believes he is not accountable to any authorities. (Sure, cult leaders can be women, too, but America’s most notorious have been men). The cult leader is arrogant, holds grandiose ideas of self-importance and abilities, requires excessive adoration, and is hypersensitive to criticism. In response to this leader, cult members display stagy zeal and an overly-enthusiastic commitment. Unwavering loyalty and unquestioning obedience to this leader are mandatory.
- Lovebombing: First, cult leaders learn their target audience, or potential recruits — which isn’t really all that hard to do. They simply learn the wants, desires, and weaknesses of individuals. They may tap into a single issue or interest, or tout common ideological systems, such as high levels of dissatisfaction, or cultural disillusionment (whether they actually believe what they’re peddling or not). Once listening, potential recruits are saturated with what they want to hear: palpable solutions, “answers to prayer,” and a feeling of hope and unity. This tactic can create an immense feeling of community, and can draw in and make even the strongest person vulnerable. Unfortunately, after lovebombing, cult leaders turn and begin to prey on and exploit these weaknesses.
- Isolationism: Once they’ve hooked a recruit, they begin creating a literal or figurative divide that shields and isolates members from everyone outside of the cult. This is often the point of no return — the most dangerous point — because the cult leader is no longer manipulating their members through mind games alone, but also by manipulating their social environment. Some cults do this by creating walls or by using weapons and militia. Others socially isolate via psychological warfare, such as distributing propaganda, false flags, or repetitive, charged rhetoric. Their harsh demands often include persuading followers to break off relationships with friends and beloved family members, to give large amounts of money, and/or give up freedoms and liberties.
- Exclusivism: Cults believe that they alone have found the truth, and anyone outside the cult has not. They regard themselves as special or chosen, and they have a deeply fixed “us versus them” mentality. This stage hastens the erasure of members’ own unique identities, which are replaced with the group’s mentality. In other words, this stage helps achieve the complete separation of cult members from their past. Cult exclusivity makes way for blatant disregard of opinions and ideas that fall outside of whatever the cult mentality is, even in the face of physical evidence that disputes their doctrine, actual scientific facts, or logical explanations and reasoning.
- Opposition to Independent Thinking: Cult beliefs are typically unorthodox, and cult leaders take extraordinary measures to lie to, gaslight, convince, and brainwash their members. They employ sycophants to insure compliance inside the cult. Also, they preoccupy their members with mundane, repetitive tasks and rituals, or through numerous distractions, or various “smoke and mirrors” tactics. Leaders essentially do the thinking for all their members. This way, independent thought or deviation from leader thought is unnecessary. There is no tolerance for critical inquiry, and dissent is usually punishable. Thought dissenters may be publicly devalued, be made to feel inferior or unworthy, or even subjected to violence and abuse. Anyone who criticizes or questions the cult leader is branded an “enemy.”
- Fear and Paranoia: Cult leaders use fear mongering, intimidation, threats, vengeance, and physical or emotional abuse to create a sense of paranoia in their members. They do this in order to control them, and to keep them from leaving the cult. Members live with perpetual, unreasonable fear regarding the “other,” or the outside world. They learn to become intolerant of others outside the group, and often hold onto deep conspiracy theories, or far-fetched phobias of persecution. After a while, this paranoia leads to complete and utter submission, especially in the absence of free thought.
Cult leaders typically have a sense of entitlement, and they need to always be the center of attention. To ensure this, they will distract and behave in ways that force others to take notice (like arriving late, making dramatic entrances, giving sensational speeches, and using blood and thunder rhetoric, for example). They cannot tolerate the thought of being embarrassed, or coming off as “weak,” or as “a failure.” When cult leaders are indisputably responsible for bad things happening, they become detached; they feel no sense of remorse, and they neither apologize nor admit defeat. The end game is that the cult leader becomes the single most defining component of the group, over and above whatever ideology the cult is supposed to represent.
Unfortunately, cult members are often unaware of the magnitude of which they’ve been manipulated, deprived, and exploited. It’s also a pretty safe bet that cult members will somehow suffer at the hands of abuse, whether physically, emotionally, sexually, and/or financially. After all, their leader has no accountability. Disastrously, cults often deteriorate by violent ends or suicide missions; they implode from within.
