Author’s note: I could not write this post until after Trump was defeated; I’m not sure why. But he will be with us in one form or another for some time.

There is no cult of Trump.  He is a skilled politician who allows others to share in his narcissism and his rage.  To suggest that Trump has a cult-like following suggests that his appeal is extraordinary in some way.  It’s not.  Trump is an extremely clever politician, adept at manipulating nativism, racism, and rage.  He gives voice to what is already out there.  To treat Trump as a cult leader risks mystifying the appeal of authoritarian leaders.

What’s this have to do with PTSD?

Submerged deep inside the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) is a category that designates the victims of cults, labeled Other Specified Dissociative Disorders, 300.15.

Identity disturbance due to prolonged and intense coercive persuasion: Individuals who have been subjected to intense coercive persuasion . . . by sects/cults . . . may present with prolonged changes in, or conscious questions of, their identity.

In The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 35 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, Jennifer Panning describes what she calls “Trump Anxiety Disorder,” a “unique postelection anxiety syndrome that has emerged as a result of the Trump presidency.”  It is characterized by “increased worry, obsessive thought patterns, muscle tension and obsessive preoccupation with the news.” (p 229)  In the same volume, Betty Tang (p 215) writes of the “parallels between the anxiety reactions suffered by increasing numbers of concerned Americans and the symptoms of PTSD.”

Certainly, there is/was much to worry about with Trump as President; indeed, as long as he remains on the national stage.  However, to refer to “PTSD-like symptoms” that afflict not only soldiers and other victims of terrible trauma, “but many of the rest of us as well” (Tang, p 215), risks trivializing PTSD and misunderstanding Trump.

Nevertheless, it makes sense to look at Trump from a psychological and psychoanalytic perspective.  On the other hand, looking at Trump from only this perspective risks ignoring the power of ordinary politics to exploit our anger and fear.

The Cult of Trump 

Consider the claims of Steven Hassan in The Cult of Trump.

When a leader gains psychological sway over his followers and also over other politicians — members of Congress, the cabinet, and even the judiciary — the checks and balances of healthy democracy can be stripped away. (p xiii)

What in the world does “psychological sway” mean?  Franklin Delano Roosevelt had great psychological sway.  Were his “fireside chats” indoctrination?  Hassan continues, “Trump uses all kinds of cult tactics—to confuse, disorient, and ultimately coerce his followers.” (p xiv)  What does “ultimately coerce his followers” mean?  This is an awfully strange version of coercion, transforming millions of Trump’s followers into zombies.  Finally, Hassan writes “Trump’s campaign was an aggressive recruiting machine, using many of the black-and-white, us- versus-them techniques used by cults.” (p 171)

If Trump is a cult leader, it won’t be shown by comparisons like these, which are the norm in everyday politics.  In 2018, the New York Times published an editorial, “The Cult of Trump.”

This week’s primary elections underscored the striking degree to which President Trump has transformed the Republican Party from a political organization into a cult of personality.

It’s not that a large number of people aren’t worrying about something real.  Consider the remarkable televised meeting of Trump’s first cabinet meeting.  The camera panned around the room as cabinet members praised Trump in terms more suited to a religious leader.

“We thank you for the opportunity and the blessing to serve your agenda,” said then chief of staff Reince Priebus. Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, told Trump that it was a “great honor traveling with you around the country for the last year, and an even greater honor to be here serving on your cabinet.” Labor secretary Alexander Acosta was also “privileged and honored.”  (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jun/12/donald-trump-first-cabinet-meeting-praise)

Why is testimony like this familiar?  Where is its like this most often seen?  Among those who curry favor with authoritarian leaders.  The contemporary Republican party has no core.  The amalgam of conservative politics and nativist rhetoric that has held the party together at least since Nixon has fallen apart.  An alternative explanation works better, lest Trump’s mystical power, as Robert Jay Lifton (p 71) calls it, become an explanation by default.*

Robert Jay Lifton on Cults

It has not been helpful that the distinguished psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, whose groundbreaking research on cults is well-known and admired, has recently included Trumpism, as I shall call it, as a cult.  By the way, the argument that Trump is not a cult leader, and his followers not cult members, is entirely separate from the argument that Donald Trump is mentally ill, as thirty-seven psychiatrists and mental health professionals, including Lifton, have argued (Bandy X. Lee). Mentally ill he may be, but that doesn’t make him a cult leader.  If every charismatic malignant narcissist were a cult leader, the United States would have hundreds of thousands of cults.

