Debating cult culture is more intricate than it seems. The word “cult” is often associated with religions and spiritual organizations, specifically those with core values that are dangerous to society. Among some of the most controversial ones are The People’s Temple, The Branch Davidians, Order of the Solar Temple, The Family International, and Heaven’s Gate.
Most of them have resulted in mass death and have committed violence in very eccentric ways, so it’s easy for us to call them out. They act in the name of deities and spiritual beliefs –– things that we can’t necessarily see, or touch, or hear. We see them as unconventional, isolated subcultures far away from our own realities.
However, sometimes, cults are right in front of our eyes, among groups that, although not identified as such, show the same problematic culture. They are obsessed with their leader, fantasize with (what to others would be) a dystopian world, and organize themselves against anyone who disagrees.
No, I am not talking about Jehovah’s Witnesses or Scientologists. I am talking about Trump supporters. Over the last four years, we have witnessed several signs that point towards the similarities between Trumpism and cult culture.
A charismatic leader
Many of us do not see Donald Trump as a charismatic person. The thing is, charisma is a subjective trait. It is up to cult followers to decide whether they find that unique charm in their leader. For cult (and populist) leaders, charisma then transforms into the power of persuasion.
“[A cult leader] has been given this special status by the people who are in awe of him,” Janja Lalich, cult researcher and professor emerita of sociology at California State University, told Live Science. “Charismatic leaders tend to be intuitive. They’re able to read people. They thrive on chaos. They’ll create crises. When they walk in the room, you never know if they’re going to be good and kind-hearted or be mean and call someone out or create some kind of dangerous situation.”
Does that sound familiar?
Despite Trump’s signs of authoritarianism, his supporters have backed him up every step of the way. No argument could ever change their minds.
Trump supporters have demonstrated –– time after time –– that they see him as some kind of “savior,” as the only person who could “make America great again.” It does not matter what he says or does because they still refuse to be critical of him.
Blind followers are unable to reason beyond their leader’s commands. We know Trump supporters do not listen to anyone else but him. They cannot hold him accountable and have become puppets to his political agenda.
An extremist ideology
This one is not too hard to figure out. We’re talking about the man who hired a Neo-Nazi as his Chief Strategist here and the same president who accepted donations from Neo-Nazi and white supremacist leaders.
Trump revealed himself as a racist, homophobe, misogynist, ableist, and xenophobe from the beginning stages of his political career. We all saw him screaming, “[Mexicans] are bringing drugs. [Mexicans] are bringing crime. [Mexicans] are rapists,” right in front of a crowd that praised him for it.
He started his campaign with far-right, extremist ideas, which only got worse. It is no surprise that his loudest supporters are confederate flag lovers, members of the Proud Boys, eugenicists, and holocaust deniers.
Lots of conspiracy theories
From Miami bakeries to Twitter timelines, we hear and read Trump supporters spreading misinformation everywhere.
Trumpism encourages people to believe that COVID-19 originated in a lab in China; most Black Lives Matter protests over the summer were violent; humans do not play a significant role in climate change; several mass shootings in recent years were staged hoaxes, and many more QAnon conspiracy theories.
The Trump administration has given conspiracy theory believers a voice and a real-life platform. It is this kind of dangerous rhetoric that has radicalized conservatives in the U.S. and “helped fuel a real-world militant extremism that could haunt the Biden era.”
‘Us vs. Them’ mentality
Cults tend to isolate their members from anyone who doesn’t look, speak, act, or think like them. This is not too far from the truth when it comes to some Trump supporters. They belong to their own Trumpist circles, and whoever dares listen to a different opinion is deemed a traitor.
Trump made his intention to polarize the nation clear the moment he stepped into the White House. He never wanted to unify the country or attempt to be the president of all U.S.-Americans.
His discourse has been a divisive one, no matter the topic. Racial justice, immigration reform, gender discrimination, and even COVID-19 precautions have all turned into “us vs. them” debates.
An alternative reality
Cult members usually act as they live in another world. They imagine their own reality and try so hard for others to believe it that they end up believing it themselves.
Trump and his supporters are experts at this game. I’m sure we all remember one of the first signs of their pathological lying: “that was the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period,” said Sean Spicer, former White House press secretary, after Donald Trump’s inauguration.
And that’s how “alternative facts” were born!
The perpetuation of violence
Mass suicide, mass shootings, street violence, hate crimes, and harassment are common characteristics of cult culture. Given that cult members blindly follow their leader, they are willing to do anything to “protect” them and their cult.
This is the most concerning similarity between cult culture and Trumpism. Trump supporters will obey Donald Trump and do whatever he asks them to. We’ve seen it.
The coup attempt at the U.S. Capitol serves as the latest example. Trump supporters committed violence in the name of “freedom” and under Trump’s command. Now the blood of five people killed due to the riots is in the hands of every Trump enabler.