But the foundation on which the entire cult is built and sustained (and perhaps one of the most crucial, most key elements of dangerous cults) is the deliberate use of deception. Everything cult leaders do is based on deception, from start to finish. It’s how they operate, because otherwise, people might not align themselves. So, rather than reveal exactly who they are up front (for example), they’ll enthusiastically insist you just have to experience it; you just have to attend a meeting (or rally) to understand.
And it’s there where everyone else seems so pumped and excited that unsuspecting recruits will start to think there is something wrong with them for not feeling as excited. In this example, an environment has been created where potential cult members are meant to feel uncomfortable, and the only way to become comfortable is to join in with them, to match their level of zeal. This tactic is a highly manipulative, highly skilled form of peer pressure. At its core is deception.
On that note, did I mention cult leaders typically have no meaningful financial disclosures or audited financial statements?
Any of this sound familiar?
The army of folks still living inside the Cult 45 compound appear to be relishing every unsavory moment of Trumpism, and they — like most cult members — are beyond reach. Their mind-control processes have been completed, such that nothing shocks their sense of moral decency anymore. The small to medium army that’s left of Cult 45ers can be spotted anywhere with their ill-fitted, red, unsophisticated Make America Great Again caps (which are about as bizarre looking as any cult paraphernalia or cult uniform. I seriously think the wearing of those hats is enough to render one’s cognitive skills dulled.)
Critical thought and introspection is completely erased. Cult 45 wasn’t moved by the high school teenagers in Parkland, Florida, who rose up in the face of unimaginable tragedy and showed the whole world what it looked like to “adult” — something we haven’t seen from the top in a long time. It shouldn’t have taken anything beyond that to open their eyes. But then again, the same thing was said after the President’s completely inadequate response to the Las Vegas massacre, or how he failed to condemn white supremacists in the Charlottesville aftermath, and then later doubled down to draw a moral equivalency between the far right and the counter-demonstrators.
Cult 45ers didn’t care from the beginning, when Trump refused to divest his business holdings that left him with towering conflicts of interest and emoluments clause violations. They saw nothing wrong with him unlawfully benefitting from foreign leaders and dignitaries staying at Trump Hotels (in all likelihood, to curry favor with the American President). Cult 45 didn’t care when Trump attacked his own law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and those are institutions that historically, Republicans have been fiercely protective over. But no, not Cult 45. There is no moral or legal authority for them except Donald J. Trump.
When Trump fired the Director of the FBI for failing to demonstrate personal loyalty to him, as if James Comey was supposed to be the President’s own personal advisor and private eye, Cult 45 didn’t bat an eyelash. That Trump had the audacity in the first place to ask the FBI Director, during a private dinner, to pledge loyalty to him is both deeply disturbing and oddly absurd. It’s comical, almost, because Trump is nothing but an incompetent amateur who fancies himself a smart guy. With his repeated pleas for needing loyalty, he also appears to be operating under the erroneous presumption that he’s Don Vito Corleone.
Cult 45 doesn’t care that Trump debases our democratic values on a weekly, if not daily basis. Or that he treats the American flag not as the symbol that it is, but as an idol that’s worthy of religious worship. Same for the national anthem, and for Trump’s contorted notion of what patriotism means. As our forefathers framed the constitution, they gave us the democratic right to protest and peacefully assemble. They didn’t intend for future generations to mandate patriotism like some sort of cult doctrine. Yet Cult 45 would disagree. They somehow managed to hijack the narrative, turn it into a debate over “patriotic respect,” and silence the voices of black athletes who wanted to exercise their American, democratic right to peacefully protest during the national anthem.
Taking a knee was never about disrespecting the flag itself (again, a symbol, not an idol) but about calling truth to power, and saying, in the words of Colin Kaepernick, “This country is supposed to stand for freedom, liberty, and justice for all, but that is not happening for all. Something needs to change.” By sitting, Kaepernick was symbolically standing with the people who were (and are) being oppressed, and saying that the symbolism and ideals of the flag are not being represented across all of society. He was saying, “I can’t stand for what this represents right now.”
The plight of African Americans being mistreated in today’s society was the original issue, and Kaepernick (followed by others) used his platform to give a voice to the voiceless — something everyone with a platform should be doing as a socially responsible person in 2018. But Cult 45 has completely whitewashed that movement, meanwhile frightening NFL owners into complicity when the owners themselves were, not too long ago, kneeling in solidarity with the players.
