Is Trump Just Another Toxic Cult Leader?

No. 45 has betrayed his voters from the moment he was inaugurated. So why are they so fiercely devoted to him?

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Donald Trump’s press conference on February 16 was a display of raw, unfettered id—the dark, lizardly part of American consciousness glutted on the doctrine that White equals right, and right must be defended by all kinds of might (the more viciously deployed, the better). Instead of discussing the most pressing issues of the nation (like, say, bringing back the manufacturing jobs he promised would return the Rust Belt into some blue-collar utopia straight out of one of those upbeat Bruce Springsteen songs; or routing ISIS within a month), Trump gave a foaming-mouth sermon proclaiming a “historic” Electoral College victory that rivaled Reagan’s; defaming the “fake news” media for failing to show him proper reverence; and appointing April Ryan, White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief for American Urban Radio Networks, as a personal acolyte who would connect him to the Congressional Black Caucus. This was such a brazen display of entitlement and incompetence that even the pundits at CNN (a network that aired Trump rallies uninterrupted) reacted with slack-jawed horror.

Except for Jeffrey Lord. Lord, one of CNN’s pet Trumpists from back in the primaries, found the president to be “relaxed … funny … [and] on point.” He claimed that he and his co-panelists, Jake Tapper and Wolf Blitzer, must’ve been watching “two different press conferences.” Of course, people like Lord aren’t just watching separate press conferences or reading separate news sources—they’re living in separate realities. Trump fans haven’t just stuck their heads in the sand, they’ve burrowed so far down that they’ve emerged again into an alternative world governed by alternative facts, a flat earth in which there is no truth, only bitter platitudes about the working man and wrathful assurances that “old fashioned family values” will give their lives a sorely needed meaning. This hivemind as a hornet’s nest has the hallmarks of a cult—whether that cult manifests in the Scientologists who submit to “auditing” that will purge the alien spirits from their bodies; the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) who preach “blood atonement” and that there is a holy bounty in breeding multiple babies with multiple brides, even (or, especially) child brides; or even the Manson family sharpening their knives for the Helter Skelter their wannabe rock god of a leader predicts.

A cult, per Miriam Webster, is simultaneously a “great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work”; “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious … also: its body of adherents”; and “a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator.” Trump cultivates his persona around a steak-and-potatoes, White man’s masculinity, and his campaign was powered by the attendant manly neurosis—a dim, inchoate sense of “losing his country” to the foreign, the feminine, the queer, the dastardly “Other.” Trump and his handlers have concocted a toxic salve for this loss—a double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble of xenophobia, populism, and a myopic, misguided nostalgia for some yesteryear that never was. And though most of the electorate viewed Trump as a snake-oil salesman; an electoral map-swinging swath of the dearly devoted believed that he was giving them an elixir of American vitality—and nothing, not hot mic confessions of sexual assault; not a Cabinet staffed with merciless billionaire donors better suited to being cast as Cruella DeVil in a dinner-theater production of 101 Dalmatians or a Klan-sympathizing vampire, or as a losing constestant on Dancing With the Stars; and not even the very real possibility of collusion with our Russian foes (and turning GOP “Saint” Ronald Reagan into a spinning top inside his grave) can wake them the fuck up.

Even before the election, when the current hellscape of American politics was simply a glimmer in Steve Bannon’s bleary red eye, Esquire writer Jack Holmes openly proclaimed that “Trump voters are officially exhibiting cult-like behavior.” Holmes refers to the Trump base as “a kind of organized, insulated extremism—increasingly detached from empirical reality—that you often find in a certain kind of group”; and those who have studied—or fled—cults see the die-hard Trumpists as that certain kind of group. “All cults involve a con, usually an emotional or spiritual slight of hand perpetrated to establish and maintain control,” explains Ron Burks, M. Div., Ph.D., a counselor who works specifically with survivors of cults and controlling relationships. For Trump, that con is portraying himself as anything other than the spoiled son of a wealthy man who, through happenstance and bluster, tripped his way up the ladder (not that he had too far to go): “He was tapping into the fear and the all or nothing mentality that had been brewing for over two decades. He convinced his followers that he, a multi-billionaire, could identify with their fears, and because he knew how to get rich, he could do something about them.”

