I have been of the opinion for some time that the “movement” around now President-Elect Donald Trump is a cult. This view has been expressed by writers in several publications (see here, here, and here, for example).
I have also expressed my belief that Trump is a fascist. The possibility that Trump is the center of a fascist incursion into our political system has also been explored by writers in a number of publications (for example, here, here and here.)
Now I want to put these ideas together and explore the possibility that fascism is, by its nature, a cult.
I previously published a blog post in which I asserted that religion is essentially ideology. I noted that religious ideas and political ideologies have common elements and intersections. I noted that there are modern “ideologies that have had tremendous power at various times and in various societies, and operate in ways similar to religion. Among these are communism, capitalism, fascism, Nazism, and various expressions of nationalism. Cult-like ideologies created around national leaders have also arisen in the 20th century – Peronism, Maoism, and the cult of the “Leader” in North Korea are three notable examples.”
Umberto Eco famously identified 14 defining characteristics of “ur-fascism.” His list includes:
- the cult of tradition;
- the rejection of modernism;
- action for action’s sake;
- rejection of critical distinctions as a sign of modernism;
- disagreement within society seen as a sign of unacceptable diversity;
- individual or social frustration;
- for those experiencing social frustration, the only privilege is to be born in the same country;
- followers feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies;
- life is lived for struggle;
- an aristocratic and militaristic elitism that expresses contempt for the weak;
- everybody is educated to become a hero;
- permanent war and heroism being difficult, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters;
- a selective, qualitative populism;
- and, the use of “newspeak,” as defined by George Orwell.
This reads a lot like a description of Trump and his followers.
The other part of the equation is the concept of “cult.” Cults figure importantly in the history of religions. The simplest and most neutral meaning of the term is the devotion of a group to a divine being. The cults of Mithra, Isis, Dionysus, and other deities in the Greco-Roman world are part of the western cultural heritage. The worship of Jesus as a god has been described by some scholars as a version of the cult of the dying and rising god (Osiris and Dionysus, for example). The cult of the Virgin Mary is a dominant element of Roman Catholic Christianity, and has been for centuries.
But the term has taken on a more negative connotation in the 20th century. In 1981, Robert Jay Lifton, MD, then a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, published a paper entitled “Cult Formation” in The Harvard Mental Health Letter. In this paper, Lifton identified three characteristics of cults:
- a charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose their power;
- a process I call coercive persuasion or thought reform;
- economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.
Lifton was concerned with the psychological process by which an organization becomes a cult. Numerous books and papers have been published by authors claiming to have a detailed understanding of how cult leaders are able to manipulate and control their followers. However, there is a great lack of consensus regarding the credibility and objectivity of this literature. Much of it demonstrates religious or anti-religious bias. The credentials and overall integrity of some “experts” have been vociferously challenged. The best scholarly information has been derived from the study of extreme cults and their leaders: the (Charles) Manson “family,” Jim Jones and Jonestown, and the Branch Davidians (Waco, TX).
A major, and consistent, element of cults is the leaders’ lack of accountability to the followers. The leader is exempted from the normal moral constraints the apply to other member of society. This is especially true in matters of sexual conduct and financial management. Behaviors that would normally be branded as sexual predation and financial scams are overlooked, excused, or even praised when practiced by the cult leader.
In my opinion, the Trump “movement” has all of the trappings of a cult.
But if the Trump “movement” is a point of intersection between fascism and cult, is it not reasonable to consider whether fascism is, by its nature, a cult? I believe so. In fact, it now appears to me that we can apply the contemporary definition of cult to all expressions of ideology that have at their center the person of a founder or leader. Fascism is one such expression, but it is one of several.
What we are looking at is the situation that is created when a cult takes control of the government of a nation-state.The task that we face is that of wrenching our democracy out of the hands of a cult leader and his inner circle who have, through subversion of the democratic process, the undermining of free and fair elections, the corruption of executive agencies, the complicity of the media, and, probably, the assistance of foreign enemies, taken control of the national government.
