April 2, 2020, 6:56

Is Trumpism a cult?

Is Trumpism a cult?

Has Trumpism become a cult?

The question almost feels like a provocation. And yet more and more people, like veteran Republican strategist John Weaver, are comfortable saying, “Yes.”

Famed CBS anchor Dan Rather made the case most recently on the CNN show Reliable Sources. Even former Trump White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci has likened Donald Trump supporters to a cult.

It’s a provocative claim that I’m not sure is entirely convincing. On one hand, there is something cult-like about the hold Trump has over his supporters and the Republican Party. At the same time, calling it a cult seems too easy, a way of avoiding a much scarier truth about our politics — namely, that Trump isn’t all that exceptional.

A new book by cult expert Steven Hassan, called The Cult of Trump, is the first serious attempt to argue that Trumpism is a cult. Hassan has studied cults for years and is himself a former member of the “Moonies” cult, an offshoot of the Unification Church of the United States led by Sun Myung Moon that made headlines in 1970s.

Hassan is convinced that Trump is more than just a manipulative, charismatic politician. The president, he writes, “employs many of the same techniques as prominent cult leaders and displays many of the same personality traits.”

I reached out to Hassan to talk about what defines a cult and why he thinks Trump qualifies as a cult leader. If Trump is, in fact, a cult leader, I really wanted Hassan to explain how he’s different from other political figures. Although he makes some interesting points, especially about how our conception of cults needs rethinking, Hassan’s argument about Trump strikes me as thin in some crucial places, and I pushed back during our exchange. Readers can decide whether or not to buy the argument.

Our conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Sean Illing

How do you define a cult?

Steven Hassan

I define cults along a continuum of what I call ethical or unethical influence. There can be cults where people know what they’re getting into and have access to alternative opinions and are free to leave without threats. That’s what you might call an ethical cult.

And then on the unethical side, there are cults that are essentially based on authoritarian pyramid structures, usually with somebody at the top that claims to have total power and total wisdom, and they use deception in recruitment, which is crucial.

Sean Illing

Are there meaningful differences between a political cult and a religious cult (or any other kind of cult)?

Steven Hassan

There are differences, but the core influence techniques are basically the same no matter the purpose or structure of the cult. And there’s almost always a core deception at the center of the cult, which is that the leader is the only [one] who has the keys to saving the planet, who has access to the truth.

Sean Illing

Do the majority of cult members recognize themselves as being members of cults?

Steven Hassan

No, most people would laugh at the idea of being in a “cult.” But that’s crucial to the sort of mind control you find in a cult. When people are being brainwashed, they think they’re making their own decisions, they think they’re doing God’s work, they think they’re saving the world. And above all, they think they made a conscious decision to do all these things all on their own.

Sean Illing

And how do you distinguish a cult leader from what we’d normally consider a charismatic leader?

Steven Hassan

I have a chapter in the book on malignant narcissism as a characteristic of destructive cult leaders. These are people who have a deep need for grandiosity, to be the center of attention, who need to control others, and who lack empathy and lie without hesitation. These are psychological traits perfectly attuned to manipulation and projection.

But the malignant part is about sociopathic tendencies. Almost every cult leader thinks he’s above the law, which is why he’s allowed to persecute and harass or harm anyone he wants. When someone really believes this, they can rationalize all kinds of destructive behavior.

Sean Illing

Well, let’s get to the book. Why are you calling a Trumpism a cult?

Steven Hassan

I began this book with the assumption that Trump is a malignant narcissist. Actually, watching him and listening to him reminded me of Sun Myung Moon, the leader of the cult I joined in college, in that both have a kind of God complex where they’re the only one with the answers, the only one who can fix things. Moon was going to create a theocracy and Trump was going to “drain the swamp.” But the way they carry themselves is similar.

But what really made me think of Trump as a cult was the way the groups who supported him were behaving, especially religious groups who believed that God had chosen Trump or was using Trump. There are actual pro-Trump religious groups, like the New Apostolic Reformation, whose leaders were saying, “We’re of God. The rest of the world is of Satan, and we need to follow our chosen leaders who are connected to God.”

There was this blind-faith aspect to the whole thing and an unwillingness to look at any inconvenient facts. That’s all very cult-like.

Sean Illing

Politics is all about persuasion, all about influencing people. What is it that makes Trump’s approach fundamentally different from non-cultish politicians?

