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Is There a Cult of Trump?

Trump as a leader and his loyal followers exhibit “culting” behaviors, says cult expert Dr. Milton J. Bennett.

President Donald Trump speaks on August 2, 2018, at the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.

During a recent rally in Pennsylvania, President Donald Trump chose to attack the media, calling us “horrible, horrendous people” and “disgusting.”

Trump went on to tweet that the media “is the enemy of the American People,” a deeply troubling use of a phrase used by authoritarians throughout history, like Nero, Stalin and Mao. Stalin, for example, took politicians and artists whom he deemed as unsupportive and had them sent to hard labor camps, or killed. Despite the fact that the corporate media is certainly culpable for cheerleading war and the military in general, among countless other grievances, when the press is assailed en masse like this by a powerful leader, it creates a very dangerous situation for all journalists.

When questioned directly about this tweet, Trump’s Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders would not dispute his claim. These moves were egregious and troubling enough that, being acutely aware of history, UN experts then warned how Trump’s assaults on the press “increase the risk of journalists being targeted with violence” and were “designed to undermine confidence in reporting.”

“Regarding the “enemy of the people” allegations, Trump appears to be following the Goebbels playbook of attacking the media with an oft-repeated “big lie.”

This is the conclusion of Professor Milton J. Bennett, the director of the Intercultural Development Research Institute, and an adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Milano Bicocca in Italy. He holds a Ph.D. in intercultural communication and sociology and a Masters in psycholinguistics.

Bennett told Truthout he sees Trump’s recent demonization of the media as serving the immediate purpose of “impugning the source of criticism of him — the institutional parallel to an ad hominem attack on one’s critic. But it also illustrates the culting power of redefining terms like ‘fake news’ for insiders to justify indefensible attacks on outsiders.”

Bennett, the author most recently of “Group Indoctrination: Techniques of Depersonalization and Domination of Individual Consciousness” in the forthcoming book, Indoctrination to Hate: Pathways into Gay Bashing, Jihadism, and Groups of Hate, is an expert on culting groups and their indoctrination processes.

Bennett provided expert analysis for the media during the Rajneesh cult crisis in Oregon, and after the FBI and ATF botched the negotiations with the Branch Davidian Cult in Waco, Texas, that ended in 75 deaths, he wrote a chapter for a book intended for the FBI about how communicating with cult groups is different from communicating with hostage takers.

“Culting groups are also examples of extreme ethno-centrism,” Bennett told Truthout. “People in them think reality is absolutely only what they think it is, and everybody else is absolutely deluded.” Bennett uses the term “culting” in reference to the process of controlling consciousness — a process that can be employed by any kind of group. He explained how the noun “cult” is frequently used to refer to particular kinds of groups, such as new religions that people don’t like for some reason. The gerund (with the “-ing”) is descriptive of a group process and not evaluative of the beliefs of a group.

So, is Trump really a cult leader, and his followers acting as the truly converted who are willing to go to any lengths to support their leader?

Truthout interviewed Bennett, who describes how culting groups come to dominate individual consciousness, and explains the control, coercion and conversion capabilities of cults. He draws multiple disturbing parallels between what happens in culting groups and what we are witnessing with Trump and his followers.

How does a cult leader come to so effectively dominate an individual’s consciousness?

What a cult leader does, whether intentionally or simply intuitively, is to manipulate three variables to generate a sequence of events that has a predictable outcome of this true believer group. The three variables are control, coercion and conversion.

Control includes specifically controlling the boundaries of the group. So the person who leads one of these groups is particularly good at defining who is the insider and who is the outsider, strengthening the boundary of the group. They may do things like tell people they should cut off contacts with their previous life … in other words, making it extremely clear if you are in the group or out of the group.

Part of that control is control of meaning, so a leader who is effective in these kinds of groups uses the strong boundary to create special definitions of things, or a special philosophy … words mean special things inside the group that are unknown to people outside the group. So, the group has secrets. Part of that is to accentuate the boundary of the group, “We know it and they don’t.” But the other part of it is that it moderates the form of communication with the outsiders so that when the outsider uses one of these terms that is not the insider’s definition, they become subject to ridicule and they lose all credibility. If there are enough of those types of events, there is no way an outsider can be credible in an insider’s terms. And vice versa, since the outsiders are deluded and naïve, according to the insider’s special definitions of these words, it’s ok to lie to them. By exercising an Orwellian control of word meaning, cult leaders can always deride outsiders for failing to “get the joke.”

