What do you call an organization where total loyalty to a charismatic but volatile leader is strictly enforced?
Last week, retiring Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) openly worried that his party was “becoming a cultish thing” marked by forced fidelity to its mercurial leader. While he’s not the first to make the point, his insider perspective carried considerable weight.
But is his description hyperbole, or an accurate assessment? While cautioning that not everyone who voted for Donald Trump falls into the mindless-follower category, an expert on cults leans toward the latter.
“I think he has touched on something important,” says scholar and author Janja Lalich, who has extensively studied the phenomenon. “I think there are plenty of similarities—enough to be concerned about.”
She continues: “The people around Trump, and the Republicans in Washington, absolutely kowtow to him, either out of fear they’re going to anger him, or out of adulation. That behavior is very typical of a cult.”
Polling suggests the party has been shrinking, and its remaining members are solidly behind Trump, giving him a remarkable 87 percent support in a recent poll. Even the policy of separating immigrant parents and children, which directly contradicts the traditional conservative belief in the sanctity of the family, was supported by more than half of Republicans before Trump rescinded it under pressure on Wednesday.
Is that decision to support the leader, even if it means ignoring long-professed moral precepts, cult-like behavior? Pacific Standard asked Lalich, a professor emerita of sociology at California State University–Chico. She has written or co-authored a series of books about the cults, including the infamous Heaven’s Gate sect that committed mass suicide in 1997.
You write that members of “totalistic” cults—those that consider their ideology the one true path—share four key characteristics. They 1) espouse an all-encompassing belief system; 2) exhibit excessive devotion to the leader; 3) avoid criticism of the group and its leader; and 4) feel disdain for non-members. That all sounds unnervingly familiar.
Doesn’t it? Charisma is a social relationship. It’s about how people respond to that person, and how that person takes advantage of that. There’s a kind of charismatic leader who is an authoritarian bully who rules by coercion.
I think you have to look at the effect of Trump’s behavior and language on his base. He readily ridicules and chastises people. He readily pushes people aside if they’re not worshipping him. We’ve all seen the videos of his aides praising him to high heaven. That’s the kind of adulation cult leaders expect and demand.
Are the big rallies he held during the campaign, and still conducts periodically, an important way for him to bond with his followers?
Yes. Cult leaders constantly need to rev up their people. That’s one of the challenges of being a charismatic leader. You have to keep people enchanted with you. Him holding these rallies is both a recruitment technique and a way to keep his followers happy.
He’s showing him in their presence—being there for them, talking to them, relating to them. All of that helps to solidify their cult membership, so to speak. It reinforces the idea that they’re a special group of people following this very special man. With Trump, it’s not a religion, but there’s the same kind of fervor.
Political scientists point out that President Barack Obama was also a charismatic leader who arguably had a cult-like following. But for the most part, he was carrying out policies Democrats have long championed, while Trump’s policies often defy traditional Republican doctrine. What happens when a cult leader’s dictates clash with the convictions of his followers?
Trump is happily making these pronouncements and expecting everyone to go along with him, and he’s not getting much flack. Most of his followers have bought into his fear-mongering, which creates an us vs. them mentality that is typical of a cult.
Is that emphasis on real or perceived enemies one way cult leaders keep control over their adherents?
Absolutely. It breeds fear and paranoia in his followers, which leads them to think, “I’d better stick with him to be safe.” His constant criticism and ridiculing and attacking “the other” also makes people feel superior. This sets up extreme polarization, which is always how cults have survived.
Separating the cult from the rest of the world is pretty much what all cults do. That doesn’t mean you have to live in a compound. It just means that, in your thinking, you’re part of this special elite, separate from the unworthy.
And you close yourself off from any information that might conflict with that.
Exactly. Once you internalize that, you’re done for.
Can cult leaders override members’ fundamental sense of morality? I’m thinking of his policy of separating children from immigrant parents, which he has now rescinded following intense, widespread criticism.
Well, he’s not breaking up white families. He’s breaking up families of immigrants. He ran on that tough-on-immigrants line. He already planted the seeds for this. So while it looks harsh and cruel and extreme from many people’s point of view, including mine, for his followers, he’s carrying out what he said he was going to do. Other of his followers, who aren’t as hard core, are following suit because of the sway that he has. Their minds are closed to anything that challenges what Trump wants them to do, say, or believe.
So how do you get out of a cult? What typically has to happen to break free?
On an individual level, it’s generally family and friends who do an intervention. When we have something like this on a national scale, it’s much more difficult. I know many people who have argued and argued with members of their family, and then given up. Rational conversations at this point aren’t going to work.
Now, if Trump continues with this egregious, inhumane behavior, some of his people may actually wake up. Some of the churches that have been supportive of him have come out to say, “This is too much.” When the cultic behavior is on a national scale, [breaking it up] is going to take a national movement.
At some point, the Trump era will end. What happens to a cult when its leader dies, or has to step down for whatever reason. Do they disband at that point? Do his followers emerge from their daze, or do they start looking around for a new leader?
For some people, that will jolt them into seeing the light and realizing how they have been taken advantage of. But some hard-core believers will stick with Trump no matter what. Warren Jeffs is in jail, but he still has thousands of followers who believe in him.
Often, splinter groups will form, as when Reverend [Sun Myung] Moon, the leader of the Moonie cult, died. His three sons now have splinter groups. The followers split up and followed the one they liked the best. That’s potentially something we could see.
That conjures up a surreal image of some Republicans aligning with Don Jr., while others gravitate to Eric, and still others to Ivanka.
The best bet is to go with Barron.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Interview originally shared on Pacific Standard Magazine.