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Deconstructing the cult of Trump

Aaron S. Bayley


Charles Manson was infinitely more interesting than Donald Trump.


For a man who stood just over five feet tall, Manson was a commanding presence whose wit, charisma, cunning, and manipulative charm the socially awkward Trump could only dream of possessing. While the two share psychopathic traits, Trump lacks any discernible talents. Still, the American president makes up for it by sheer numbers: while the Manson family was made up of a handful of starry eyed, drugged-up teenage runaways, Trump's cult consists of millions of devout Americans. So what accounts for their loyalty to a self-styled demagogue?


A cult is any group of people united by their reverence of a person, concept, or belief system. We are fascinated by cults because we are both drawn to charismatic leaders and horrified by their ability to seduce and indoctrinate seemingly sensible people into believing and doing perverse things. Not all cults are as monstrous as Manson's, though. The ancient religions of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are all cults, as is the secretive and celebrity-driven Church of Scientology. The legion of Apple consumers who line up for days to get their hands on the company's latest gadgets belong to a brand cult. And dare speak ill of Beyoncé lest you find yourself swarmed by an angry "Bey Hive" protecting their Queen via an onslaught of barbed words on social media. (Beyoncé cultists are militant in their delusional belief that she is perfect; the same can be said of the cult of Trump, hence his famous assertion that he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters.) Unsurprisingly, Trump supporters demonstrate many of the same characteristics and beliefs that cult members are known for: loyalty, naiveté, gullibility, a warped perception of reality, and a willingness to ignore facts and basic truths and fetishize the object of their devotion.


Trump supporters are not one amorphous mass. They range from the dim-witted to the privileged. But while the former are more likely to be fawning and faithful devotees who treat Trump like a god, the latter are all too aware of Trump's flaws and shortcomings. While many elites are loathe to praise Trump publicly, they see him as a conduit to achieve their own selfish pursuits. Their privilege allows them to be unaffected by, and thus blissfully unaware of, the barriers which prevent those who have been "othered" from attaining a decent standard of living. One of Trump's more slavish devotees is Gene Huber of Florida, the forty-something car salesman and father of two who made headlines when he hugged Trump at a 2017 rally. Huber literally idolizes Trump: he claims to salute a cardboard cutout of him every morning. "He's our president, let's give him a chance," Huber told the Boston Herald in 2017. "Can't you see this man didn't have to do this for us? He's a billionaire. He's doing this for his love of this country and us." This notion of Trump-as-Saviour is especially popular with Evangelicals.


A good chunk of Trump's cult members are poor, white males who lack college degrees. Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, who has studied cults extensively, stated in an article for The Medium, "What makes a cult resonate and gain traction...often has less to do with its own claims than its ability to leverage its members' unarticulated anxieties." Many Trump supporters fear not being able to find work and believe immigrants are stealing their jobs. They are angry over globalization's gutting of America's manufacturing sector and hope Trump will bring the jobs back home. Many support Trump because his arrogance, racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia mirror traits they themselves possess. Many bought into Trump's vague campaign slogan of "Make America Great Again" without ever being able to articulate what that means; others bought into it because they knew all too well it was code for "Make America White Again."


Still many more men and women support Trump because they see him as anti-establishment. This is an especially comical position, given that, historically, those truly fighting the establishment have been left-wing activists. In fact, far from being persecuted, conservatives and the far-right have enjoyed protection by the very establishment they pretend to rail against at the expense of "radical leftists." Blacks fighting racist institutions are anti-establishment. Women and the LGBT community fighting against workplace discrimination are anti-establishment. White, straight America is not anti-establishment, they are the establishment. This fact is lost on Trump supporters who embrace terms like "drain the swamp" without examining who created the swamp in the first place.


