I finally finished reading The Cult of Trump by cult expert and former Moonie Steve Hassan. The book posits that Trump instills cult-like behaviors among his followers, which results in the same types of negative outcomes as with other cults. Hassan’s definition of cults is perhaps a little broad for my taste (as explored here in discussing whether Mormonism fits his defined criteria–in short, it often does, along with most other religions). One of the biggest red flags for cults is that they instill panic and phobia in their followers. From the book:
Trump uses all kinds of cult tactics–lying, insulting opponents, projecting his weaknesses onto other, deflecting, distracting, presenting alternative facts and competing versions of reality–to confuse, disorient, and ultimately coerce his followers. Repetition programs the beliefs into the unconscious. But fearmongering tops the list. In my experience, phobia indoctrination–the creation of fearful thoughts to promote and reinforce a desired set of beliefs or behaviors in followers–is one of the most powerful and universal techniques in the cult leaders’ arsenal. This is why Trump spends so much air and Twitter time painting a frightening picture of the danger posed by immigrants–Mexicans, Muslims, the migrant caravan. The more vivid the thought or image installed in people’s minds, the greater a hold it has, and the less susceptible it is to rational or critical thought. There are other enemies in Trump’s world–globalists, radical left-wing Democrats, socialists, Hollywood actors, the liberal media–all of whom want to destroy America. Inspiring fear of real or imagined threats overrides people’s sense of agency. It makes them susceptible to a confident authority figure who promises to keep them safe, and can make them more compliant and obedient.
Fear defines Trump’s philosophy, his personality and his presidency. . . . Trump, like cult leaders and dictators throughout history, seizes upon people’s needs and fears and amplifies them. Like these authoritarian leaders, he may manufacture problems that do not exist, and then say “trust me” or “believe me” and promise that only he can fix it.
To clarify, this book was published last October, before Covid, before the police brutality protests, before the election cycle began. In Bob Woodward’s book Fear, he quotes Trump as saying:
Real power is, I don’t even want to use the word: fear.
Growing up in rural Pennsylvania in a very remote house just down the lane from a centuries-old cemetery, and on a hill some claimed was the burial site of the Conoy Indians, I often would get freaked out at night listening to the cacophony of Cicadas outside my window and the occasional lonely train whistle behind the house. I’d hear a rustling bush outside my window or a branch slapping against the glass in the wind, and jump into my bed, pulling the covers up over my face. There were corn fields on both sides of our property that rustled like stiff fabric when the wind blew. It didn’t take much to imagine that was the sound of some large creature, parting the corn stalks with its bulk as it raced toward our little house. At times like these, I would huddle in my bed reciting 2 Timothy 1:7 to myself for comfort:
For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.
I often thought about Paul’s word choice. Although he was talking about not being afraid to preach, this was a scripture that spoke to me about fear in general. Fear was an anti-spiritual feeling. When you were in the grip of fear, you could not feel the spirit. You were susceptible to irrational behavior. You lacked mental clarity. You did not have a “sound mind.” Instead, every noise, every shift in the air could be a threat. Having a sound mind, standing above my fears, would give me power over my life. It would allow me to love others, and to see clearly. Fear, on the other hand, would rob me of those things: my power, my mental clarity, my charity for others. Fear was something that gripped me at times, but it was also something that I gripped right back when I felt it. It was hard to let it go, to breathe through it, and to realize that I was really going to be OK. Disaster wasn’t imminent. Letting go of my fear did give me a feeling of power and did let me focus on others, not just myself. It made me able to think rationally again.
After the 2016 election, like many Hillary supporters, I was stunned. I had watched the debates in increasing confidence that her demeanor, her stable character, and her incredible experience and qualifications shone through against her unstable, crude, bigoted opponent. It felt like no contest to me. I couldn’t even imagine anyone saw it differently at the time. When Comey’s letter hit the news three days before the election, I was dismayed at the air time the story got. It felt like a last minute cheap trick that might depress voter turnout in this important election. I assumed wrongly that Comey was a Trump supporter, timing this action to help his preferred candidate. When the votes were tallied, and Trump won the electoral college, I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. My daughter and I were both on the verge of tears, seeing once again how our nation regards women. It wasn’t that a qualified woman was being passed over so much as the person who was preferred, a serial sexual assaulter who bragged about it and who chose an Evangelical religious fanatic as his running mate. It wasn’t so much our worst fears as our biggest insecurity: that women were seen as losers, yet again, beneath the actual worst man on the planet, the least fit leader imaginable. We went to bed, still stunned, still reeling from the disappointment.
My son was away at college in Idaho, and this had been his first election. He was equally surprised by the result, but with less life experience, he was pretty inconsolable. In his view “those people” didn’t want him to live, wanted people like him dead. I know that’s partly an exaggerated reality, but there was some evidence as well. His roommates were very vocal Trump supporters who saw this as a way to “own the liberals” and set back LGBT rights, taking back the country from the coastal elites who didn’t “get it.” I had previously unfriended someone on Facebook that I grew up with when this person said that if Hillary won, we should prepare for a civil war, and he had a gun and wasn’t afraid to take to the streets if that happened. This type of bloodthirsty rhetoric was unprecedented for me, so I took it somewhat seriously that my son was upset, but I also tempered that with the life experience that tells me that inertia has its pull, and for the most part, people are full of bluster, even if they are saying completely heinous things. It seemed unlikely to me that civil war would be a real thing.
