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On October 23, 1863, when the expected apocalypse failed to occur, an estimated 100,000 followers of breakaway Christian prophet William Miller descended from their rooftops in what the mainstream media assumed would be disgrace and embarrassment. “When the world stubbornly refused to come to an end last Spring,” a condescending Pennsylvania Statesmen mused, “notwithstanding the ingenious and elegant calculations of Mr. Miller, we indulged in the hope that the whole affair would be laid on the table, or indefinitely postponed.”
But despite having sold all their worldly possessions in the belief that they would be meeting Jesus Christ and swept up to heaven, the followers were undeterred. They simply set new dates for doomsday and committed even more steadfastly to their cause. Newspapers such as the Herald Expositor considered it their responsibility to dispel “this and similar delusions,” but to no avail. As if invigorated by disappointment, Miller’s followers later went on to establish the Seventh-Day Adventist movement, now 25 million members strong.
In their increasingly patronizing coverage of Trump supporters, the editors of the New York Times and CNN are practicing the same stubborn incredulity, trooping out to Trump country every time the president is caught in another big lie to ask how the hell folks can still love this guy. But if the Trumpists’ commitment seems surprising in the wake of ever-mounting scandals, that’s because mainstream journalists still haven’t grasped the Trump phenomenon for what it is: a cult.
First, a disclaimer: This piece is not about politics but the deeper motivations of the Trump constituency, how they are reinforced, and how they reflect the higher, almost spiritual ideals informing nearly a third of Americans right now. Further, Trump is hardly the only politician to have exploited the dynamics of cults; the Clintons and Obamas also leveraged the cultish devotion of their followers.
But Trump’s particularly loyal core constituency — his ability to joke that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose the support of his base, or to convince surrogates to endorse an ever-changing assortment of conflicting facts — suggests a more intense, cultish loyalty than we have seen before. Even Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) has begun to use the word “cultish” in describing the GOP leadership’s fear of contradicting the president. And the boldness with which Trump scolds his detractors — especially those in his own administration — closely tracks with the behavior of those who use their charismatic power to control others.
The parallels to the cult of Trump are obvious.
I know this because I studied cults of many kinds throughout the 1990s. I first became interested in how they work after spending a year helping a family member get out of a cult, and then almost losing a girlfriend to another. I became something of an insider to both, attending many of the gurus’ meetings. I observed their behavior as well as that of their followers, who jockeyed for position through demonstrations of extreme loyalty. These guys were good at what they did, and though I knew they were charlatans, I occasionally found myself drawn into the competition for their respect. As an outsider and budding cultural anthropologist, however, I managed to codify their techniques as well as the social dynamics fueling their followings.
I went on to write a study of cults for a major advertising agency that was looking at the relationship between spiritual cults and cult brands such as Apple and Harley-Davidson. After conducting a number of focus groups with both cult members and brand superfans, I developed a standard sequence of the stages of indoctrination common to most cults — from destructive spiritual cults to more innocuous corporate affinity groups. In essence, they’re all pyramids in which members seek to get closer to the top by accepting more outlandish claims, maintaining faith in the leader, and defending him (they are almost all male) against detractors. I later published my findings as a chapter in my book Coercion: Why We Listen to What They Say.
The first technique employed to instill loyalty is to get the devotee to do or share something, anything, that’s potentially compromising or embarrassing. One cult leader asked new followers to come on stage, in front of the group, and crawl around at his feet like babies. Scientology reportedly has used members’ sexual histories as leverage against members who wish to leave. Moreover, once a person has said or done the embarrassing thing, they try to justify it after the fact: He had me act like a baby as a spiritual exercise in dropping ego. They’re using my sexual history to help me remember who I really was so I can get clear. The person is then naturally drawn to others who have done the same things, as in a fraternity hazing.
Slowly but surely, the tests of the faithful become more extreme. Cult members may be asked to quit their job, divorce their spouse, or disown a child. I observed one cult leader ask a devotee, “Would you do anything for me? Would you die for me? Would you kill for me?”
Cult leaders often demand testimonials or statements of loyalty from members, delivered in front of their peers or, better, family members who are not yet initiated. “Tell everyone here why you love me more than anyone,” one guru demanded of a bride and groom at a wedding I attended, with their nonmember parents and in-laws looking on. Later, the bride explained to me, “I realized that I wouldn’t have done that if he weren’t really God.” Divinity, retrofitted after the fact.
Trump’s followers are routinely asked to support increasingly difficult claims — or what members of mainstream consensus reality would call lies.