This conviction persists even though Trump has yet to propose a serious jobs bill, or any kind of economic stimulus package targeted toward the Rust Belt (in contrast, by this time in his first term, President Obama had already signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009). To be blunt: He’s done absolutely fuck-all for people whose “economic anxiety” supposedly propelled him to victory—and they flat-out don’t care. They are a grim and tenacious minority—though Trump will give his first address to Congress with historically low approval ratings, and at least 53 percent of Americans want a Congressional inquiry into his potentially illicit (if not outright treasonous) ties with Russia, the #MAGA crowd believes that he is “realigning the conservative movement”: A straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference gave him an 86 percent approval rating, and many of the same people who howled for Hillary Clinton to be burned at the stake for Benghazi (even though House Republicans cut funding for embassy security before the attack) don’t seem to find any harm in the Trump team’s collusion with a certain shirtless dictator.

In these voters, we see traces of the FLDS members who were promised that showing complete fealty to a prophet was the path toward Heaven, even if that prophet rapes their children; the followers of Jim Jones, who sought a socialist utopia and found only violence and death; or the Scientologists, like Leah Remini, who believed that the vision depicted in L. Ron Hubbard’s “Dianetics” series, and promulgated by current Church CEO David Miscavige and powerful acolytes like Tom Cruise, was the cure-all for everything from drug addiction to cancer, garden variety loneliness and global poverty, until they lost their minds under a steady gaslighting. In her A&E series, Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, Remini describes growing up in the Church, and many FLDS members are born into their brutal faith. But what persuades the person who enters the cult willingly? What makes the fun-loving California girl take up with the Manson clan? Or the former Obama voter in the Midwest believe that a man whose trademark line is “you’re fired” could ever understand what it’s like to live with a plant closure as the sword of Damocles dangling over your head?

Ron Burks’s practice is inspired by his time within the Shepherding Movement, a subset of Charismatic Christianity, and he recognizes how Trump seduced and deceived his followers by creating a kind of secular the saved vs. the damned binary: “Like any good cult leader, Trump galvanized his followers who shared the narrative that this country was going to hell in a hand basket and that his concerns about America are their concerns.” He did this, by and large, by creating a vicious thrill in sticking it to the outsiders and elites, spinning strawmen not only out of the newswomen and the liberals, but out of empirical facts—turning them into what Scientologists would call “suppressive persons,” or naysayers who aren’t just doubters and haters, but enemies of the truth who would cut off the world’s route to salvation. Scientology and the Aftermath is a study of “suppressed persons,” following ex-Scientologists who describe the deep and abiding terror of losing their families, communities, and their sense of purpose by questioning, let alone leaving, the cult—until, of course, a desire for freedom (one stoked, usually, by exposure to the verboten mainstream news, and by an innate sense that being beaten and cheated by their leaders was far from righteous) overrode their programming.

Team Trump has cultivated—through its repeated attacks on media outlets that don’t merely provide propaganda; smearing of critics as “crooked” and “failing” and “sad” and “wrong”; and continued campaigning, remaining ever in fight mode—a kind of brutish insularity. This insularity becomes more than an echo chamber; it’s like a crematorium, waiting to deploy its fire against the latest sacrificial body. Make no mistake, Trump’s policies (or, rather the McConnell-Ryan-Bannon policies he will blindly sign into action) will damage his supporters—stripping them of their health care and social security, inflating their taxes and cratering their wages, and leaving the nation they claim to love so much so terribly vulnerable to terrorist attacks—but Burks says that these issues, which are very real and tangible to the rest of us, are lost in the overwhelming emotions that Trump stirs in up in his followers: “All a strong leader need do is make them feel they are already part of something larger than themselves.” Still, those red hats may be the new version of the Heaven’s Gate Nike sneaker.

To keep this “something larger” growing, President Trump has conducted himself like a more gonzo version of Candidate Trump—bringing the judiciary; the former acting Attorney General; millions of angry (and decidedly unpaid) protestors who took to the streets or their local town halls; and, oh, yeah, Meryl Streep, into the ranks of the suppressed. Elitist enemies all of them. In an essay explaining Trump’s popularity with fundamentalist and evangelical voters, David Dillard-Wright, associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, Aiken writes that “the Trump phenomenon fits into the picture of a new religious movement (or cult—the lines are not tightly drawn) in that it gives purpose and meaning to its adherents … Evangelicalism, in particular, thrives upon the sense that its followers are victims of a godless society bent upon persecuting believers … Trump has been able to dispense with some of the pieties of evangelicalism while capitalizing on its victim stance.” The fact that, in this instance, they actually won, doesn’t blunt their constant craving for victimization—if anything, it has warranted an even deeper digging-in of their heels.

