What is a cult? It is a group that worships or venerates one person or object, a group that shows excessive admiration for one person or object, and a group that imposes control over members through their practices and beliefs.
The term “cult” derives from the Latin term cultus, which referred to care, cultivation, reverence, or worship. So, our word “cult” most often refers to religious figures, objects, and beliefs. But it doesn’t have to. For that reason, I think one can argue that Donald Trump is the head not of a political movement but of a cult.
Adherents in this Trump cult refuse to accept facts that denigrate or undercut their leader, though they are happy to accept lies, distortions, or “alternate facts” that champion their leader. They are willing to accept from their leader forms of behavior that run counter to the norm—for example, lying, cheating, bombast and bragging, inability to apologize…ever, scapegoating, and pussy-grabbing. In many cases, adherents might not see these behaviors as aberrant at all. Lying might be a quick change in perspective or circumstance or might be a false charge brought on by the mainstream media to smear their leader.
Who are these Trump-cult adherents? Although a fair number of Trump’s associates and surrogates display the aberrant behavior characteristic of the leader himself—such as persistent and insistent lying in the face of obvious countervailing evidence—his followers do not necessarily display these behaviors themselves. Adherents are more characterized by what they lack and what they long for more than how they themselves behave. That is, followers tolerate and perhaps even applaud the aberrant behaviors of Trump, their leader, because he is a great man and above common concerns. As a great man, he can make deals and get things done, in spite of and for some adherents because of his behavior (for example, challenging political correctness or insulting national and international elites). But these are not behaviors that they themselves necessarily display.
Adherents look to the leader to effect their dreams or dispel their fears. In the case of the Trump Cult, followers are promised the restoration of good, high-paying jobs in whatever occupation the adherent worked or wants to work. They are promised an end to programs like affirmative action that give unfair advantage to some at the expense of others. They are promised that the country’s southern border will be secured against crossings by undocumented persons and that the undocumented who are already here will be removed—thus freeing up many jobs that were unfairly taken from Americans (leaving aside the uncomfortable fact that these are jobs most Americans won’t do). They are promised that social programs like Social Security and Medicaid that help followers until they can gain back their lost jobs will not be reduced or eliminated. And they are promised that those miscreants who have grown rich through controlling government or have lined their pockets through quasi-criminal acts on Wall Street will be drained from positions of authority. Programs from the top of the hierarchy to the bottom of the barrel will be run honestly and openly. To the adherents, it is “fake news” that none of this is true.
Organizing for Trump and acting on his behalf provide purpose for adherents. Their belief in him and his policies, such as they are, give meaning to their lives. Trump is someone to believe in wholeheartedly. This is why his approval rating, though historically low for presidents, will remain rock-solid among his base, his adherents. They believe in Trump, not in what he does or how he does it. He is “not like other” politicians. Trump is sui generis, unique, one-of-a-kind. And so Trump can do nothing to fulfill the promises that he made during the campaign; indeed, he can even do the opposite of what he promised—e.g., rather than drain the swamp, fill it with more unsavory critters. He could even, as he bragged, shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in New York, and he would not lose his base. That’s because the base believes in him. Failure to fulfill promises or breaking of promises happens because of what others do or refuse to do—hapless Republicans in Congress, craven Democrats, and traitors to or defectors from the cause.
Trump followers love to wear the garb or uniform of the movement: caps printed with “Make America Great Again,” badges and t-shirts with the leader’s face, red-white-and-blue significations of patriotism, all the way to dark suits and ties that hang to the crotch. Such mufti and appurtenances not only signify one’s membership in the cult, but they also serve to bond members more tightly together.
From the outside, Trump appears to lack any charisma. He is bloated and fat; his face is pudgy and caked with bronzer; his suits are baggy and his ties preposterous; his hair, lacquered into place by volumes of hairspray, has the color and texture of straw. His vocabulary is the equivalent of a second grader; his attention span, that of an infant. Unless he sees his name in a story—and perhaps even in a paragraph—he loses interest. He lacks intellectual breadth, depth, and curiosity. Trump seems to lack any introspective awareness of his limitations and vulnerabilities; he appears driven to gain attention of any kind and at every moment. Beyond attention-seeking, Trump appears to care about little but money, golf, junk food, and certain members of his family.
Yet none of that matters. His pretended wealth; his garish homes, buildings, and vehicles; his very braggadocio and offensive speech signal strength and single him out as an exception, a cut above all others, a speaker of truth unafraid in this era of political correctness to give it to us straight. His stage-managed presence is all that his followers need to see; his tough-talk, all they need to hear. His charisma is a social construct in the manner of the emperor parading without clothes.
What is the prognosis for the Trump cult? Well, with most cults there will come a reckoning: The leader will be exposed as weak, a fraud, a liar, and/or a cheat. The evidence will reveal that the emperor is indeed naked. But how can that happen to a cult leader whose very charisma is built upon a platform of lies, exaggerations, denigration of others, and false promises? For Trump the reckoning will come in the form of released or leaked tax returns. Those returns could show that Trump is not as rich as he has claimed, that he is deeply in debt and thus not a success, and that he has ties to and perhaps has committed felonies on behalf of America’s competitors if not enemies. Like the spiritual figure who is revealed not to be omniscient or prophetic, Trump will be exposed as a financial failure and a business mess. That exposé will destroy the foundation of his appeal, and the cult members will turn on him with vengeance.
The alternative to this, or the action that might accompany Trump’s collapse, is the majority overwhelming the cult in the next elections. Or so we can only hope.