 

Lifton’s “deadly sins” of cults

Lifton characterizes cults in terms of “eight deadly sins.”  I list only those that might be applicable to Trumpists.  Others, such as mystical manipulation and the cult of confession, seem only marginally relevant.

Milieu control, the control of human communication.  The totalist environment seeks to establish dominion over what the member hears, reads, writes, expresses, and experiences.  More than this, it seeks to control what the member thinks.  Lifton doesn’t explain how thought control would work.  I think the best answer is what George Orwell called Newspeak, and what Lifton calls loading the language, so that is no language to express an alternative view, or what Trump’s spokesperson called “alternative facts.” (p 68)

Pure and impure.  In all situations of ideological totalism, the world is sharply divided into the pure and the impure, into the absolutely good and the absolutely evil (p 73).

Doctrine more real than experience.  The underlying assumption is that the doctrine —including its mythological elements—is ultimately more valid, true, and real than is any aspect of actual human character or human experience (p 85).

Existence control (dispensing of existence).  The totalist environment draws a sharp line between those whose right to existence is recognized, and those who possess no such right (p 87).  Variety and plurality of existence are lost.

A cult is almost always a personality cult, veneration of a particular person.  “Only he can save us.”  Simplification of existence (by simplifying what is allowed to exist) is equally important.  The “longstanding psychological and political effects of modern multiplicity and pluralism” must be removed from those who would belong to a cult (Lifton, p 96).

Does this fit?

These four features of a cult seem to fit Trumpists, but only if one agrees that Trump exercises milieu control.  He doesn’t.  That a large group of people choose to view, listen, and read some media at the expense of others is milieu choice, not milieu control.  The choice may stem from the need to simplify existence.  The diversity and plurality of the larger world may be too overwhelming and threatening.  Existence is simplified by only recognizing the existence of some.  The New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie puts it well.

The Trump movement has never been about “populism” or “nationalism” or the interests of working Americans. It has always and only been about the contours of our national community: who belongs and who doesn’t; who counts and who shouldn’t; who can wield power and who must be subject to it.

Milieu control should more accurately be called an attempt to simplify a world that is so diverse and heterogenous as to threaten one’s place in it.  But everyone who feels this way, everyone who follows Trump for this reason, has made a choice.  There may be social pressure from family and friends, but by this measure every marriage across lines of race and class, is a challenge to one’s current milieu.

A more general pressure toward milieu control is fostered by what Lifton refers to as the “dislocation [that] derives from the weakening of the institutions that organize the life cycle and its belief systems.” (p 100)  Cast adrift, many people feel more comfortable in a smaller, less diverse, more organized world.  Strong (read authoritarian) leaders and clear divisions between inside and outside help organize the confusion.

The desire for purity is an especially primitive dimension of milieu control—that is, the desire to have one’s milieu controlled.  Purity and danger are fundamental categories of human experience (Douglas).  Just read Leviticus.  Purity is about boundaries between inside and outside.  Most threatening from this perspective is what Sartre calls the viscous boundary violator, an outsider who sneakily slips inside.

Consider Trump’s wall from this perspective.  It doesn’t just keep some people out.  It keeps out the most dangerous of all, the viscous boundary violator, who would slip in and pretend to be one of us.  Which is why those of “us” who have brown skin are all suspect.

What Lifton calls a cult is, at least from the perspective of Trumpism, no cult at all, but a desire to live in a simplified world.  One of the best markers of simplification is language.  An analysis of Trump’s first thirty-thousand words uttered in office found that Trump speaks at a third-to seventh-grade reading level, lower than any other president since 1929.

