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The Cult of Trump

An argument that Donald Trump is best understood as a traditional cult leader, not unlike Jim Jones or David Koresh, and a consideration of our obligations to respond. 

In almost every academic course on religion, several questions loom large: What is religion? What makes it legitimate? Can we notice new religious movements on the horizon, or must we wait for history to pick and choose? We either come to our own conclusions on the term and argue over specifics, or say we just know it when we see it, to paraphrase Justice Stewart.

I love these questions. I could go on for pages on why they’re important, and why scholars need to answer them. Because sometimes, people come along, meeting every criteria of a new religious movement; and we fail to see them. We fail to accurately account for their existence and growth, staring confusedly, our hands and minds tied by stiff definitions and gazes. Historians peddle in the past, academics are to be unbiased, and activists may not notice religious motivations. Cultural commentators and those who would offer us fear; focus on ISIS, immigration, or the “other,” and entertainers distract. We are all seeing through a glass darkly, and it’s high time we clear each other’s eyes.

What is a cult? Can we see it and step in—either physically or through education—before their crisis points? Does it matter that some prefer “new religious movement” over “cult,” due to the term’s negative connotations? Should we differentiate between the benign and the deadly? And what are our obligations to respond to individuals and movements which exhibit cult-like activity? To put a finer point on my question—what is Donald Trump, and why are his supporters still following him?

Plenty of allegations and accusations have been lobbed at Trump. Whether true or false; whether outright lies, shadows of the truth, or completely honest; enough information is known to argue that Trump is one of the most unfit candidates for President of the United States. For those who haven’t been paying close attention, it can seem as if his popularity has come out of nowhere. America, so we thought, is supposed to be a mixing pot of diversity. However, for those of us who see subtle details and understand the complex nature of political and religious movements, nothing about Trump or his campaign has been surprising. He has tapped into an unnamed fear, caused a very real panic, and has relied upon religious faith to garner enough support to come close to the position he so desperately seeks. Many have argued, including myself, that if we had ignored Trump, he would have gone away. His traction and popularity can be rightfully explained by his perceived “news-worthiness” to media outlets and talking heads, which refused to take seriously his candidacy. Because we have been so caught up in the question of “How could this happen here?” we have missed the clear signs and signals which make complete sense when looked at closely. Donald Trump is our new David Koresh, and America may be our Waco.

"To put a finer point on my question—what is Donald Trump, and why are his supporters still following him?"

Our cultural term of “cult” calls back to previous religious groups and their leaders, such as Jim Jones of the People’s Temple (Jonestown), David Koresh of the Branch Davidians (Waco), Charles Manson’s Family, or Heaven’s Gate. All of these groups have several distinct commonalities, definable attributes that become obvious with comparison, including the following: 

(a) Relatively new in the public’s consciousness; (b) Appeal to a spiritual being or realm, regardless of orthodoxy; (c) Desiring to withdraw from or radically change society; (d) Unwavering belief and obedience; (e) Threatening to both believers and non-believers; (f) Led by a singular charismatic figure who solely, and/or through specific messengers, disseminates information.

We are terrified of cults. Really, we are terrified of a lot of things, cults just being one. Terrorists, persons of color, non-conforming gender and sexual identities, cancers, autism, fat, sugar, etc., have all been a part of our public conversation; yet cults sparked a fear which at one time outshone them all. No total understanding of the American 1950s to 1990s is complete without at least a nod to cult fascination and worry. Parents feared for their children, convinced that they had been or would become brainwashed—or worse—held under strict dogma and subject to very real or imagined danger. Historically, many “cults” (as opposed to the new religious movements which lack specific threatening behavior or belief) have ended in mass destruction, and seem to never deliver on earthly promises made. Service groups like the Cult Awareness Network existed to offer “deprogramming” and “exit counselors” for family and friends to rescue their loved ones. While these services ultimately proved to be highly problematic, their existence can understandably be explained. If your friend or family member had joined something like a cult, would you not be worried? Even though negative attention to new religious movements and cults has led to fear and consequences, their threat cannot be taken for granted, nor should it be ignored. 

"Because we have been so caught up in the question of “How could this happen here?” we have missed the clear signs and signals which make complete sense when looked at closely. Donald Trump is our new David Koresh, and America may be our Waco."

However, noticing and defining those groups which may be threatening can be tricky. Scholars are often hesitant to point fingers, lest they are wrong or feel insensitive. We can also misunderstand and/or forget the social threat to life and well-being they can present. Or, groups can just prove to be too difficult to understand, given the parameters of logic and reason so many of us operate by. Finally, these “cults” can be hard to define as such, as they may not obviously meet all of our previously defined characteristics.

One such problem in noticing these “dangerous cults” is the issue of religious motivation. Of course, a new religious movement must meet that criterion, in that it must be “religious,” however we define the term. In political movements, this can be or seems impossible. But we need to expand our view, looking beyond how religious movements begin and grow, and beyond where and how they can exist.

