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.