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."
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 sense...it'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."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."
One politicized Christian battle centered around Liberty University. 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:
To be clear, most Liberty students are not moral relativists like Falwell. Most don’t even know he was on TV tonight. That veneer of logos behind him makes it look like we all stand behind his words. Some do, but many do not. https://t.co/WGnXYIhLWW— Dustin Wahl (@_DustinWahl) March 29, 2018
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.
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.
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.'"
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."
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.