Trump’s tweeting habits alone indicate derangement and have lowered the level of political discourse across America. His televised executive cabinet meetings where senior, white, Republican men sit around the table and stroke Trump’s ego only cheapen and degrade the office of the President. He abuses his executive power, undermines the rule of law for personal gain, rigs the system while claiming others are doing the same, and fails to understand (or even read) the Constitution, for which he laid his hand on the bible and swore to protect. Trump has crossed so many lines it’s a marvel he wasn’t impeached 516 days ago.
But after what happened with Trump signing yet another vague executive order that might, at best, lay out a short term solution to the southern border issue where children were forcibly separated from parents — some, indefinitely — nothing will really change. Trump was clear in stating he does not intend to fully reverse the “Zero Tolerance” policy. However, Cult 45 will herald Trump as the always-right-never-wrong hero, conveniently forgetting that he’s the one who created this nightmare situation in the first place.
But nothing much will change.
Cult 45 will try to engage everyone outside the cult in whataboutism — the official language of Cult 45. They’ll repetitively ask, “What about Obama? You know, those photos of immigrant kids sleeping under tin foil blankets were from the Obama era. Why weren’t you upset then?”
What they’ll consistently fail to understand is that at some point, whataboutism becomes irrelevant, because the issue of children being forcibly separated from their parents, I have to conclude, is the more important issue. I don’t care about the details or the timeline of the photos, whether this was already happening under President Obama or President Bush or anyone else. The point is, it’s not okay now, and it never was. It doesn’t get much more un-American than this. There are 2300 children forcibly separated from their parents — parents who were already deemed “rapists” and “murderers” by our current President back in 2015 when he first announced his intention to run on this entire “build the wall” cult-mentality platform.
And nothing will change. Tomorrow, there will still be 2300 children separated from their parents with no logistical way of being reunited. How will the security contractors in charge ensure, especially with “tender age” children — including infants — that they get returned to the right parents? What kind of internal record keeping is going on at these detainment facilities, if any at all? What will the practical impact be on the current operations in South Texas after this executive order reversal happens?
Over the past few days I’ve been preoccupied with wondering, how many breastfeeding babies were separated from their mothers. Are they now being bottle fed — fed with what, and by who? What if they have severe soy or milk allergies? Now as the reports come in of children having arrived in New York, Michigan, and elsewhere — still apart from parents — what next? We already know that the original executive order was not a deterrent. I think it’s fair to say that people in Guatemala and Honduras and El Salvador were not sitting around watching political pundits in America debate these issues on cable news TV, and honestly, they probably don’t even care what Donald Trump has to say in the first place.
To the members who are still left in Cult 45, I want to know: if you can just for a second, move beyond Whataboutism, do those visions bother you at all? The visions of “tender age” children being held captive, confused and afraid, pressing their tiny hands and faces against the cold metal chain link of the cages that inhabit them, does that bother you in the slightest? Could it be that those images were the very thing that persuaded your cult leader to somewhat, half-heartedly reverse his original decision?
For those of us who didn’t fall prey to becoming a member of Cult 45, the past 517 days have still been like a ghastly nightmare, like living with an intense, blaring car alarm right outside your window at night. It might momentarily pause and give you reprieve, only to start back up again the moment you breathed a sigh of relief. And then you might think, “oh well; not my car, not my problem.” But then you remember that regardless of whoever owns the car, the noise can’t be tuned out, and it’s the middle of the night, and a feeling of panic starts to well up inside you.
Of course, you reason that it will eventually be shut off; it will end, sooner rather than later. But with the Trump situation, and regarding Cult 45, we don’t know how — or if — it will ever end. I hope for the sake of everyone, we don’t have a repeat of Jim Jones, and the poor, nine hundred and nine souls in Jonestown who drank the Kool-Aid and perished Nov. 18, 1978.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
– George Santayana
Martie sir-ROY (she/her) writes social commentary on a variety of topics. On Medium, Martie is editor of Gender From the Trenches, and a top writer in Culture. She has been a featured contributor for HuffPost, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, NPR affiliates, and SiriusXM Insight, among others. Martie is also the founder of S.E.A.R.CH., a program of her local LGBT Center that serves trans & gender nonconforming youth ages 12 and under & their parents. Connect with her on Twitter or Facebook.
Originally published at gendercreativelife.com on June 21, 2018.