The second variable is coercion. Coercion means the cult leader always uses the limitation of alternatives as a strategy. The contrast here is that information is the increase of options, so when you get information, it increases your options about how you think about things or what you can do. Persuasion would be somebody’s attempt to say, “Given these options, you should do this and not that one.” So, trying to argue one being better than the other. But coercion is the attempt to limit your options by saying there is really only one viable choice. Everything else is unviable, and of course, the ultimate coercion, “Do this, or I’ll kill you.” Assuming that being killed is not a viable option, you only have one other alternative, which is “Do what I say.” Most cult leaders are good at manipulating that kind of coercion. It’s not that the leader himself or herself is trying to kill you, but that something bad will happen to you if you don’t do this, including other people will kill you.

For example, Trump routinely suggests that immigrants are associated with violent crime…. While Trump himself is probably unaware of the research supporting his technique, the prospect of random violence is a strong motivator of fear, especially when violent images are reported by media to groups of people not immediately involved. For instance, it has been shown that fear of immigrant violence is much greater in communities with lower immigrant populations that happen to be nearby communities with higher populations. A national form of this phenomenon occurs when Trump falsely claims that German innocents are being slaughtered by Muslim immigrants. Germans are unlikely to be much affected by this false image, but many people in other developed countries, such as the US, are more likely to be disturbed, apparently by the possibility that “it could happen here unless we do something.” This becomes the basis of the kind of coercive manipulation routinely used by Trump. After establishing the false images of nearby violence, he claims that only he can stop the rampant immigration that fuels such violence. In other words, follow me and support my nationalistic xenophobia or “they” will kill you.

Then the third variable is conversion. In all cases, the culting groups aim toward a conversion, which is a fast, transformative experience, not a long-term development. It is like the scales fall from your eyes, where one minute you feel this way, and the next minute you feel that way. That transformation creates a very strong physiological response in human beings. We feel it as an epiphany, as a joyful reception, and there are all kinds of things we’ve learned to associate with the truthfulness of something, the authenticity of something, and associate these feelings with it. And what a cult leader does is say that the reason you’re feeling that way is because of how good this idea is, or about how good I am. It is important to set up the conversion experience to create the self-fulfilling idea that “It must be true – otherwise why would I be feeling this good about everything?” Usually, that is associated with some systematic disorientation, or what used to be called brainwashing. In it, there is the intentional use of lack of sleep or change of diet or getting your haircut or other things. Kind of like boot camp, where things are regimented in a way different from what you are used to, which generates an altered state of consciousness which leaves you more malleable … but in a culting group, it makes you more susceptible to the experience that is set up for you.

Talk about the four criteria culting groups must meet to be identified as such.

With control of those variables, the cult leader sets up a process that moves through seduction, disorientation, snapping and group maintenance. Seduction is the appeal of the group. In Maslow hierarchy of needs terms, here is the need that will be satisfied by this group. It might be a basic safety or security need, or in the case of gangs, the issue might be safety and security: Join this group or you’re going to get killed by the other people. More often though, it’s social needs, and in many cases, transcendent needs.

Then in all of these cases, once the seduction occurs, there needs to be control of the boundary. So there needs to be a way that as the result of you being seduced, you are moved into a bounded situation, or some place where there is control over the boundaries where you feel physically or socially reluctant to leave the environment. Physically, you could be put some place where it is hard to get away. But more frequently, it is social control, where to leave the group means that you lose access to the leader, or lose access to the seduction that you were given in the first place for satisfaction of those needs. You’re subject to ridicule, or subject to being excommunicated, and since most of us are social animals, that is a strong phenomenon.

