In August, Anthony Scaramucci—the former White House director of communications turned Trump critic—called for the political left to approach the Trump administration the way that concerned individuals would approach a cult. “When you’re trying to deprogram people from a cult, one of the first things you have to do is allow them to change their mind,” he explained on Fox News. He amplified this rhetorical move a few days later, tweeting a comparison of Trump to Jim Jones, infamous leader of the Peoples Temple and Jonestown, a religious cult that famously ended with mass suicide and murder. He also compared White House staffers to hostages suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, an alleged psychological condition wherein captives come to support their captors. Scaramucci implied that Trump acts like a cult leader and that those supporting him are brainwashed and in need of rescue.
As the current impeachment proceedings ramp up, both proponents and opponents of President Trump have hardened their positions. It would not be surprising to find such cult language becoming more frequent in the coming months. Just this week, in order to rebuke the Republican response to the impeachment inquiry, Norman Ornstein, of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, tweeted one word: “Cult.”
Other public commentators have made similar accusations. In February, the Rev. John Pavlovitz, a progressive Christian leader, wrote a blog entry entitled “The Cult of Trump.” He argued that “America is in a cultic crisis, and Trumpism is the cult. There is no other way to approach these days.” He peppered his essay with a heart-wrenching anecdote of a friend’s attempt to rescue his brainwashed mother, who has been reduced to posting bigoted memes on her social media account.
The number of commentators, news outlets, and public figures who have compared Trump to a cult leader and his political movement to a cult is ever-growing. The Utne Reader wrote of the “Cult of Trump,” while the National Journal warned of “Trump’s Cult” overwhelming the Republican party. References to Trumpism as a cult or Trump as a cult leader litter the pages of The Washington Post, The Economist, Los Angeles Times, GQ, and Vanity Fair, not to mention online media such as Salon and The Daily Kos. Many of these are liberal or politically moderate publications, but conservatives have gotten in on the act too. Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker called Trump’s leadership a “cultish thing,” and the GOP in a “cult-like situation.” Even Donald Trump, Jr., responding to Corker’s criticism, seemed to accept the comparison of his father’s leadership to a cult. “You know what? If it’s a cult, it’s because they like what my father’s doing,” he told Fox & Friends.
Often these comparisons go unexplained. But not always. Frequently, commentators lean on the work of professional anti-cultists, such as Chris Hedges’s use of the late anti-cultist Margaret Singer’s work or Rebecca Nelson’s interviews with Rick Alan Ross, currently one of the leading voices in the anti-cult movement. Reza Aslan, who positions himself as a religious studies expert, summarized the anti-cult position by simply declaring that Trumpism fits the bill. And most notably, professional anti-cultist Steven Hassan, known for his support for deprogramming and career built around combatting groups he considers destructive cults, will shortly be releasing a new book, The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control. The publisher’s blurbs and advertising copy emphasize concepts like indoctrination, blind devotion, authoritarianism, and of course—in the subtitle—mind control.
UNITING ALL THESE positions is the claim that the category of “cult” can be distinguished from other social or religious movements, that cults are united by sharing charismatic leaders, and that followers have been manipulated, psychologically coerced, or simply brainwashed into their adherence to the cult’s ideology. This brainwashing or mind-control claim seems to underlie most if not all of the “Trump cult” rhetoric, often explicitly.
The problem is that scholars like myself who study new religious movements (NRMs)—the groups generally called cults—have concluded that such groups often share very little in common besides being new, small, or otherwise socially stigmatized. Importantly, religious studies scholars, sociologists, and social psychologists have over the past three decades nearly unanimously rejected the cultic brainwashing model, which has been shown to be both circular and inherently subjective. Repeated empirical studies have disproven brainwashing as an explanation for recruitment and membership in NRMs, though it lingers among those associated with anti-cult groups. Neither the American Psychiatric Association nor American courts accept brainwashing as a credible scientific concept, and major academic journals no longer publish papers on the concept. (This isn’t to say that all such new religious groups are harmless—many are not—but brainwashing does not explain why people join.) Given that most researchers consider brainwashing and mind-control to be pseudoscientific at best, what is the appeal of comparing Donald Trump to a cult leader, and those who support him to brainwashed cultists?
The answer to this question requires delving into both the specific reasons why such commentators have employed the “cult rhetoric,” as well as the nearly 50 years of collected academic research on cults produced by sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, historians, and scholars of comparative religion.
Behind these claims lurks the assumption that Donald Trump possesses charisma, or the unique ability to lead and manipulate followers. The history of the modern concept of charisma can be traced to German social theorist Max Weber, who in the early twentieth century explained that charisma is the ability to lead based not on rational persuasion or technocratic skill, but based on power of personality and a claim to possess uncanny and remarkable personal characteristics.
Yet several generations of scholars researching NRMs have found that charisma is very much a relative concept, and that rather than envision charisma as an inborn quality of a leader, charisma is produced by the interplay of the leader and his or her followers. Followers invest their leader with charisma, and the leader in turn builds off his or her (usually his) followers. The interplay between President Trump and his supporters at his political rallies shows the manner in which this occurs. This process certainly involves psychological manipulation, but it isn’t magic, and it isn’t mind-control. Trump tells his followers at the rallies that they face crises (immigration, globalization, etc.) and only he can resolve these crises, that they therefore need him, and that in turn, he needs them.