Movements, such as those groups of people who are supporting Donald Trump for President of the United States, did not begin with revelation. Rather, they began with a specific understanding of Christianity, which created and informed their political worldview. There are no new written texts, no new translations, and no new revelation from God. In fact, Trump rarely mentions God, and his personal faith has been seen as suspect. There is no one church building supporters gather in, no Vineyard or World Harvest; rather there are auditoriums and airport hangars. Supporters are called upon to give abundantly, being promised prosperity in all aspects of their lives. There are no coffee klatches, no church bulletin boards, and no Bible studies; rather there are internet chatrooms and Facebook posts. Trump signs and bumper stickers have replaced Jesus fish and ribbons on trees, marking prayers for soldiers. “Make America Great Again” is the new “What Would Jesus Do?”, and all sins can—and should be—forgiven. Finally, and most importantly, anyone seeming to uphold important Christian values can lead, anything or any country, it seems. There has been no preaching, but there have been memes.

Please do not misunderstand. The faith within the Trump campaign is not found within religious ephemera. Rather, these items and sentiments are cultural markers for faith—objects and areas in which American Christianity has typically been found. The religious reference is not to a singular denomination or belief, obvious in the fact that Trump supporters can be found everywhere, even within the United Methodist Church or groups of immigrant Catholics. The reference is rather three-fold, encompassing a specific understanding or interpretation of the Bible, the belief that the Bible informs every facet of our lives as the Word of God, and a hat tip to those qualified to teach or interpret.

Herein lays the rub. If we truly understand what Trump represents—hatred, intolerance, misinformation, a lack of education, misogyny, and fear of widespread destruction—and we have a working definition of dangerous cult, how could we miss this? How could we not see Donald Trump as the next possible David Koresh or Jim Jones? Are we hesitant to point this out over threats of libel? If that’s so, let Trump come for me. A blogger who has very little to lose, and who is protected by laws governing poverty.

Or maybe we just don’t recognize it? This seems impossible, and not only because politics and religion have had such a strong relationship since the beginning of recorded history. As Thomas Mann wrote, everything is political, and this cannot be truer for Christianity. It is likely impossible to find a Christian denomination or branch that has not taken some sort of political stance. Evangelicals and Catholics have swayed elections, denominations make declarations on political issues, groups of Christian socialists provide welfare for their own, and pacifists such as the Amish pay taxes yet refrain from political involvement. The Christian Bible, believed to be the written word of God, can and likely should be understood as political instruction based on common faith. We, especially those who understand and study Christianity, should have seen this coming, and it should not have been a surprise.

"We are terrified of cults. Really, we are terrified of a lot of things, cults just being one. Terrorists, persons of color, non-conforming gender and sexual identities, cancers, autism, fat, sugar, etc., have all been a part of our public conversation; yet cults sparked a fear which at one time outshone them all."

Or is the reason that we have misjudged Trump as a rising cult leader because we are too concerned with political correctness and an academic appeal to unbiased reporting? While we are rightfully reluctant to embrace the term “cult,” with its negative connotations; we cannot be so timid to wade into current political waters as to completely ignore the issue. To do so would be to almost embrace the concepts of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” refusing to change the public conversation on religion, and relying on others to come to us for information. It is no longer acceptable to argue that leaders should have come to academics of new religious movements before acting, and it is no longer acceptable for scholars to hold their tongues. We must, with our knowledge and passions, call a spade a spade and attempt to effect change.

Because of how terrible the outcome can be, and how extreme the stakes are, we are morally obligated to say something and act. We have the tools and ability to understand Trump, knowing the consequences his election would bring, and an idea of how to fix it. To get things done, we must first see Trump for what he is—a leader of a group that so closely resembles a so-called dangerous cult as to undeniably be one, meeting every criteria of our previous definition of cult.

Trump is a charismatic figure, solely responsible for information. While he has a staff of spokespersons and surrogates to work in his stead, all authority is directed back to him. Until “Pussy Gate” and Trump’s threat to not accept the outcome of the November election, many of his public supporters have been unwavering in their allegiance to the failed businessman, with a handful continuing to do so. (I’m referring to you, Giuliani and Christie. Get your shit together.) Likewise, individual Trump supporters can be impossible to argue with, mostly because they refuse to be swayed. No amount of disagreement, pleading, or even begging will work to change these mind, even when the “facts” are anything but. Lying has become a kind of myth-making, and Trump and his supporters seem to live in an alternate universe, where God is on their side and their responsibility as Christians is to vote according to His perceived will.

