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Trumpanistan: Defusing a Dangerous Cult

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Over the past five years in campaigning for and serving as president, Donald Trump has converted a large GOP sector into a dangerous personality cult. I use the word “cult” advisedly here. In my youth, I got involved in Scientology. Fortunately, I soon realized what a tragic error I had made, and I left the cult. Getting out was relatively easy for me because I saw that my idol had feet of crumbling clay. It’s altogether different for those who still believe their group is good.

After a career in electronics technology, I became a writer. I’ve recently concluded several years of research on control-centric` cults. I am now writing a novel about a destructive cult leader. So, I know that convincing those enthralled by a charismatic leader is no easy matter.

Trump probably suffers from narcissistic personality disorder (NPD.) It is beyond apparent that he is a malignant narcissist. I have never encountered anyone else who believed he was the world’s leading expert on every subject known. He thrives on and requires constant praise. He is an authoritarian leader, demanding absolute submission to his power. Trump brilliantly leveraged on an existing QAnon conspiracy, claiming a global elite of politicians and wealthy deviants exists. They assert these devils keep children in underground caves for pederasty and to drain their blood for cocktails. It’s dead easy to weaponize beliefs like those.

So, I am claiming that Donald J Trump, the 45th President of the USA, is a destructive cult leader. Here’s why I believe that claim is justified.

Below is a list of cult leader attributes. See how many apply to Trump? Thanks to Dr. Janja Lalich, Director of the Cult Research Institute and professor emerita of sociology at California State University, Chico. Her  Cult Research website helped me compile this list.

  • Followers show unquestioning commitment to the leader.
  • Questioning, doubt, or dissent are discouraged or punished.
  • The leader is always right and perfect. He blames others for anything that goes wrong.
  • The leader defines enemies of the group and demonizes them.
  • The leader dictates how followers should think, act, and feel.
  • Exalting the leader is above all other persons.
  • The leader is on a mission to save his country or humanity.
  • The group displays us vs. them mentality.
  • Persecution or threats are aimed at those who leave or are expelled from the group’s inner circle.
  • The group expels any who question the leader or fail to please the leader.
  • The leader is not accountable to any authority except himself.
  • The leader claims his mission is so vital that any means to achieve it are justified.
  • Subservience to the leader may alienate followers from family and friends and may require them to alter their behavior drastically. Armed insurrection should qualify on that bullet point.
  • The group emphasizes recruiting new members, e.g., the mass rallies.
  • Fundraising is emphasized; Witness Trump’s Stop-the-Steal scam.
  • Members must subsume themselves in group activities.
  • Members are told to shun everyone outside the group.
  • The true believers feel there can be no life without the group and its leader.

If you need convincing that Trump has built a personality cult, read Mara Santilli’s excellent article making the case.

If you’re still reading, I take it you’re persuaded Trump has formed one of the largest personality cults in human history and that helping those people get back in touch with the fact-based world is a worthy cause. Let’s look at how we can do that.

  1. Use a gentle approach. A family intervention like those used to convince someone lost in substance abuse to enter treatment will alienate a conspiracy theorist. Shaming won’t work. They need your support, not ridicule.
  2. Please resist the urge to attack their cultic beliefs. You won’t win that argument. Worse, they will likely lump you in with the enemies of their cult, in on the vast conspiracy they are fighting. Worse yet, psychologists note that challenging false beliefs often results in the true believer digging in their heels. That hardens their confidence in the cult leader’s claims.
  3. Socialization is one powerful need cults fill, particularly in a pandemic. To help people out, family and friends should connect with them in person where that is safe, and by phone or internet chat where not. Talk about things you can both agree on, i.e., shared memories or updates on family and friends’ well-being. Reminding them of their life before the cult reminds them that life is there to reclaim.
  4. Except for the innermost circle of lieutenants, everyone in a cult harbors some inner doubts. Ask gentle, probing questions for these doubts in a non-accusatory fashion. For instance, you might say, “I’ve heard about the Qanon claim that most of the world’s leaders are in a Satan-worshiping pedophile ring. Aren’t there a lot of holes in that theory?” If you know your loved one didn’t have a racist bone in their body before joining the cult, probe around Trump’s racist and xenophobic views. It might be Pizzagate 2.0 or Trump’s appeal to white supremacy that offers the key. Expand upon all doubts you uncover. You might say, “Shouldn’t there be more verifiable evidence if such a vast conspiracy exists?” Enlist those who best know the person you plan to de-convert. Create a plan before you dive in.
  5. Invite them on vacation if all who will go are immune to SARS-CoV-2. The more time you can spend with them, the less they are exposed to their fellow cultists’ reinforcement.
  6. If they point out that the Democratic Party has ignored “Flyover Country,” agree. In the 50s and 60s, the GOP developed a political strategy called neoliberalism. They sold that trickle-up philosophy to Jimmy Carter. Since the days of Kennedy and Johnson, the DNC and RNC have focused on blessing their donor class.
  7. Be prepared to play the long game. Focus the cultist’s mind on niggling doubts they already had. Over time those doubts will grow.

Empathy and understanding can work if given time. It’s the only safe way, short of hiring a costly cult deprogrammer to spend a week to 10 days wearing the cultist down.

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