Then in that controlled situation comes the disorientation. The disorientation basically means an alteration in your routines that creates the altered state of consciousness, but not just that. Otherwise, every boot camp would be a cult, and I think that is extending the definition too far. Because the next thing that comes is the specific conversion experience. And some people who wrote about this back in the 1970s called it “snapping.” I’ve adopted that term because it happens very quickly. And it is the feelings that go along with the snapping. No matter what you snap from, and what you snap to … it’s the snapping that generates the physiological condition, which is then claimed by the leader as being evidence of the power of belief of he or she as a guru.

Then comes the group maintenance, which for this to become a cult, all this needs to be an ongoing group experience where people are now a community, and they share this experience, and have these secrets and are differentiated by the outsiders by having had this experience.

Once these are established, the group moves into the second stage of this process, where these people think they are superior by virtue of having had this experience, whereas those poor people and schmucks out there haven’t had it. Which then evolves into a “they” [the outsiders] are trying to get us. Because the insiders believe they are superior, they move into a kind of paranoid state, where the outsider becomes the enemy and that moves finally into a condition usually of armed preparation for conflict.

When you look at what is occurring with Trumpism, as it were, today in the US, through the culting group lens, tell us what you are seeing that gives you concern and pause.

I must say that I reluctantly have come to this conclusion that he is, knowingly or not, a really good cult leader. I didn’t start out thinking that. I thought he was just a buffoon. I was surprised by his election, like many people were who didn’t see that as the idea of a US president. But the evolution of this condition that you just described has surprised me, and it’s only recently that I have started looking seriously at this in the terms of this being a culting phenomenon. This was partially because Ed Dunbar, who is writing a series of books on domestic terrorism and the psychology of hate, asked me to write an article about group indoctrination largely around when people are given to groups of hate that I started analyzing this, and when I did it and went back to that model I described earlier, I realized this is pretty much what is happening on a national scale.

It does look like Trump is meeting the criterion [for] controlling the boundaries; he has certainly set up a strong “us and them” distinction against the immigrants, and now against the Europeans and some of our other allies. Of course, this works with his base, including the currently privileged but not well-off white people who are afraid of losing their white privilege. This core group certainly has a strong boundary around it, but he seems to be pretty good at expanding the group by generating, for instance, a strong distinction against the Europeans, and that may pull other people in who are not part of that core group. He is also extremely good at controlling meaning. So, he is doing all kinds of things — I think more than we are generally familiar with, unless you look at Fox News often — about generating unique meaning for things inside the group, which allow insiders, when outsiders criticize him for saying something, to say, “No, no, you don’t know what he meant. What he meant is this thing that is defined within the group that you don’t understand outside the group.” Consequently, for people outside the group, it looks like he is getting a pass for all kinds of things. But for insiders, he is within the meaning system of the group. It appears that is what is happening as well.

The primary example of Trump manipulating meaning is the idea of “fake news.” By changing the meaning of “critical” to “fake,” Trump has provided his followers with a convenient way to dismiss any report of him that is unflattering or contrary to his narrative. A nice example of this process in action is the changing treatment of “collusion.” Initially, the charge of collusion was treated as “fake news.” Then, collusion became “not illegal.” It would not surprise me to see him next give the term a positive spin, such as, “Collusion is one technique I am using to make a great deal with the Russians. You should thank me for colluding.” For insiders, such definitional play is not inconsistent — it is justifiable and laudable maneuvering necessary to counteract spurious attacks by the outsiders.

There is lots of coercion. Lots of, “If you don’t trust me, they are going to kill you.” Pretty strong. I’m surprised at how strong the coercion is, and it appears to be tolerated.

The conversion experience … I’ve started looking at his rallies in terms of setting up conversion experiences. I listen to people reporting how they felt at these rallies, and it seems that there is a significant amount of that kind of epiphanous joyfulness associated with conversion. Remember, it doesn’t matter who you believed in before and who you believe in now, it’s the shift, the snapping, from one to the other that generates the feeling of truth. So that appears to be a strong reason for him to continue doing those rallies that … generate the conditions for those ongoing epiphanies that people have. That in turn is being woven into the ongoing group support. So, we are in at least phase two of the group support, which is the superiority of the “in” group, as opposed to the sort of deluded condition of the “out” group — that they don’t see how great this person is.

