Now that we’re just past the halfway point of Donald Trump’s presidency, many within the Republican party are increasingly baffled as to the near-mystical hold Trump has over his incredibly loyal and supportive base — many of whom are made up of white, evangelical Christians. Going back to the 2016 election, statistics showed that 81% of those white evangelical Christians voted for him, and most of those still support him and his policies wholeheartedly.
Even now, generally among Republicans nationwide, according to Gallup polls, Trump’s popularity as of May 2019 sits at an incredible 87%. When compared to just 8% of Democrats who approve of him, this partisan split actually set a record for American presidents, and further demonstrates that Trump’s base remains remarkably stable in its support for him. All this, despite Trump’s countless scandals, nonstop stream of lies, and ongoing criminal investigations into multiple aspects of his political and business life.
That remarkable fact makes for an excellent segue into the topic at hand: why indeed are Trump’s base so blindly loyal to him? This question is especially perplexing in the case of Trump-supporting evangelical Christians, for example, who (in theory at least) purport to stand against virtually everything that Trump has clearly revealed himself to be: a racist, xenophobic, lying, adulterous, fraudulent businessman and proudly admitted sexual assaulter of women. All of these very public portrayals of Trump’s character, all of which have been known for years now, are one hundred percent against what evangelical Christianity claims to stand for, both biblically and morally.
And yet — despite the clear and damning evidence — they continue to support him, claiming that he is “God’s chosen man for such a time as this” and cast him as a “Cyrus” figure straight out of the Old Testament. This is beyond extraordinary. But like many a cult leader before him, what most people consider to be outrageous behavior, the cult leader gets away with; his followers merely turn a blind eye to what he does, or justify it in their minds somehow as acceptable “for achieving the greater good” —in this case, making America great again.
All of this begs the question: what exactly explains the hold that Donald Trump has over his followers, and by extension, the Republican party? Many within the party have made statements to the effect that “The Republican Party is now the Party of Donald Trump.” Although many Republicans in either the Senate or Congress privately disagree with virtually everything Trump says or does, they are so fearful of his base, and of Trump’s bully pulpit of Twitter, that they dare not publicly speak out for fear of committing political suicide.
Bizarrely, it seems that literally nothing Trump does or says (including feuding with a long-dead John McCain, a war hero), negatively affects his base’s support for him. He’s truly the “teflon Don.” For example, Tony Perkins, head of the conservative evangelical Family Research Council, told a Politico reporter that Trump gets “a do-over, a mulligan” for his alleged affair with porn star Stormy Daniels. Perkins went on to say that there would be nothing Trump could do that would shake his support for him.
Evangelicals, while being uneasy about Trump the man, are certainly enthused about his policies, which they wholeheartedly support — such as appointing conservative judges to high court positions. Besides, loyal Trumpists reason, we’re not getting the truth from the “fake news” lamestream media; as Trump stated in a July 2018 speech, “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not happening.” In other words, don’t believe what you see, or what you read; only I can tell you what is true, so rely on me (or alt-right outlets such as Fox News, Breitbart, or Infowars) for the truth.
The Cult of Trump
In order to explain such a bizarre phenomenon, I posit the following: what we are witnessing here is in effect a political cult of personality. Both Trump, and his blindly loyal base, exhibit many of the classic characteristics of cults, and in particular, political cults. Lalich and Tobias, in their book Take Back Your Life, comment that political cults “are fueled by belief in changing society, revolution, overthrowing the perceived enemy or getting rid of evil forces. The leader professes to be all knowing and all-powerful.”
Does this description fit the Cult of Trump? I believe that it clearly does. For example, Trump’s base is proud of the fact that they are changing American society — and the world — for the better, as they support his efforts to “Make America Great Again.” Trump’s populist, nationalist message as a candidate touched a deep core of rage, racism and resentment that had long been present in a large segment of American society, and it fed into the notion that he alone could fix the problem. Furthermore, it is extremely troubling to note that Trump’s own racism and white nationalism have not only not been condemned by his base, it’s been applauded.