What we know about freeing people from the grasp of cults is that it is extremely difficult. “De-programming,” when successful, occurs on an individual basis. Cult members passionately embrace their new reality and view any effort to break their connection to it as a violation of their personhood. Indeed, so-called de-programmers walk a fine line between lawful intervention on behalf of loved ones and criminal acts of abduction and unlawful restraint. To their beneficiaries they are life-saviors and heroes. To their detractors they are zealots, vigilantes, and criminals.
But the de-programming of a single individual, or even a small group of people, pales in comparison to breaking the hold of a charismatic leader on thousands of people. The cult followers are still a minority of the US population. But it does not require the active support of the majority for a dictatorship to hold power. It requires only the ability to intimidate and demoralize the opposition, provide symbolic victories for the believers, and have at hand a ready supply of scapegoats to blame for the regime’s inevitable failures.
Liberals (and especially members of the Democratic Party) are conflicted about the way to deal with the right-wing regime and its followers. Some liberal-minded people are ready to try to reach the “hearts and minds” of Trump’s followers. But they have been encouraged to turn off their minds and harden their hearts.
So, what strategy is left?
I am not so arrogant as to think that I have the best answer to this question. I will also admit that I have done what I criticize other for doing: presenting an analysis of a problem without proposing a solution. I do plan to follow-up with some suggestions for action. But for now I want to put our current situation into an historical, cultural, and psychological context.
We cannot defeat an enemy we don’t understand.
On February 27, 1933, an arson fire destroyed Germany’s parliament building, the Reichstag. Hitler’s Nazi party blamed the fire on foreign-born communists, one of whom was convicted and executed. The fire and the purported threat of a communist coup d’etat provided the basis for legislation outlawing political activities by non-approved (meaning other than the Nazis) political groups. This, in turn, paved the way for Hitler’s Nazis to take control of the German state.
On November 16, 2016, Kris Kobach, Kansas Secretary of State and a close advisor to President-Elect Donald Trump stated that Trump is considering a registry for all immigrants who are Muslims or who come from areas of the world where Islamic terrorists are active.
This idea recalls the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans living on the west coast under orders from President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II. And while this kind of group punishment is repugnant and immoral, it may be legal under the US Constitution.
I have no doubt that Trump and his advisors expect that such a move would be met with vehement opposition by groups throughout the country. International outrage could also be expected. But more chilling is the possibility of armed attacks within the US by jihadis outraged by the treatment of their fellow believers.
This scenario has eerie similarities to the incident of the Reichstag fire in 1933. The fire was an actual arson. But historians have yet to agree on whether the arsonist(s) acted independently or were duped into the crime by Nazi operatives, a “false flag” operation designed to justify a complete silencing of political opposition.
It is not beyond imagining that members of the Trump administration (with what cooperation of FBI agents we can only begin to speculate) would instigate followers of Daesh or other jihadi sympathizers to launch a serious attack (or attacks) in the US in order to justify a more comprehensive clamp-down on Muslims, immigrants, and political militants. Or, such attacks could occur autonomously as a violent reaction to the Trump administration’s policies.
In any case, it is imperative that right-minded people force an end to any talk of or plans for a “Muslim registry.” It violates the basic principles of our democracy. And it could be the first step in the elimination of democratic freedoms for all of us.
Democrats are nice. Minnesota nice. North Carolina polite and Tupelo honey sweet. Nice like children who’ve been browbeaten and bullied by their parents are nice. With the slightest upturn of an eyebrow and downturn of a mouth they apologize for being born and everything they’ve done since.
So of course Hillary Clinton apologized for her remarks about half of Donald Trump’s supporters being a “basket of despicables.” When she said it, she was the cheerful upbeat Hillary that we love to see. Speaking in front of a group of unequivocal supporters, she enumerated some of the qualities that Trump and his followers share – “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it.”
Of course Hillary was criticized. And of course Hillary apologized. She said, “Last night I was ‘grossly generalistic,’ and that’s never a good idea. I regret saying ‘half’ — that was wrong.” You can read the Republican nonsense about her comments for yourself. One interesting “rebuttal” is the statement by Republican VP candidate Mike Pence at the Values Voters Forum: “The men and women who support Donald Trump’s campaign are hardworking Americans — farmers, coal miners, teachers, veterans, members of our law enforcement community — members of every class of this country, who know that we can make America great again. This is essentially what Hillary Clinton said about the other half of Trump’s supporters: “That other basket of people feel that the government has let them down — the economy has let them down … those are people we have to understand and empathize with, as well.”
