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Escape from the Trump Cult
Millions of Americans are blindly devoted to their Dear Leader. What will it take for them to snap out of it?
Illustration by Zach Meyer
WN: The very well-researched article highlighted below is fascinating, not because about Trump, but about deprogramming cultists from fundamental irrationality — and ultimately deep disillusionment. At least for some who invariably end up there, once seeing the light…
One can only wish enlightenment on all Trump devotees for their own good: not to indulge I-told-you-so fantasies.
On December 20, 1954, some 62 years before Donald Trump would be sworn in as president of the United States, Dorothy Martin and dozens of her followers crowded into her home in Chicago to await the apocalypse. The group believed that Martin, a housewife, had received a message from a planet named Clarion that the world would end in a great flood beginning at midnight, and that they, the faithful, would be rescued by an alien spacecraft.
Unbeknownst to the other “Seekers,” three of their group—Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter—were not there to be saved, but to observe. Psychologists from elite institutions, they had infiltrated the pseudo-cult to study Festinger’s recently elaborated theory of “cognitive dissonance.” The theory predicted that when people with strongly held beliefs were presented with contrary evidence, rather than change their minds they would seek comfort and “cognitive consonance” by convincing others to support their erroneous views.
Festinger’s prediction was right. When neither the apocalypse nor the UFO arrived, the group began proselytizing about how God had rewarded the Earth with salvation because of their vigil. His subsequent book, When Prophecy Fails, became a standard sociology reference for examining cognitive dissonance, religious prophecy, and cult-like behavior. What the three researchers probably never predicted, though, was that over half a century later Festinger’s theory would be applicable to roughly 25 percent of the population of the United States and one of its two major political parties. Nor could they have foreseen that the country’s salvation might well depend on its ability to deprogram the Trump cult’s acolytes—an effort that would require a level of sympathetic engagement on the part of nonbelievers that they have yet to display.
Personality cults are a hallmark of populist-autocratic politics. The names of the various leaders are practically synonymous with their movements: Le Pen, Farage, Duterte, Orbán, Erdogan, Chávez, Bolsonaro, Putin. Or if we were to dip farther back into history: Castro, Franco, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin. 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.
Trump, like the populist authoritarians before and around him, has also understood (or, at least, instinctually grasped) how indispensable his own individual persona is to his ultimate goal of grasping and maintaining power. Amidst his string of business failures, Trump’s singular talent has been that of any con man: the incredible ability to cultivate a public image. Of course, Trump did not build his cult of followers—his in-group—ex nihilo; in many ways, the stage was set for his entrance. America had already split into two political identities by the time he announced his campaign for president in 2015, not just in terms of the information we consume, but down to the brands we prefer and the stores we frequent.
And so with particularly American bombast and a reality TV star’s penchant for manipulating the media, Trump tore pages from the us-against-them playbook of the European far right and presented them to a segment of the American public already primed to receive it with religious fervor.
In an interview with Pacific Standard, Janja Lalich, a sociologist who specializes in cults, identified four characteristics of a totalistic cult and applied them to Trumpism: an all-encompassing belief system, extreme devotion to the leader, reluctance to acknowledge criticism of the group or its leader, and a disdain for nonmembers. Eileen Barker, another sociologist of cults, has written 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.
Reason rarely defeats emotion—or, as Catherine Fieschi, an expert on political extremism, told me, gut instinct. If it did, right-wing populist movements from Brexit to Bolsonaro would be on the retreat, not in the advance. Those caught in the web of Trumpism do not see the deception that surrounds them. And if scandals too numerous to list have not dented faith in Trump, those holding out for an apocalyptic moment of reckoning that suddenly drops the curtain—the Russia investigation, or his taxes—will only be disappointed. In all likelihood, the idea that Trump is a crook has been “priced in.”
When presented with his actual record, which has often fallen short of what he promised on the campaign trail, Trump supporters time and again have displayed either disbelief or indifference. As a Trump supporter explicitly stated in reference to the president’s many, many lies, “I don’t care if he sprouts a third dick up there.” What actually is doesn’t matter; what does is that Trump reflects back to his supporters a general feeling of what ought to be, a general truthiness in their guts.
Amidst the frenetic pace of disgrace and outrage, Trump’s support remains stable among too large a chunk of the American public to just ignore. Trump, who insisted on the presence of voter fraud by the millions in an election he ultimately won, and a coterie of prominent Republicans spent the week after the 2018 midterms delegitimizing the very notion of counting all the votes in key races in Florida, Georgia, and Arizona. Trump’s claim that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and still retain the loyalty of his followers is jokingly referred to as the truest thing he’s ever said, but it’s less funny that 52 percent of them would hypothetically support postponing the 2020 election if he proposed it. What happens when a man who has already >promoted political violence, and whose most hardcore supporters have shown their willingness for such violence, finds on election night two years from now that he has just narrowly lost? Do any of us truly believe that Donald J. Trump and his followers will simply slink away quietly into the night?
So, how do we get those caught up in the cult of Trump to leave it?
Please click on: The Trump Cult
- Here is an article about the tally of Trump’s lies in his first 700 days as President: a whopping 7,546! Yet I have a relative who in response to such facts asks: But who is checking the fact checker? Impossible will to believe against all odds, otherwise known as completely brainwashed! Hence the joke about the man convinced he was dead who was given books to read by his doctor about the state of dead men. Upon the patient’s acknowledging the next doctor visit that dead men do not bleed, the doctor whips out a giant needle, stabs his arm, and blood spurts out. The patient looks at his arm askance, and declares: “Dead men do bleed after all!”↩