CultNews recently received some interesting questions from a reader concerned about President Donald Trump.

The reader said, “I often wonder if my cousins are members of a cult. They worship Donald Trump. He has become a god-like figure in their lives and no matter what Trump does, their feelings do not change.”

The reader then asks, “If this is the case, will they ever change? I cannot talk with them because they see me as some type of liberal demon. It’s uncomfortable to be around them so I just stopped trying to have a relationship. What do cult leaders really want? What do their followers want?” 

Analysis by Rick Alan Ross

CultNews response

Donald Trump is not an absolute authoritarian “cult” leader like a Jim Jones, Charles Manson or David Koresh. He was democratically elected and is subject to congressional oversight, judicial review by the courts and must run to be reelected. The President of the United States is also constitutionally limited by law to no more than two terms (eight years) as president. None of this matches the history or narrative of cult leaders like Jones, Manson and Koresh.

Trump supporters do seem to be narrowly focused on frequently partisan news sources, which can affect their critical thinking, but these sources of information fit within the boundaries of propaganda and are not part of the framework of an intentionally planned thought reform program (“brainwashing”) run by Donald Trump.

Trump supporters are not cult victims

Moreover, most Trump supporters already shared and appreciated Donald Trump’s ideas, feelings and attitudes before they voted for him. He didn’t change them deceptively through coercive persuasion without their knowledge and consent. Instead, like a savvy salesman, Donald Trump effectively shaped and marketed himself and his brand in response to the Republican base. He implicitly understood what that political base wanted in a candidate, which is why he won its primary. And his persistently precise perception of the attitude of the majority of Republican voters has repeatedly proven to be correct according to his polling numbers.

Trump supporters are not cult victims. Specifically, people that support Donald Trump are typically not happy about recent changes in the United States. This includes concerns about the shifting demographics of the country, immigration, increasing frustration regarding “globalization” through entities like the UN and various international treaties and agreements, growing discomfort about interdependent world trading markets, rejection of LGBT rights such as gay marriage, fears about the centralization of government and unhappiness about certain women’s rights such as reproductive choice. Many Trump supporters are also upset about questions being raised about gun rights. There is also substantial resentment and suspicion amongst Trump supporters about the influence and power of the “intellectual elite.” And religious leaders that support Donald Trump seem to be deeply troubled by decreasing church attendance and the corresponding decline of religious influence in the United States.

Trump did not need to implant these preexisting attitudes and concerns through “mind control,” which was already there and quite evident within the Republican base. Again, like a good salesman Donald Trump simply effectively marketed himself by tailoring his presidential campaign to concisely capitalize on existing concerns abundantly evident in the Republican base.

In his soon to be released book “It Was All a Lie” author Stuart Stevens interestingly concludes that Donald Trump ultimately represents today’s “Republican party in a purified form.” Stevens, a purported “veteran Republican strategist,” writes, “There is nothing strange or unexpected about Donald Trump. He is the logical conclusion of what the Republican party became over the last 50 or so years.”

Cultural divide

Summarizing the situation, Trump supporters appear to be generally uncomfortable and/or unhappy with recent cultural change in America. And to a large extent there are cultural lines of separation, or a cultural divide, which has become increasingly apparent between urban and rural Americans, as well as between coastal Americans and those that live within the middle of the country.

Apparently, Americans that support Donald Trump feel that he represents meaningful resistance to unwanted change. And Trump supporters think he can reverse certain cultural trends. Trump’s most popular slogans and mantras like “Build the Wall” and “Make America Great Again” seem to reflect this sentiment.

Some cult-like aspects, but not a “destructive cult”

There are aspects of Donald Trump and his supporters that may appear at times to be cult-like, such as Trump’s rather narcissistic seemingly messianic claim made in 2016 that “only [he] can fix this,” or his supporters apparent penchant for cognitive dissonance. CultNews commented about this in 2016. But it’s just too simplistic to dismiss an entire political movement and a democratically elected president as a “destructive cult” without noting the distinct differences that separate Donald Trump from historical cult leaders and his supporters from the victims of destructive cults.

