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Is 'Trumpism' a cult?

"During the late eighties and throughout the nineties," Susie Meister wrote in early 2016 before the election, "evangelicalism hit its stride communicating and promoting a very specific message that amounted to a chorus of sound bites about “family values,” militarism, and the pro-life movement." Meister, someone who "attended church several times a week," realized:

"I could no longer reconcile Jesus’s calls for non-judgment, loving your enemies, and taking up your cross with many of the Religious Right’s positions on social services, women’s rights, and the LGBT community. Even though I felt alone in my theological shift, I was not. A recent Pew Research Center poll puts the evangelical retention rate at 65%...It isn’t just general education that can shift beliefs; indeed a recent study by Baylor University researcher Aaron Franzen found that increased reading of the Bible correlated with greater passion for social justice — a trait typically associated with liberalism."

She noted that Trump isn't the first example of Christians overlooking the personal history of their preferred candidate: "From Ronald Reagan’s divorce to Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, evangelical Christians give passes to those whose rhetoric is most in line with their philosophy and who they believe can win the election, even if that person’s biography isn’t in line with their religious doctrine."

Around the same time, in early 2016, an article on The Weekly Challenger began by calling Trump "a political cult leader" The article says that the "white working class" isn't seeing quite as much benefit from their historic white privilege anymore, as they "are killing themselves with pills and alcohol, committing suicide with guns, and dying of despair" and also just dying of old age which means that "the Republican Party’s base of voters is rapidly shrinking." Trump leverages what psychologists call "terror management theory," as, "when scared or under threat, conservative authoritarians are more likely to become tribal, bigoted, racist and generally more hostile to those they identify as some type of Other."

Given that the demographic base is shrinking, can the Republican Party just become...less racist, sexist, homophobic, and isolationist to expand their appeal to wider demographics? No, they can't, because that will explode what is left of their core base right now. Since the 1960s, "racism has been fundamental to American conservatism, and the GOP in particular," writes Zak Cheney-Rice in 2019, "even as its purportedly defining tenets have proven to be negotiable, from small government to antagonism toward autocrats to reduced deficit spending." Republican leaders (given how the party has defined itself for a half-century) will give up all other governing principles before they will give up their racism. This is not a matter of party "infiltration by a few bad eggs. On the contrary, it’s been apparent since the Nixon administration that the Republican Party would collapse without support from racists." They know they're in a losing battle and they're circling the wagons. The actual people who currently support the Republican Party will not be injured if the party gives up its racism or its power, but the Party itself as an institution may fall apart. What they have to do is radically transform the party to be anti-racist so that it no longer resembles what it's been saying and doing for the past half-century and reorganizes what remains of its core supporters. The leaders won't go through this effort. Unfortunately, "the movement’s racism problem is not the result of a hijacking or a coup, but of popular will. There are no innocents among today’s Republicans. There’s only the ugliness they’ve unleashed, and whether they’ve the courage to risk political ruin in order to eradicate it."

Before the 2018 mid-term election, Trump said of evangelicals: “They’re going to show up for me [i.e. the Republican Party] because nobody’s done more for Christians or evangelicals or, frankly, religion than I have."

A January 2018 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that:

"The vast majority of black Protestants (80 percent), religiously unaffiliated Americans (75 percent), Hispanic Catholics (74 percent) and non-Christian religious Americans (73 percent) surveyed said they have negative opinions about Trump. Slim majorities of white mainline Protestants and white Catholics (both 52 percent) also said they are not fans of the president.

In fact, the only religious group that had a majority of respondents voicing a favorable opinion of Trump was white evangelical Protestants, with 68 percent of them saying they have a favorable view of Trump, including 28 percent with a very favorable opinion of the president." (Carol Kuruvilla, Huffington Post)

Apart from the clear pro-Trump majority among white evangelicals, writes Diana Butler Bass, "white Christianity right now is a dumpster of discord; internecine warfare has not been this bad since the 1920s when controversy ripped American churches apart on whether human beings evolved from monkeys." As a personal example, although Bass and her brother "grew up in the same Methodist Sunday school," they stopped speaking after the Charlottesville incident "when we argued about white nationalism and racism," as she reports two years after that incident.

My brother, as an adult, traded that God for a tougher, stricter one who exercises judgment against all who refuse to bend the knee, a kind of Emperor-God, enthroned in glory. This God has often shown up in Christian history; including in American fundamentalism. But from 1980 onward, he underwent a revival in several strands of American religion including Pentecostalism, neo-Calvinism, traditionalist Roman Catholicism, and some Orthodox communities. He is a masculine Sovereign, and a winner-God for people feeling displaced in a pluralistic world. And after 9/11, this militaristic God became more real.

The case for Trump support being a cult is not ironclad. The current president has his passionate supporters, but so have past presidents. While the jury is still out, some thinkers argue that Trump support has at least some cultlike aspects.

Dr. Alexandra Stein, a former member of a leftist political cult known as The O, told Kate Leaver in February 2017:

"'I have a five-point definition of a cult,' Stein tells me. 'One: The leader is charismatic and authoritarian. Two: The structure of the group isolates people. The third thing is total ideology, like, "You only need me and no other belief system has any relevance whatsoever." The fourth thing is the process of brainwashing.' The fifth point, she says, is the result: 'creating deployable followers who will do what you say regardless of their own self survival interests.'