The other way to move up the pyramid is to demonstrate faith. Those at the top never betray the slightest bit of doubt about whatever the leader is saying or doing. Whether they mean it is a secondary matter. What’s important is vocally supporting the leader’s claims. And the more outlandish those claims, the more of your own agency and free will you give away by asserting them. Yes, the leader made himself disappear and then reappear in another room. Yes, he is correct when he says he is the one point of light from which all truth emerges. No, that was not rape but a transmission of the divine spark. (All are real claims from members of cults I studied.) The more you say it, the more true it becomes — and the less ability you retain to think for yourself.
Doubt can be expressed, but only to those higher in the pyramid. To express doubt to someone below you in the hierarchy is to be reduced to their level, or below. And if they report you, they move up. It’s a crime to instill doubt and push someone off the path. All this suppression of doubt, flamboyant demonstration of devotion, and prosecution of disloyalty is seen as necessary because the group must steel itself against its greater enemies: the conspiracy of established institutions looking to destroy it.
The parallels to the cult of Trump are obvious. For instance, anyone who has sat through the parade of testimonials at a cult dinner shouldn’t have been surprised to see Trump’s newly formed cabinet to compete to demonstrate their gratitude for being in his administration. This was the equivalent of his cult’s inner circle. With the exception of Secretary Jim Mattis, who tempered his remarks slightly, they all seemed to understand the importance of the task: to proclaim their thanks and loyalty in public, and irreversibly. One is either in or he’s out. Their professions of faith were offered up out of a desire to climb the pyramid, moving closer to the leader. Yes, it looked silly and probably felt a bit embarrassing, but that’s why the technique is so powerful. Once you’ve made such a proclamation, it’s hard to backtrack.
Trump’s followers are routinely asked to support increasingly difficult claims — or what members of mainstream consensus reality would call lies. Initially, these claims are almost innocuous: Sean Spicer gets tasked with asserting the unprecedented enormity of the inauguration crowd and with debunking the news media’s photos and tallies revealing the truth. Once he’s done so, Spicer slowly comes to justify this reality to himself: Trump’s inauguration was a big deal around the world, and the particular metrics and images the mainstream media used to measure it were cherry-picked to betray the greater reality.
But then the lies — or the alternative truths — must increase in preposterousness, until the devotee, whether that’s Nunes, Huckabee-Sanders, Kelly, or Conway, is ready to commit to anything. This document was just “leaked” by the House committee. The president did not dictate the letter about the Russia meeting. Hillary colluded with Russia to feed dirt on Trump to the FBI.
Lying for the leader — or, rather, doing what feels like lying until you later accept the error of your ways and transcend your deeply distorted view of the world — is the path to earning his respect and, ultimately, expressing his greater truth.
This reversal, like choosing the red pill in The Matrix, is a common experience among onetime doubters who eventually see the light. Black is white and white is black. As recent Trump initiate Candace Owens explained it, “I became a conservative overnight. I realized that liberals were actually the racists.” Other reversals came one after another: Climate change is a hoax, Hillary is part of a criminal global conspiracy, etc.
In any cult, the higher up you are in the pyramid, the more difficult the lies you have to maintain. But gradually, as more people move up, lies that once seemed radical become broadly accepted. Soon, they start to feel true — conventional wisdom within the cult — and acolytes’ former doubts are understood as the lies from which they have been liberated.
This gives the leader ever more latitude to assert his truth. For a cult leader I studied in New York, this meant a shift from I am not having sex with the women to I am not having sex with underage women to I didn’t get the 14-year-old pregnant to it’s ultimately not wrong for me to get a 14-year-old pregnant. For Trump, we can trace a similar trajectory from there was no collusion to it’s a witch hunt to collusion is not a crime anyway. Politicians who have already committed to the lesser lies find they must accept the more difficult ones. In for a penny, in for a pound. Failure of the administration is not an option for Republicans who have made the devil’s bargain. If the leader goes down, they go down with him. By the time they realize what’s happened, there’s no way out.
Within the cult, lying is seen as a virtue, more like Zen koans or teaching stories. “The leader was only lying to me on one level in order to teach me a deeper truth.” “The leader denied having sex with the child, because it wasn’t really ‘sex’ the way most people define it.” The virtue of lying, as insiders come to see it, is to cast doubt on the bigger lies enslaving us all.
Trump’s political career was born out of “birtherism” — the claim that Obama was not born in the United States and was therefore ineligible to be president. Trump said Obama had spent millions on the cover-up, and Trump would someday show us all the truth. And although he later, begrudgingly and half-heartedly, accepted the legitimacy of Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate, the birther campaign was still a success because it forced people to practice doubting. Simply entertaining the possibility of a conspiracy of that magnitude trains people to question their reality. Such lies are a gateway drugs to the red pill.