For the loyal Trumpist, therefore, there are plenty of enemies from which to choose: Trump’s base speaks of “owning the libs” and contemptuously label Democrats as “snowflakes” and “socialists.” They applaud Trump picking fights with former allies like Mexico, Canada or the EU; he’s doing exactly what he promised as a candidate: shaking up the establishment. In Trump’s view, and that of his angry base, America has been “a sucker” for far too long, taken advantage of by unfair trade imbalances, or nations refusing to pay their NATO bill while America shouldered the bulk of the costs. No longer, now that our man is in the White House! And of course, the “fake news” is nothing less than, in Trump’s words, “the enemy of the people.”
And what about the status of the exalted leader of the cult? Trump has stated on many occasions sentiments to the effect that “Only I alone can fix what’s wrong with America,” or “Nobody knows about X topic more than I do.” Clearly, then, he has a grandiose opinion of himself. Strangely, rather than seeing through his clear delusions of grandeur, his base instead laps it all up, and cheers him on — while the rest of the world looks on with disbelief and a growing sense of alarm.
Trump: The Cult Leader
When analyzing the cult of Trump, it is critical to examine the character of the leader of the group first. Cult leaders tend to have virtually identical troubling personality traits that fit a nearly-universal profile, or pattern. Psychologists have long argued over the question of Trump’s alleged cognitive decline, or whether a sitting President can be psychologically analyzed as per the Goldwater Rule. Despite the wrangling over his mental state, one thing seems certain: the nearly-universal observation by many psychologists and psychiatrists alike that Trump clearly displays the personality trait of extreme narcissism.
Somehow, Trump manages to turn virtually every news item into a story line about himself. Like many a typical cult leader, everything is always about Trump; the universe revolves around him. He gets two scoops of ice cream to everyone else’s one. GQ reporter Rebecca Nelson comments that Trump clearly exhibits the characteristics of narcissism: “an exaggerated sense of self-importance, preoccupation with success, power and brilliance, [and behaves] in a haughty or arrogant manner.”
In addition to his narcissistic tendencies, there is the troubling case of his authoritarian tendencies. Trump is clearly drawn to other authoritarian, despotic political figures (Putin, Kim-Jong Un, Erdogan, etc). Envious of their totalistic power and control, he views himself as similarly authoritarian, wishing he could run America as a virtual dictator, or at least be President for life.
Yet at the same time, despite his despotic nature, he is deeply insecure and notoriously thin-skinned. Trump will, in the words of Melania Trump’s spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham, “punch back ten times as hard” whenever he perceives any slight against him, or is provoked by what he views as an attack against him. For example, Trump has launched countless Twitter tirades against many of his “enemies,” complete with petty name-calling, bullying comments, and personal insults. Publicly trashing a dead man, Trump refuses to end his public and one-sided feud with McCain, even many months after McCain’s death!
In the words of psychologists Levine and Schiavo, cult leaders are “authoritarian personalities who attempt to compensate for their deep, intense feelings of inferiority, insecurity, and hostility by forming cultic groups primarily to attract those whom they can psychologically coerce into and keep in a passive-submissive state…” (in Lalich and Tobias, Take Back Your Life p. 52).
Trump’s sense of insecurity and inferiority are nearly always on display. For example, Trump often basks in the adulation of his followers, and constantly relives the glory of his electoral victory; he incessantly refers to how much people love him, how other world leaders are his close and personal friends, the incredible crowd sizes at his rallies, the standing ovations he receives for inspiring speeches, and so forth.
Ultimately, it’s all about power; the cult exists to serve the emotional (or financial, sexual, etc.), needs of the leader. As with other political dictators from the past, such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, Trump fits the dictator/cult leader parallel; his power not only increases his own confidence in himself, to his followers it makes him seem less like one of the “common herd.” Thus, he becomes more admirable in their eyes — and this makes them feel more confident, by extension. He once told an adoring rally crowd in North Dakota that “We’re the elite. You’re the elite!”
