Picture a group of people devoted to one all-knowing, omnipotent leader, who has been chosen by God to lead them, who channels the word of God, and who, eventually, becomes their God. Their beliefs encompass every aspect of their lives. They would turn on their own morals to heed their leader, shelter themselves from any criticism of their practices, show disdain for non-believers, and rely wholly on the word of their leader. According to sociologist and author Janja Lalich, these are the tenets of a “totalistic cult.” However, this also describes former President Donald Trump’s sect of the Republican party.
Trump’s brand of Republicanism has spawned a subset of the American populace that consumes only their own media, refuses to give thought to ideas that contradict their beliefs – even those that are detrimental to their well-being – and remain staunchly loyal to Trump even as we enter the second year of Joe Biden’s presidency. Steven Hassan, a licensed mental health counselor and author of the book “The Cult of Trump,” is a former member of the “Moonie” cult founded by Reverend Sun Myung Moon. In the article “Is Trumpism a cult?” by Vox.com, Hassan “is convinced that Trump is more than just a manipulative, charismatic politician,” and says that the former President “employs many of the same techniques as prominent cult leaders and displays many of the same personality traits.”
Cults work because they cause members to trust completely in the word of their leader, even when this leads them to contradict their own morals to the point of self-destruction. Convicted sex-trafficker Keith Raniere’s cult “NXIVM” encouraged women to brand their own skin with his initials; accused sexual assaulter Donald Trump’s cult – most of the Republican party – led its members into the aggressively unpatriotic events of January 6, 2021, actions which would have been abhorred by his followers prior to their conversion, and which put them in physical danger. Earlier in Trump’s presidency, an article by Pacific Standard states that his 2018 policy, which separated immigrant parents and children, “directly contradicts the traditional conservative belief in the sanctity of the family, [which is] supported by more than half of Republicans.”
Trump’s lack of qualms about lying and manipulating, as well as his charisma, draw otherwise non-extremists into his flock and spur them into violent action. According to the article "Trump's 'cult-like control' of Republican party grows stronger since insurrection” by The Guardian, “almost a third of Republicans believe violence may be necessary to ‘save’ the U.S.” In an effort to investigate the January 6 siege, Democrats created a House select committee. The only Republican members of this committee are Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger; the former has been voted out of the Republican party of Wyoming, and the latter has received death threats. To this day, many of Trump’s followers believe that “the insurrection was a morally justified crusade” and a “righteous endeavor to save democracy, not destroy it”.
What makes Trump a cult leader compared to other similarly charismatic, manipulative politicians? Steven Hassan says these are the questions to ask: “Are these people deceived and are they being exploited? Is their fundamental personality and belief system being changed, and are they being alienated from family and friends?”
Hassan defines authoritarian cults with what he calls the “BITE model” of authoritarian control: Behavior control, Information control, Thought control, and Emotional control. When these four ideas combine, one’s individual identity is suppressed in favor of that of the cult, and one adopts the fears and beliefs instilled in them by the cult.
Trump’s following has created a culture that dictates its own behavior by heeding his calls to violent action and taking them to the extreme. In terms of information, his following also consumes exclusively their own media, creating a “black-and-white, all-or-nothing, good-versus-evil, authoritarian view of reality that is mostly fear-based” with a “deliberate focus on denying facts in order to protect the image of the leader,” says Hassan. Thought is controlled through online communities of Trump supporters, which contribute to their inability to accept a narrative other than the fearful one that Trump has created. Finally, Trump controlled emotion by using his rallies to “[breed] fear and paranoia in his followers,” according to author Janja Lalich, keeping people “enchanted” with him, and convincing them that they needed to follow him to stay safe. “His constant criticism and ridiculing and attacking ‘the other’ also [made] people feel superior,” she says. “This sets up extreme polarization, which is always how cults have survived.”
Additionally, sleep deprivation – in Trumpists’ case, due to time spent consuming media – is often used by cults to impair decision-making. In 1997, the Heaven’s Gate cult, who had been severely sleep-deprived, willingly committed mass suicide in an effort to “evacuate this Earth,” as they were instructed by their leader Marshall Applewhite.
Cult leaders are often paranoid, trust no one, and believe that they are above the law. “In Trump’s case,” says Hassan, “his father was an authoritarian who used to tell him and his brother things like, ‘you are a killer, you are a king, you are a killer, you are a king,’ over and over again,” instilling in him, from a young age a sense of omnipotence.
In 1984, at the behest of their leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the Rajneeshee cult poisoned 751 people in rural Oregon with salmonella in an effort to suppress voter turnout in a local election. They caused the largest bioterror attack in American history. On January 6, 2021, Donald Trump incited an insurrection at the Capitol, in an attempt to overturn the results of the presidential election, marking the first time that the capitol had been breached by rioters. The parallel here is not the casualties or the scale of these crimes, but the willingness of cult leaders to use violence for their own political gain and the lawlessness their followers were conditioned to justify. “Malignant narcissism [is] a characteristic of destructive cult leaders,” says Hassan. They “have a deep need for grandiosity, to be the center of attention, [...] need to control others, and [...] lack empathy and lie without hesitation.”
At the center of most cults is a core deception: that the leader is the only one who can save the followers, and that the leader is the only one with the answers. Some religious groups believe that Trump was chosen by God, and others believe that “resisting the authority of [Donald Trump] is conflated with resisting God himself,” according to Vox.com. Their message – and their control – is spread through right-wing media, religious broadcasts, and radio talk shows.
When a cult leader dies or has to step down, some will realize how they’ve been manipulated and controlled. But, “some hard-core believers will stick with Trump no matter what,” says Lalich. “Often, splinter groups will form.”
If Trumpism is a cult, then there is hope that its followers can be released from its clutches by deprogramming. On an individual level, if one did not “wake up” because of Trump’s increasingly dangerous and absurd actions during and immediately after his presidency, an intervention should be done by family and friends. “Getting the person to take a time out from the constant influence that’s coming through smartphones and digital media is going to be critical,” says Hassan. To help people return to themselves and their personal values, “we need to do what’s within our control to protect people from this constant reinforcement and indoctrination.” However, “when the cultic behavior is on a national scale, [breaking it up] is going to take a national movement,” says Lalich, “Some of the churches that have been supportive of him have to come out to say, ‘This is too much.’” For national deprogramming to occur, America also needs to stop consuming fear-mongering right-wing media; schools need to facilitate analysis and discussion of contemporary political media from diverse sources; and the Republican party needs to renounce Trump.