What makes a cult resonate and gain traction, however, often has less to do with its own claims than its ability to leverage its members’ unarticulated anxieties.
That’s why the administration could never condemn the shooting that resulted from the pizzagate conspiracy theory (in which Democrats were said to be running an illegal slave trade through a restaurant basement). Nor can the administration wholeheartedly debunk the claim that school shootings are being staged by anti-NRA actors, or anything else from Gamergate, QAnon, Sean Hannity, or Laura Ingraham. True or not, their claims serve the cult’s greater quest to sow doubt in pursuit of a higher truth.
Any behavior is acceptable, even colluding with Russia, as long as it is directed against the cult’s real enemy: the Deep State and Mainstream Media perpetrating the illusion. It is their facade — their fake news — that all of this doubt is intended to shatter, by any means necessary. In this view, the neoliberal internationalist myth is the biggest illusion going, and it’s responsible for the repression of humanity by a hypocritical leftist elite. (Even many progressives make this argument.) The forces of political correctness attack anyone who contradicts their revisionist fiction. Heck, they’re taking down statues and monuments and calling for censorship of right-wing voices. They may as well be burning books.
Every Trump tweet is another seed of doubt in the nefarious illusion.
What makes a cult resonate and gain traction, however, often has less to do with its own claims than its ability to leverage its members’ unarticulated anxieties. There’s a chanting cult in Los Angeles that does particularly well with unemployed actors who believe the focusing rituals can get them the roles they want. One San Francisco cult I studied attracts wealthy cancer patients who long for the “mind over matter” solutions it offers.
Likewise, a cult claiming all news is fake news is understandably attractive to members of a highly mediated world where everything is recorded and nothing is forgotten. Sometimes it feels as we’re each living in our own, personalized Mueller investigation, one text message or Google search away from exposure as a pervert, racist, misogynist, or otherwise deplorable person.
The virtue of lying, as insiders come to see it, is to cast doubt on the bigger lies enslaving us all.
In such an environment, many have found salvation and escape in the form of a messiah who knows how to break down the bad story that the fake news is telling us about ourselves: This is just the lie the Deep State uses to shame us into compliance. It is not real.
Once we operate long enough in this space, we naturally come to believe there’s no way to know the truth, anymore, anyway. Traditional cults accomplish this by denying members their sleep and preaching at all times of day and night. Trump’s 24-hour news cycle puts all of America into a similarly disorienting and timeless bubble in which anything seems possible. Maybe global warming is a hoax. Or maybe they’re making it happen! We move up the ladder toward awakening by learning how to break through the facade. Eventually, those who have seen the truth will be saved, and those who have been perpetuating the lie — like crooked Hillary and George Soros — will meet their demise.
For that to happen, though, the cult needs its finale: the apocalyptic Moment of Truth, when all is revealed. This is when the Millerites stood on their rooftops waiting for the chariot to heaven, when the Jonestown cult drank the Kool-Aid, and when the Branch Davidians ended up in a standoff with the FBI.
What’s the equivalent apocalypse moment for the Cult of Trump? We may be getting there. QAnon’s theories are no longer a fringe phenomenon, and the press is being called the enemy of the people. But judgment day will likely have less to do with some action taken by Trump or his followers than their reaction to something done to them. It will comes when enough Americans have enough faith in him to truly believe that “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” So, when Trump gets convicted of a crime, impeached, or voted out of office, core members will have plenty of reason to stick with him.
Or maybe the moment of truth will arrive when Trump simply admits the whole thing: that he’s actually been working with Russia, but not for his own gain, but because we are in a by-any-means-necessary revolution against treasonous internationalists in the Deep State. It’s the equivalent of a Buddhist awakening: We have to surrender everything. If that means the destruction of what we thought of as the American government, then so be it.
We’re not there, yet, of course. Likely because Trump himself doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing. All this comes naturally to him (which makes him no less effective). Even his erratic behavior and seemingly impulsive decisions can be justified as his natural genius. The angry guru, or the drunken master.
But of course one man’s messiah is another’s satan, just as one man’s guru is another’s charlatan. Even progressive Americans have watched enough Homeland and Oliver Stone movies to fear that almost anything we fear about our government may well be true. Even some of what Trump is saying.
Ultimately, we can all agree on one thing: At least one half of us are in a cult, being told a pack of lies and marching toward oblivion.
Author of the upcoming book Team Human, and host of the http://TeamHuman.fm podcast.
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