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Donald Trump as a Political Cult Leader
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2016-01-02 11:34:12
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“Donald Trump is a hero for the angry and resentful white “silent majority” and “Everyman” who feel that they are somehow marginalized in “their” country and that “the blacks,” immigrants, Muslims and terrorists are out to get them. Cults provide easy answers, direction and a feeling of belonging for their members. The cult leader offers a way for his or her devotees to feel better about themselves than they did before joining the community. This is not a form of healthy personal growth or behavior. In most cases, it is deleterious to the self. When such techniques are used in politics, on many millions of people, it is a form of mass psychosis.”
--Richard Hofstadter


From time to time I have a running argument with my wife who insists that fascism could never come to America. We have too many political checks and balances in place. I remind her that Sinclair Lewis more than seventy years ago in his It Can’t Happen Here made a prophetic statement in that regard (see the above quote) of which unfortunately we may well be witnessing the beginning with the advent of a Donald Trump on the American political landscape, a Frankenstein monster who is now in the process of devouring its own maker .


Undoubtedly Donald Trump is a carnival barker, proto-fascist reality TV show host turned Republican 2016 presidential primary leader. It would be enough to survey the 14 points above to be persuaded of such a fact, but we also need to ask if he is actually something far worse. Is he also a political cult leader a la Mussolini or a la Hitler?


People prefer to focus on his clownish entertaining side, but to fully understand Donald Trump’s appeal, one must seriously consider the possibility that his followers specifically, and movement conservatives and the Republican Party more generally, are currently exhibiting signs of political psychopathology. Donald Trump is using his campaign to garner more money and power. He is also promising his supporters that he will “make American great again,” and by doing so give them opportunities for economic uplift and other resources.

Trump and the Republican 2016 presidential primary candidates are using a campaign of fear and anxiety about terrorism, “illegal immigrants,” changing racial demographics, “black crime” and “Islam” to gin up support among a frightened public. This is the Southern Strategy mixed with old-fashioned fear-mongering to win over the votes of scared, mostly older, white voters in a moment when a black man happens to be president of the United States. This tactic also leverages how the brain structures and political personal types of conservatives/authoritarians are much more responsive to anxiety, fear and feelings of disgust than those of liberals and progressives. Donald Trump is a master of manipulating the fears and anxieties of his public. This is a feature of the cult leader: he or she creates a sense of crisis and then offers a solution to it.

Psychiatrist Robert Lifton has defined a political cult as “a charismatic leader, who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose power. That is a living leader, who has no meaningful accountability and becomes the single most defining element of the group and its source of power and authority. A process of indoctrination or education is in use that can be seen as coercive persuasion or thought reform commonly called brainwashing”.

Then there is this illuminating definition by a Dr. Cath defining a cult as “a group of people joined together by a common ideological system fostered by a charismatic leader, where the expectation is that they can transcend the imperfections and finitude of life. Often they set up a we-they philosophy: We have the truth and you do not.”


What supports these definitions of a political cult is the fact that recently, political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information, reason and common sense. The tendency is this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds.


Contemporary conservatives exist within an echo chamber that has been created by Republican elites, Fox News, right-wing talk radio and other media. It has expanded to include online spaces. The worldview that is created there is one where basic facts about empirical reality are rejected, and the right-wing paranoid style of conspiracy theories and unfounded rumors have replaced substantive political discourse. Extreme political polarization and a broken American politics are the result of the epistemic closure that typifies the right wing in the United States. Cults also isolate their members and give them new ways to understand the world around them on terms agreeable to the cult leader:


Once entering cults, consciously or unconsciously, people will gradually block sources of outside information to form a separate space, which might make them loose the ability to think independently. Although the United States is abundant in information, the cult members are completely isolated from the outside world.



Bursting the information cocoon of those people in a traditional religious cult or who are immersed in the right-wing media echo chamber is not an easy task. They will resist vehemently. In political psychology, this phenomenon is called the “backfire effect.” It offers a chilling insight into the impact of extreme political ideology, polarization and the right-wing media on its followers. It is nothing short than political psychopathology.


If Donald Trump is the leader of a political cult, then his power exists relative to how the modern Republican Party and movement conservatism possess the traits of “a fundamentalist-style political religion.” In this worldview, compromise, negotiation and working together across party lines to serve the Common Good and create a vibrant democracy are unacceptable because to do so is to engage in an act of heresy. Politics becomes a type of religious orthodoxy from which one cannot deviate. One does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician.  What is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, the quality needed is not a willingness to compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish.  Nothing but complete victory will do.  Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated.

Indeed, politics as religious orthodoxy is a necessary precondition for the rise of Donald Trump as a type of political cult leader. If contemporary conservatism is a type of religion where faith—what is a belief in that which cannot be proven by empirical means—rules all things, then Trump is the head of an extremist cult, a demagogue with money who can mine fear, white identity politics and right-wing populism where spoils and rewards are given to good “real Americans” and the Other is, by definition, punished and excluded. The founding fathers of our country, who envisioned a vibrant democracy respectful of the rights of the common man, must be turning in their grave!

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Cult follower2016-01-11 22:42:09

In your closing remarks you stated "The founding fathers of our country, who envisioned a vibrant democracy respectful of the rights of the common man, must be turning in their grave!". You left out one important piece. What it should have stated was, our founding fathers envisioned was respect for the law and the rights of the common man.

Trum is inventing the concept of immigration laws. He is just hoping someone will enforce them.

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