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The Cult of Trump? What “Cult Rhetoric” Actually Reveals

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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. Read the Whole Article

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