Cult Experts Warn That Trumpism Has Become A Death Cult Akin To Jim Jones
Experts and others intimately familiar with cults have drawn parallels between followers of President Donald Trump and those who fell prey to the likes of Jim Jones more than 40 years ago.
The similarities have become particularly glaring as the world faces down COVID-19, revealing that some Americans are prepared to follow the president and his directives even if it means sickness or death.
Trump’s nonchalant attitude at various points in the pandemic encouraged some to shirk public health guidelines like social distancing and mask wearing. As Ashley Smith, who founded an anti-social distancing group called “ReopenNC,” said earlier this year: “When it’s my time to go, God’s going to call me home. I think that to live is inherently to take risks. I’m not concerned about this virus any more than I am about the flu.”
In Michigan, hundreds rallied at the Capitol in April to protest Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders. The chaos of the scene — horns honking, flags flying, people yelling — was eye-opening.
But for cult experts, it was not surprising.
Mother Jones reporter Ali Breland spoke with such experts in April and they expressed similar sentiments to those shared on Twitter by Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who now runs an intelligence and security consultancy.
Soufan wrote: “I dealt with suicidal cults before. I encountered people who are willing to die for their faith, ideology, race, etc. But, I never encountered anyone who is willing to die for someone else’s 401k. This is a whole new level of craziness.”
Formal experts on destructive cults agreed with Soufan’s diagnosis of Trump and his base’s support for letting some die. When I reached him via a Zoom video call, Steve Hassan, a mental health professional and cult expert, started nodding immediately when I asked if he saw parallels between, say, the Jonestown Massacre and Trump’s willingness to put the elderly on a near literal chopping block. Ben Zeller, a professor at Lake Forest University who focuses on new religions and Daniel Shaw, a New York-based psychoanalyst who has helped counsel people who have left cult religions, agreed with almost no hesitation.
“Saying that older people should be ready to die for the sake of the economy… Kill grandpa for the Dow,” Shaw said. “The fact that this is getting amplified. How does that not evoke memories of people lining up to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid at Jim Jones’ compound?”
[Ben Zeller, a professor at Lake Forest University who focuses on new religions], Shaw, and Hassan all, with some differences, define a destructive cult or new religion as an organization led by a charismatic, usually narcissistic, leader who limits where followers get their information and operates with a sadistic level of disregard for others’ wellbeing. With that definition in mind, they think that the parallels between such groups and Trump’s relationship with his base don’t stop at a willingness to sacrifice lives. Prior to the coronavirus, they had noted similarities in the President’s cult of personality, his seeming narcissism and self-centeredness, and how he brings in supporters and then spins a myth that he alone can bring solutions.