Are Trump-Supporters Part of a Cult?

Earlier this year, an editorial in the N.Y. Times was entitled simply "The Trump Cult."  The word "cult" has a negative connotation and suggests irrationality and obsession superseding other legitimate possible views based on principles and reasonableness.  Yes, cults are unreasonable.  However, the editorial did not discuss benchmarks to distinguish between a legitimate non-cultic vote for President Donald Trump and the cultic allegiance the authors found so offensive.  In fact, the word "cult" appeared only once, in the title.

Jonah Goldberg, whose book Liberal Fascism uniquely testifies to the convergence of the American left with the ideas and ideals of European fascism, surprisingly also referred to the ascendancy of President Trump as being born of a cult.  He stated, "Never before in modern American history have we had a president so transparently demanding not just of loyalty but praise from his subordinates and political allies."  But in the same article he backed away from this observation by expressing the view that "we have a cult of the presidency in this country."  The tendency of the president of the USA to be revered in a cultish way could be seen during Barack Obama's presidency as well.  Goldberg noted, "When Obama acted like a king – by his own definition – liberals cheered, because their loyalty was to the man, not the office."

These comments about Donald Trump as a cult leader revolved around the ideas of excessive praise and loyalty being demanded and given.  However, the word "excessive" suggests a subjective judgment about the cult-like nature of loyalty to a public figure.  If one refers to the president as a cult leader (whose cult membership includes half or more than half the voting population), then benchmarks are needed to assess whether our president has slipped from being leader of the Executive Branch of government to being cult leader of the Executive Branch. The passion or adoration of a president by a large segment of the population does not make him a cult leader.  While that passion may generate a passionate hatred in response, that hatred is not self-justifying.  A strong negative passion may challenge a positive passion, but it does not refute the positive passion (passion cannot be refuted), nor does it prove that cultish emotions make a cult.

One of the first things we observe about a cult leader is that he cannot be voted out.  Adolf Hitler, Mao (now Chinese President Xi Jinping), and Josef Stalin all had this in common.  Further, the cult leaders reject constitutional realities.  The leader rules, not the laws that have been developed over time and were created by the people, for the people, and of the people.  Third, the cult leader is the one and only source of authority and power.  He has no checks and balances.  Additionally, the cult leader dictates to all lesser lights within the organization, be that organization a religious one or a political one.  Mao had the exclusive right to determine the activities of all provinces, localities, and urban centers.  Hitler called all the shots in every nook and cranny of Germany as well as on issues of war and peace.

If we read any literature about cults, like Dave Breese's Know The Marks of Cults, or consider the Jim Jones cult with its 1978 suicide or murder of 900-plus members in their compound in British Guyana, we can see that there are specific aspects that define cults that one does not find among Trump enthusiasts.  Cults typically promise eternal salvation on a basis other than that offered by Christianity.  Cults typically involve intense financial or sexual exploitation of the members.  Cults typically have an enslaving organizational structure.  Cults have a different standard of righteousness from that found in the Holy Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation.  And cults have doctrinal ambiguity.

Further, the threat of a cult manipulation is a lot more sophisticated today than it was in the days of Mao, Stalin, or Hitler.  With the growth of the market research industry and mass marketing through advertising since the 1950s, with the development of mind control techniques, with the tracking of individual members of society through artificial intelligence in social media and governmental surveillance, and with the increasing power of trained persons to program others, fear of subliminal controls over the population are somewhat justifiable.  Power over the population is no longer vested only in the gun – i.e., the threat of force by government – or in aggressively promoting an ideology.  Today, other strategies are used to compel segments of the population to respond to products and persons while preserving the idea that they are exercising their "free will."  In other words, the charismatic leader is less likely to be the instrument of cultic control today than he was in the past.

A low-key, power-mad personality like Xi Jinping or Barack Obama is more likely to be eligible as a cult leader in today's world.  These have personalities that are non-threatening yet can function comfortably in a brave new world where market strategies and mind control sophistication are algorithmic allies working invisibly to dominate vast masses of people.

The concern about manipulation of our culture and the political dimension of our culture is legitimate, but if we consider the above defining benchmarks of a cult, there is no need to worry about a "cult of Trump."  In fact, there is a deficiency of loyalty to our duly elected president.  The visceral hatred of the president seen so clearly in the MSM unduly personalizes the office of the presidency.  The malevolent diatribes of the Democrats with each passing day seem more like the outcries of a wounded animal than the rational discourse one expects of political figures since the days of the Roman Republic.  Yes, matters of life and death lie in the hands of the president as he makes daily decisions about peace and war, about our air and water, about our energy supply, about our health care, and about our economic well-being and safety.  Because of these duties (not personality traits), it remains important to see the president in his role qua president.  He is to be accountable, yes, but not to be pre-judged a scoundrel or, worse, vilified because he is exceedingly popular with half the population. 

Image: Chad Sparkes via Flickr.

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