'That's why you get people who will blow themselves up,' she concludes. 'People don't understand this, but anyone in a cult is not really able to think, or to feel.'"

* * *

'I think we're seeing enough; enough to say Trump is operating like a cult leader,' she says, before adding tearfully, 'I wish it wasn't so.'"

A Dungeons & Dragons manual, Villain Design Handbook, informally uses a simpler definition: “for the purpose of this book a cult is defined as any exclusive group that uses fear and intimidation to control its members.”

Adam Garfinkle, editor of The American Interest, wrote in May 2017:

"[Mark] Lilla and others have suggested that political cults tend to fill religious vacuums; that is, they tend to arise when people lose faith in the efficacy of the religious status quo to manage their problems. In other words, in times of confusion and fear, people will vouchsafe unto symbols of the nation, the state, the race, the leader, and so on what they used to reserve for God and related religious symbols. Political religion therefore always competes in some form with preexisting religious organizations and beliefs, giving rise to a range of outcomes that include cooptation, intimidation, repression, and other possibilities as well. This precisely is what led Voegelin to insist on similarities between authoritarian and totalitarian systems and religious systems..."

Using an 11-point list of cultic structure and belief, Garfinkle finds that Trumpism is cultic only to a "middling extent," and moreover its cultiness has been decreasing since the election was won. He warns that, nevertheless, "[t]o the extent it is more cult-like than its recent predecessors, the 'excitement' may be just ahead of us as the movement circles the wagons."

It's not true — Shannon Ashley wrote in 2018, identifying herself as someone who once emerged from a cult — that cults are "always religious," that only a few people are at risk for joining cults, that cults "prey on the weak and are easy to identify," and that most people who join are lost causes and can never emerge. A real cult, she says, uses "thought reform to challenge reality." She describes the eight methods of thought reform as laid out by the psychologist Robert Jay Lifton:

  • Milieu control [limited communication with the outside world]
  • Mystical manipulation [being in the cult gives you a higher purpose]
  • Confession [forced intimacy by revealing past sins exhausts and overwhelms the person]
  • Self-sanctification through purity [causes a sense of guilt because purity is never attainable]
  • Aura of sacred science [the group's wisdom cannot be questioned]
  • Loaded language [the group invents its own words and sometimes promises to reveal their secret meaning to members as their reward for commitment]
  • Doctrine over person [in any challenge of personal values or conscience, the established group doctrine is always correct]
  • Dispensed existence [the price of belonging to the elite group is that you give up privacy and autonomy]

Reza Aslan, author of God: A Human History, points out in an interview on Nov. 20, 2017 that "to this day, still, three-quarters of white evangelicals strongly support him," and "support for him is highest among those who go to church at least once a week." He asks why churchgoing makes one more likely to support a

"lying, lecherous, greedy, sexist, racist, narcissistic sociopath whose entire worldview makes a mockery of Christianity, makes a mockery of basic Christian tenets like humility, and empathy, and care for the poor. And scholars like myself have been just wracking our brains trying to figure this out, 'cause it makes no sense."

He observes that this is limited to white evangelicals (as two-thirds of evangelicals of color supported Hillary Clinton). He also observes that white evangelicals (who called themselves "Values Voters") used to say that public morality was important for politicians, but today, atheists are more likely to say that. Aslan concludes that Trump has "transformed a large swath of white evangelicals into his own personal cult." Aslan is using "cult" in a "pejorative's a 'value judgment' word." He believes Trumpism is a cult insofar it is "an insulated group of individuals in thrall to a charismatic leader to whom they have given divine status, prophetic status, and that is definitively what has happened among a large swath of white evangelicals when it comes to Trump."

"Psychologists have explained quite a lot about Donald Trump’s political invincibility and the unconditional allegiance of his followers. One well-supported explanation is that the president keeps his base loyal by keeping them fearful." However, cognitive psychology researcher Bobby Azarian writes in May 2019, "a significant portion of his supporters literally believe the president was an answer to their prayers. He is regarded as something of a messiah, sent by God to protect a Christian nation."

One expression of this is in "The Trump Prophecy," a docu-drama produced by ReelWorks Studios with collaboration from Liberty University. It played in 1,200 cinemas in the United States in late 2018. It "dramatizes the memoir of a fireman who believes God told him that Donald Trump would one day be president with interviews with prominent evangelical figures about Trump’s greatness," as Tara Isabella Burton explained. "The Trump Prophecy doesn’t just want you to believe that God approves of Donald Trump. It wants you to believe that submission to (conservative) political authority and submission to God are one and the same. In the film’s theology, resisting the authority of a sitting president — or, at least, this sitting president — is conflated with resisting God himself." She adds that, in this worldview, "any leader who is chosen takes his authority not from the democratic process but from God himself. It’s an ideology that strikes at the heart of what democracy is all about. If God chose Trump, who are we to resist?" Once in office, such a president's "authority is virtually unlimited because his presidency is divinely mandated," as indeed certain Trump administration insiders have claimed. Oddly, in the film, Trump "does not make a single on-screen appearance, and his voice only appears in a few key sequences, such as when Taylor falls asleep next to the television while receiving a prophetic vision, or when he and his wife worriedly watch the Trump-Clinton debate. Almost no attention is given to Trump’s fitness as a candidate," apart from "a winking acknowledgment that Trump hasn’t exactly lived a life in concordance with evangelical values." The film "is, essentially, Christian nationalist propaganda," Burton says, but it's important to understand that "many disparate players in the evangelical world...have combined forces (with Trump’s implicit approval) into a Trumpist religious-media complex."

