I am not the first person to point this out: There’s been a cultish quality to President Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters. He seemed to acknowledge the phenomenon when he boasted that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and not lose voters.
Throughout the campaign, and in personal appearances since then, Trump has harnessed the kind of emotional intensity from his base that is more typical of a religious revival meeting than a political rally, complete with ritualized communal chants (“Lock her up!”).
As we approach the one-year anniversary of Trump’s election victory, the zeal of some of his followers seems increasingly akin to a full-fledged cult.
I use the word “cult” in its pejorative sense, meaning a deeply insular social group bound together by extreme devotion to a charismatic leader. Such groups tend to exhibit a few common characteristics.
They are usually formed around an individual whom they’ve elevated to prophetic and near divine status.
During the campaign, Franklin Graham, Trump’s most enthusiastic evangelical Christian supporter, dismissed his many moral failings by comparing him favorably to the flawed patriarchs and prophets of the Bible: Abraham, Moses and David.
Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, told a talk radio audience that Trump was a better presidential candidate than someone who “embodies the teaching of Jesus” because Trump fit the biblical preference for a “strongman” in government.
Frank Amedia, an Ohio pastor who briefly had ties to the Trump campaign, explicitly cast the president as a prophet receiving divine revelations: “I believe he receives downloads that now he’s beginning to understand come from God,” he said in July.
The authority that a cult leader exercises comes from his self-ascribed role as the one true information source for his followers. Competing ideas and facts are not just wrong; they are demonic.
Trump, of course, characterizes most media outlets as “fake news.” He calls journalists “liars” and “sick people” who are “trying to take away our history and our heritage.” In a May HuffPo/YouGov poll, a whopping 60 percent of Trump supporters agreed with him that the media are “the enemy” of people like them.
The cult leader is generally believed to possess special knowledge. No matter how demonstrably false his pronouncements, they become, by definition, truth for his followers. Trump has been spectacularly successful at getting his supporters to believe his blandishments rather than their own eyes. Consider the fact that in another HuffPost/YouGov poll, conducted after allegations of sexual harassment and assault surfaced against producer Harvey Weinstein, only 8% of Trump supporters believed the claims of sexual assault made against him despite the evidence of the “Access Hollywood” tape.
One of the ways a cult leader maintains his unquestioned authority is by creating a siege mentality among his followers and presenting himself as the antidote. In Trump’s view, the country is a wasteland of empty factories “scattered like tombstones” and crime-ridden cities that are more dangerous than war zones. “Our military is a disaster. Our healthcare is a horror show,” he declared during the campaign. And as Trump has often said, “I alone can fix it.”
This dark view of the U.S., in which honest, hardworking white Christians are under attack by hostile forces, has convinced Trump’s followers that they are among the most oppressed people in the country. In a survey after the protests in Charlottesville, Va., 45% of Trump supporters said white people were the most discriminated against racial group in the U.S., and 51% said Christians were the most discriminated against religious group.
Nurturing a cult following has its dangers. Cult members tend to believe that they are taking part in a cosmic performance, that they are fighting in a battle between the forces of good and evil. And if “good” doesn’t win — if cold, hard reality overtakes the cult leader’s lies and fantasies — the whole enterprise may collapse, sometimes violently.
That some of Trump’s supporters view the president in cosmic terms is clear. A month after the inauguration, Pat Robertson said those who oppose Trump are “revolting against what God’s plan for America is.” Paula White, the pastor of New Destiny Christian Center in Florida and a Trump spiritual advisor, recently told her congregation that resisting Trump is tantamount to “fighting against the hand of God.”
As to cold, hard reality, the Trump administration is beset with multiple campaign investigations, ethics lawsuits, members of his own party abandoning him, open talk of invoking the 25th Amendment and impeachment.
Trump’s truest believers have sounded downright apocalyptic: “This is not a battle between Republicans and Democrats,” Jeffress said in 2016. “It’s a battle between … righteousness and unrighteousness, light and darkness.” Amedia declared that God personally told him that Trump’s presidency was paving the way for the Second Coming.
And then there is this warning from Trump confidant Roger Stone: Any attempt to remove the president from office, he said in August, would result in “a spasm of violence in this country, an insurrection like you’ve never seen.”
If Trump’s presidency deteriorates further, expect the religious fervor of many of his followers to reach a fever pitch. That poses a risk for the country. Because the only thing more dangerous than a cult leader is a cult leader facing martyrdom.
Reza Aslan’s most recent book is “God: A Human History.”
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