As Americans watch the political drama of impeachment against President Donald Trump unfold in Congress, it seems clear that Democrats and Republicans seem to occupy entirely different planes of reality, speaking in opposite terms about the same issues. It is a reflection of the political polarization in the nation at large that social scientists have struggled to understand. But there is a simple explanation: We are witnessing the development of a dangerous and massive cult. And Trump, the cult leader, knows exactly how to wield his power over his supporters in order to retain his position.
At a rally in Hersey, Pennsylvania, last week, multiple Trump supporters threatened violence if their leader was removed from power, with one man invoking his “.357 Magnum,” and another predicting a second civil war. One woman explained, “As a Trump supporter, I believe in him.” Do such statements not sound like those of cult members? How else to explain the fact that Trump has convinced millions of Americans that he stands up for them even while his policies have disproportionately benefitted wealthy corporations? How else to make sense of how he spews lies at a record-breaking pace while at the same time claiming he is the only one telling the truth?
The Cult Education Institute lists the warning signs of a “potentially unsafe group/leader,” and almost all of them are uncanny descriptions of President Trump. Among the signs that dangerous cult leaders display is “absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.” Trump’s backers have made it clear they think he is above the law. The most important law-enforcer in the nation, Attorney General William Barr, who is a leader in the cult of Trump, believes the president is above the law. Trump’s acting chief of staff has made it clear Trump can do what he likes because the rules don’t apply to him and that the rest of us should just “get over it.” Trump has himself said, “I can do whatever I want.” And he made it clear he was aware of his status as a cult leader even before he was president when he said during his campaign that he could shoot someone in the middle of the street and still retain his supporters.
Another warning sign of being in a cult is that the leader displays “[n]o tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.” In a democracy, the news media in particular represents “critical inquiry.” Trump the cult leader has waged war on the press for the entirety of his presidential tenure, dismissing it as the “enemy of the people.” His repeated claims that media outlets are “fake news” have worked, as the latest Pew Research Center report on Journalism and Media found that “on item after item, Republicans consistently express far greater skepticism of the news media and their motives than Democrats.”
The Cult Education Institute also warns cult leaders claim to have “the exclusive means of knowing ‘truth’ or receiving validation; no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.” Trump has said to his supporters, “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” A CBS poll last year found that among Trump’s strongest supporters, 91% trust the president for all their information, compared to only 63% who trust their own friends and family.
Another warning sign that sounds like it was specifically written with Trump in mind is that dangerous cult leaders make “[n]o meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget, expenses such as an independently audited financial statement.” Trump is so obsessively secretive about his financial records that he has fought numerous legal battles at the same time to keep his tax returns secret and has now appealed to the Supreme Court, where he hopes the conservative majority that he installed will back him.
Trump also engages in what the Cult Education Institute describes as “unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions.” He has described immigrants and asylum seekers at the border as an “invasion,” and said last week at a rally: “At stake in our present battle is the survival of the American nation itself. We will destroy our country if these people get in.”
Do Trump’s supporters realize they are part of the nation’s biggest cult? Just as instructive as the warning signs about leaders are the lessons to ordinary people. One such example is “Extreme obsessiveness regarding the group/leader, resulting in the exclusion of almost every practical consideration.” When a CBC reporter in November profiled Trump supporters attending his rally in Tupelo, Mississippi, he found people who camped out in the freezing cold overnight just so they could be among the first to be let in. One after another they told the reporter how much Trump had changed their lives and how far they had driven across the country to attend the rally. One man saw the billionaire president as “the man of the people.” One woman said she had never imagined backing a president in this manner and said, “We love him and it is an honest, heartfelt love because he loves us.”
Warning signs that you might be in a cult also include, “Whenever the group/leader is criticized or questioned, it is characterized as ‘persecution.’” Trump, who is clearly aware of the allegiance he has built up among his followers through repetition, has said the words “witch hunt,” so often that his supporters really do believe the entire impeachment process, and before that the special counsel’s probe, were unfair persecutions of their leader rather than attempts to hold him accountable. No matter how much evidence is revealed or how many witnesses come forward, Trump’s backers have stuck with him consistently and that is because they believe him when he says he is innocent, can do whatever he wants, and is the victim of a witch hunt.
A psychological study of Trump’s supporters uncovered key traits that are remarkably consistent with the warning signs of being in a cult. The research, published in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology, concluded five phenomena were commonly found among Trump supporters: “authoritarianism, social dominance, prejudice, lack of intergroup contact and relative deprivation.” Also, “[a]uthoritarian leaders have long understood that they can attract followers by enhancing the perception of dangerous threats to the society and offering simple solutions.”
Trump knows that by sheer repetition he can brainwash his supporters into believing anything he says. Perhaps the most dangerous aspects of a cult leader’s behavior are to characterize constitutionally legitimate efforts to investigate him as an “attempted coup.” Even more frightening is his signaling to his cultish followers that he is eligible for a third term as president, an idea so ludicrous that one might imagine it would be dismissed outright. However, in the ‘cult of Trump’ such a notion may actually gain traction. In fact, Trump supporter and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has even said he is heading up Trump’s 2024 reelection campaign.
How does one save one’s country from a cult? A New York Times Magazine article titled “How to Get Someone Out of a Cult,” offers some advice to that effect, albeit on an individual level. Author Malia Wollan cited one former cult member who “had what she thought of as a little shelf in the back of her mind … where she stowed doubts, questions or concerns.” The woman — who successfully left the cult — explained, “At some point all of those things get too heavy and the shelf breaks and that’s when they’ll realize they need to get out.” She advised that, “Your job is to get them to put more things on their shelf.”
In other words, one of the best means of battling the cult of Trump is to continue to hammer away at the truth, hoping the shelf of nagging doubts at the back of the MAGA heads may collapse someday with the weight of facts and truth.
Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV,…