Cult Leaders and Trump: What we know and what we don’t
I read Seth Abramson’s tweet-by-tweet analysis of Trump’s January 6th speech. While that speech was preceded by other Trump speeches with similarly strong and direct messages of hatred, his January 6th speech does show encouragement to act violently during the coming ‘March’ of the day.
A story floated a day or two later – that Ivanka was responsible for helping Trump see that he had to make a statement denying any intention to result in violence that day – despite he did intend it. That speech had all of the believability of a man forced to recite words you could tell he hated, had not written and did not believe. Like a grade-school boy, told to recite, ‘I will never hit Nancy again’, he recited the words someone else had written for him – at least those he would agree to even speak.
Later, in Alamo, Texas, he let his rage and refusal to recognize his role in inciting the violence out. Did he admit that he had lost the election? No. He sounded calm in one way, but in others, he was reserving his traditional pent-up-anger and hatred for more private sharing with his cultist minions, ordinary persons, for the most part, who have no idea he’s been lying to them since the day after the Election in November, egging them on.
Trump is also quickly turning his discourse into a recitation of ‘what he did’ that does not include any culpability, any remorse, any responsibility or any leadership betrayal. This is unacceptable.
So how did he do it? I don’t mean from a realistic and strategic facts perspective. The FBI, investigators and prosecutors will take care of that. What do cult leaders do, and how do they ‘get away with it’. Most of us have thankfully avoided becoming cult members. Let’s take a look at what makes a leader a cult leader.
Cult Leaders Want To Keep You Guessing
In an article on ‘4 personality traits’ cult leaders have in common, the author, Sara Coughlin, notes a general preface, citing Janja Lalich, PhD at California State University, Chico: “Regardless of the goals or nature of their cult, most cult leaders behave the way they do in order to cultivate and maintain a power imbalance. . . If their followers never know how they are going to react to something, they’re in control. If their followers don’t know when they’ll make their next appearance, they’re in control. If their followers can’t guess what their next demand will be, yes, they’re still in control.” (See: Refinery29.com, Oct. 10, 2018).
This comports well with words Trump spoke on Jan. 6th as he wove his discourse between lightly teasing his followers, pretending to not care, suggesting the gravity of what could happen to Pence if he did not act like a patriot, did not do what he wanted, what was needed, lied about the election results, suggested at least one or a dozen instances of conspiracy to remove his claim to the office, avoiding at all costs sounding like a general, but ordering the military members present to come on up (as if to the stage), telling them ‘we’ would march and do what had to be done, telling them that he would, messianically or literally, ‘be with them’.
I summarize the article’s text a bit here, paraphrasing a bit, copying a bit. I add some Trump-related thoughts, as the article is not related to Trump.
The 4 traits discussed and identified in the article are as follows:
1. 1. Cult leaders are narcissistic. They demand extreme levels of loyalty and do not allow any criticism. They must “control every single thing” that goes on within their following, driven by ego. A January 6th example of this characteristic, noted by Seth Abramson in his analysis of Trump’s speech, is the fact that the ‘rally’ was called ‘Stop the Steal,’ while Trump’s speech stage was “flanked by banners that read “Save America March.” The magic trick here is confusing his re-election with ‘saving America’. His focus was on himself from the start of the speech when he stated, “These people are not going to take it any longer. They’re not going to take it any longer. They came from all over our country. I just really want to see what they do.” Trump then promptly ‘mixes his message’ in a loosely veiled effort to hide his desires, while also shoveling hatred toward the media, as he then states, “I just really want to see . . . how they (the media) cover it (the coming actual ‘Save America’ March).”
2. 2. Cult leaders are charismatic. The attraction characteristic is considered a “rather complicated term” and involves how the person speaks, dresses, and treats followers. It has to do with their personal magnetism. Of course, as Dr. Lalich notes, that may be attractive to one and not to another. And yet, since most of us have varying interests in the magnetism of specific persons, a key part of the charisma element of a cult leader is what Lalich calls “charisma by proxy.” This refers to how the cult leader creates an inner circle that takes up his cause and spreads it to “a wider range of people than the cult leader” himself “would be able to appeal to effectively” otherwise. Trump began this effort with his own family, whose grown and ignominious children ride the coattails of his criminality, false exceptionalism and narcissism. This is clearly something that Trump has succeeded in doing, as he’s stretched his grasp, with Mike Pence’s help, into the Conservative Christian right, the Won’t-be-Reconstructed-South, and the poor but white wastelands of industrial and farming America, where righteous but disconnected hard workers meet wasting wannabe rural scrabble in every state, all aware that globalization is leveling the economic playing field in the world as we know it – progressively, year on year. For each of these groups, Trump has a selfie, a message, a rant, a rage, a smirk, a suggestive hateful tip, an equivocatingly righteous discriminatory bravo. All part of the ‘aura’ of Trump, the cult leader.