The next stage in the development should be one in which increasing numbers of outsiders are seen as enemies, which will eventually include everybody. And the boundary of America will become more and more nonporous.

The Trump culting group really appears to already be in phase three, and it appears as though there is already a significant percentage of people in it already in phase four, meaning they are prepared to use violence at the drop of a hat.

You may be right. I was giving it the benefit of the doubt. We may still have a little ways to go in the process, but aside from an almost unbelievable level of self-servingness, there seems to be no other way to explain why the entirety of the Republican Party would be willing to support this person, other than it being something like this cult phenomenon where suddenly people have become true believers.

So, basically what you are saying is that it is possible that the majority of the GOP, because Trump has such incredibly high presidential approval ratings within the GOP right now, that they are essentially part of the culting group?

Yes. And understand that when I say people belong to a cult, I’m not saying that in a negative way about them, because I think any of us could become members of cults. There is some seduction out there about which you or I would say, “Well in this case, it is ok,” and we would be going down that road and it would be questionable whether we could pull ourselves out of it. So, I have some humility about the power of culting. It is not a pathological condition. I think it is the result of somebody, knowingly or not, who is skillful at evoking in us some pretty primitive species’ instincts. And those instincts include a desire for authority, basically a desire to be controlled. I think Trump is playing those strings pretty well with a lot of people, maybe people who are more inclined toward authoritarianism in the first place. In terms of George Lakoff’s explanation of the right/left paradigm in the US as an authoritarian parent on the conservative side and a more nurturing parent on the left side, you could say the right is already inclined toward an authoritarian worldview. Again, I’m not saying that as a criticism, but as a description of a normal distribution in which some people would be more inclined to flow into the exaggeration of authoritarianism that we see in culting groups.

Once someone is already solidly in the culting group, why is it that they are unable to point out anything negative about the group?

One of the criteria of a culting group is that members of the group cannot see anything wrong with it. I think it’s probably because they are invested in the newly acquired worldview, and criticism represents a threat to the existence of that worldview. All of us avoid threats to our basic beliefs because they threaten our existence, by definition. So, what seems to us to be a normal amount of criticism seems to someone already in one of those groups to be an existential threat, and every small piece of criticism needs to be pushed away in the name of preserving the existence of the group.

Once you are invested in the idea that a group owes its existence to a particular set of beliefs, then any threat to that worldview becomes an existential threat and is heavily reacted to.

Talk about how it is virtually impossible to speak with someone once they are in the third phase of a cult.

By this point, the outsider is the enemy. They are not just inferior, but they are the enemy. Then speaking to [the insider] becomes both fruitless and dangerous. Fruitless because outsiders just don’t get it, but also because other insiders are creating social pressure that discourages conversations with outsiders. Dangerous because insiders could become infected by the poison of whatever the outsider view is. So as insurance, most cult leaders discourage communication between the insiders and outsiders. That may occur by saying only appointed representatives are capable of speaking to outsiders, including the press, of course. And in this case, all of the press outside of Fox News is an outsider. So, only appointed representatives would communicate with the outside world, and leaks become not just annoyances, but existential threats that need to be stamped out for survival of the group.

How is Trump the right person at the right time in this culting group process?

Because we are in a time of crisis beyond the normal level of crisis we’ve lived in recently, and someone like Trump has traditionally been the salvation we sought under those conditions. The exponential rise of population and contact with foreigners, inequity and environmental degradation are throwing us into unprecedented levels of stressful contact with others in a context of economic and environmental insecurity. These factors, along with catapulting technology, and so many, many others, are creating a major crisis point for us as a species.

