It’s been over a month since U.S. Election Day, and other than surreptitiously greenlighting the transition to the Biden administration, neither Donald Trump nor his inner circle (nor many of his supporters) have publicly acknowledged the results of the vote. There are a variety of narratives that Trump World™ has perpetuated to explain the loss, including voter fraud, and followers are not only buying them, but are also spreading even more nonsensical theories online.
A relentless acceptance of blatant lies coupled with unconditional support of a leader are classic symptoms of cult-like behavior. Perhaps Sen. Bernie Sanders described it best: “The GOP has ceased to be a political party. It is now a cult.”
While some might be tempted to dismiss this rhetoric as mere hyperbole, several key aspects of cults — including a charismatic authoritarian leader and an extremist ideology — are present in Trump’s case, explains Janja Lalich, Ph.D., cult researcher, professor emerita of sociology at California State University, Chico, and author of Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults. And research published in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology backs up Lalich’s claims: Trump’s fear-mongering and inflammatory statements, especially toward marginalized groups, reinforces social hierarchy and skews toward authoritarianism, the study states. Lalich also says that while she doesn’t see concrete evidence of a formal indoctrination program in Trump’s supporters, she does “see the blind followership that we see in cults, and the resistance to counter-information.”
Cults, Lalich explains, thrive on enforcing a punishment-and-rewards system among members. This is evident within Trump’s circle of political loyalists (looking at you, Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, and Rudy Giuliani) and the endless revolving door of White House administration members. There are rewards and recognition for those who praise him, like Kellyanne Conway, who rose to fame as the voice of “alternative facts” after leading a successful campaign for Trump. And then there are the punishments: the Apprentice-like firing of staff members who speak out against the leader in any way, and the recent police raid on the home of a scientist who published COVID numbers. Plus, Trump’s leadership enables figures like McConnell to wield their power by advancing policy in the Senate, and then sneaking in a confirmation of the next Supreme Court justice, Amy Coney Barrett, before the election. Lalich points out that this works in two ways for a Trump lackey like McConnell; he attains power for himself and serves the leader’s agenda.
The punishment-and-rewards system applies to Trump’s family as well. Most of his adult children, specifically Donald Jr., Eric, and Ivanka, have roles in their father’s political sphere, so there’s power they can gain from participation, along with financial gain. Nepotism seems to be a uniting thread among cult-like, authoritarian leaders; Kim Jong Un’s family in North Korea is notorious for that, says Lalich.
Beyond the inner circle of a cult, there’s what Lalich calls the “outer rung,” explaining: “They’re the very necessary supporters who lend legitimacy to the cult.” In this case, Trump’s corporate donors and Republican politicians who neither fully endorse nor disavow Trump’s tyrannical behavior, can be considered part of the outer rung; their tacit support of the cult gives them economic and political influence, according to Lalich. By refusing to condemn Trump’s authoritarianism, blatant white supremacy, xenophobia, misogyny, and lies, they are complicit in it.
Religion and spirituality also play an important role in Trump’s ascent to and hold on power, as well. Glorifying himself as Christ-like has become normalized; at a recent rally, Trump claimed that “only Jesus Christ is more famous than him,” and his son Eric remarked that his father has “saved Christianity”. These ideas of a leader being some kind of second-coming of a Christ figure or other prophetic figure are also typical of cultic structure, Lalich says. Trump’s loyal followers run the gamut from evangelical Christians, who seem to take comfort in the idea of him as a Christ figure, to some people who believe in New Age philosophies, who have referred to Donald Trump as a “light worker”. The New Age movement perpetuates the idea that “you create your own reality, and it doesn’t have to match anyone else’s reality,” says Dr. Lalich, which makes it easy to see why some followers would be comfortable with Trump and pro-Trump conspiracy theories. Certain factions of the New Age spiritual and wellness communities are also coming to Trump by way of conspiracy theories like QAnon (which is where Charlotte Ward’s term conspirituality comes into play). Influencers who pander to those groups, like yogi Krystal Tini, to the tune of 147,000 followers, have espoused both QAnon-related rhetoric and anti-vax and COVID-related misinformation.
This embrace of false information really does trickle down from groups that spew dangerous conspiracy theories and into the general population. Disinformation has been a central tenet to Trump’s entire campaign and presidency, and has given rise to QAnon — a cult in its own right. The QAnon conspiracy theory-turned-movement asserts that Trump is the savior who can bust the alleged liberal-sanctioned pedophile ring headquartered in a Washington, D.C., pizza shop (hence, PizzaGate). While these theories sound beyond belief to many, experts say that, for those who adhere to them, they are a way to make sense of a chaotic world. But in this search for deeper meaning, many conspiracy theorists tend to fall down a rabbit hole that’s difficult to escape.
Cult psychology is known for its “all or nothing” approach, in that there are implications if you denounce or leave the cult — a system of punishments and rewards kicks in. “Individuals who are members of cults and gangs may be completely ostracized, abused, or even killed if they do not recite and ultimately believe racial rhetoric and ideology,” says Leela Magavi, M.D., a psychiatrist and Regional Medical Director for Community Psychiatry in Southern California. The more deeply followers get involved in the cult or conspiracy theory, the trickier it is to find their way out. That’s how they may find themselves willing to die for their leader, another terrifying aspect of cults and one apparently invoked by the Arizona Republican Party recently.
While dying for Trump is probably not on the agenda of most members of his cult, their collective fate following his electoral loss is unclear. “If we liken it to what happens when a cult leader dies or a cult breaks up, factions will develop; some people will rally around the leader, and try to get him to run again for office, while others work on their own political ambitions,” Lalich says. Some people may still view Trump as the “second coming” and try to keep that idea alive, and other supporters will likely continue promoting the QAnon theories. There may even be some former supporters of Trump or of QAnon who see the light and leave the cult, or at least fall away from it when they stop seeing Trump occupying their screens every single day, Lalich added. Or maybe not. Trump’s tweets about winning the election and his attempts to overturn the results are both pathetic and unsuccessful with the country-at-large, but he still has millions of followers who believe in him, including many who have been tormenting election officials in states like Michigan and Georgia. This means that he has a built-in audience for more than just Twitter — maybe even enough for his own television network, where he can grow his base in a new, terrifying way.