A January 6th example of him showing this charisma to astounding effect occurs when he entreats his listeners to “be strong” “You have to show strength and you have to be strong,” he tells them. Then, while the mayhem was in full flood at the Capital, at 2:24 pm, Trump has the forceful and intentional gall to equate his own mission with that of the country as a whole: “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!”
Another example occurred after Trump’s supporters had trashed the Capitol and terrorized the joint session of Congress and endangered Congress and the Vice-President, when he told them he “loved them” and that they were “very special.” Everyone wants to feel special. Everyone wants to be loved. But the cult leader does so in a borderless wasteland of moral and ethical equivalency - no matter what he also otherwise says about ‘borders.’ He has the further gall to include the words, directed to his followers -those who have been tearing up the Capitol, “I know how you feel,” tagged on. This said softly enough to engage his followers with cult leader-love and swiftly enough to try to evade any actual rule-of-law and legal liability consequences, he wagers. The wagering power personality profile is identified next
3. 3. Cult leaders are unpredictable. This shouldn’t be surprising. From my own perspective, not much lights up the brain as much as a discordant and unexpected danger-at-hand from someone in a position of great power whose oath is to protect and preserve others, the opposite of putting them in the way of greater risk or greater harm. As Coughlin puts it, “Along with their magnetic personality and overall confidence, a cult leader’s erratic behavior allows them to maintain that aforementioned power imbalance.” As Dr. Lalich notes, they will first limit how often they “actually appear before their following – then, when they do show up, they’ll act with total duplicity.” As she notes, “you don’t know if he’s going to come in as a raging bull or as a sweet seducer,” the psychological effect of which is to create followers who follow ‘on edge’ and desire to please their leader. An example of this particular characteristic in Trump’s January 6th speech occurs when he, suddenly, says that “If those tens of thousands of people would be allowed – the military, the Secret Service, the police, law enforcement, you’re doing a great job – but I’d love it if they could be allowed to come up here with us. Is that possible? Can you just let them come up please?” The fact that there are not tens of thousands present and that he does not literally expect them to walk to the stage and get onto it, but instead “come up” has metaphorical sexual, physical and confrontational qualities already coded into the language of white supremacism and militant radicalization. And it is exhibiting a subtle level of unpredictability for those who were attending innocently, but not so little unpredictability for the fringe radicals that were present, ready to go in storming the Capitol by force.
4. 4. Cult leaders have a “turn-on.” As Dr. Lalich notes, once a cult leader gets a “taste of power”, they develop “a clear motivating force behind their actions.” It may be money, status, sex, or all of these. The lengths they will go to get those desires fulfilled will be far beyond the average person’s general or acknowledged limits. As Dr. Lalich says, “They don’t have any shame. (They) demand things that a decent human being wouldn’t.” This is clearly the case with Trump, from his hate-filled rallies held for years, including as he ran for re-election, and how specific words he uses send specific messages to his followers that are not known or seen on the surface of those words. I think here is where some of the “turn-on” comes into the picture with Trump. Clearly, he has the ability to direct them to action. His words are only a ‘front’ in a sense. We now know his minions are working and planning, behind the scenes, in advance. On January 6th, he stated, “You don’t concede when there’s theft involved,” an obvious reference to the ‘Big Lie’ that the election was stolen when it was not. He then proceeds to shift to “we,” repeatedly using the word of inclusion between his followers and himself, such as when he states, “We will not let them silence your voices. . . We’re not going to let it happen. Not going to let it happen.” At this point, chants erupt, “Fight for Trump!” Fight for Trump!” He then himself repeatedly uses the word, “fight.” (For his analysis of Trump’s Jan. 6th speech, a threaded tweet set, Seth Abramson on Twitter, https://twitter.com/SethAbramson)
The Post-Insurrection Cult Leader
One week later, Trump was willing to go so far as make a speech in which he said “I want to be very clear. I unequivocally condemn the violence that we saw last week,” adding that “no true supporter” of his “could ever endorse political violence.”