It’s a low bar, but someone pointed out in a recent Tweet a thing I’ve been thinking about. A lot of people live under dictatorships and life mostly goes on during an oppressive regime (not for dissidents, but for the majority). That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act or vote or protest or write OPs expressing our views. It just means that we probably won’t actually die right now if our political side loses. It’s important to keep a cool head, to be able to be rational. We live in a democracy (for now, and yes, I know it’s actually a republic), and although a minority group is in charge thanks to the electoral college, it is possible to change that when the majority work hard enough to change it. The checks and balances may be challenged, but they are baked in to protect us from tyranny. The bipartisan system is deeply flawed, but for now, it’s what we have to work with.
Both political parties use fear in their rhetoric. So does the Church from time to time. Fear is used to unite us against a perceived threat, or to convince us to perceive a threat that we must band together to fight. It works as a substitute for a moral argument, which is why it makes me suspect it’s being used when the moral argument is weak.
How do cult leaders instill fear in others? There are several tactics identified in Hassan’s book:
- Create a powerful leader for people to rally behind. Require absolute loyalty to that leader.
- Confuse people with false information and sow doubt by claiming they didn’t say things they said. The goal is not to get people to believe the misinformation. The goal is to confuse them enough that they doubt sources and doubt their own ability to assess truth. Then they will rely on the leader to tell them what’s true.
- Bring groups of people together so that those who are confused and fearful see strength in numbers, and feel social pressure to belong to the safety of the group.
These things are done to accomplish the ultimate goal: dependence on and obedience to the leader. When that is achieved, the leader can indoctrinate them in any way he or she chooses, garnering their support to remain in power. Those who are in this mindset are often willing to radically alter their positions to coincide with the leader’s views. In the case of Trump, there’s ample evidence that he is promoting Evangelical ideas more than his own actual ideas, that he is willing to pursue their priorities so long as he can remain in power and reap the benefits of the office. And Evangelicals have a lot of fears that Mormons will find familiar and captivating. It’s easier to capitalize on fears that people already have than to create them from scratch.
Some of the fears being promoted by Trump include a fear of lawlessness, a fear of voter fraud, fear of a welfare state in which people cheat the system, fear of rioting and property damage, fear of immigrants, fear of economic disaster, fear of “cultural Marxism,” fear of secularization, homophobia and transphobia (fear of the social consequences of normalizing being gay or trans), fear of foreign powers being a threat if national security isn’t strong enough. Trump’s election strategy promotes the idea that he’s the only one keeping the bad things from happening, although many of these things are happening on his watch already. There are also more extreme fears being promoted by groups like QAnon in the form of conspiracy theories.
The fears being stoked on the left appear to be the fear of fascism and authoritarianism, also the fear of the election being stolen by a foreign power, the fear of death due to the pandemic, fear of right-wing extremists shooting protesters, fear of gun ownership in general, fear of police brutality, fear of persecution of minority groups. When is a fear a real threat and when is it irrational? It’s only possible to say in retrospect. Biden’s platform isn’t based on those shared fears, though. His message is about representing the interests of everyone. Whether he ultimately does that or not, it’s at least not following the fear-based leadership model Hassan’s book associates with cults.
These are fears we share as Americans, fears that leaders can exploit to gain and retain positions of power. As the book explains:
Hatred and fear always unify believers against a common enemy.
But fears can also be based in reality. We should be afraid of things that can actually harm us. That’s part of how we survive. The problem is when fears become phobias, or when they rule our lives or alter our personalities or are not based in reality. A fear can be based on a real threat or not, but a phobia crosses the line into creating a level of anxiety that interferes with our ability to function or our quality of life. Phobias are fears that are excessive and unreasonable. Phobias create avoidant behavior that is out of proportion to the actual danger.
One avoidant behavior that makes me nervous in our current political climate is refusal to talk to people whose views we find repellent. How can we ever find common ground if we are stuck in an echo chamber? Unfriending someone or blocking them can be deeply satisfying, but maybe it’s moving into phobia territory a little bit. For example, if I say I’m terrified of Trump supporters (which I kind of am), it could be partly because I’m getting stuck in a mental loop that isn’t helpful. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Actual fascism, the downfall of democracy? And if it does, then what? Will I lose my healthcare coverage due to pre-existing conditions? And if I do, will I actually die before that can be changed by the next administration? Political ads I’m seeing like to pump up these fears to get people to vote, and we absolutely should vote, but we should do so without being so motivated by fear that we can’t evaluate our choices rationally.
- What fears do you hear being stoked by politicians right now? Are they real threats or are they overstated?
- What fears do you hear Church leaders stoking? Do you believe these threats are real?
- How do you help others you feel are gripped by fear? How do you overcome your own fears?
 Here’s a contrasting evaluation of Mormonism against the BITE model by a different author.