Only when we recognize Trump as a cult leader, and many of those who support him as cult followers, will we understand where we are headed and how we must resist
Editor’s note: The 45th president’s approval ratings remain steady despite numerous scandals and missteps. Below is a Oct. 29, 2018, column in which Hedges analyzes Donald Trump’s seemingly indefatigable appeal. Hedges is speaking in London on Monday and will return with a new column on Julian Assange on Tuesday.
Cult leaders arise from decayed communities and societies in which people have been shorn of political, social and economic power. The disempowered, infantilized by a world they cannot control, gravitate to cult leaders who appear omnipotent and promise a return to a mythical golden age. The cult leaders vow to crush the forces, embodied in demonized groups and individuals, that are blamed for their misery. The more outrageous the cult leaders become, the more they flout law and social conventions, the more they gain in popularity. Cult leaders are immune to the norms of established society. This is their appeal. Cult leaders demand a God-like power. Those who follow them grant them this power in the hope that the cult leaders will save them.
Donald Trump has transformed the decayed carcass of the Republican Party into a cult. All cults are personality cults. They are extensions of the cult leaders. The cult reflects the leader’s prejudices, worldview, personal style and ideas. Trump did not create the yearning for a cult leader. Huge segments of the population, betrayed by the established elites, were conditioned for a cult leader. They were desperately looking for someone to rescue them and solve their problems. They found their cult leader in the New York real estate developer and reality television show star. Only when we recognize Trump as a cult leader, and many of those who support him as cult followers, will we understand where we are headed and how we must resist.
It was 40 years ago next month that a messianic preacher named Jim Jones convinced or forced more than 900 of his followers, including roughly 280 children, to die by ingesting a cyanide-laced drink. Trump’s refusal to acknowledge and address the impending crisis of ecocide and the massive mismanagement of the economy by kleptocrats, his bellicosity, his threats against Iran and China and the withdrawal from nuclear arms treaties, along with his demonization of all who oppose him, ensure our cultural and, if left unchecked, physical extinction. Cult leaders are driven, at their core, by the death instinct, the instinct to annihilate and destroy rather than nurture and create. Trump shares many of the characteristics of Jones as well as other cult leaders including Marshall Herff Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Nettles, the founders of the Heaven’s Gate cult; the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who led the Unification Church; Credonia Mwerinde, who led the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God in Uganda; Li Hongzhi, the founder of Falun Gong; and David Koresh, who led the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas. Cult leaders are narcissists. They demand obsequious fawning and total obedience. They prize loyalty above competence. They wield absolute control. They do not tolerate criticism. They are deeply insecure, a trait they attempt to cover up with bombastic grandiosity. They are amoral and emotionally and physically abusive. They see those around them as objects to be manipulated for their own empowerment, enjoyment and often sadistic entertainment. All those outside the cult are branded as forces of evil, prompting an epic battle whose natural expression is violence.
“A cult is a mirror of what is inside the cult leader,” Margaret Thaler Singer wrote in “Cults in Our Midst.” “He has no restraints on him. He can make his fantasies and desires come alive in the world he creates around him. He can lead people to do his bidding. He can make the surrounding world really his world. What most cult leaders achieve is akin to the fantasies of a child at play, creating a world with toys and utensils. In that play world, the child feels omnipotent and creates a realm of his own for a few minutes or a few hours. He moves the toy dolls about. They do his bidding. They speak his words back to him. He punishes them any way he wants. He is all-powerful and makes his fantasy come alive. When I see the sand tables and the collections of toys some child therapists have in their offices, I think that a cult leader must look about and place people in his created world much as a child creates on the sand table a world that reflects his or her desires and fantasies. The difference is that the cult leader has actual humans doing his bidding as he makes a world around him that springs from inside his own head.”
George Orwell understood that cult leaders manipulate followers primarily through language, not force. This linguistic manipulation is a gradual process. It is rooted in continual mental chaos and verbal confusion. Lies, conspiracy theories, outlandish ideas and contradictory statements that defy reality and fact soon paralyze the opposition. The opposition, with every attempt to counter this absurdism with the rational—such as the decision by Barack Obama to make his birth certificate public or by Sen. Elizabeth Warren to release the results of her DNA test to prove she has Native American ancestry—plays to the cult leader. The cult leader does not take his or her statements seriously and often denies ever making them, even when they are documented. Lies and truth do not matter. The language of the cult leader is designed exclusively to appeal to the emotional needs of those in the cult.