Equally comical is the belief that Trump is a patriot. The word patriot is defined as "someone who loves, supports, and defends his country with devotion" and also "someone who regards themselves as a defender of individual rights." As these definitions make clear, Trump, a self-serving narcissist with traitorous tendencies, is no patriot. His attempts to undermine the U.S. constitution and dismantle the country's democratic institutions are well-documented. Any objective observer can see that Trump cares only to enrich himself; to paraphrase President John F. Kennedy, Trump asks not what he can do for his country, but what his country can do for him. Yet Trump's supporters, seduced by the accoutrements of patriotism--mainly the flag and anthem--are unable or unwilling to see that Trump postures as a patriot but fails to act in ways that are patriotic.


Trump cult members are drawn by his populist rhetoric and persuaded by emotional arguments absent of substance and sophistication. They mimic juvenile phrases like "Fake news" and are mesmerized by conspiracy theories fabricated to attack Trump's opponents. This is especially troubling because the majority of Trump cultists are rabid consumers of visual media and not print media; they are more comfortable using reductive meme images void of context rather than words as tools of debate. Those who do not read widely and critically lack introspection, self-awareness, empathy, and intellectual curiosity. They fail to grasp nuances and see things as either black or white, and they have difficulty articulating concepts and supporting their claims with robust evidence. They are easy fodder for the Tucker Carlsons and Laura Ingrahams of the world. And yet, they somehow think they are qualified to dismiss investigative journalism from credible sources like The Washington Post, Al Jazeera, or The Economist that happen to cast a critical lens on their idol. Buzzwords and boogeymen like "Deep state," "George Soros," "globalists," "hoax," "liberal elites," and "Obamagate" are randomly tossed about in an exercise of deflection via whataboutism, with no unifying thread with which to weave a coherent narrative. It is not enough for the Trump cultist to deny inconvenient facts; they gleefully counter with disinformation and malinformation gleaned from nefarious websites and the blogs of right-wing extremists (see "Pizzagate"). That Trump cultists see everyone else as "sheep" fooled by "mindless propaganda" is the clearest indication of their indoctrination.


One of the more ridiculous reasons people follow Trump is they believe he's an alpha male. In May, Tom Nichols wrote a piece in the The Atlantic called "Donald Trump, The Most Unmanly President," in which he charges Trump's supporters of not holding him up to their own standards of masculinity. "Trump behaves in ways that many working-class men would ridicule," Nichols asserts, before quoting the writer Windsor Mann: "He wears bronzer, loves gold and gossip, is obsessed with his physical appearance, whines constantly, can't control his emotions, watches daytime television..." You get the picture.


The irony is that the man who thinks he's an alpha is almost never an alpha—this holds true for Trump as well for many of his jacked up supporters. The alpha male ideal is something fragile and insecure men obsess over because they fear not being one. Aligning with strongmen, dictators, or bullies allows them to indulge their fantasy. But if the fictional character of James Bond represents the ideal alpha male, Trump is Bond's polar opposite: he is a pathetic caricature of a cartoon villain. Dean Burnett, neuroscientist and author of The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain, perfectly, if accidentally, sums up what the alpha male subconsciously represents to Trump supporters:


Maybe the supposed human alpha male is a combination of disgruntled male wish fulfilment and borderline-pseudoscientific justification for resorting to bullying, intimidation and generally all-round unpleasant behaviour by men hoping to impose their will on a world they find too complex and unnerving so revert to their baser instincts to get what they want, despite knowing deep down they don’t deserve it and shouldn’t have it?

Perhaps I'm being too harsh. Perhaps I shouldn't generalize that all Trump supporters are members of a cult. After all, not all of them share the same levels of slavish devotion or reasons for supporting him. But what unifies Trump supporters is not their gender, income level, or education level. What unifies them is their lack of character, integrity, decency, and moral conscience. At the very least, they know that Trump is a racist, lacks a moral compass, and is a compulsive liar. And yet for reasons only they know, they support him anyway.


In 2016, Hillary Clinton received a lot of flak for saying, "You could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call a basket of deplorables."


Hillary Clinton was right.



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