The image leading this piece is the Clearwater, Florida home of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard’s intentionally created religion and cult. I stood across the road from it a few years ago when working with a Tampa-area client on a corporate transformation they were undergoing. I rode the motorcycle I’d shipped to Florida for the duration up to Clearwater to look at Clearwater and the edifice, specifically because of its connection to that particular cult.
Trump’s fan base are excessively devoted to a leader who unethically manipulates them for his personal gain at great harm to themselves.
I’ve long been interested in cults, comparative religions, dogmatic secular ideologies such as Libertarianism and its even less rational partner Objectivism, and where the line is drawn between them. As such, I’d read books on Hubbard and Scientology. I’d found and read court documents on the cult where they were forced to expose their mysteries. I’d drawn comparisons to the mystery religions of ancient Greece, where initiates were exposed to more and more exclusive secrets and rites. In the case of Scientology, of course, the big reveal was that an ancient pan-Galactic dictator had put his enemies in volcanoes on Earth and nuked them, and the nasty spirits of those ancient space aliens liked to stick to humans and had to be cleaned off with a cheap galvanometer.
I went deep and broad on the Aum Shinrikyo cult that did the botched sarin-gas attack on the Tokyo subway system. They botched it mostly because they recruited really intelligent nerds, then systematically made them stupid in part by putting wire mesh caps on their skulls and systematically shocking their scalps.
Similarly, I’ve read the founding scriptures or substantial portions of them of several religions, including the Bible, the Book of Mormon and much of the Quran. All of these faiths have had or still have schismatic subsets that are cults. And I’ve read numerous books on con artists as well. It’s not like I’m a cult deprogrammer or researcher or law enforcement official tasked with dealing with them, but I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the different ways in which sometimes intelligent people make absurdly bad life choices as they are exploited by con artists in the name of a religious or secular ideology.
So the behavior of Donald Trump and his supporters is familiar to me. It resonates with the behavior I’ve seen in documentaries and been reading about for over 20 years. It aligns with some preconceptions.
But it led me to ask myself, “Do Trump’s populism and his fervid fanbase step over the line from raucous political rallies into actual cultism”? To that end, I went to the authority. The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) is a group founded in 1979 to perform more rigorous assessments of what is and isn’t a cult. Several PhDs and lawyers have long term associations with it including Michael Langone, Herbert L. Rosedale and Russell Bradshaw. They have a refined and tested definition of the type of thing people mean when they say “cult”.
Cult (totalist type): A group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it…), designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community. (West & Langone, 1986, pp. 119–120)
The bolding of the key points is mine. Let’s explore each of those four key points in regard to Trump supporters.
Pictures of Trump fans in their devotions are sufficient to assess this one.
That is a big, fast and easy check mark. The rabid excesses of Trump supporters are well documented, from their MAGA hats to their rally chanting to swamping their fellow supporters’ boats on Lake Travis and swamping innocent bystanders’ boats in Portland. But it could be no worse than Packers’ fans and their wedge-of-cheese hats and face paint and some excessive enthusiasm. A check mark, but not proof by itself.
Unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion?
This is only slightly more nuanced. Let’s look at several examples of Trump’s patterns of communication and choices of actions.
“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told Woodward on March 19, even as he had declared a national emergency over the virus days earlier. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.” If instead of playing down what he knew, Trump had acted decisively in early February with a strict shutdown and a consistent message to wear masks, social distance and wash hands, experts believe that thousands of American lives could have been saved.
US President Donald Trump has ordered federal agencies to stop racial sensitivity training, labelling it “divisive, anti-American propaganda”.
Reporters shortly began asking questions about Trump’s initial response to violent protests in Charlottesville, Va. It was at this press conference that Trump said that “you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”
A remarkable and nightmarish scene playing out in Portland should terrify anyone who cares about the US constitution: unmarked vans full of camouflaged and unidentified federal agents are pulling up next to protesters on street corners, then snatching and arresting them with no explanation. If this were happening in Venezuela or Iran, the US government would be threatening international sanctions. Since it’s happening in the US, Trump’s acting Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary is defending the decision and even promising more.
President Donald Trump said Thursday he wants to dispatch law enforcement officials to polling places in November to guard against voter fraud, even though it’s unclear whether he can legally do so.