“Hitler kept his enemies in a state of constant confusion and diplomatic upheaval,” Joost A.M. Meerloo wrote in “The Rape of the Mind: The Psychology of Thought Control, Menticide, and Brainwashing.” “They never knew what this unpredictable madman was going to do next. Hitler was never logical, because he knew that that was what he was expected to be. Logic can be met with logic, while illogic cannot—it confuses those who think straight. The Big Lie and monotonously repeated nonsense have more emotional appeal in a cold war than logic and reason. While the enemy is still searching for a reasonable counter-argument to the first lie, the totalitarians can assault him with another.”
The cult leader grooms followers to speak in the language of hate and violence.
The cult leader grooms followers to speak in the language of hate and violence. The cult leader constantly paints a picture of an existential threat, often invented, that puts the cult followers in danger. Trump is doing this by demonizing the caravan of some 4,000 immigrants, most from Honduras, moving through southern Mexico. Caravans of immigrants, are, in fact, nothing new. The beleaguered and impoverished asylum seekers, including many families with children, are 1,000 miles from the Texas border. But Trump, aided by nearly nonstop coverage by Fox News and Christian broadcasting, is using the caravan to terrify his followers, just as he, along with these media outlets, portrayed the protesters who flooded the U.S. capital to oppose the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh as unruly mobs. Trump claims the Democrats want to open the border to these “criminals” and to “unknown Middle Easterners” who are, he suggests, radical jihadists. Christian broadcasting operations, such as Pat Robertson’s The 700 Club, splice pictures of marching jihadists in black uniforms cradling automatic weapons into the video shots of the caravan.
The fear mongering and rhetoric of hate and violence, as I saw in the former Yugoslavia, eventually lead to widespread acts of violence against those the cult leader defines as the enemy. The 13 explosive devices sent last week to Trump critics and leaders of the Democratic Party, including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, along with George Soros, James Clapper and CNN, allegedly by Cesar Sayoc, an ex-stripper and fanatic Trump supporter who was living out of his van, herald more violence. Trump, tossing gasoline on the flames, used this assault against much of the leadership of the Democratic Party to again attack the press, or, as he calls it, “the enemy of the people.” “A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News,” he tweeted. “It has gotten so bad and hateful that is beyond description. Mainstream Media must clean up its acts, FAST!”
It should come as no surprise that on Saturday another enraged American white male, his fury and despair seemingly stoked by the diatribes and conspiracy theories of the far right, entered a Pittsburgh synagogue and massacred eight men and three women as he shouted anti-Semitic abuse. Shot by police and arrested at the scene was Robert Bowers, who believes that Jewish groups are aiding the caravan of immigrants in southern Mexico. He was armed with a military-style AR-15 assault rifle, plus three handguns. The proliferation of easily accessible high-caliber weapons, coupled with the division of the country into the blessed and the damned by Trump and his fellow cultists, threatens to turn the landscape of the United States into one that resembles Mexico, where at least 145 people in politics, including 48 candidates and pre-candidates, along with party leaders and campaign workers, have been assassinatedover the last 12 months, according to Etellekt, a risk analysis firm in Mexico. There have been 627 incidents of violence against politicians, 206 threats and acts of intimidation, 57 firearm assaults and 52 attacks on family members that resulted in 50 fatalities. Trump’s response to the mass shooting at the synagogue was to say places of worship should have armed guards, a call for further proliferation of firearms. Look south if you want a vision of our future.
Domestic terrorism and nihilistic violence are the natural outcomes of the economic, social and political stagnation, the total seizure of power by a corporate cabal and oligarchic elite, and the contamination of civil discourse by cult leaders.
Domestic terrorism and nihilistic violence are the natural outcomes of the economic, social and political stagnation, the total seizure of power by a corporate cabal and oligarchic elite, and the contamination of civil discourse by cult leaders. The weaponization of language is proliferating, as seen in the vile rhetoric that characterizes many political campaigns for the midterm elections, including the racist robocall sent out against Andrew Gillum, an African-American candidate for the governorship of Florida. “Well, hello there. I is the negro Andrew Gillum and I’ll be askin’ you to make me governor of this here state of Florida,” a man speaking in a caricature of a black dialect accompanied by jungle noises said in the robocall. Cults externalize evil. Evil is embodied in the demonized other, whether desperate immigrants, black political candidates and voters, or the Democratic Party. The only way to purge this “evil” and restore America to “greatness” is to eradicate these human contaminants.
