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.