Instead of characterizing devotion to Donald Trump as a “cult” without qualification, it’s preferable, more objective, accurate and concise to recognize the nuances and complexity of the cultural currents and rifts that are polarizing Americans. Donald Trump may have a kind of fan base or “cult following” like many celebrities, but he does not match the criteria that defines cult leaders who have historically exercised virtually limitless unchecked dictatorial power over their followers. Trump is also not empowered by a deliberate “brainwashing” process deceptively done through a premeditated intentionally planned thought reform program with the goal of “mind control.” It serves no useful purpose to reduce the word “cult” to a “buzz word,” rather than recognize its precise range of meaning and boundaries.

Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist well known for his writings about thought reform and cult formation says, “Trump is not totalistic like [Shoko Asahara] the leader of [the Japanese cult] Aum Shinrikyo.

Deprogramming Trump supporters?

It’s also important to note that true believers cannot be “deprogrammed” regarding their personally held individual beliefs. Simply put, they were not programmed in the first place and therefore cannot be deprogrammed. Such true believers may eventually become disillusioned and move on, but this will be a personal choice, not the result of an intervention.

Historically, cult deprogramming is essentially an educational process, which centers upon the examination and unwinding of a thought reform program deceptively used without informed consent and knowingly maintained by a group or leader that uses coercive persuasion. This does not fit the profile or the circumstances of typical Trump supporters who already agreed with and endorsed Donald Trump’s core beliefs and the proscribed path he promised to implement for the United States.

Politicizing the word “cult” and using it to label Trump supporters serves no useful or constructive purpose. It dismissively demonizes a majority of the Republican party and other voters that support Donald Trump without recognizing their preexisting personal sentiments. This inaccurate labeling also denigrates the suffering of real cult victims.

Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving rather than being confrontational with relatives that disagree with your politics, it’s preferable to avoid conflict and instead focus on the family values, which you share in common. Talk about happy memories that confirm those values and earnestly express your appreciation for the opportunity of gathering for another Thanksgiving dinner together.

Thankfully we live in a free country, not a cult compound, where each election cycle provides an opportunity for American citizens to cast their vote privately and decide what changes will ultimately prevail and/or who will be the President of the United States.

Rick Alan Ross is a judicially qualified and accepted court expert witness who has testified in ten states including United States Federal Court concerning controversial authoritarian groups, some that have been called “cults” and the coercive persuasion techniques they frequently employ.

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20 comments untill now

  1. Cultic behavior is similar to childish behavior. If you think about it, immature children do not like to share, they cry to get their way, they blame their mistakes on other children, and they are narcissistic.

    Thus, cultic behavior is simply immature human behavior. Many cult leaders are children in adult bodies, whose souls were fixated before they learned to share, learned critical thinking, or learned how to have peers. They must be dominant, up on a pedestal as the worshiped leader. They do not take input from others, because they think they are perfect.

    This is all part of growing up, and thankfully, most of humanity learns these lessons as they grow into adults. Other people must grow up as adults, and are lucky to become mature in their forties, fifties, or sixties. Many people live their whole lives as children. That’s all I’m saying. I don’t want to pass judgment on those who follow Trump, but they live in a world of alternate facts. They only trust Fox News, and consider all other media suspect. Many are also followers of Bible-based cults who point to Trump as a divine being, touched by God.

    We have a lot to learn to repair the damage and bring people back into the world where the facts they believe once again coincide with reality.

  2. Thank you for your comments.

    It’s important not to use the word “cult” carelessly and/or to needlessly politicize it. Instead we must recognize its historical range of meaning.

    The objective historical definition of a destructive cult is based upon structure and behavior, not beliefs or the preexisting individual personality traits of cult members and/or their family backgrounds.