As read, the Bible strongly contradicts much of the Trump campaign. “Mainline” religious leaders and politicians have begun to come out against the candidate, and more are expected daily. Yet, regardless of orthodoxy, this appeal to religion and prosperity is real, and can be insurmountable. People have suffered for generations under poverty and limited resources, with an economy stacked against them. Although a Trump presidency would have dire consequences for many of his supporters, his promises seem much too great to pass up.

"We have, in our midst, the single and worst threat to not only the United States, but to the world. All of our lives, we have been told that “one person can change the world.” Usually meant in a positive light; such as when we compare ourselves to leaders like Gandhi and King; the phrase is meant to inspire and encourage. Yet, the alternative to the positive axiom is also true—one person, propped up by thousands, can ultimately change the world for the worse."

There is also a clear desire to radically change society, with Trump and his supporters promising to undo those policies and behaviors that they find so abhorrent. If this proves impossible due to Clinton’s presidency, it is likely that this specific community will retreat unto itself, becoming even more insular as time passes until the next attempt into politics. And although we have already refuted the relative “newness” of the Trump campaign, it is worth mentioning again. Through the use of “political dog whistling,” Trump has been able to tap into and reaffirm thoughts and feelings that would otherwise go unnoticed. The practice of using specific words and phrases to tip off those “in the know,” so to speak, is nothing new. Sarah Palin and her ilk riled up her supporters by relying on the concepts of “going rogue” and “being a maverick,” and Donald Trump is no different. To “make America great again” is to refer to the hope that America can become what it once was—a nation largely driven by white men on the backs of women and people of color.

Finally, and most importantly, the possibility of President Donald J. Trump promises to be a veritable disaster. He has threatened almost every American, to the point that no one should logically support him. Yet even those uneducated voters, those living in poverty, and those with the most to lose, still continue to pledge their fealty. To immigrants, he threatens to deport. To Black Americans, he threatens to intimidate, imprison, and continue killing. To all Muslims, he threatens to deport. To Clinton, he threatens to imprison. To the American constitution, he threatens to destroy. To women, he subjugates and intimidates—even physically on national television. To fertile women, he threatens to control. To the LGBT community, he threatens to restrict. To other countries, he threatens to destroy. And to the world at large, he threatens to kill—with nuclear weapons.

We have, in our midst, the single and worst threat to not only the United States, but to the world. All of our lives, we have been told that “one person can change the world.” Usually meant in a positive light; such as when we compare ourselves to leaders like Gandhi and King; the phrase is meant to inspire and encourage. Yet, the alternative to the positive axiom is also true—one person, propped up by thousands, can ultimately change the world for the worse. We came close to it with the Holocaust, and at times, I have a hard time understanding how “we” won. And now, like never before, we have the largest threat to world peace and our continued existence in our midst—Donald Trump.

You may think me facetious. I am infamous for my exaggerations and predisposition to high drama. Living with an anxiety disorder makes me inordinately worried, and I can be quick to turn to disaster thinking before my rational brain kicks in. Even so, even keeping in mind the unlikelihood of Trump winning, this all should give us reason to pause. If someone can go unnoticed and so suddenly become this close to becoming the next President of the United States, what does this say for the state of our (supposed) democracy? What does it say for our response to threats? For scholars of religion, how should we see and deal with threats by “dangerous cults,” and how do we share our knowledge? Where do ethics lie for those who would define our terms? For the media and cultural commentators, what is our burden to responsible reporting? And for us, as citizens of the world, what should our focus be on, and how should we parse entertaining “crazy” from real issues? 

I don’t have answers for all of these questions. I have opinions, but those will only take me so far. But I do have one answer—that being to who should our vote be? For progressives and those Republicans who have lost so much, who should our next President be? Because we cannot have a cult leader as President of the United States, and because we cannot return to the ethics of the 1800s, and because we want our nation and world to survive, we must elect Clinton. Please know that I truly understand if you disagree. We need a third party, crossing party lines can be difficult, Clinton isn’t the best (I will proudly wear my “Don’t blame me, I voted for Sanders” shirt come January,) and it is excruciating to recognize that kind of control you can be under. But there are larger things to consider when you cast your vote, and we must ultimately decide on who can stop Trump? Since the Democratic primary, the only logical answer is Hillary Rodham Clinton. But when Glenn Beck tells you that nothing terrible will happen under Clinton, there is only one reason why—because the other option is a morally repugnant and terrifying cult leader. Vote for Clinton. Trump represents a very real and very dangerous cult. Do not fuck this up.

Finally, if this whole thing has taught us anything at all, let it be this. To my friends who cling to the hope of a greater secularism, give it up. The secular hypothesis is dead.

Tamira Beth Stephens

A recent graduate of Harvard Divinity School, Tamira splits her time between Boston and Columbus, Ohio. She is interested in everything, especially attempting to save the world one opinion at a time. Although she only tweets to her favorite authors and about Hamilton, she can be found on Twitter @tamirabeth.