In my opinion, Hillary had nothing to apologize for. She should have chided the media for not giving as much coverage to the second half of her comment as to the first. And there should have been an outpouring of support from Democrats for her statement. But in their role of scared children most Democrats were silent.
One voice that responded to Hillary’s critics was that of Charles Blow, writing in the New York Times. I’ve got the link here. You should read it. Blow cites reputable polls of Trump supporters that prove them to be anti-Black, anti-Muslim, anti-LGBT, anti-immigrant, Obama birthers. In Trump’s value system these are upstanding Americans. In my value system, they’re pretty despicable.
I can find no words of rebuttal that equal the closing words of Blow’s OpEd:
“ I understand that people recoil at the notion that they are part of a pejorative basket. I understand the reflexive resistance to having your negative beliefs disrobed and your sense of self dressed down.
Hillary Clinton is the de facto Democratic nominee for the presidency. And she has been campaigning with that understanding in mind. She has a multitude of endorsements from high-ranking Democrats and a few disaffected Republicans. President Obama and Vice President Biden have endorsed her and will soon campaign for her nationally. Senator Elizabeth Warren has endorsed her and campaigned with her enthusiastically and energetically.
The essence of Ms. Clinton’s campaign so far has been to attack Donald Trump. However, it is not enough for her to tell potential voters what’s wrong with Mr. Trump. We need to know what Hillary Clinton stands for, what she will attempt to accomplish as President.
It’s not that Clinton has not taken positions on the important issues facing the US. A perusal of her official website will indicate some of her major concerns – stated in general terms – and some specific policy positions. Many of these positions will appeal to liberals and some “independents” – gun control, increasing the minimum wage, stricter regulation of “Wall Street,” low cost public higher education (including tuition-free community college), paid family leave, support for Planned Parenthood, and support for LGBT rights.
While her positions are likely to resonate with her supporters and supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, they may not get the support of “moderates,” conservatives, and those who are disposed to mistrust or outright hate the Clintons. So, pointing out the disastrous nature of a Trump presidency is a way to overcome the resistance of these voters.
But soon Clinton will have to begin campaigning on the basis of her plans for the country. She will have to make promises to the public at large, not just speeches to members of interest groups. She will have to risk having her proposals critiqued by experts and adversaries. She will face attacks on her plans by organized right-wing groups. The media, having given us “all Trump, all the time,” may begin to give Clinton fair coverage. But loving a “horserace” as they do, the media might also assert a false equivalence between Trump’s excesses and Clinton’s positions. She will have to simultaneously affirm the benefits of her platform and denouce and discredit everything that Trump represents.
We can consider this a period of transition in the Clinton campaign. I believe that she will soon begin to focus her message on her platform as well as Trump’s shortcomings. Three things will complete this transition. The first is the entry of President Obama into the campaign. Obama will be eager to cite his accomplishments, and praising Hillary Clinton as the continuation of his vision for the US will celebrate both Clinton and himself. The unfinished business of Obama’s presidency will give Clinton concrete points of contact with Democratic voters. With unlimited access to President Obama’s political apparatus, Clinton will have the resources to get out the vote of the Democratic base.
The second factor is the Republic National Convention. The convention will define the Republican platform and Trump’s relationship to the party. And, as we can surmise, it will be the process and dynamics of the convention as much as its platform and candidates that will shape how voters perceive the party. Clinton’s positions and her record will be offered as a sharp contrast to whatever the Republicans offer the electorate.
Finally, the Democratic National Convention will provide the platform on which Clinton will run for President. The platform contains a number of liberal planks, including a $15/hr minimum wage, support for labor unions, defence of voting rights, clean energy jobs, support for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and similar positions (although taking a decidedly non-committal position on the TPP). Regardless of how much of the proposed platform makes it into the party’s final position on the issues, Clinton will have the entirety of the Democratic Party committed to her campaign. She will have the support of Democrats who will advocate for her position on the issues and Democrats who will attack Trump in particular and Republicans in general.
As everything falls into place, in a short time should expect to see Hillary Clinton’s run for president as something more than an anti-Trump campaign.