Critics of President Donald Trump have often accused his supporters — both in government and in the public — of essentially belonging to a cult. Their senses of identity, in many cases, have become wrapped around the president, and their primary political motivations revolve around serving his whims and interests rather than any higher policy goals.
But is the “cult” label really fair? Does it accurately describe the phenomenon we’re seeing?
In a recent article for The Conversation, Sharday Mosurinjohn, a professor of cultural and religious studies at Queen’s University, argued that calling Trump’s base of support a “cult” is unhelpful.
“What does it accomplish to allege a Trump cult?” she asked. “Generally, it substitutes a value judgment in place of a sorely needed argumentative analysis of how voters generate their own political feelings, fantasies and attachments. And this feeds the cycle of polarizing political identities and political institutions.”
…whether literal or figurative, cult discourse hurts critics’ ability to understand Trump’s appeal. The cult diagnosis isn’t a reasoned argument, or even an objective description: it’s moral denunciation.
There’s no question Trump policies that hurt people and endanger the world should be denounced. But the cult epithet doesn’t speak to those policies; it draws a line between Trump opponents and Trump supporters. And it oversimplifies the way people think and feel about their own beliefs and those on the other side of that line.
But Steven Hassan, a former cult member himself who now studies cults, argued in a new book, “The Cult of Trump,” that the concept really is useful in understanding the president. He doesn’t merely use the term as an epithet — he thinks it helps understand the behavior of Trump’s supporters.
“[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,’” he told Sean Illing of Vox. “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.”
Trump uses “very sophisticated mind-control techniques” through various media, Hassan said, to push a “black-and-white, all-or-nothing, good-versus-evil, authoritarian view of reality that is mostly fear-based.”
Not everyone who supports Trump acts like a cult member, he said, “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.”
Illing pushed back on Hassan’s argument, suggesting that Trump’s behavior could be explained through commonplace, if amplified, partisanship, rather than cult-like tendencies. But what seems different about Trump support is how central Trump the man has become to the Republican Party ideology, and how impervious his personal level of support has been to changing facts and emerging scandals. The fight about impeachment, for many GOP officials and voters, has just become a blanket defense of the president regardless of the facts.
For instance, when the Ukraine scandal first started to emerge, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said: “If you could show me that Trump actually was engaging in a quid pro quo outside the [July 25] phone call, that would be very disturbing.” But now, ample evidence has emerged to show that this is exactly what was happening, and Graham doesn’t care about the facts. He’s just yelling at Democrats about “exposing” their “hatred.”
Moreover, what I find most interesting is how some former members of Trump’s inner circle who have since been jettisoned discuss the past relationships to the president. (Of course, having turned on Trump, they have an incentive to paint him in a negative light and tell potential new allies what they want to hear; and anyone who has gotten close to Trump is almost necessarily an unsavory figure. Nevertheless, it’s eerie how much their stories mirror each other.)
Most recently, Lev Parnas, a close friend and associate of Rudy Giuliani, has turned against the president and uses the language of a cult to describe Trump’s followers.
“I don’t think Trump is like organized crime,” Parnas told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow in a recent interview. “I think he’s like a cult leader.”
Donny Deutsch, a friend of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, expressed a similar idea to the New York Times after Cohen pleaded guilty to committing crimes on Trump’s behalf.
“Michael would describe it as being something akin to a cult,” he said of Cohen’s time with Trump. “Michael got sucked into it. And his life is in shambles because of it. And he’s the first one to say that.”
And when Cohen testified to the House Oversight Committee, he warned the Republican lawmakers that they were following the same path he did by defending Trump.
“It’s that sort of behavior that I’m responsible for. I’m responsible for your silliness because I did the same thing that you’re doing now for 10 years,” he said. “I protected Mr. Trump for 10 years.”
He added: “The more people that follow Mr. Trump as I did blindly are going to suffer the same consequences that I’m suffering.”
Another Trump defector, Omarosa Manigault-Newman, said she saw Trump as a cult leader. After she was fired from the White House by former Chief of Staff John Kelly, she wrote a scathing tell-all about her time with Trump and said she had “escaped from the cult of Trumpworld.” She suddenly changed her tune on many features of Trump; though she had previously defended him against charges of racism, she now says she believes he’s racist. And she said the treatment she received for becoming a dissenter was severe.
“If you leave or betray the Trump cult, you are labelled crazy and pathetic,” she wrote in her book. “Trump did not care that he completely contradicted himself after he’d tweeted nice things about his departed senior advisor. He changed his tone only after Bannon appeared to go against the grain. It is a pattern the White House repeats often. Lying is second nature in this administration.”
Again, all these figures have their own agendas — and their own dubious pasts — so their words cannot be taken as gospel. But they all tell similar stories. When they were in the Trump orbit, they had a sense of belonging, and they believed most in the power of the man at the center of it all. Once they left, they seem to see things more clearly, as if a veil has been lifted, and they have an entirely new perspective on many of their old beliefs.
As the impeachment trial of Trump unfolds, this perspective is useful to keep in mind to make sense of events. Perhaps the “cult” term is hyperbolic, or unwise for one reason or another, but the actions and beliefs of the Republican Party — all in support of a single grotesque man who has clearly betrayed anything worth standing for — demand a cogent explanation. And if we take seriously the claims of those who once loved Trump but now see him more clearly, we may be forced to accept a dark conclusion.