    We typically and historically look for very specific core characteristics, which can be objectively observed. Here are three that have been repeatedly cited:

    1. The authority and nature of the leader. That is, an absolute authoritarian dictator without meaningful accountability who becomes an object of worship and is the defining element and driving force of the group or movement.

    2. The mandated use of coercive persuasion to recruit, retain and manipulate followers. That is, a mindset is molded through coercive persuasion, which begets subservient and dependent followers. This mindset reflects the leader’s value judgements and worldview, rather than the original thoughts and feelings of his or her followers and their own personal histories.

    3. The exploitation and often profound harm done to followers through undue influence obtained and perpetuated through coercive persuasion.

    These three core characteristics that form the basic primary building blocks of a destructive cult can be seen as the nucleus for the definition of a destructive cult.

    Donald Trump and his followers do not fit these criteria and therefore cannot be considered a destructive cult, despite having some cult-like aspects or features.

    It diminishes the meaning of the words “destructive cult” and it is disservice to cult victims to diminish this definition and reduce it to what seems like political buzz words.

  3. Even though Donald Trump is not technically an absolute authoritarian dictator, as our country’s constitution does state he is supposed to be under the rule of democracy and an accurate vote. He does often present himself as though he is. More importantly and (likely more accurate) many of his followers see him as a “chosen” and *do* believe he has absolute authoritarian dictatorship. Do all of his followers think that? No. However, enough do, and have said it. My last submitted post is not able to be edited, and there are errors.

  4. If Donald Trump aspires to be an “absolute authoritarian leader” that doesn’t make him one, any more than if some of his supporters would like that. The facts are that Trump doesn’t fit the profile of a destructive cult leader and his followers are not cult victims. It’s important not to indiscriminately politicize the word “cult,” which actually has a rather narrow definition and precise meaning. Donald Trump is not Jim Jones or David Koresh and we need to make those distinctions.

  5. Don’t forget -his followers *see* him as Chosen. This is a difference between Trump and other “political leaders”.This description I give is not political. I get there is a gray area here. But the unquestioning devotion and statement that he is a “chosen” one by God and not to be questioned is dangerous . Take my statement as a whole -not just part. I have a lot of respect for your work-and it is important to remember that something unique can come along with all the parts but may not fall neatly into a category. The cults in the eighties were closely studied to see how to seduce people. In many, it was Guns, American entitlement, Pyramid schemes, and scapegoats or imagined enemies
    .

  6. I get, and appreciate you have saved a lot of lives-and pardon the multiple posts right under the other. Don’t hesitate to email me, Kind regards!

  7. Dorothy Vorhees @ 2019-12-11 00:55

    Puh-leeezzzz. For anyone who has been in a cult and struggled to get out of it, this theory about Donald Trump is an insult. After leaving my cult/sect/whatever, it took decades to clear my mind. For better or worse, a month after Trump leaves office, he will be consigned to the history books, like his predecessors.

  8. Thanks for this post. I’ll quote you and respond.

    “1. The authority and nature of the leader. That is, an absolute authoritarian dictator without meaningful accountability who becomes an object of worship and is the defining element and driving force of the group or movement.”

    If the Democratic Party did not control the House of Representatives, Trump would have no meaningful accountability. On the political right, he is absolutely an object of worship and the defining element and driving force of their group.

    “2. The mandated use of coercive persuasion to recruit, retain and manipulate followers. That is, a mindset is molded through coercive persuasion, which begets subservient and dependent followers. This mindset reflects the leader’s value judgements and worldview, rather than the original thoughts and feelings of his or her followers and their own personal histories.”

    Trump’s propagandists, including Fox News, are not doing coercive persuasion, but it is persuasion that recruits, retains, and manipulates followers. Consider Cesar Sayoc, who attempted to murder Trump’s most well-known critics. It is true that Trump simply capitalized on views long held by the political right, but it also true that he has exacerbated the intensity of the views. He’s gotten them to despise his opponents and view them as evil.

    “3. The exploitation and often profound harm done to followers through undue influence obtained and perpetuated through coercive persuasion.”

