For years now, we’ve been using the word “cult” to describe Trumpism and Trumpists. It’s an interesting pejorative, but is it accurate? A recent poll from CBS News, plus other recent events, may shed some light on that question.
First, let’s try to define “cult” a little more accurately. Wikipedia includes the following characteristics of cults:
- They are led by a charismatic and self-appointed leader.
- They require unwavering devotion to a set of beliefs and practices (such as the Big Lie).
- They espouse a totalitarian system of governance.
- They cause estrangement from family.
- Members are unwilling to question the judgment of the leader, and devalue outsiders.
Obviously, some or all of these characteristics apply to many Trumpists. Others are less part of an actual cult and more a part of a cult of personality (which presents its own dangers to our democracy).
But note the fourth characteristic above, the estrangement from family. Cult members often put their trust in the leader of the cult and refuse to listen to their family, friends, or other influential persons in their lives.
So it was this answer to a recent CBS News poll that caught my eye: for Trump voters, whom do they trust most to tell them the truth?
Trump is more trusted among his voters than friends and family. That, to me, is amazing. If you were to ask me whether I trust Joe Biden to tell me the truth more than my wife, I would just laugh at the absurdity of the question. And yet, here we are with these Trump voters.
Also note how low religious leaders are in the poll. Given the increasing secularization of America, this is not necessarily surprising. But that Trump would out-poll religious leaders by almost 30 points is another possible indication of Trumpism as a cult.
Are there Trump voters who are not members of the Trump cult? Of course. Are there other Trump voters for whom Trumpism is a cult? I think the evidence is strong in that regard.
Before we close, though, let’s consider one last mark of some cults that is becoming more and more of a problem in our country.
Violence on behalf of the cult
There is a separate Wikipedia entry for destructive cult. The basic definition is “a movement which has caused harm to its members or other people, or which will likely do so.” The term is considered problematic to an extent, as it can be used as a disparaging term by those who disagree with the group or its leader. (Which is true of the word “cult,” by the way.)
Trumpism has always had a kernel of violence, of course. From Trump’s encouragement of it at his rallies, to the attack on the protesters before Trump’s Bible picture, to January 6th, the willingness to encourage violence has been one of the Trump distinctives.
But in recent days, we have seen numerous examples of Trumpists willing to put violence into action.
- A man enraged by the Mar-A-Lago search warrant tried to shoot his way into an Ohio FBI office, and was later killed by police.
- A man in Utah made threats against President Biden and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who brought the first indictment against Trump. When the FBI served him with a search warrant in response to the threats, he began a shootout with the agents and was shot and killed.
- And as noted by Rachel Maddow, “a woman in Alvin, Texas, was arrested for allegedly phoning in a death threat to the chambers of the judge who is overseeing the federal election interference case against Trump. The woman admitted to threatening to kill the federal judge as well as Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, according to authorities. The woman said she did not intend to go to Washington, D.C., to carry out her death threat against the judge. The criminal complaint says she told federal agents that “if Sheila Jackson Lee comes to Alvin, then we need to worry.”
- The names, addresses, and even pictures of the Fulton County grand jury have been shared online, with numerous people issuing threats against them.
A “destructive cult” is a particular kind of cult according to the Wikipedia article, as is a “terrorist cult.” One characteristic of these cults is that they believe the end justifies the means. We are seeing that over and over again with Trumpists.
As Maddow noted in that segment, we now have people in this country who are ready to commit violence in the name of a political movement. We have had such people before, but they have been isolated. Now with both Trump as the authoritarian leader and the right-wing media as the propaganda machine, we have persons all over the country who have been indoctrinated into a cult for which they are willing to carry out attacks on other people and on our democracy itself.
So, what are we to do? Experience with other cults teaches us that it is almost always impossible to talk cult members out of being in the cult. No matter how absurd their belief system is, no matter what the facts are, they will cling to their leader and their cult and reject you for trying. We have seen this with the Trump cult for years, with couples and families being blown apart over membership in the Trumpism cult.
If Trumpism is indeed a cult for some of its adherents, they will have to come to that realization themselves. Some will; some won’t. But arguing with them is not the answer.
As Teri Kanefield repeatedly points out, the only way to defeat Trumpism is to out-vote it. At this point, we still have elections in this country, and the results of those elections are still honored. So, if we want to maintain our democracy, we have to stand up for it by voting.
And one more thing: in their book How Democracies Die, authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt note that extremist demagogues emerge in all societies, including healthy democracies. The difference in a strong democracy is that the leaders of the political parties work to keep the extremists from gaining power. If a party looks at a demagogue and chooses to support that person in order to gain their followers, democracy is in danger.
We voters who are not Trumpists will do what we can by voting. But it is up to Republicans, especially those in leadership, to name the problem and purge it from their midst. If they will not, they must be voted out as well.
What do you think? Do you think some Trumpists seem to be in a cult? What has been your experience with this issue? Add your comments down below.