On June 19, 2019, TV pastor (and "End Times prepper") Jim Bakker said on his show that Trump was elected "because God's people voted and the world knows it, the enemies of the gospel know it." He warned that "if we keep losing, you’re going to see the leaders of the church and the leaders of the gospel and the political conservative leaders that are powerful, you are going to see them suddenly die, suddenly killed—suddenly as they were driving, suddenly as they were in a boat, suddenly in an airplane—you’re going to see it one after another.” He knows this because "God spoke this to me years ago what would happen near the end and I believe we’re in that time." In August 2018, Bakker warned that "the evil in this country is so bad, if I was a Republican — which I have been my whole life — I couldn’t wear a hat with my candidate on it without concern about being murdered in the street." However, Bakker is aware that Trump does not fit the image of a typical Christian leader. In January 2020, Right Wing Watch shared a video of Bakker apparently joking that, because Trump is so difficult to love or even to forgive, only true Christians are prepared to love and accept Trump.

A "subset" of Trump supporters "are unconditionally loyal and would follow their leader off a cliff," Azarian wrote in September 2020. He said that Terror Management Theory &mbash; which is "based on the idea that human behavior is largely driven by our fear of death" — explains it the best, as that is what underlies racism and other cultural fears. "Existential fear is Trump’s favorite political tool, and it is the primary reason he is in the White House." Indeed, "Trump loyalists...are not normal supporters, but more akin to cult members who have been radicalized by fear." He endorses a different, collectivist worldview that he calls the Cosmic Perspective, in which "there is no 'us against them,' there is only we. The real existential threats we face are things like nuclear war, climate change, unconstrained A.I., and the increasing centralization of wealth and power."

Jen Hatmaker, a writer who was formerly popular with white evangelicals, lost much of her fan base when a month before the 2016 election she publicly supported Black Lives Matter and same-sex marriage.

"She got angry comments and blog posts written about her. Her children were pulled aside at their school and scolded. Readers mailed her books back to her with pages burned or torn, sometimes entirely shredded. Her speaking tour was canceled. She got death threats and was afraid to leave home.

'This year I became painfully aware of the machine, the Christian Machine,' which she says is 'systems and alliances and coded language and brand protection' set up to advance political power.

The election of Donald Trump, she said, happened because the 'Christian Machine malfunctioned' and silenced dissent against a political candidate who was obviously not living his life in accordance with white evangelicals’ self-described values."

Evangelicals aside, most Americans are displeased with the president, and therefore his approach to campaigning and governing may not survive in American politics. Ezra Klein's Nov. 7 article in Vox:

"Trumpism without Trump was possible before Trump was president. It might be possible after he’s president. It’s not possible while he’s president.

In 2016, Trump had the advantage of being a true outsider: He had no record to answer for, no unemployment rate to explain, no votes to justify. For all his oddities and eccentricities, he was a blank slate — a businessman to those who wanted a businessman, a culture warrior to those who wanted a culture warrior, a pragmatist to those who wanted a pragmatist, a conservative to those who wanted a conservative, and so on. He was theory severed from practice; “ism” without the reality check of is.

But now we have Trumpism with Trump, and the American people don’t much like it. Trump is no longer an abstraction, Trumpism no longer an idea. Instead, we are watching the real thing: a White House in chaos, a legislative agenda in shambles, a world in which nuclear war is likelier and America’s global leadership is diminished. Trump isn’t merely unpopular; he is less popular than any president at this point in their term since the advent of modern polling, and he is that unpopular even though the economy is growing and Americans are not dying in large numbers overseas."

At least a couple scandals centered around Liberty University.

First, in 2015, Liberty's chief information officer John Gauger accepted an offer of $50,000 from the Trump campaign to manipulate the polls on two news websites. Trump's former personal attorney Michael Cohen gave him a Walmart bag containing roughly $12,000 in cash and a collectible MMA boxing glove; he never delivered the rest of the money.

Secondly, the following year, there was a politicized Christian battle. Going into the 2016 Republican caucuses, Sen. Ted Cruz (whose father is an evangelical pastor) had expected the support of Liberty's president Jerry Falwell Jr., but shortly before the causes, Falwell (a businessman, not a pastor like his father) suddenly announced his support for Trump.

When the Access Hollywood tape was released in October 2016 before the election, Newsweek reports, "student journalists accused [Liberty's president Jerry] Falwell Jr. of censorship for axing an opinion piece in the student newspaper that blasted the then-Republican nominee." Liberty, the largest employer in Lynchburg, Va., had hosted Trump as a commencement speaker in 2017. In March 2018, Falwell appeared on CNN, defending Trump's character in the wake of sex scandals. Some Liberty students criticized Falwell for this:

A new organization called Red Letter Christians planned a revival event in Lynchburg for April 2018, intended to be somewhat of a political protest against Falwell. Professional evangelicals were afraid of damaging their ties to Liberty, so Red Letter Christians had a difficult time recruiting speakers for the event. Shortly before the event, Falwell banned the Red Letter Christians from campus and said the student newspaper couldn't cover the event. Red Letter exec director Don Golden said he wasn't inclined to ask permission to do what he does, since "we weren’t asked permission for evangelical leaders to say that Donald Trump is the president for evangelicals." In the end, the hall they rented for the revival was filled to less than one-fifth capacity, though many people watched online.