But why shouldn’t he ‘unequivocally condemn the violence ‘Americans saw’? What about the violence ‘we’ did not see? This suggests it is all over when we are only beginning to find out how many were involved, where and how – and have no idea how long we will fight his cult.
Why not condemn ’the violence and those who planned it?’ And why is he talking about “true supporters”? Why isn’t he talking about ‘no American’? Again, it all revolves around him and his followers, his ‘pat’ of disapproval delivered with a softness reserved for those who, similar to a mafia, work for the Godfather, not for American democracy. We then have his distinguishment of “political violence.” As if some other kinds of violence would be acceptable to him. We also have the fact that he does not indicate that the violence we saw was terrorism, was domestic terrorism, which he should have called by its true name right then.
He is also qualifying the violence in a way I find unacceptable: it’s not just violence. It’s “political violence.” Political decisions are not, in our democracy, the subject of violence, and thus there is no such thing in our nation as acceptable “political violence,” something he has now introduced into the lexicon as late as one week after the horrible event. Something we do not espouse and a set of words we would not use together. The hiding duplicity of Trump, the self-absorbed anarchical cult leader, seems clearly present and easy to see, even now.
In his quite brief January 13th speech, Trump continues, stating that vandalism and violence “have no place in our country and no place in our movement.” He does not technically ‘have’ a ‘movement’ unless it is his cult, and in this quick sentence, he has suggested that both the country and “our (his) movement” are on some sort of scale of comparability in discourse, something that could not be further from the truth.
On the day he gave this speech, we are told, he was attempting to back-pedal to ‘save himself from legal liability’ for his own incentivizing of the insurrection. However, his words strike new wind into his base’s ugliest potential sails! Why does he not say that vandalism and violence occur and should be dealt with by law enforcement and strict rule of law, that criminals are criminals? Why would he prefer to suggest that violence simply shouldn’t happen when we know we live in a world in which it does happen. His moral bankruptcy and duplicitous equivalency continues marching forward, painting false friends and falser value equivalencies. The fact that someone – including Trump – is making these choices as to what words he uses, and that he continues to illustrate his attractiveness as a cult leader is deeply deeply concerning.
Knowing that he is basically un-reformed and believes himself to be the leader of a movement that now has a dragon-like energy of its own – to destroy and defame the values of our democracy and institutions, to discredit those who tell the truth, and whose enablers include the media, dark money, collected by ‘moneyed’ men and women, and Republicans too cowed to demonstrate courage, where are we?
What is the end of this cult and cult leader?
To begin with, I think stories will help us get to that end and to a new beginning after reflection and sharing. Humans retain narratives. We learn from stories. Let us tell some more stories – lots of good stories: even the cult followers may hear these stories. They don’t need to agree at first, but stories will lead us together again.
I am an American but I live in Norway. It is very cold and very dark here at this time of year. I think of how Norwegians bound themselves to their common purposes across the centuries – with stories told around their fires and fireplaces. They may not have been doing this quite as much in 2020 due to Covid restrictions, but it is a bell-weather of Norwegian social life that one gather on dark nights around a table with others, and stay there together until the wee hours, eating and drinking together – telling each other important stories.
This narrative tradition is not an accident to securing a homogenous culture in which people of varying opinions agree to strong values of rule of law, and to responsibility as well as common purposes and desirable community goals in sync with expressions of cultural individuality. This is not inconsistent with creating a strong nation that can survive attack from within and without.