Steven Hassan

First, a lot of people don’t know that Trump was raised by an authoritarian father in what I’d call a cultic church, where you’re taught to believe 100 percent in yourself, that magical things are going to happen, and that the only sin is doubting yourself.

Sean Illing

Wait, what? A cultic church?

Steven Hassan

Yeah, Trump was part of Norman Vincent Peale’s church growing up. [You can read about that here.] Peale was an important figure in his life. He even presided over some of Trump’s marriages, I believe. But Peale preached a cultish prosperity gospel, where everything’s about how God is going to bless you with material rewards. It’s not about spirituality or Christ or anything like that. It’s all about turning self-confidence into a religion.

Sean Illing

I don’t know anything about that, so I can’t speak to it. So, what else distinguishes Trump in your mind?

Steven Hassan

The bottom line is that I see very sophisticated mind-control techniques being used through the media, through religious broadcasters and radio talk-show hosts. It’s a black-and-white, all-or-nothing, good-versus-evil, authoritarian view of reality that is mostly fear-based. And there’s a deliberate focus on denying facts in order to protect the image of the leader.

These are universal mind-control techniques common to all destructive cults, and something I call “phobia introduction.” Irrational fears are drilled into people’s minds so that they can’t even imagine leaving the group or questioning the leader without terrible things happening to them.

Sean Illing

But that doesn’t really map onto our political reality. No one is being forced to be a Trump supporter in that way. I guess I’m having a hard time seeing how Trump is all that different from other politicians who speak in repetitive clichés and use slogans and platitudes to manipulate voters. I mean, that’s just mass politics.

Steven Hassan

Well, the cult of Trump is definitely the fruit of decades of issues and problems that have never really surfaced. But I do think he shows, in a way we haven’t quite seen before — at least in modern history — how people can be recruited and indoctrinated to do things completely contrary to their belief system and value system. And he’s exceptionally good at using the media to amplify his messaging techniques.

Sean Illing

I’ll try to get at this another way. So, I kept thinking about a politician like Barack Obama while reading your book. Obama is the opposite of Trump in every sense imaginable, and yet he exercised a similar pull on many of his followers.

The big difference between Trump and Obama is that Trump lies and insults and projects weakness onto others, and that seems more straightforwardly cultish, and maybe that’s where we cross the line into cult territory. But Obama still had something like a cult of personality, although many people don’t see it that way because he was a good man with benign intentions and he didn’t use his influence over people for malicious purposes.

Steven Hassan

I think that’s very true. If you’re going to run for president of the United States, you’ve got to have some narcissistic qualities. But it’s the amorality piece that distinguishes Trump from Barack Obama.

Beyond that, Obama was brilliant and he was someone who liked to learn, who wanted to hear different opinions and make reasonable decisions, as opposed to Trump, who says “I use my gut” and insists he knows more than his generals.

Sean Illing

But that doesn’t necessarily make Trump a cult leader …

Steven Hassan

Right, but for people to believe in him and follow him religiously and not question anything he says even when it’s obvious that he’s lying, that’s where I stop and go, “Wait, this is very cult-like.”

I really want to make the point that not everyone who voted for Trump is in a cult, and not everyone who supports the Republican Party is a mindless follower of Trump. But those who buy everything he says, who think he’s some kind of savior or a gift from God, whose loyalty is both unquestionable and irrational, I do think they’re behaving more or less like cult members.

Sean Illing

Couldn’t everything you’re saying about Trumpism also be explained as simple partisanship? Republicans basically supported Trump at virtually the same rate they supported previous GOP presidential candidates. I’d argue that’s a much simpler account of the dynamics here than attributing everything to cult-like brainwashing.

Steven Hassan

So, I would take the word “brainwashing,” put it aside, and think about the science of social influence and all the research that’s being done, especially about online influence. Modern tech companies are learning how to make their platforms sticky, how to gather data from our “likes” and “retweets” and use it to quietly manipulate us.

My reason for doing this book wasn’t really about Trump or Republicans or Democrats. It was to take everything I’ve learned about how vulnerable human minds are and how psychology works. We’re living in a very different world where the conventional idea of “brainwashing” is really obsolete and the idea of a cult as a small group of people sharing physical space is outdated.

The internet has changed things, and I think Trump is an example of what a 21st-century cult leader looks like.

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