When asked at the end of 2018, "Is there anything President Trump could do that would endanger that support from you or other evangelical leaders?" Falwell answered, "No." A long investigative article published in the New York Times in June 2019, based on information gathered "from a lawsuit filed against the Falwells in Florida; the investigation into Mr. [Michael] Cohen by federal prosecutors in New York; and the gonzo-style tactics of the comedian and actor Tom Arnold," found that Michael Cohen, then Trump's lawyer, had been willing to help the Falwells with 2015 lawsuit over ownership of the gay-friendly Miami Hostel. As a favor to Jerry and Becki Falwell, who were being threatened with the revelation of compromising photographs of them, Cohen was thinking of buying and burying the photographs. The photos may have conveniently disappeared on their own without Cohen's involvement, however, and, since then, "no photos have surfaced."

A New York Times editorial on June 7, 2018 suggested that "the cult of Trump" really is just about the man:

"Mr. Trump’s favorability rating among Republicans is at 87 percent — the second-highest rating within a president’s party at an administration’s 500-day mark since World War II. (George W. Bush was slightly higher following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.) The absence of Republican criticism of Mr. Trump, in turn, serves to reinforce his popularity, creating a cycle cravenness that has now made it risky for even the staunchest of conservatives to question Mr. Trump. * * * Former House speaker John Boehner addressed the crowd at a policy conference in May 2018: 'There is no Republican Party. There’s a Trump party. The Republican Party is kind of taking a nap somewhere.'"

Scot Lehigh satirized in the Boston Globe on June 21: "The Great Trumpkin had hoped to rally the entire cult to his side. Just follow Corey’s lead and offer a sneering 'womp womp' to stories of traumatized kids. Why, the Thugwomps, with its nice 19th century ring, could even become the new nickname of the Grand Old Cult!"

In June 2018, Michael Gerson wrote in the Washington Post:

The ultimate cause of this situation, however, is Trump himself. His followers are not asked to follow the contours of an ideology. They are asked to embrace his impulses and instincts. Those instincts move in a clear direction: toward feeding racial and ethnic divisions, salting national wounds, undermining rival institutions and violating restrictive precedents. But the unifying principle is Trump himself.

G.K. Chesterton argued that the egotist is the exact opposite of the dogmatist. The dogmatist believes there is an objective truth that he wants everyone to see. The egotist believes that all his views are interesting because they are related to him.

By October 2019, Gerson wrote more pointedly:

When it comes to President Trump, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between a political strategy and a nervous breakdown. His tweeted trash talk, his meandering stream of consciousness media availabilities and his shameless embrace of sleaziness are not the signs of a healthy mind. Trump’s followers might eventually look up to find they were actors in someone else’s delusion.

* * *

Trump is effectively setting a new standard of political morality and requiring his supporters to defend it. He is asking elected Republicans, in particular, to agree with his claim that a practice uniformly viewed as corruption in the past is actually an example of fighting corruption now. That is the little thing, the small thing, which Trump demands of his followers: To call hot cold. To call black white. To call wrong right.

Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s idea of “incommensurability” strikes me as relevant here. If all moral claims are merely “emotive” — statements about ourselves rather than the nature of reality — then there is no way to argue between them.

* * *

Trump is the emotivist par excellence. He holds no objective, abstract beliefs about the meaning of justice or duty. He approves of things that help him and disapproves of things that hurt him. There is no other moral grounding.

And in another column later that month, Gerson again:

Rather than shaping President Trump’s agenda in Christian ways, they [white evangelical Protestants] have been reshaped into the image of Trump himself. Or, more accurately, they have become involved in a political throuple with Trump and Fox News, in which each feeds the grievances and conspiracy thinking of the others.

The result has properly been called cultlike. For many followers, Trump has defined an alternative, insular universe of facts and values that only marginally resembles our own.

* * *

Thirty-one percent say there is almost nothing that Trump could do to forfeit their approval. This is preemptive permission for any violation of the moral law or the constitutional order. It is not support; it is obeisance.

But what are the aims?

If Trumpism is a cult, what is its ideology and what are its goals?

Perhaps none. In June 2018, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker said: "It's becoming a cultish thing, isn't it?" He elaborated that this is "an administration that wakes up every day on an ad hoc basis just making stuff up as they go along with no coherency to it".

"You just can’t," Charles M. Blow wrote in the New York Times on June 20, 2018, "construct prisons for babies. You can’t rip children from mothers and fathers. You can’t use the power of the American government to institute and oversee a program of state-sponsored child abuse. You can’t have a system where the process and possibility of reunification is murky and maybe futile." Complaining that "although two-thirds of Americans overall opposed the policy, a majority of Republicans supported it," he offered this diagnosis: "That to me goes beyond standard political tribalism. That ventures into the territory that the Tennessee Republican senator Bob Corker described last week: This is cultlike." Indeed: "Not even the sight of devastated families could move the party that once called itself the party of family values. Not even the idea of 'tender age' internment camps for babies could move the party built on the protection of 'unborn babies.'"