Beyond being narcissistic and authoritarian, Trump is nonetheless clearly a charismatic figure, able to hold followers in thrall at his ongoing rallies all over the nation. One thinks of Hitler’s ranting speeches at carefully staged mass rallies in Germany; the leader feeds off the energy of his adoring followers, and they in turn get energized from the leader’s fiery rhetoric. The speeches end up confirming their existing biases and beliefs by denouncing and demeaning their common enemies (“Lock her up!”).
As with most cult leaders, due to their charisma, they themselves become an object of worship by their devoted followers. Based upon his bestselling books, and his success as host of The Apprentice, as a celebrity prior to his becoming President, Trump successfully cashed in on the notoriety of his image as a powerful and savvy New York real estate tycoon on the inside line. But as tabloid stories of the time make clear, even in his New York heyday, Trump constantly sought to portray himself as one of the “in crowd” that in truth never really accepted him as one of their own.
This carefully-cultivated public image means that to his followers, Trump displays the attractive qualities of magnetism, self-assurance, and a winning style — and his followers will share in the “winning” such that they’ll “get tired of winning so much.” In a cult leader, this type of personality not only attracts attention, it can attract a large following too.
It seems fairly clear, then, that Trump is narcissistic, authoritarian and charismatic; but none of those traits necessarily make him a prime candidate for a cult leader. But there’s more: according to Lalich and Tobias, cult leaders often have sociopathic behavioral characteristics. Do you agree that Trump displays virtually all of these tendencies?
Among those sociopathic behaviors that Trump consistently displays are as follows: a grandiose sense of self (“I’m a very stable genius”); pathological lying (lying coolly and easily, even when it is obvious he is being untruthful and fact-checked relentlessly); lack of remorse, shame and guilt (demanding loyalty from his surrogates, who often end up as his victims); callousness and lack of empathy (constantly picking fights with “enemies,” engaging in name-calling and racial slurs — including politicians, athletes, journalists, etc.); poor behavior control (lashing out in rage at his cabinet members over unpleasant news); unreliable (unconcerned about the consequences of his behavior and the damage it causes to others; never apologizing or taking the blame); promiscuous sexual behavior and infidelity (Trump has had a long history of risky and very public affairs, and has bragged about sexually assaulting women); and finally, criminal or entrepreneurial versatility (making use of loopholes in tax laws to avoid prosecution and litigation).
Thus, when examined more objectively, Trump fits many of the same characteristics of many a cult leader. A raging narcissist with authoritarian tendencies, who is at the same time deeply insecure and thin-skinned, Trump also has the ability to act as a charismatic, “messiah-like” figure to his followers. His carefully-crafted (but ultimately untrue) public image as a “winner” has successfully translated into his base, who would love to share in some of those winnings. However, his clear sociopathic tendencies indicate that in many ways, he is an unstable figure who is demonstrably unfit for the office of President. But, he does make for a fantastic cult leader!
How the Trump Cult Works
Essentially, like any good cult leader, Trump follows many standard “cult playbook” tactics. To his followers, he’s always right — even when he’s not. Although confronted with definitive proof of their Dear Leader’s easily-disproven lies, none of that matters in the slightest to his followers. Stories that debunk his lies or fact-checkers are all somehow “fake news;” and besides, as Trump lawyer Guiliani famously stated, “Truth isn’t truth anymore.” Those on the outside suffer from “outrage fatigue,” and struggle to make sense of the constant firehose-stream of lies coming from Trump’s mouth.
Cult leaders like Trump somehow create a “bubble” or a “field” around their followers, whereby they simply are incapable of seeing reality as people on the outside do. This is what GQ reporter Rebecca Nelson labels “a reality distortion field.” As mentioned above, even when his followers are presented with indisputable evidence of their leader’s outright lies or broken promises, they will tend to respond either with indifference or disbelief — such is the level of indoctrination and mind control to which they’ve been subjected.
What indoctrination, what mind control? Most Trumpists would indignantly retort that those of us on the “outside” are the ones being brainwashed by the lamestream media. They know the “real truth” about the way things are; it’s us poor deluded fools who can’t see it for what it truly is.