According to Julian Jaynes, who wrote a book about the origin of consciousness back in the 1970s, the last time this level of stress occurred was about 3,000 years ago, where similar factors played out in Mesopotamia and other places on the planet. Jaynes suggests that prior to that time, we human beings dealt with crises by hearing voices of the gods who told us what to do — usually kill everyone in another threatening group. But that strategy didn’t work on a scale of increasing population, so we adapted by developing self-consciousness and the ability to choose alternative actions. Still, we have not lost our more ancient desire for authority, particularly in times of crisis. It could be that Trump is the right person at the right time because he unabashedly takes the position of being a voice of the gods. He says, “Listen to me, I will solve your problems, I can do no wrong, whatever I do is good because it’s me doing it,” and all kinds of things that evoke a kind of Greek god image. Normally, I think people would look at that and say, “Come on.” But at this particular time, we as a species, never mind as Americans, are sufficiently disoriented by the crisis that is upon us, that we may in fact be looking for the voices of the gods again. And I think Trump fulfills that expectation, either knowingly or unknowingly.

But I don’t think the outsider label is the important factor here. Of course, Trump is a political outsider and he touts that status, but his supporters appear to be unfazed by his immediate enactment of political insider actions, such as appointing his friends and family to high positions and catering to lobbying interests. Rather, I think it is Trump’s enactment of authoritarianism that makes him relatively popular at this time. The implication of Jayne’s hypothesis about our species’ heritage in times of crisis is not that we want change, but that we want clear direction and safety. The “political outsider” argument appeals to change, but I think that is just a cover for the real message, which is: “Follow me, and I will make you safe from the nearby violence.” It is also possible that liberal commentators have mistakenly interpreted Trump’s appeal in terms of his being an outsider because they are unwilling or unable to understand the appeal of authoritarianism to large numbers of voters. This may explain why there is no good alternative to this kind of appeal coming from the left. The problem is not that someone like Bernie Sanders is too much of a political insider — it is that he is not sufficiently authoritarian to appeal to swing voters.

There is a sort of perfect storm of elements that have propelled Trump into this position of power, and he seemingly is becoming increasingly powerful with his base and within the GOP.

It is a perfect storm. Looking at this from an intercultural perspective, the more contact people have with others who are different from them in uncontrolled circumstances, the more likely they are to polarize into an “us-and-them” mentality. That is indeed what is happening by virtue of mobility … the large-scale movements of immigrants and refugees, notably in Europe, but really, throughout the world.

In terms of the developmental model of intercultural sensitivity (DMIS) that I use in my intercultural work, we are seeing a regression from the unstable position of minimization, where difference is suppressed in favor of common humanity and tolerance. In the face of too much difference too fast, tolerance deteriorates into the “us/them” position of defense. At the same time, the contact with difference is bringing people from denial, where difference is not important enough to notice, into more active defense against differences. And the final blow is that the position of acceptance of difference has been co-opted by the culting group members with statements like, “You call it terrorism, I call it patriotism!”

Where do you see this going in the US now?

It looks like this is paralleling the run-up to National Socialism in Germany in the 1930s. I would recommend to your readers that they go visit the top floor of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, where the newspaper articles in translation are all lined up and they can read them and compare them to what is going on right now.

I think that where we are immediately going is into the dismantling of the electoral process. That is what the National Socialists did under Hitler. They got themselves elected by normal means, more or less, then they dismantled the process so that they couldn’t be unelected. I’m pretty sure, if you look at what is going on with the Supreme Court and other things like the gerrymandering issue and voter suppression, that we don’t have much time before voting is a more unreliable process.

If that occurs, then how does this play out, from a culting group perspective entering the violence phase?
Very probably. I hate to say “inevitable” because I like to maintain some optimism.

As I started to say earlier, isolated and over-controlled culting groups end in one of two ways. The milder ending is splitting, where a dissenting part of the group breaks off to form its own group. This is the process whereby myriad religious sects have been created. The other ending is violence – internal, external or both. For instance, Peoples Temple [Jonestown] in Guyana mostly ended in the internal violence of suicide, although there was the precursor external violence of killing a US Congressman. The Branch Davidians probably also engaged in mass suicide, but only after considerably more external violence.

Although I am not a political scientist, I speculate that when a national government becomes a culting organization led by a charismatic cult leader, it might end more easily by splitting if it were a parliamentary system. In the US presidential system, the alternative to some kind of violent end may only be possible through political control and ouster. This, of course, assumes that the democratic voting process remains intact long enough for that to happen.

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