Trumps vocabulary and grammatical structure is significantly more simple, and less diverse than any President since Herbert Hoover, the analysis found. . . . Mr Trump averaged significantly fewer syllables per word than the last 14 Presidents, and used significantly fewer unique words. Social media posts were excluded from the data. (Shugerman)

In Cults in our Midst, Margaret Singer came up with a list similar to Lifton’s, identifying the conditions under which undue influence over a person are likely.  None apply to Trump because they assume extensive milieu control in which exit from the group is tightly controlled, what she calls “control over members social and/or physical environment, especially time.”

One might argue that some people do this to themselves, listening to right wing radio all day, watching Fox television all night, ever alert for a Trump tweet.  But this is hardly the same thing.  Trumpists are not zombies.  They have made choices.  Many are unaware of the underlying psychological pressures and fissures that lead them to make these choices, but that would apply to the rest of us as well.

What is Trump’s appeal?

Lifton focuses on what he calls Trumps solipsism, by which he means Trump’s ability to see and make the world in his own image.

Donald Trump is a special kind of cultist. His cultism is inseparable from his solipsistic reality. That solipsism emanates only from the self and what the self requires, which makes him the most bizarre and persistent would-be owner of reality. And in his way he has created a community of zealous believers who are geographically dispersed. (p 152)

In an interview with Bill Moyers, Lifton says that Trump’s “solipsistic reality means that the only reality he’s capable of embracing has to do with his own self and the perception by and protection of his own self.”  But only a few paragraphs later he talks about solipsism in terms of Trump’s ability to persuade others to share his view of the world.  That’s not solipsism.  It’s persuasion.  Solipsism is the belief that all that can be known to exist is the self.  It’s a claim about the limits of knowledge.  Whatever Lifton means by solipsism, it’s not that.

Trump’s power stems not from his solipsism, but his public willingness to define the world in the way many of his followers would if they could.  His reference to Haiti and other “shithole countries” isn’t solipsism (The Washington Post, 1/12/2018).  It’s saying what no other public figure dares say, and what some of his followers presumably say frequently.

Not solipsism but narcissism

Not Trump’s solipsism but his narcissism is the source of his great appeal.  Sigmund Freud considered the narcissist as well-suited for leadership (“Libidinal Types,” SE 21, 222).  One reason is that a powerful person’s narcissism

has a great attraction for those who have renounced part of their own . . . as if we envied them for maintaining a blissful state of mind—an unassailable libidinal position which we ourselves have since abandoned. (“On Narcissism,” SE 14, p 88)

Most of Trump’s followers have had to abandon their narcissism, under the pressure of reality.  Trump allows them to vicariously participate in his narcissism.  I think this is what’s behind this “he talks like us” appeal.  He says what we can’t, at least not out loud in public.  But perhaps it reaches even deeper than that.  As one supporter put it, “I love the aggression . . . and the power.”**  The appeal of Trump’s narcissism stems not just from his ability to flaunt public norms; it stems from his ability to channel rage at sociably suitable objects—that is, those weaker and different from ourselves, those who existence makes for a disorderly, impure world.

What about the rest of us, for we have all had to abandon our early narcissism under the pressure of reality?  I’m not sure.  Perhaps some are in a better social and economic position to find recompense elsewhere.  Or perhaps some are just luckier.

What democracy can learn from cults

There is no cult of Trump, but democracy has something to learn from cults.  No one has put it better than Lucy Patrick (1990) in a review of The Wrong Way Home, by Arthur Deikman.

Although we live in a democracy, cult behavior manifests itself in our unwillingness to question the judgment of our leaders, our tendency to devalue outsiders and to avoid dissent. We can overcome cult behavior, he says, by recognizing that we have dependency needs that are inappropriate for mature people, by increasing anti-authoritarian education, and by encouraging personal autonomy and the free exchange of ideas.

To refer to a cult of Trump, or treat him as a cult leader risks suggesting he has some sort of magical, mysterious power over his followers.  He doesn’t.  In some ways Trump has the qualities of a cult leader, but so do many politicians.  He’s just better at it.