Let’s take a closer look at how the Trump Cult establishes mind control over its followers. For a start, both Fox News and Trump’s rallies are sources of this indoctrination process. Fox has essentially become an organ of the State of Trump, loyally defending him and suggesting increasingly bizarre conspiracy theories. Trump then retweets those stories throughout the day, establishing a feedback-loop echo chamber. Other alt-right conservatives, like Rush Limbaugh of Breitbart and Alex Jones of Infowars, also assist in strengthening the indoctrination and feed into various conspiracy theories that many in Trump’s base lap up unquestioningly.
In an article on The New Republic, Alexander Hurst comments that Trump has successfully created, like many a cult leader before him, a cult of personality featuring an “us-vs-them” mentality. He comments, “Like religious cult leaders, demagogues understand the importance of setting up an in-group/out-group dynamic as a means of establishing their followers’ identity as members of a besieged collective.”
The manichean worldview that Trump presents has succeeded in dividing the world into black-and-white categories of “us vs. them” — Democrats vs. Republicans, “fake news” like CNN vs. Fox News, etc. His rallies serve as a means of disseminating the propaganda and indoctrination, and the hype and energy surrounding them only fuels his base all the more.
Trump’s populist, white nationalistic messages portraying Hispanic immigrants as “animals” and “rapists” who are “invading” America has only stoked the fears among his base that America is currently being besieged and is under threat of constant attack. His branding of Democrats as standing for “open borders” where criminals, Middle Eastern terrorists, MS-13 gang members, rapists and drug dealers simply stream across in “caravans” completely unmolested by border agents only fits into Trump’s twisted worldview — and increasingly, that of his base also. People can be very easily manipulated by appealing to their deepest fears and phobias.
Beyond all of the populist rhetoric, as mentioned above, Trump campaigned as a “messiah figure” — only he, and he alone, could fix the “American carnage” left behind by the Obama administration. Clearly, his base has bought into the rhetoric, and has embraced him as their political messiah. In the case of many of those white evangelicals, Trump is a politico-religious messiah also. He’s “God’s man,” prophetically chosen for such a time as this.
Sociologist of cults Eileen Barker indicates that there are three characteristics shared by cults and their leaders. Do these describe the cult of Trump? She states that:
“…together, cult leaders and followers create and maintain their movement by
- proclaiming shared beliefs and identifying themselves as a distinguishable unit;
- behaving in ways that reinforce the group as a social entity, like closing themselves off to conflicting information; and
- stoking division and fear of enemies, real or perceived.”
I submit that virtually every one of these three markers fits exactly the phenomenon of the Trump cult.
But the major question we must ask is this: can his blindly loyal followers be “deprogrammed,” as it were, and freed from his malign influence? Like any indoctrinated cultist, “unplugging” from the cult leader’s influence is the first step toward freedom. Those Trumpists who constantly get their information from Trump and Fox News, however, will likely be unable to do this successfully.
Besides, for the true Trumpist, they don’t want to unplug, since they are 100% committed to staying aboard the Trump Train, riding it to its inevitable conclusion (or horrific train wreck). Cult leaders control their followers by restricting the flow of information; if a loyal Trumpist receives all of his or her information from outlets like Q-Anon, Breitbart, Infowars and Fox News, then they will only hear what the cult leader wants them to hear. Such activities will only confirm their already-existing biases, and make them all the more suspicious of other sources of information that challenge, or contradict, their worldview.
Therefore, since most diehard Trumpists either can’t (or won’t) see their way clear of the Cult of Trump, the next question is this: how can those outside deal with the MAGA-hat-wearing hordes of his followers? Civil and respectful dialogue is becoming increasingly difficult; most of the “true believers,” who are convinced of the truth of things like the Q-Anon conspiracy theory of the “deep state” contriving to bring down Trump’s presidency, will be virtually impossible to reason with. Besides, as Hurst points out: “Reason rarely defeats emotion.”
Education is the single most important tool in one’s arsenal when it comes to cults; forewarned is forearmed, as the old saying has it. Knowing how political cults work — like the Cult of Trump — may just assist you in one day freeing a diehard Trumpist from Trump’s malign grip on both power and minds.