That’s pretty clear. And there are the 22,000 lies and counting, teargassing protestors to get a photo op with a Bible and chants of “Lock her up” still at his rallies. Trump will trample over any ethical line to feed his flocks’ delusions and keep them riled up. But still, the same could be said of other political leaders in the past who weren’t considered cult leaders. Two check marks, but more are required to validate the diagnosis.
Designed to advance the goals of the group’s leader?
Once again, lets gather references and evidence to assess whether Trump is enriching and advancing himself. It may appear self-evident, but it’s good to get it written down in one place as well.
U.S. President Donald Trump paid just $750 in federal income taxes the year he ran for president and in his first year in the White House, according to a report Sunday in The New York Times.
“After that,” Trump said, “we’ll negotiate,” asserting that he’s “probably entitled to another four after that” based on “the way we were treated.”
This brings us back to the original sin of this administration — the president’s decision not to divest from the ownership of his businesses. None of these issues, whether it’s the president of Ukraine trying to curry favor with the president in order to buy more missiles, the government of Saudi Arabia funding hundreds of thousands of dollars in spending at his D.C. hotel prior to murdering a U.S. journalist, or the Romanian president patronizing the Trump Hotel in Washington the day before meeting with the president, would have been a problem if he had fully divested from his businesses.
Trump profiting and focused on his own interests and advancement? By itself, just evidence of greed and a lack of any sense of restraint, shared by other rich men and women around the world. But it is the third check mark on the list of key cult indicators. The trend is strong.
But there’s one more:
To the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community?
Yes, the final check mark is the harm that cults do to its members, their families and others as the leaders’ needs are tended to.
210,000 deaths, far in excess of the norms per citizen in the rest of the world. The most likely death toll by January 1st, 2021 is almost the same as the total number of Americans killed in World War II. The odds of hitting a 1.3 million Americans killed by COVID-19, as many as were killed in every war since 1900, should Trump be re-elected, are high. Experts lay a great percentage of those deaths at Trump’s feet with his horrific mismanagement of the pandemic.
One farmer who had lost everything including his farm is reported to have said that it will all be worth it in the end, and vowed to vote for Trump again.
Every US citizen’s effective debt has surged massively, choking the ability of future governments to provide services for all citizens.
And then there are the Trump rallies in the midst of COVID-19. Often indoors. No distancing. Virtually no masks. Superspreader events, one and all. Herman Cain is just the most prominent of people who died of COVID-19 after attending a Trump rally. These COVID-19 minimizers, members of the Cult of Trump, go back to their families and communities and spread the disease further, killing people or leaving them with lingering and often severe health issues. The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which in 2020 was effectively a Trump rally with attendees from over 60% of the counties in the USA has been linked to a quarter of a million cases of COVID-19.
Trump is actively hostile to his followers, and the rest of Americans. And the rest of the world for that matter.
That’s four for four. Trump’s fan base are excessively devoted to a leader who unethically manipulates them for his personal gain at great harm to themselves.
Walks like a cult, talks like a cult, it’s a cult.
With the rise of QAnon from the ashes of the Tea Party and the darkest recesses of 4Chan, Trump has been made into a Messiah for his followers, one who will strike down the pedophile Satanist cannibals in Washington, Silicon Valley and Hollywood. There are now Republican candidates for federal office who support QAnon. The circle of irrationality has become self-healing.
What will the United States do with this massive movement of cultists? The horrors of Waco and Jonestown are nothing before a cult-leader President who refuses to leave office. How will the USA heal after his much-to-be-hoped for defeat in November? It’s difficult to say, but one thing is clear.
The only way out of this particular mess is through voting the Republicans out up and down the ticket, repudiating them and the worst aspects of their political choices. Cast them into the wilderness so that they can reinvent themselves as a 21st Century, center-right party, using their tribal suasion to bring at least most long-term Republicans into this century and actual reality. If they win in November, the Cult of Trump will simply grow and become more destructive.
The world needs a sane, well-governed United States, not a devolving cult-state with nuclear weapons. Register. Vote Blue up and down the ticket. Help others to register and vote.
The deprogramming of the Cult of Trump starts at the ballot box on November 3rd.