Andrew Sullivan wrote in May 2020:

Tribalism is now not just one force in American politics, it’s the overwhelming one, and tribalism abhors reality if it impugns the tribe. But you can’t have both tribalism and public health...What we are seeing is whether this tribalism can be sustained even when it costs tens of thousands of lives, even when it means exposing yourself to a deadly virus, even when it is literally more important than your own life. We are entering the Jonestown phase of the Trump cult this summer.

Mary Midgley wrote in the early 1980s that Nazism lacked any consistent ideology except for hatred of Jews.

"In general, then, there are strong objections to viewing all wrongdoers as mad, as well as strong temptations to do it, and for many cases people do not find this explanation plausible. In these cases, however, another strategy often comes into play to make the offence look intelligible. This is to credit the offenders with having a complete morality of their own, which, for them, justifies their actions. This idea leads people to suppose that (for instance) the Nazis must have been original reasoners, with an independent, consistent and well-thought-out ethical theory — a view which their careers and writings do not support at all. As Hannah Arendt points out, at the Nuremburg trials the lack of this much-advertised commodity became painfully obvious. 'The defendants accused and betrayed each other and assured the world that they 'had always been against it'....Although most of them must have known that they were doomed, not a single one of them had the guts to defend the Nazi ideology.' This was not just from a failure of nerve, though that in itself would be significant in a movement apparently devoted to the military virtues. It was also because there was not really much coherent ideology that could be defended. The only part of it which carried real passionate conviction was emotional and destructive; it was the hatred of the Jews. This always remained constant, but almost every other element varied according to the audience addressed and the political possibilities of the moment. The enemy might be Communism or capitalism, the elite or the rabble, France or Russia or the Weimar government, just as interest dictated at the time. It was therefore hard to say much that was positive and constructive about the aims of the regime. Germany was to expand, but why it would be a good thing that it should do so remained obscure." (Mary Midgley. Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay. (First published by Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984.) Kindle edition: Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2003.)

The inevitable observation is that Nazism did not need a complex ideology to be very dangerous, not only to Jews, but to other identity groups and vulnerable people and to foreign and domestic government institutions.

Political cults may be prone to fail ultimately since, as Cheeseman and Klaas write, "the electorate is often deeply cynical about politicians. For all the capacity of presidents to build personality cults, citizens are generally skeptical about the motivations of political leaders and their ability and determination to deliver on their promises." (Nicholas Cheeseman and Brian Klaas. How to Rig an Election. New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2018.)

Jeremy W. Peters interviewed several Trump supporters for the New York Times in a June 23, 2018 article. One woman said that “overblown” criticism from the left “makes me angry at them, which causes me to want to defend him [Trump] to them more." A man said: "He’s not a perfect guy; he does some stupid stuff. But when they’re hounding him all the time it just gets old. Give the guy a little.” Another woman said: "It bothers me that he doesn’t tell the truth, but I guess I kind of expect that, and I expect that from the media, too — not to always tell the truth or to slant it one way." And another man described hearing criticism more as a visceral rather than intellectual experience: "It’s kind of like when you experience a sensation over and over and over again. A sensation is no longer a sensation. It’s just, 'Oh, here we are again.'" Other people emphasized the responsibility of immigrants for their own fate — "I think it’s terrible about the kids getting split up from their parents. But the parents shouldn’t have been here" — or of the left for their comments and activism — “It’s just incredible what the nation is trying to do to disrupt this president and his agenda." A high school student said: "I have a fair bit of skepticism toward him [Trump]. But I feel like he is trying his best."

The next morning, Tom Nichols threaded his tweets: "The NYT piece on Trump supporters digging in is why I said, well over a year ago, that there was no way to reason with them. There is no level of moral collapse or political incompetence they will not defend. The question is why. ... They double-down because they know that even if they win, they lose. They're desperately trying to recapture a world that doesn't exist, and never did. That old lady crying for Trump?" — here, Nichols referred to a June 21 MSNBC interview — "She knows it's over. The world she once loved - or thought she did - isn't coming back. ... This explains a lot of the fury, I think, and why Trumpers are the angriest winners in American political history. They won, but they know it doesn't mean anything, and they double down out of shame and fear. What choice is there? ... when people are ashamed of themselves, they double down. The people in the NYT story *know*. They *know*. But once you defend the indefensible, there's no climb-down. That's why there's no point in trying to reason with them." (tweets 1, 3, 5, 7) In response to a comment, Nichols added: "We are no longer a virtuous country. The rest is just the endgame." Cesar Falson commented: "It’s like being lost when you’re driving and never wanting to admit being lost so you double down and make things worse. But then again, the easy answer is this is just cultish behavior." Another commenter said: "They tend to be authoritarians. They believe they are right because they are in a position of authority, i.e., white, esp. white male. Being right can be largely unrelated to facts to them. It's the evangelical way which is why his infidelities don't bother them, authority wins."

The Cult of Trump by Steven Hassan is a book about "the persuasiveness, not cultishness, of Trump, written by a cult expert," according to an interview with the author. Hassan said:

My definition of a destructive cult is an authoritarian pyramid-structured group, with a section in recruitment and mind control on the people it recruits and indoctrinates to be dependent and obedient. So, for me, the designation of “cult” includes Trump being a malignant narcissist, which is the stereotypical profile of cult leaders. I parallel his behaviors with people like Jim Jones, L. Ron Hubbard, and other cult leaders.