Though Trump’s administration has been a miasma of leaks, gaffs, and daily displays of withering incompetence, the one thing he has been formidably successful at is revving that engine of Us Vs. Them. And that concerns experts like Burks: “The lesson of history is that movements that start out with the emotional intensity Trump’s followers have shown will eventually have to develop even stronger means of manipulation and control to keep the faithful, well, faithful.” This is undoubtedly why “fake news” has become the new “crying wolf”: The deluge of lying is meant to drown our common sense, to leave us emotionally water-logged and boggy, ready to believe anything, if that belief will let us breathe in the deep, dark end of the ocean. No wonder, then, that most cults, from Scientology to the FLDS, to other fire-and-brimstone segments of evangelicalism, mandate abstinence from conventional media and news. All information must come from the leader. For the Trumpist, the cult teaching is offered on Fox News, which was the dominant news source for Trump voters during the campaign and now functions, essentially, as Trump-worshipping state propaganda.

It’s a tactic that is all-too-familiar to the gatekeepers of Scientology: In one episode of Scientology and the Aftermath, Amy Scobee, who ran the infamous Celebrity Center, tells Remini that she’d been lying so often, and for so long, that her breaking point came when she realized that she’d been “rationalizing insanities” (which could so work as the title of Kellyanne Conway’s memoir after her inevitable excommunication from the Trump administration). As Burk explains it, “successful cult leaders are eventually able to draw everything followers think into the [dominant] narrative. Everything that makes them feel good about themselves or afraid of the other or the future is tied up in the narrative.” The power of that narrative empowers the cult leader to savage some many people, from the teenage girls forced into polygamous marriages with grandpa-aged men; the Scientologists who lose their life savings to an unceasing series of audits and courses designed by a hack sci-fi writer; or the innocents burned alive by ISIS. Just as the Trumpist voted to do willful, irrevocable harm to immigrants, like the parents separated from their children; military interpreters and guides stranded on route to the better life they were promised for their service; or a 4-month-old girl denied a life-saving open heart surgery. Trumpists, who might otherwise call themselves patriots or people of faith, are utterly immune to the suffering of the outsider, the infidel.

The truly terrifying thing is that the average Trump voter, the person who would inflict such horror on the most vulnerable among us—like refugees and transgender children, or the sick and the poor—is not the patriarch of FLDS, holed up in a tiny town with his 17 child brides; she’s not a Mansonite sharpening her butcher knife or a resident of Jonestown, putting the cyanide on her tongue; hell, she’s not even Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch. He is our teacher, our doctor; she’s our aunt, or a former boss we were particularly fond of. This is why so much coverage of the Trumpist focuses on their ordinariness and it’s what makes them a particularly insidious force to combat. Burks says that, when engaging Trumpists, “the old saying comes to mind, ‘Never wrestle with a pig in a mud puddle. It will only make you tired and dirty and the pig loves it.’” When talking to a Trump voter, he suggests “sticking to asking honest simple questions will put the focus on the issue, not the cult-leader-in-chief. It makes him the center of attention and keeps his followers loyal … cults thrive by avoiding real issues.” This isn’t the eyeroll-inducing naïveté of “wanting to find common ground with a Trump voter,” it’s a matter of emptying her gun of its clips—forcing her to defend, on its merits, banning schoolchildren from using the bathroom or getting so chummy with a dictator who murders his opposition. And it’s a fitting punishment for Trump, too—depriving a blowhard of all the oxygen in the room.

And in the end, these real issues—the very prescient need to preserve and protect not only the most vulnerable among us, but freedom of our press, and the integrity of our nation—are going to power the resistance for a long time to come. Ironically, Remini’s show, which, if Hillary Clinton had won, would’ve felt more like a voyeuristic peek inside the fishbowl of cult life, also offers a template for resistance: Remini doesn’t present herself some iron-hearted superheroine, immune from exhaustion and frustration in her quest to take down the church—at one point, she talks candidly about the fatigue of being “in constant fight mode.” Then her eyes narrow, and she says, with clarity, with severity: “But I don’t want people to get away with shit.” She insists that if she can save one person from succumbing to Scientology’s pull, or make one fellow survivor feel less alone, her efforts are worthy. And it’s a worthy lesson for each of us who has marched and called and donated, who has signed up for Swing Left or tried talking our proudly apolitical friends into actually giving a damn. We must allow always fight on, with grit and with heart.   

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