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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Billionare developer Donald Trump reacts to a putt at the opening of a new miniature golf course in Central Park on Aug. 3, 1989, in New York.(AFP)
Donald Trump raises his fist during ceremonies for the opening the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort in Atlantic City, N.J., on April 5, 1990.(Charles Rex Arbogast / AP)
In this photo taken on Nov. 5, 1996, American real estate mogul Donald Trump, left,checks out sites in Moscow, Russia, for luxury residential towers. Despite saying he wanted to build a Trump tower in Russia, Trump never completed a deal in the country’s booming — but volatile — real estate and hotel market.(Igor Tabakov / AP)
Donald Trump, the New York developer, poses in his Manhattan office beside a copy of his new book, “Trump: The Art of the Comeback.”(Emile Wamsteker / Associated Press)
Cubs star Sammy Sosa, second from left, is flanked by his mother Mireya Sosa and wife Sonia Sosa as they pose with Donald Trump on Nov. 12, 1999, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.(John Riley / AP)
Donald Trump, left, speaks at a news conference in Minneapolis with Gov. Jesse Ventura on Jan. 7, 2000.(Richard Drew, AP)
Donald Trump announces the sale of condos on Sept. 23, 2003. His planned Trump Tower of Chicago, will be built on the site of the Sun-Times building on the Chicago River.(Alex Garcia / Chicago Tribune)
Donald Trump and Melania Knauss pose for photographers as they arrive for the Entertainment Industry Foundation’s National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance evening on board the Queen Mary 2 on April 24, 2004, in New York.(Stuart Ramson / AP)
In a file photo provided by NBC Universal, Donald Trump and Martha Stewart do a promo campaign for both “Apprentice” shows on Aug. 1, 2005.(Virginia Sherwood / AP)
Donald Trump throws out the ceremonial first pitch before the start of the game between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees in the second game of a day/night doubleheader on Aug. 18, 2006, at Fenway Park in Boston.(Charles Krupa, Associated Press)
Donald Trump stands on the 14th fairway during a pro-am round of the AT&T National golf tournament at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., on June 27, 2012.(Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)
Real estate developer Donald Trump, right, and his daughter Ivanka place their hands in cement during topping off festivities for the 92-story Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago, on Sept. 24, 2008.(Charles Rex Arbogast / AP)
Donald Trump is escorted by Scottish pipers as he officially opens his new multi-million pound Trump International Golf Links course in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, on July 10, 2012.(Andy Buchanan, AFP/Getty Images)
Donald Trump walks with his wife, Melania, at Trump Tower in New York on Tuesday before announcing that he is running for president of the United States.(Justin Lane / EPA)
Republican presidential candidates arrive on stage for the a presidential debate on Aug. 6, 2015, at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. From left are New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; Florida Sen. Marco Rubio; retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; real estate magnate Donald Trump; former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; Texas Sen. Ted Cruz; Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul; and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.(AFP/Getty Images)
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, kisses Republican vice presidential nominee Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana after Pence’s acceptance speech during the third day session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Wednesday, July 20, 2016.(Mary Altaffer, AP)
Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump shake hands after a joint statement at Los Pinos, the presidential official residence, in Mexico City, on Aug. 31, 2016.(Marco Ugarte / AP)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, together with his family, from left, Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump, Melania Trump, Tiffany Trump and Ivanka Trump, speaks in the hotel lobby, during the grand opening of Trump International Hotel in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016.(Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP)
Republican president-elect Donald Trump delivers his acceptance speech during his election night event at the New York Hilton Midtown in the early morning hours of Nov. 9, 2016 in New York City.(Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images)
President Donald Trump takes the oath of office as his wife Melania holds the bible and his children Barron, Ivanka, Eric and Tiffany watch as U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts administers the oath on Jan. 20, 2017.(Jim Bourg, AFP/Getty Images)
Newly sworn-in President Donald Trump shakes hands with former President Barack Obama at his inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017.(Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)
President Donald Trump takes the cap off a pen to sign an executive order to start the Mexico border wall project at the Department of Homeland Security facility in Washington, D.C., on January 25, 2017.(Nicholas Kamm / AFP/Getty Images)
President Donald J. Trump reacts after delivering his first address to a joint session of Congress from the floor of the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 27, 2017.(Jim Lo Scalzo / AFP/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump watches as Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy administers the judicial oath to Judge Neil Gorsuch during a re-enactment in the Rose Garden of the White House, in Washington D.C. ons April 10, 2017 Gorsuch’s wife, Marie Louise Gorsuch, holds the Bible.(Evan Vucci / AP)
President Donald Trump speaks while flanked by House Republicans after they passed legislation aimed at repealing and replacing ObamaCare, during an event in the Rose Garden at the White House, on May 4, 2017, in Washington, D.C.(Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin hold a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, 2017.(Saul Loeb, AFP Contributor)
President Donald Trump gives the thumbs-up sitting inside a fire truck from Wisconsin-based manufacturer Pierce as Vice President Mike Pence looks on during a “Made in America” product showcase event on the South Lawn at the White House in Washington, D.C., on July 17, 2017.(Olivier Douliery, AFP/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump holds a Channellock tool engraved with his name and “Make America Great Again” during a meeting with US company representatives and featuring products made in the United States, in the East Room of the White House on July 19, 2017, in Washington, D.C.(Pool / Getty Images)
President Donald J. Trump poses for photographs with an outgoing group of interns at The White House July 24, 2017, in Washington, D.C.(Pool / Getty Images)
President Donald Trump greets cheerleaders with the Florida Atlantic University Marching Band at Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018, as the president arrives for a Super Bowl party.(Carolyn Kaster / AP)