The overall formula of a cult is that the members are indoctrinated into a black-and-white, all-or-nothing, good-versus-evil version of reality, where they are not thinking for themselves, they’re not thinking with their consciences, they’re cut off from other forms of information that question their indoctrination. In fact, they’re explicitly punished if they listen to the other side.

He added: "A lot of people are going to wake up one day from what they were supporting with Trump and realize how they have been taken. At that point, there’s going to be a lot of upset, angry, ashamed, and embarrassed people."

In April 2020, Chauncey Devega interviewed Hassan for "The Truth Report." Hassan explained that "Trump was trained to be a magical thinker as a child" because of his association with the church of Norman Vincent Peale. "It’s been described as a type of solipsistic reality where Trump defines his own world and what is real or not...In this way of thinking, if Trump says the coronavirus pandemic is just going to somehow get better then it is going to happen. And when that does not happen, then Trump can deny ever saying such a thing, blame the Chinese, the Democrats or anyone else, instead of just saying he was wrong." Although "right now it is premature to say that Donald Trump leads a death cult," Hassan said, as in that type of cult the president would be "telling the followers to kill themselves" or saying "it does not matter if those people who are not in the death cult die," his cult would be a death cult when "the coronavirus pandemic overwhelms the health care system." But even confronting the death of family members and friends may not prompt people to leave the death cult, as "the cult part of their psyche is going to say it was their time [to die]. If Trump’s followers are religious, they will simply rationalize it as the dead are going to a better place in heaven."

Ashley Smith is the cofounder of the "Reopen NC" movement. Her husband, Adam Smith, posted Facebook Live videos on May 22, 2020 that threatened: "But are we willing to kill people? Are we willing to lay down our lives? We have to say, ‘Yes.’ We have to say, ‘Yes.’ Is that violence? Is that terrorism? No, it’s not terrorism. I’m not trying to strike fear in people by saying, ‘I’m going to kill you.’ I’m gonna say, ‘If you bring guns, I’m gonna bring guns. If you’re armed with this, we’re going to be armed with this.’" He added, as Raw Story put it, "that he feels called by God and by his understanding of the Constitution to prepare for a violent showdown." He calls himself a "constitutionalist" and said that the lockdown situation "is a test. This is seeing if we are ready to accept the mark of the beast, if we are ready to accept this New World Order system they want to implement over humanity."

Selected tweets from a 5 June 2019 thread:

On August 21, 2019, the "King of Israel" tweets happened.

This interpretation:

Andrew Napolitano, a former judge who is now a judicial analyst at Fox News, argued in an opinion piece published by Fox on Sept. 5, 2019 that Trump simply has too much power.

"This question of presidential power is not an academic one. Nor is it a question unique to the Trump presidency, as it has risen numerous times before Trump entered office. But the audacious manner of Trump's employment of presidential powers has brought it to public scrutiny.

* * *

After years of faithless Congresses legally but unconstitutionally ceding power to the presidency, we have arrived where we are today — a president who spends unappropriated funds, raises taxes, defies courts and changes immigration laws on his own. I have written before that the Republicans who rejoice in this will weep over it when a Democrat is in the White House. No president should have unconstitutional powers."

Paul Waldman wrote in June 2018:

This is what seems to be driving away a small but meaningful number of Republicans: not just that Trump is doing things like ripping children from their parents’ arms at the border, but that so much of the Republican electorate loves him precisely because of it. You can be disgusted at the venom coursing off the podium at one of Trump’s rallies, but the real horror is in the crowd, lustily cheering every insult, every lie, every call to hate. If you’re one of these Republican defectors, you probably realize that Trump didn’t create the ugliness that has driven you away; he merely revealed it. A healthier party would have spat him out like a piece of rancid meat. Instead, it swallowed heartily and proclaimed this the best thing it had ever tasted.

Anthony Scaramucci, who famously lasted only days as Trump's WH Communications Director, referred to Trumpism as a "cult" in November 2019:

Jeff Sessions, who was elected Senator in 1996 and held that seat until he made the mistake of accepting the role of Attorney General in Trump's White House in 2017 (which Trump allowed him to hold for less than two years), now wants his Senate seat back. Avi Selk notes that Sessions' 1996 campaign ad had mentioned "fundamental values" and "a God in heaven who orders the universe." In Sessions' 2019 campaign ad, by contrast, "the only higher power the president."

On Nov. 10, 2019, Sen. Marsha Blackburn misquoted a Shakespearean villain autocrat who says "let's kill all the lawyers" — in her version, it is Jesus saying "watch out for the lawyers."

At an August 2019 press conference about his trade war with China, Trump yelled, "I am the chosen one!" He subsequently tweeted that he had been joking and that he would have "No more trust!" for the media who had suggested otherwise. He also claimed that he had been smiling, although the video shows that he was not smiling. In November 2019, however, Rick Perry appeared on the "Fox & Friends" TV show saying that he recently provided Trump with "a one-pager" with information about Old Testament kings with the comment that, "You know, you said you were 'the chosen one.' And I said, 'You were.'" Co-host Pete Hegseth said that supporters "feel precisely the way Rick Perry does," saying that they "dismiss" reporters' information about Trump's personal failings, since "God has used imperfect people forever, because we're all imperfect, but what he [Trump] has withstood is unlikely really what any other mortal could understand." Co-host Rachel Campos Duffy appeared to try to dial this back, attributing a more orthodox theological statement to Trump supporters (or so it seems, from context): "They also say, 'I don't need a savior, I already got one.'"

