My Neighbor Joined a Sex Cult; it Explains A Lot About Trump’s America
About ten years ago, my new neighbor in Austin, Texas invited me to a meeting with a group called “Executive Success Programs, aka NXIVM.” This program was designed to “help individuals develop the emotional and intellectual skills necessary to reach their maximum potential in all areas of life.” I was intrigued by the invitation as she also had small children, a ready laugh and was beautiful, interesting, and outgoing. It didn’t take long for our entire neighborhood block to google “Executive Success” however, and warnings were emailed all around that this appeared to be a cult led by a figure known as Vanguard.
Who is Vanguard?
The leader, Keith Raniere (aka Vanguard), had a long list of lawsuits and accusations against him. I was curious, however, and wondered what would lead a person to join a cult, and to lose their ability to reason, to separate fact from fiction, and to follow someone with such a known dubious character. I was especially curious what a cult could possibly offer her since my neighbor had so many great qualities. And so I went. Luckily, my ballsy Canadian neighbor also went with me because Canadians are naturally skeptical of con artists, and sometimes relish a little neighborly confrontation (as long as still polite, of course). Looking back explains so much about Trump’s America and how we got here.
When I arrived at the neighbor’s house, there were dozens of people packed in her lavishly appointed living room. Sitting at the front of the room with two well dressed men, she explained that Raniere’s program could improve your life and help you overcome difficult barriers, and that his ideas were all about self improvement. Other people might not understand you, but Raniere — he got it — and he alone could fix all of your problems. It didn’t take long for cracks in this egg to appear, as the Canadian pretty much steamrolled their entire presentation by asking who was making money (no answer), whether the group was a non-profit (nope), and what were the presenter’s qualifications to teach all of us the meaning of life (none). We had a chuckle and left, as I had toddlers at the time and didn’t have the luxury of attending the $3,000 self help week they were peddling, even if I wanted to.
After arriving home, I decided I needed to confront my neighbor about the fact that she might not have realized she had joined a cult. As a former felony prosecutor, I thought maybe she would listen to my advice and consider dumping Raniere. The problem with my plan was — once you are in a cult — you’re in. There aren’t any facts to persuade (that is just fake news), or truth to share with a cult member (all arguments will be pegged as lies). The more I read about Raniere, the more panicked I became for my neighbor and her children. Apparently he was a lifelong cheater and scammer, and any basic Google search revealed a multitude of past transgressions. After later asking her a few questions about Raniere, I realized any attempt to change her mind was futile. It was apparent that unless he was arrested (and maybe not even then), she would be a loyal follower. With so many facts available about how horrible a person is, only radical disinformation and disengagement from reality allows a person to follow a monstrously defective leader. Sound familiar?
The appeal of Trump
I have noticed the same thing with Trump’s most radical followers. I have tried listening to them as I truly believe America has cracked under the pressure of this man’s leadership. Just as I had been curious about my neighbor’s devotion to Raniere, I became curious as to how Trump’s followers justify his behavior. Even before he was elected, he bragged about grabbing women by their genitals, he hawked dubious products (steaks, knives, and knockoff degrees from the fake Trump university), and was involved in hundreds of lawsuits (just like Raniere). Since he has been elected, the list of predictable failures is too long: from championing locking children in cages, to cheating on his wife with a porn star, to cheating on/hiding his taxes, to saying white supremacists are “fine people,” to claiming a pandemic will disappear like magic. But when I ask his followers, “how did we get here, and why do you follow this man?,” I hear familiar responses. Just as Raniere’s followers argued, their main refrain is that the fake media is out to get him. (In fact, my neighbor was part of a news organization called “the Knife” that showcased how the “fake news” media lied about Raniere). If everything is fake, then any lie is truth.
Along with the “fake news” obsession, there are the conspiracy theories; one of Trump’s followers explained to me that Hillary Clinton has a sex trafficking operation out of a pizza parlor, and that all Democrat leaders have committed serious crimes and should be in jail. Before he started chanting “lock her up,” I point out that 8 of Trump’s recent associates are either actually indicted or actually locked up (Steve Bannon, Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, Michael Flynn, Rick Gates, George Nader, George Papadopoulos — am I forgetting anyone?), while he pointed out that those arrests prove Trump’s innocence. Needless to say, there is a reason Trump embraces conspiracy theorists like QAnon; the wilder the belief system, the bigger the embrace of Trump and the less the truth plays a role. Looking through the lense of my neighbor’s experience, however, the allegiance of his followers makes more sense.
The emotional glue that binds people to a flawed leader
While Raniere based his cult propaganda on “ethics,” Trump bases his on “law and order.” Strangely, neither man is remotely ethical or on the side of law and order. Raniere trafficked his victims and doused them with misogyny and manipulation, while Trump relishes in pardoning or excusing his cabal of rule breakers like Roger Stone, while cheating on his non-profit (dissolved in 2018 for malfeasance), flaunting his dalliance with a porn star (the payoff that landed Michael Cohen in jail for campaign finance violations), and imploring a world leader to “do me a favor” and cook up an investigation into his opponent’s son. The breathtaking ethical and legal breaches of both men can’t be jammed into one article.
One refrain seems common from all of Trump’s most ardent followers regardless of these allegations: a feeling of belonging to a special community of insiders and a misguided sense of purpose. Even if siding with Trump means alienating family, losing relationships, or dying of COVID from attending an unmasked Trump rally, their allegiance is supernatural and rock solid. If Raniere provides any guidance — science, the truth, or even the destruction or derision of our democracy won’t change the course of Trump’s most dedicated believers. If even 30% of Americans are heading in this direction, this isn’t going to end well.
As for my neighbor, she moved to Albany to join Raniere, splitting her time between Austin and New York. Every once in a while I would see visiting cult members gathered on our block, bowing with colored sashes that proved they were part of a purposeful group of special insiders. The sentiment seems familiar when I see the throngs of adoring red MAGA hats at a Trump rally. Even though she had followed a strict moral code and didn’t want her kids at my house (because we watched too much TV), she became more involved with NXIVM. Further sucked into his dogma, she allegedly joined DOS, Raniere’s cult that physically branded followers in a sex trafficking ring. (While too much t.v. at my house was morally wrong, allowing oneself to be branded, blackmailed and abused was somehow justified).
After years of following Raniere, it all came predictably crashing down; her family ripped apart by a man who showed all the signs of being a sociopathic cult leader. Raniere and his top lieutenants are all either indicted or in jail (facing charges of sex trafficking, conspiracy and forced labor), including actress Allison Mack, and heiress Claire Bronfman. By the time Mack had her doubts about Raniere, she had surrendered her life to him and it was too late. At a plea hearing in federal court, Mack was asked why she joined NXIVM. Her answer was “to find purpose. . . I was lost and I wanted to find a place, a community in which I would feel comfortable.” As the New York Times pointed out, her friend Christine Lakin says “the only thing I can think of is she so badly wanted to connect to something that she didn’t see the rational side of things.”
Unfortunately when Trump’s followers wake up, it might be too late for America.