America is divided by winners and losers, the displaced and the placed, the wealthy and the anxious, the poverty stricken and the scared.  Locating Trump’s power in his ability to hold a cult enthralled risks forgetting that in the end politics is too often about mobilizing envy, resentment, and rage.  It’s an ugly business that self-selects for leaders best able to exploit these emotions.  In Trump it found its master, at least for a little while.

———————————————–

* I’m making a logical leap here with Lifton.  Lifton sees perceived mystical power as one of eight markers of a cult leader (p 71).  Later he devotes a chapter on Trump as cult leader.  Ergo . . .

** Chris Sikich, Holly V. Hays, and Kaitlin Lang, “Here’s What Trump Said in His Monday Night Rally in Fort Wayne In Support of Mike Braun,” The Indianapolis Star, November 6, 2018.  https://www.indystar.com/story/news/politics/2018/11-05/heres-what-

References

Jamelle Bouie, “It Started with Birtherism,” New York Times, November 24, 2020.

Arthur J. Deikman, The Wrong Way Home: Uncovering the Patterns of Cult Behavior in American Society.  Beacon Press, 1990.

Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger.  Routledge, 2002.

Editorial, The New York Times, “The Cult of Trump.” June 17, 2018.

Sigmund Freud, “On Narcissism,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 14, 67-95.

Sigmund Freud, “Libidinal Types,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 21, 215-223.

Steven Hassan, The Cult of Trump.  Free Press, 2019.

Bandy X. Lee, editor, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 35 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, second edition.  St. Martin’s Publishing, 2019.

Robert Jay Lifton, Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry.  The New Press, 2019.

Bill Moyers, “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: Robert Jay Lifton and Bill Moyers on ‘A Duty to Warn.'” Moyers on Democracy, https://billmoyers.com/story/dangerous-case-donald-trump-robert-jay-lifton-bill-moyers-duty-warn/

Jennifer Panning, “Trump Anxiety Disorder,” in Bandy X. Lee, editor, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 35 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, second edition, 228-236.  St. Martin’s Publishing, 2019.

Lucy Patrick, “Review of Deikman, The Wrong Way Home,” Library Journal 1990, v 115 (21), p 144.

Emily Shugerman, The Independent, Tuesday 09 January 2018.

Margaret Thaler Singer, Cults in our Midst, revised edition.  Jossey-Bass, 2003.

Betty Tang, “Trauma, Time, Truth, and Trump,” in Bandy X. Lee, editor, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 35 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, second edition, 213-227.  St. Martin’s Publishing, 2019.

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Comment (1)

  1. lovelyday

    In my limited knowledge of human psychology, I would say if you think of a person like Trump in your friends groups, the feeling this person gives is “I am better than him” He/she can say what I am too good or too civilized or too sophisticated to say. People keep people like Trump for parties to entertain, to shock, to start a very debatable conversation but most people DO NOT WANT TO become like them. They are unconscious, cannot tell the difference between aggression and assertiveness, cannot be vulnerable, cannot empathize or be gentle….they are exhausting. Most of humanity can only be around them for a short time unless we are trapped in the relationships.

    The irony is most Americans think Trump followers love him…like real love. If they love him truly, they should forever give him money …and maybe they will or there will be a group that may do that.

    But most they love him because he is creating tension in high places where no one else could and his supporters are like (ooh boy I could never get away with that but there he goes god bless his heart..) THE MAIN FEELING IS I WISH I could be like him…but most people know they cannot.

    Another thing that is very likely is this: most people who act like trump go to jail. Let us see how far Trump goes after he has no shield of the office he is holding.

    He is playing the shame that keeps most of us hide. That is powerful!

    In my opinion, if one of his children goes to jail, Trump is done. The shame he feels will swallow him inside out. and I think there is more to come. It is fascinating to study a real malignant narcissism with all the power that can be bestowed on a human.

    Narcissism is good from the distance but not up close…no one could stay with Trump for a long time…

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