    The persuasion is uncoercive, but is definitely exploitative and profoundly harmful. Trump’s policies have done and continue to do great damage to his supporters, particularly his environmental policy. It’s not hyperbole to say that Trump’s environmental policy endangers the lives of his supporters, as well as the lives of his opponents.

  9. You are not making much sense here.

    1. You admit that Donald Trump is not an absolute authoritarian leader and then speculate about how he wants he to be one. However, there is ample evidence he is not and is accountable to the courts and Congress.

    2. You confuse propaganda with coercive persuasion. They are not the same. Trump supporters have not been changed by coercive persuasion, but rather already supported and voted for Donald Trump because they agreed with his views.

    3. Your disagreement with the policies of Donald Trump is evident, but that’s not about cult victims. Trump supporters have not been personally exploited like cult victims. And it denigrates the suffering of cult victims to confuse this issue. Trump supporters want the changes promised by Donald Trump.

    It’s important to maintain clarity regarding who is a “cult leader” and who are “cult victims” and not politicize these terms based upon political disagreements.

  10. I should have started by stating that Trump and his supporters are similar to a cult, and actually are more dangerous than one.

    Trump has hinted that he’d like to be an authoritarian leader, so my speculation is not baseless. Please view this article: https://www.inquisitr.com/5795148/democrats-plan-donald-trump-refuse-2020-loss/.

    I think the question of whether he is accountable to the courts and Congress is unanswered one. It appears possible that he will convince his supporters that his impeachment and removal are really a sly coup by the Democrats.

    I do not confuse propaganda with coercive persuasion. I know they are not the same. Trump supporters did vote for him because they agreed with his views, but it’s undeniable that he has been a demagogue and brought out the worst in them. For example, he has encouraged them to beat up protesters at his rallies.

    This is not about my disagreement with the policies of Donald Trump. That’s irrelevant. Trump supporters have been personally exploited. They think they want the changes he promised, but they actually don’t. It’s similar to the Germans who voted for Hitler.

  11. Extremists will be extremists no matter what side they are on in this moment–PERIOD. A left-winger will become a right-winger at the drop of a hat and visa versa. The extremist mindset is easily duped by suggestion and unmoved by facts or evidence.

    Bottom line? It’s the person, not the movement.

  12. How ever you define the phenomenon, Trump’s grip on his followers is not healthy—as any cognitive dissonance is not healthy. His falsehoods and lies, which are well documented, are repeated by his followers without question. It’s seems like an emotional addiction? His rallies promote fear of whole groups in society—Mexicans are rapists and murderers, Arab countries need to be banned including those who haven’t done us harm (re: Trump’s original list of banned Arab countries, before the courts had him walk it back). The intelligence communities are part of the “ deep state”, Mueller is part of the deep state. Main stream media is “fake news”. Universities are run by liberals—why, because they teach critical thinking? Because they don’t teach strictly conservative ideologies? The fear turns into anger from his followers—sending bombs to news stations, mass shooting of immigrants, encouraging his supports to beat up a protester—with a “I’ll pay your attorney fees”.

    This is not at all normal or good for civilization. I agree with the other poster, this is worse. If not defined as a cult, it is a negative phenomenon and with millions being influenced.

  13. The point is not blurring the very specific distinctions concerning the differences between Trump supporters and a destructive “cult.” Trump supporters already shared the same feelings about change in the United States. Trump understood his base and their concerns and crafted his message effectively to appeal to them. It’s not about “mind control” and Trump is not a cult leader like Rev. Moon or L. Ron Hubbard. He is a reflection of the political times and cultural rifts we now live in. Calling a group or movement a “cult” must not become a rhetorical flourish or buzz word. The word cult has a defined range of meaning.

  14. I understand you don’t believe the Trump phenomenon rises to your well defined definition of a destructive cult. Perhaps I’m expecting a psychologist’s response and I should look elsewhere for that perspective.

  15. Given the recent revelations of lack of accountability, vindictive behavior and irrational support of the personage is this worth revisiting?