When the United States finally saw the end of McCarthyism after World War II, American Jews and others had been discriminated against by Joe McCarthy’s reign of attack, insinuation, and investigations. He claimed, among many other things, that ‘communism’ was taking over when, actually, cultural pluralism was growing in our nation, and global trade was increasing. Our public officials faced a reckoning – how to stop this – him and the hatred his movement generated. Congress had choices. What happened? I like this story. I will quote the text of the United States Senate Archives for it, shortening the text in places and paraphrasing a bit, so forgive me:
“As Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine boarded the Senate subway, she encountered the junior senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy. “Margaret, you look very serious,” he said. “Are you going to make a speech?” Without hesitation, Smith replied: “Yes, and you will not like it!” . . . When she gave that speech in the Senate, she stated, “Mr. President, I would like to speak briefly and simply about a serious national condition. . . . The United States Senate has long enjoyed worldwide respect as the greatest deliberative body. . . But recently that deliberative character has . . . been debased to . . . a forum of hate and character assassination.” She continued, endorsing every American’s right to criticize, to protest, and to hold unpopular beliefs. “Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America,” she complained. “It has been so abused by some that it is not exercised by others.” She asked her fellow Republicans ‘not to ride to political victory’ on the “Four Horsemen of Calumny-Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.”
(McCarthy, after this speech violated Senate rules to remove her from a sub-Committee assignment on Investigations, but eventually lost when his own censure by the Senate ended his campaign of falsehood and intimidation). (https://www.senate.gov/about/powers-procedures/investigations/mccarthy-hearings/a-declaration-of-conscience.htm )
So are we headed toward the Four Horsemen with Trump, the cult leader? Let us look at what Senator Smith’s Four Horsemen are:
Calumny involves “the act of uttering false charges or misrepresentations maliciously calculated to harm another’s reputation.”
Fear is the emotion we experience when we have “reason for alarm,” a “strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger.”
Ignorance involves showing a “lack of knowledge, education or awareness,” and includes conditions that can be described as “obliviousness, cluelessness, unfamiliarity.”
Bigotry is present when one has an “obstinate or intolerant devotion to one’s own opinions and prejudices,” and is often associated with the words “intolerance, small-mindedness, dogmatism.”
Smear, in the sense Senator Smith used it, would include “a usually unsubstantiated charge or accusation against a person or organization – often used to attribute,” in the sense of to “sully, besmirch or vilify, obliterate, wipe out or defeat.” www.merriam-webster.com
The ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocolyse’ would seem a fitting end to Trump’s combination of self-indulgence, hatred of others, ennui and indolence. As Mary Trump predicted before the election in November, Trump would consider losing the election unacceptable, and called him “cruel and traitorous” in remarks she made in early December, 2020. Before the insurrection.
Another important question many are now asking is: How do cult members get out?
Recent research into cult behavior in France indicated that the average length of cult membership was about 9 years and that the time between wanting to leave and getting out averaged 22 and 16 months, respectively. With any luck, therefore, the Trump cult will be losing its members for the next year or two, in plenty of time to result in fresh democratic ideals championing new social and public policy debates that benefit and assist Americans generally – not just the wealthy. What triggers cult members having trouble leaving a cult? This research indicated that 80% percent left a cult on their own personal initiative, but research showed “the most frequent obstacle to departure was a romantic relationship or having family members in the cultic group.” The most direct reason for leaving turned out to be “a lack of faith in the creeds of the group and social interventions.” ( “Cult membership: What factors contribute to joining or leaving, 257 Psychiatry Research 27-33 (2017), Elsevier, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0165178116319941)
Research into cults ending – without mass suicide, and with accountability of cult leaders, show mixed results, partly because it is not always easy to determine if the cult practiced illegal acts. What we do know about cults is that they “are structured like the layers of an onion, with the most acceptable elements closest to the outside, followed by increasing layers of secrecy and abuse as recruits move closer to the center.” (Keith Raniere Nxivm trial: Why it’s so hard to stop a cult,” by Alexandra Stein, 20 June, 2019, BBC News, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-48635278 )
On that note, I conclude. Let’s peel that onion, and whatever we find, let us have a lot of U.S. justice, accountability that crosses the borders of wealth, power and station, understanding, and eventual healing – the sort consistent with persons being held accountable for criminal intent, incitement and actions no matter who they are and no matter what office or Congressional seat they hold. Only that will bless our nation with the healing that pays full tribute to our forefathers’ ideals. Trump certainly shall not lead us to the halls of Congress. I am thrilled to learn that a bill has been introduced that would prohibit him from entering those halls.
And the beginning of healing and unity, is, as Republicans don’t want to admit, speaking only TRUTH, admitting you were either duped or were helping those who created the nightmare of lies-upon-lies, accepting your liability for encouraging it – over many many years, hurting many many Americans in many many ways.