Of Perry's "chosen one" comment, Jay Parini wrote: "This notion has been going around the administration like a strange virus, infecting Sarah Sanders and Mike Pompeo as well. I don't have any easy answers, and it worries me to see evangelicals who do." Anthea Butler said, "Perhaps what the Trump era has laid bare is how nakedly church leaders' support of him is about political power."

Former Minnesota Congressperson Michele Bachmann said in April 2019 that "we will, in all likelihood, never see a more godly, biblical president again in our lifetime." She said in October 2019 that Trump "understands the difference between good and evil. We have not seen a president with greater moral clarity than this president," and that his likely impeachment has "almost biblical implications."

In November 2019, not long after Attorney General William Barr referred to the "organized destruction" of secularism that has allegedly "marshaled all the force of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values," Thomas B. Edsall made this observation:

The reality is that Barr is not only selling traditional values to conservative voters, some of whom are genuinely starved for them, he is also marketing apocalyptic hogwash because, for his boss to get re-elected, Trump’s supporters must continue to believe that liberals and the Democratic Party are the embodiment of evil, determined to destroy the American way of life.

The Washington Post reported in December 2019:

Presidential historians ranked Lincoln as the nation’s greatest president, and Trump as one of the worst in a 2017 survey...But ordinary Republicans, in a 53-percent-to-47-percent majority, favor Trump over the Civil War hero, according to a survey conducted by the Economist magazine and polling site

Most white evangelicals say that Jesus will return within their lifetimes. (That is: In a 2010 poll, nearly 60 percent of white evangelicals said Jesus would return by the year 2050.) A Mother Jones article by Stephanie Mencimer explained: "The most blatant appeal to this constituency came when Trump made the controversial decision to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a long-desired goal of evangelicals who see it as fulfilling a biblical prophecy necessary in securing the Second Coming. What may be less obvious is how Trump’s disdain for international governing bodies like NATO also dovetails almost perfectly with End Times theology, whether he realizes it or not."

Also according to Mencimer: While "Trump’s self-created crisis in Iran seems to have no relationship to any sort of coherent foreign policy or geopolitical plan for the future," it resonates for evangelicals. "The administration has struggled to provide evidence of any imminent threats from Soleimani, but the timing for the assassination was certainly fortuitous for someone looking to mobilize evangelicals." Indeed, "Trump announced the killing of Soleimani just hours before appearing at the launch of his campaign’s Evangelicals for Trump coalition in Miami." And thus: "A few days after the killing of Soleimani, [megachurch pastor Greg] Laurie made a YouTube video with Don Stewart, author of 25 Signs We Are Near the End, to discuss Iran and the End Times. 'The scenario that the Bible predicted, seemingly so impossible,' Stewart promised, 'is now falling into place.'"

Jonathan Chait, "the cruelty is the point":

For many of Trump’s policy actions, the cruelty is the point. But for some of his more trivial episodes, the stupidity is the point. The gleeful rejection of objective truth, throwing oneself fully into Trumpism, is a marker of tribal loyalty.

Trump obviously has no reason to credit Kansas rather than Missouri with hosting the Super Bowl champions. The point of defending it is to demonstrate that the Trump cult can create its own reality and needn’t make any concession to external truth.

("Republicans Say Trump Was Right, Kansas City Chiefs Indeed Based in Kansas," Jonathan Chait, NY Intelligencer, Feb. 3, 2020)

Andrew Sullivan, "the pathology is the point":

I know we’re used to it, but there is no rational or coherent explanation for any of this. There is no strategy, or political genius. There is just a delusional pathology in which he says whatever comes into his head at any moment, determined entirely by his mood, which is usually bad. * * * The key thing, however, is that none of this seems to matter to the supporters of the president. For them, the pathology seems to be the point.

(Andrew Sullivan, "With Trump, the Pathology Is the Point," NY Intelligencer, May 22, 2020.)

"Kakistocracy" is a word for rulership by the worst people.

Sarah Posner explained in Unholy (2020): "The evangelical publisher Stephen Strang, who owns the widely read Charisma magazine, which promotes the careers of televangelists like White and a widening circle of self-styled prophets and revivalists, wrote in his hagiography, God and Donald Trump, that Christian leaders believe Trump is a 'chosen vessel used by God despite his flaws.'"

Capitalist origins

Jared Yates Sexton wrote in April 2020:
Companies like these oil and energy giants are the architects of the current societal crisis. In this economy, they have worked together to undermine the healthcare system, scuttle reform, and ensure lower wages among American workers. Partnered with the Republican Party, they have created an anti-future death cult dedicated to immediate profit and gain at the expense and sacrifice of the future. This partnership has resulted in unbelievable consequences, including a dilapidated national infrastructure, fractured social connections, and the twisting of reality.

The Republican Party has aimed to reduce access to education and the impact of the curriculum:

Since desegregation, white supremacists have attempted to wipe out public education in favor of private schools where African Americans can still be barred from the halls. The wealthy and corporate interests prefer a defanged curriculum that hides their past crimes and manipulations in favor of making students more susceptible to their marketing and propaganda while ensuring they’re incapable of understanding government or civic duties.