The cult leader, unlike a traditional politician, makes no effort to reach out to his opponents. The cult leader seeks to widen the divisions. The leader brands those outside the cult as irredeemable. The leader seeks the omnipotence to crush those who do not kneel in adoration. The followers, yearning to be protected and empowered by the cult leader, seek to give the cult leader omnipotence. Democratic norms, an impediment to the leader’s omnipotence, are attacked and abolished. Those in the cult seek to be surrounded by the cult leader’s magical aura. Reality is sacrificed for fantasy. Those who challenge the fantasy are not considered human. They are Satanic.
The dictator is not only a sick man, he is also a cruel opportunist. He sees no value in any other person and feels no gratitude for any help he may have received. He is suspicious and dishonest and believes that his personal ends justify any means he may use to achieve them. Peculiarly enough, every tyrant still searches for some self-justification. Without such a soothing device for his own conscience, he cannot live. His attitude toward other people is manipulative; to him, they are merely tools for the advancement of his own interests. He rejects the conception of doubt, of internal contradictions, or man’s inborn ambivalence. He denies the psychological fact that man grows to maturity through groping, through trial and error, through the interplay of contrasting feelings. Because he will not permit himself to grope, to learn through trial and error, the dictator can never become a mature person. … It is because the dictator is afraid, albeit unconsciously, of his own internal contradictions, that he is afraid of the same internal contradictions of his fellow man. He must purge and purge, terrorize and terrorize in order to still his own raging inner drives. He must kill every doubter, destroy every person who makes a mistake, imprison everyone who cannot be proved to be utterly single-minded.
Behavior that ensures the destruction of a public figure’s career does not affect a cult leader. It does not matter how many lies uttered by Trump are meticulously documented by The New York Times or The Washington Post. It does not matter that Trump’s personal financial interests, as we see in his relationship with the Saudis, take precedence over the rule of law, diplomatic protocols and national security. It does not matter that he is credibly charged by numerous women with being a sexual predator, a common characteristic of cult leaders. It does not matter that he is inept, lazy and ignorant. The establishment, whose credibility has been destroyed because of its complicity in empowering the ruling oligarchy and the corporate state, might as well be blowing soap bubbles at Trump. Their vitriol, to his followers, only justifies the hatred radiating from the cult.
The cult leader responds to only one emotion—fear. The cult leader, usually a coward, will react when he thinks he is in danger. The cult leader will bargain and compromise when afraid. The cult leader will give the appearance of being flexible and reasonable. But as soon as the cult leader is no longer afraid, the old patterns of behavior return, with a special venom directed at those who were able to momentarily impinge upon his power.
The removal of Trump from power would not remove the yearning of tens of millions of people, many conditioned by the Christian right, for a cult leader. Most of the leaders of the Christian right have built cult followings of their own. These Christian fascists embraced magical thinking, attacked their enemies as agents of Satan and denounced reality-based science and journalism long before Trump did. Cults are a product of social decay and despair, and our decay and despair are expanding, soon to explode in another financial crisis.
The efforts by the Democratic Party and much of the press, including CNN and The New York Times, to discredit Trump, as if our problems are embodied in him, are futile. The smug, self-righteousness of this crusade against Trump only contributes to the national reality television show that has replaced journalism and politics. This crusade attempts to reduce a social, economic and political crisis to the personality of Trump. It is accompanied by a refusal to confront and name the corporate forces responsible for our failed democracy. This collusion with the forces of corporate oppression neuters the press and Trump’s mainstream critics.
Our only hope is to organize the overthrow of the corporate state that vomited up Trump. Our democratic institutions, including the legislative bodies, the courts and the media, are hostage to corporate power. They are no longer democratic. We must, like liberation movements of the past, engage in acts of sustained mass civil disobedience and non-cooperation. By turning our ire on the corporate state, we name the true sources of power and abuse. We expose the absurdity of blaming our demise on demonized groups such as undocumented workers, Muslims, African-Americans, Latinos, liberals, feminists, gays and others. We give people an alternative to a Democratic Party that refuses to confront the corporate forces of oppression and cannot be rehabilitated. We make possible the restoration of an open society. If we fail to embrace this militancy, which alone has the ability to destroy cult leaders, we will continue the march toward tyranny.