    Seems to me that out of the “Ten warning signs of a potentially unsafe group/leader.” https://culteducation.com/warningsigns.html

    A solid 9 now fit. I will take each in turn:

    – Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.

    There is no accountability over the individual given control mechanisms are not in place. The individual is free to continue their reign of terror until such time as they may be checked by a free and fair election – if one happens. Keep in mind this individual (and others who are empowering him / co-running the cult) ultimately controls the mechanisms by which such an election would be enacted.

    – No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.

    Numerous examples of this. It is well noted that the individual does not accept criticism and shuts down questions that are not in line with what he would like to say.

    – No meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget, expenses such as an independently audited financial statement.

    This also stands on its own. The individual refuses to release any meaningful financial disclosure and refers to all non-officially released documents as false.

    – Unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions.

    Noted conspiracy theorist. Noted protectionist who fears immigrants. Noted that the individual is constantly aggrieved by others’ persecution.

    – There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even evil.

    Any member of his party that breaks ranks with him is ostracized and shunned – see Romney.

    – Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.

    See McCain, See Romney, See anyone who has decided to go against the will of the individual (Cohen – the list goes on).

    – There are records, books, news articles, or television programs that document the abuses of the group/leader.

    See the articles of impeachment. See the Mueller report, see news broadcasts for the past 3 years.

    – Followers feel they can never be “good enough”.

    This doesnt seem to be true – most followers are content feeling better than whoever is in the outgroup – ostracizing them and ignoring their own merits.

    – The group/leader is always right.

    See the “acquittal” of the subject and his defense. If he can do no wrong in his actions – then he must always be right.

    – The group/leader is the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or receiving validation, no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.

    Noted that everything else is fake news – even verifiable accounts contradicting his version of reality.

    —–

    By the assertion you make above, was Adolf Hitler a cult leader? If not, what was the Nazi party? What justified the things those people did in the name of their leader?

    If cults grow too large, are they no longer considered cults? Seems an odd distinction.

    When are we going to wake up and realize what is happening?

  16. Hi Pete,

    The “Ten Warning Signs” you have used actually define a “potentially unsafe group” not a “destructive cult.”

    Adolf Hitler was a destructive cult leader, worshipped by his followers as the defining element and driving force of Nazi Germany. He ruled as an absolute dictator without any meaningful accountability.

    President Trump is accountable to the checks and balances of his executive power as provided for by our Constitution. He must be re elected to remain in power and if elected again will nevertheless remain equally accountable. He is also limited to two terms in office (8 years). Cult leaders, Rev. Moon, Jim Jones and David Koresh, were not elected and have no such limitations.

    It’s very important that we not misuse the description “cult” in such a way as to dilute and/or negate its historical meaning and application.

    Congressional oversight includes financial transparency through the examination of how the Executive branch handles government funds, for example, the monies approved by Congress for Ukraine. Rev. Moon and other cult leaders have no such accountability regarding the way they handle organizational funds.

    We have a free press and the media has been quite critical of Trump. Likewise, Democrats in both the House and Senate have been critical and questioned his decisions. The spouse of one of Trump’s top advisors, Kellyanne Conway, has been extremely critical and now Utah Senator Mitt Romney. Cult leaders don’t have to suffer through such criticism. Critics are instead silenced and/or removed.

    Your points are anecdotal and don’t determine a destructive cult, which is; (1) A group with an absolute leader who becomes an object of worship, (2) Followers are deceptively subjected to a thought reform program that results in undue influence and (3) this undue influence is then used by the leader to exploit and do harm to his or her followers.

    See https://www.culteducation.com/brainwashing1.html

    Trump and his supporters don’t fit this profile.

    You may have identified a potentially unsafe political movement, but not a destructive cult.

  17. Thank you very much for your prompt response. It does help me to understand your point of view, but it also left me with a few more questions.

    Did the original poster mention “Destructive” cults? Are there non-destructive cults?