"These companies and political bodies," Sexton writes, do "trust experts," but "undermine them as to keep their intentions clandestine in nature. As early as the 1980's energy companies like Exxon were warning of 'potentially catastrophic' climate change, a concept they still deny now, four decades later. The companies were well aware that they were peddling poison and ushering in destruction on a truly global scale."

This brought us to where we are now in the 2020 pandemic:

They manifested an America ripe for manipulation and control, but doomed them to a society teeming with a virus they can’t believe exists and facing an extinction they can’t believe will come. The people they’ve affected, the people they’ve trained not to trust experts or educators, are in the streets demanding the right to die so they can return to work that is designed to exploit and lessen the quality of their lives.

Jeff Sharlet, author of "The Family," wrote for Vanity Fair on June 18, 2020 that people at a Louisiana rally thrilled in a relatively new "white power" hand gesture, a "kind of coded message, a sense of possessing knowledge shared only by a select few. It’s Möbius strip politics, Trumpism’s defining oxymoron: a populist elite, a mass movement of 'free thinkers' all thinking the same thing. They love Trump because he makes them feel like insiders even as they imagine him their outsider champion." Many of them believe the president "is on a mission from God to expose (and destroy) the hidden demons of the deep state." Jesse Lee Peterson, a pastor, "calls Trump the Great White Hope because, he says, 'Number one, he is white. Number two, he is of God.'" Another rally attendee put it: "God is using him...He’s the chosen one to run America."

A rally attendee that Sharlet spoke to described Democratic politicians as "demons. Not even human"; this man once spent 33 days in jail for threatening to replicate the Pizzagate assault on another pizzeria in the neighborhood. He pled guilty to threatening: "I’m coming to finish what the other guy didn’t. I’m coming there to save the kids, and then I’m going to shoot you and everyone in the place." He claimed that his preacher told him, "You did a good thing." He came to the rally wearing a homemade "GOT TRUMP?" shirt and a plastic mask with Trump's face on it.

Sharlet writes:

The gospel of Thomas — the doubting one — does not, of course, reside with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in your King James. But then, Trump doesn’t read the Bible. He doesn’t need to. Rule books are for losers. Reading is for losers. The gospel of Trump, like that of Thomas — noncanonical, antiestablishment — is gnostic, a form of secret knowledge reserved for the faithful, a 'truth' you must have the eyes to see in order to believe.

Gnosticism, which dates at least to the second century A.D., is the path Christianity did not take, its texts destroyed as heretical, its ideas mostly forgotten until the 1945 discovery in Egypt of 13 ancient books in a sealed clay jar. Or maybe not so much forgotten as woven over the centuries into countless conspiracy theories, the deep-seated belief that there exist truths they — there is always a they in gnosticism, from the bishops and bureaucrats of the early church, coastal elites of the ancient world, to the modern media peddling fake news — do not want us, the people, to perceive.

People wearing shirts saying "TRUMP'S TWEETS MATTER" believe: "Every tweet, every misspelling, every typo, every strange capitalization — especially the capitalizations, says Dave — has meaning. 'The truth is right there in what the media think are his mistakes. He doesn’t make mistakes.' The message of the shirt to Dave is: Study the layers. 'Trump is known as a five-dimension chess player,' Dave says later. And he’s sending us clues."

And yet another rallygoer insists that the Democrats are "raping and pillaging Haiti!":
It’s too terrible to speak of. She turns away, to the happiness of a small circle of new friends she’s made at the rally, a whole family decked out in Trump wear. But she keeps coming back. “The truth and the lies,” she says. I don’t know what she means. She turns away again, returns again, her eyes watery. “I’m going to say it,” she decides. But she can’t. She walks away. Her friends seem worried. She comes back, leans in. “They eat the children.” She shakes with tears. Her friends nod.

This same person believes that the random incorrect capitalization in Trump's tweets are a form of Gematria. She explains: "Anything capitalized, we add up as a number." She says Trump's messages are all about "spiritual warfare" and something Q calls "The Great Awakening."

In 2018, Kaitlin Bennett gained 15 minutes of fame by open-carrying an AR-10 rifle at Kent State University. In September 2020, she tweeted: "Donald Trump isn't just my President. He's my KING!" She was hawking "Trump is my KING" T-shirts.

It seems that, at Liberty University, "in the face of allegations of Falwell Jr.'s inappropriate comments and behavior, the school's board of trustees opted to take no official notice for at least a decade," Ashlie Stevens wrote. She finds the proper metaphor to be — rather than Cyrus — the golden calf.

In November 2020, after the election, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman told Wolf Blitzer on CNN: "This is not a political party. This is a cult." He pointed out that the Republican Party had no platform in 2020. "They're all afraid of the cult leader," he said.

(The theme of fear can be seen in the book A Very Stable Genius.

On May 6, 2021, Sen. Lindsey Graham said on Fox News: “Can we move forward without President Trump? The answer is no. I’ve always liked Liz Cheney, but she’s made the determination that the Republican Party can’t grow with President Trump. I’ve determined we can’t grow without him.”


D. Andrew Ferguson, Brian Jelke, Don Morgan, Mark Plemmons, and Jarrett Sylvestre. Villain Design Handbook: Kingdoms of Kalamar. Mundelein, Ill.: Kenzer and Company, 2002. p. 42.


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