An expert on cult leaders and their followers believes Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) was accurate in his assessment that an element of the Republican party was “becoming a cultish thing” since President Donald Trump took over as nominal head.
In an interview with Pacific Standard Magazine, scholar and author Janja Lalich, who has studied the cult phenomenon extensively, said Corker “has touched on something important”, adding that there are enough similarities to cause concern.
She continues: "The people around Trump, and the Republicans in Washington, absolutely kowtow to him, either out of fear they're going to anger him, or out of adulation. That behavior is very typical of a cult."
Lalich cautioned that not all Americans who voted for Trump fall into this category, but for those remaining Republicans who continue to stand with him regardless the circumstances, the label appears fitting.
Polling suggests the party has been shrinking, and its remaining members are solidly behind Trump, giving him a remarkable 87 percent support in a recent poll. Even the policy of separating immigrant parents and children, which directly contradicts the traditional conservative belief in the sanctity of the family, was supported by more than half of Republicans before Trump rescinded it under pressure on Wednesday.
Lalich, who is also a professor emerita of sociology at California State University–Chico, has authored and co-authored numerous books on cults, and said "totalistic" cults share four key traits:
- They espouse an all-encompassing belief system;
- exhibit excessive devotion to the leader;
- avoid criticism of the group and its leader; and
- feel disdain for non-members.
There is good reason that this description brings Trump and his followers to mind, Lalich said:
“Charisma is a social relationship. It's about how people respond to that person, and how that person takes advantage of that. There's a kind of charismatic leader who is an authoritarian bully who rules by coercion.
“I think you have to look at the effect of Trump's behavior and language on his base. He readily ridicules and chastises people. He readily pushes people aside if they're not worshipping him. We've all seen the videos of his aides praising him to high heaven. That's the kind of adulation cult leaders expect and demand.”
Trump’s rallies play into the cult mentality as well: they are a way to not only recruit new members, Lalich said, but also to keep current members “enchanted” with their leader.
“He's showing him in their presence—being there for them, talking to them, relating to them. All of that helps to solidify their cult membership, so to speak. It reinforces the idea that they're a special group of people following this very special man. With Trump, it's not a religion, but there's the same kind of fervor.”
As for the president’s near constant attacks on various real or perceived enemies, the effect is to keep his followers afraid and paranoid, as well as feeling as though they are part of a special group — unlike those on the outside.
“His constant criticism and ridiculing and attacking "the other" also makes people feel superior. This sets up extreme polarization, which is always how cults have survived.
“Separating the cult from the rest of the world is pretty much what all cults do. That doesn't mean you have to live in a compound. It just means that, in your thinking, you're part of this special elite, separate from the unworthy.”
On the individual level, helping someone break free of a cult often includes an intervention by family and friends — but how would this work on the national level?
Lalich said such an intervention will be much more difficult.
“When we have something like this on a national scale, it's much more difficult. I know many people who have argued and argued with members of their family, and then given up. Rational conversations at this point aren't going to work.
“Now, if Trump continues with this egregious, inhumane behavior, some of his people may actually wake up. Some of the churches that have been supportive of him have come out to say, "This is too much." When the cultic behavior is on a national scale, [breaking it up] is going to take a national movement.”
Any believers who remain when Trump is either forced from office or his terms are finished will either fall away, having seen the error of their ways, stick with Trump, or possibly gravitate toward a splinter group — which often happens when a cult leader falls from grace.
Often, splinter groups will form, as when Reverend [Sun Myung] Moon, the leader of the Moonie cult, died. His three sons now have splinter groups. The followers split up and followed the one they liked the best. That's potentially something we could see.