Because charisma requires constant support and maintenance, Lorne L. Dawson, a sociologist of NRMs, has called charisma “intrinsically precarious” and noted that it often results in a feedback loop, or cycle of amplification, by which the leaders and followers increasingly draw distinctions between their leader’s specialness and—by extension—the followers’ specialness, and those outside their orbit. This sort of dualistic thinking characterizes many so-called cults, and also the politics of Trumpism. Trump declares himself special, convinces his supporters that he is special, and makes these supporters feel special themselves, often by contrasting them with a demonized out-group (liberals, immigrants, Muslims, Latinxs).
Thus far, the political rhetoric of cultism as applied to the president makes a certain amount of sense, though one must caution that the same claims might be made about any charismatic figure. Former President Barack Obama was also considered to have mastered charismatic leadership, and though he channeled his charisma into the more optimistic concepts of hope and change, he accomplished the same goal of coalescing a political following, making his political followers feel special and part of something bigger.
Rather than position charisma and cult-like leadership as intrinsic to specific leaders, it is better understood as a classification technique and rhetorical strategy to explain the behavior of a leader and especially his or her followers—either political supporters or religious adherents depending on the type of leader. Yet although rhetorically useful, claims of a leader’s charismatic ability obscure more than they illuminate when they lead to accusations of brainwashing and mind-control.
The best empirical studies of cultic brainwashing show that NRMs possess abysmal recruitment and retention rates, as low as .05 percent in the best longitudinal study, conducted by British sociologist Eileen Barker on the Unification Church (Moonies) during the heart of the 1970s and 1980s cult scare. The new religion that I know best from my personal research, the UFO religion Heaven’s Gate that ended in the 1997 mass suicides, suffered from a 75 percent loss rate of its initial members over its two decades of existence, and its overall success rate from the point of attempted recruitment at public meetings to the eventual suicides was about one percent.
Yet Donald Trump has amassed a colossal political movement, capturing nearly 63 million votes. Granted that many individuals voted for Trump while holding their noses, or out of shrewd political calculation, yet still millions are committed followers. How to explain that? The reason cannot be brainwashing or mind-control, disputed pseudoscientific concepts that lack any empirical support. His success rates are actually vastly higher than any cult or NRM. The actual reasons for his political success require careful analysis by political scientists, not pseudoscientific concepts such as mind-control. Personally, I think Trump’s rise must be assessed by the way he appeals to the power of tribalism, and with it the fears of others benefiting at America’s expense. It’s a simultaneous appeal to the communal solidarity of patriotism and American exceptionalism, and the resultant desire for isolationism and retrenchment of Us against the menacing Them. Others view Trump’s appeal differently, but the fact is, it’s not mind-control or brainwashing. However, it does parallel the sort of dualistic worldview of us/them, good/evil, insider/outsider seen in many new religions.
While not useful from a causal perspective, the claim of brainwashing holds vast rhetorical power, especially for flabbergasted liberals or establishment conservatives wanting to explain the rise of Trump. First, it absolves individuals of personal responsibility and casts a monstrous manipulator as the root cause of a person’s choices (which, under the brainwashing claim, are not choices at all!). Hence when the mother of Rev. Pavlovitz’s friend posts racist material to her social media account and uncritically accepts the claims of political commentators, Pavlovitz and his friend can conveniently blame Trump rather than the mother herself. Sen. Corker does not need to blame his Republican constituents, but rather a “cultish” phenomenon. This is an easier pill to swallow.
Second, and more broadly, brainwashing and related cult language allow us to dismiss the actual claims and experiences of those who we simply reduce to mind-controlled victims. To call something a cult is to reject its validity. The category is inherently pejorative, which is why scholars use alternative terms like “new religious movement.” Members of NRMs never use this term to describe themselves, and the very word “cult” is generally used as an easy way to mark a religious group as illegitimate. As a former mentor of mine once said, “A cult is just someone else’s religion that you don’t like.” Such groups tend to be small and powerless, and as they assume greater cultural legitimacy lose the “cult” label. Witness the slow transformation of Mormonism—not yet complete—from being considered a cult/NRM to simply another Christian denomination.
Cults (to use the popular term) are closely associated with the idea of brainwashing, since no one in their right mind would join a deviant and illegitimate group. This approach has come into our modern lexicon as “drinking the Kool-Aid,” a reference to the poison-laced Flavor-Aid used in the Jonestown murder-suicides, but one that has taken on a life of its own. Those who have drunk the Kool-Aid are outside the realms of rational conversation or conversion. Only extreme action, like the “deprogramming” alluded to by Scaramucci and which often involves kidnapping a NRM’s adherents, can rescue the brainwashed victim.
The usefulness of this cultic brainwashing rhetoric therefore extends beyond Trump. Conservative activists have deployed the same language to criticize social justice movements, dismissing them as part of the “cult of wokeness,” a position which assumes the same sort of brainwashing model as those critical of the cult of Trump. It is rhetorically useful to label one’s opponents as manipulated victims, which negates the need to either explain their choices or empathize with them.
Scholars of new religious movements have shown that the mythology of cultic mind-control is more rhetoric than reality. It is easy to understand why critics of the president dismiss him as a cult leader, and his political followers as brainwashed. But it says a lot more about the power of the language than it does the president himself.
Benjamin E. Zeller is associate professor of religion at Lake Forest College. He is the author of Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion, and he serves as co-general editor of Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions. His website is nrms.net.