    If such a non-destructive cult becomes more fanatical, or if it’s leader calls for destructive action – can it evolve into a destructive cult?

    Is it fair to say that blind and irrational faith or fealty being placed in any object (be it man, concept or idol) being led and twisted by any one person or group is the cornerstone of what makes a cult?

    Would the Spanish Catholic church in the middle ages (read the inquisition) be considered a cult? If so, was it moving from belief to practice that cemented the organization into being a cult? By that definition are cults not cults until they start hurting people? Or is it the fact that once you are in, you can’t leave? It seems unclear.

    At the start of your response you say:

    “Adolf Hitler was a destructive cult leader, worshipped by his followers as the defining element and driving force of Nazi Germany.”

    If we replaced Adolf Hitler with Donald Trump (and Nazi Germany with America) in that statement, would any of the statement be any less true (with exception to the word “destructive”)? Do his followers consider him a driving force? Do they worship him?

    Hitler’s dictatorship was not immediate. It happened over time and after large and unprecedented power plays. Once his absolute power was cemented, he ruled with without any meaningful accountability. Prior to this, he was challenged by rivals – many of whom he eliminated when he could without repercussion.

    Trump has been challenged recently with his impeachment. He escaped all repercussions and then immediately retaliated against those he could without repercussion.

    I am left to think that these parallels may be why so many people are concerned.

  18. I’m beginning to believe that DaAdmin is a trump supporter the way he is vehemently denying that trump supporters are a cult. I live with one and let me tell you it is most definitely a cult. My aunt was a loving, friendly person to all races..best friend from childhood was African American. She got mixed up with a right wing jackass who made her feel beautiful and “safe”..changed her whole perspective and since trump has become elected she has become even more fervent in her beliefs. She outright told me that she knows this man is a piece of shit but that there is NOTHING that he could do that will shake her belief in him. She says that this man is sent by God to save America and that Democrats are literally evil. Demons sent by satan. She was a democrat for many years before this. She believes every lie, everything said by trump and faux news. It’s very scary being here as I am a libertarian and I despise the man and what hes done to divide our once great nation.

  19. No. I am not a Trump supporter, but I am a judicially qualified and accepted court expert that has testified many times under oath about destructive authoritarian groups called “cults.”

    Please take the time to read the article over carefully. It explains in detail based upon the facts, why Donald Trump is not a “cult” leader and his supporters cannot be defined as “brainwashed.”

    Sorry about your aunt. But what you describe is not cult involvement and doesn’t meet what must be narrowly objectively proscribed defining criteria.

    It seems like everyone knows someone that has been affected by the increasingly polarized present political environment. But that doesn’t mean they are in a “cult.” And it doesn’t help to dismiss the beliefs of each side in this way. In fact, it actually denigrates the suffering of those who have been victimized by destructive cults.

  20. All,

    A view from a bona fide Trump supporter might be helpful.

    For those of you with family members ardent in their views, maybe you should simply avoid political discourse? Or, if you find those persons distasteful, avoid them.

    People are not all cut from the same cloth. If you truly value inclusivity, then recognize that there is diversity in political views and accommodate those views without disparaging the people who have them.

    What matters at the end of the day is the rule of law. We should remain focused on facts, and the means by which we gather those facts, as evidenced by the disparity of findings around COVID-19. We need each other to check our confirmation biases.

    There may indeed be cults or cult-like behavior around the President, but the President himself, his supporters, or even an initiative such as Qanon are cults. I would imagine that an individual who has been inculcated into a cult is like someone with Borderline Personality Disorder, who sees the world through a particular lens and is not open to alternative views. Many Trump supporters such as myself conduct a great deal of research, and attempt to maintain open minds while conducting that research (such as welcoming disconfirming evidence).

    We have always had, and probably always will, have differences in our conclusions about things, but I caution you not to make assumptions about people who see the world differently than you do.

    We’re all Americans, and this remains the Land of the Free. That’s why we can say these things.

    Peace, everyone.

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