Opinion: Why Trumpism is a cult mentality

By Daniel A. Brown
Posted 2/21/20

The notion that President Donald Trump has a cultlike control over his supporters has been bandied about by various pundits both in print and cyberspace. It's not the most original idea and I tend to agree.

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Opinion: Why Trumpism is a cult mentality

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The notion that President Donald Trump has a cultlike control over his supporters has been bandied about by various pundits both in print and cyberspace. It's not the most original idea and I tend to agree.

Unlike them, however, I was a willing participant in what could be designated as a cult and, therefore, understand the mindset that allows someone to ignore their personal values and follow a charismatic leader who blatantly violates them.

My spiritually oriented commune was the largest of its type in the Northeast, existing for 20 years and encompassing over 1,000 people. The youthful founder of the commune (whom I shall call the Leader,) had transformed his original band of idealistic friends in rural western Massachusetts into an enterprise with myriad permanent members and notice in a variety of national media.

The commune wasn't intended to be a cult, but for several years it sank into a true cult mentality, the effects of which still haunt and traumatize some of its members decades after the commune ended in the late 1980s. I lived there during that period and admit to having been a true believer. I feel no embarrassment in stating this. It was a learning experience and, if anything, allows me to understand why otherwise decent people uncritically follow someone as corrupt and dangerous as Trump.

I remember the day our "cult period," as I call it, began. Our rural, mostly off-grid commune couldn't sustain itself. The Leader called a meeting and presented the communal membership with a choice. Either let him assume total control or he would depart. It was a perfect case of manipulative democracy because everyone knew nobody would choose the second option. We freely gave him omnipotent power, and without knowing it at the time, surrendered our individuality.

By that decision, my commune manifested the textbook definitions of cultism and I see it mimicked by those who make up the hard-core followers of the president. "Trumpism" is truly a cult mentality.

The main tenet of cultism is that the individual surrenders their integrity and authority to the Leader. Cult members allow themselves to believe anything the Leader tells them no matter how contradictory, amoral, deceitful or irrational. Under his influence, they manifest cruel and insensitive behavior they would have previously considered unthinkable and sanction questionable acts in the belief that the ends justify the means.

As an example, by themselves, no participant would think of insulting a disabled person or a decorated combat veteran. Trump has done both at his rallies to an enthusiastic response. The president is correct. He could murder someone on Fifth Avenue and still get reelected. In actuality, his red-hatted followers will stand by and cheer while he poisons America's food, air, land and water, cuts Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, cripples our educational system, drags us into war, colludes with foreign adversaries and enacts policies that diminish the quality of life of all Americans, even them.

In a cult, you are either a "true believer" or "the enemy." There is no middle ground, no compromise and no discussion. The critical opinions of the outside world don't exist. Any follower who dares question the ideology of the Leader will be turned on and torn apart by their peers. You can see this in the subservience of Senate Republicans who know in their hearts just how destructive and unscrupulous their party leader is and yet bend to his will.

Fortunately, no cult lasts forever. Members of my commune eventually created families and businesses, both of which gave individuals enough autonomy to shake off their unquestioned devotion to the Leader. More importantly, they began to challenge his increasingly erratic and abusive behavior. In doing so, they rediscovered their self-worth and individuality. The Leader was finally ousted by the few remaining survivors but like all narcissists, he never apologized to those he hurt or betrayed.

In the end, cultism not only destroys the institution that gave it birth but permanently tarnishes those who were its participants. Someday, when his toxic spell falls off, members of Trump's base will have to look in the mirror and ask why they willingly allowed themselves to be so morally compromised. Some will be unrepentant. Most will be filled with shame or guilt. Hopefully, they will regard the experience as a lesson learned and become inoculated against the perils of blind devotion.

Daniel A. Brown is a resident of Taos County.

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