Religious cults and political cults are not exactly the same, in part because theology and ideology are not exactly the same. Both are creedal systems shaped to culture, but while theology is structured to be non-falsifiable, ideologies are ultimately perishable as history arcs to and perhaps fro. As creedal systems they nevertheless overlap for many practical analytical purposes, one of which perhaps concerns a phenomenon called President Donald J. Trump. Is the Trump movement to one extent or another a political cult? That is not the only question of the hour in the wake of the President’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, but it may soon become one.
I’ll get to explanatory mode in a moment, and in so doing I will be keeping a promise made in February. In an essay I wrote that,
I stress the pairing of man and movement because, in my view, there has been too much focus on the psychological/psychiatric aspects of the man, and too little social-psychological focus on the movement. . . . Trump is endlessly interesting from a clinical point of view, true, but the movement is no less so. It is also potentially more important . . . since it may outlast Trump’s own White House tenure. Let me start here with the man and, except for a very light hint, leave comment on the movement for another time.
The light hint came many paragraphs later: “Big Lies that turn perceptual frames or paradigms on their heads” and pull “false lesser-associated non-‘facts’ . . . in train behind the flipped central premise . . . is the very economical technique used by cults both religious and political.”
In other words, three months ago I was already wondering if at least an aspect of the Trump phenomenon is cultic—and I mean the term in the way scholarship has attempted to describe it (of which a bit more below), as a more-than-occasional appurtenance of political religion or political theology, from about the time of Eric Voegelin (Die Politischen Religionen, 1939) to that of contemporary exegetes like Mark Lilla (The Stillborn God, 2007) and Emilio Gentile (Politics as a Religion, 2006).1
I did not feel compelled to redeem my February promise until stimulated by Max Boot’s April 18 Foreign Policy essay, “Is Trump’s Axis of Adults Beating Down the Cabal of Crazies?” In that essay, Boot accurately observed that:
Trump’s most ardent supporters are . . . remolding their own views to keep pace with their leader. . . . This shows the extent to which Trump’s rise was not based on any particular positions or views. It was and remains a cult of personality. Trump’s followers worship him—and he worships himself, too. They are bound by a conviction, rooted in basically nothing but quasi-religious faith, that he is a singularly tough and savvy dealmaker who will protect American interests in a way that no previous president has done.
The key words here are “cult,” “worship,” and “quasi-religious,” bringing Boot, whether he realizes it or not, into the Voegelin/Lilla/Gentile et al. orbit, and to some extent into the orbit of Max Weber before them all. I refer of course to Weber’s famous distinction in “Politics as a Vocation” between charismatic and both formal/institutionalized and traditional authority. The phrase “cult of personality” to which Boot makes reference, of course, has long since been detached from serious political sociology and used casually to describe particularly nefarious 20th-century individuals—Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao—and somewhat less gruesome ones—Franco, Perón, Tito, Ataturk, Castro, Ceausescu, Saddam Hussein, and others.
That casual reference point is not my interest here; my interest is in posing a question about the application of political religion as a serious construct of political sociology to the Trump phenomenon. To get from the casual to the more serious, we may observe that the idea of a cult of personality, if not the actual phrase, applies to a great many pre-modern political leaders as well, perhaps most of them. The key point of Weber’s distinction was to indicate that in more institutionalized modern political settings some combination of law, custom, and more or less egalitarian norms tends to diminish or at least limit the personalization of political orders. When cults of personality happen anyway in post-patrimonial political cultures it indicates some invasion of culturally sacred space by what is supposed to be cordoned off from it in a secular age.
Why does this happen? Lilla and others have suggested that political cults tend to fill religious vacuums; that is, they tend to arise when people lose faith in the efficacy of the religious status quo to manage their problems. In other words, in times of confusion and fear, people will vouchsafe unto symbols of the nation, the state, the race, the leader, and so on what they used to reserve for God and related religious symbols. Political religion therefore always competes in some form with preexisting religious organizations and beliefs, giving rise to a range of outcomes that include cooptation, intimidation, repression, and other possibilities as well. This precisely is what led Voegelin to insist on similarities between authoritarian and totalitarian systems and religious systems, a notion that has since become so common that now it is the distinctions between the two that usually get overlooked. He observed Italian Fascist and Nazi rituals in the 1930s in that light, and later Communist ones as well, as the worship of secular gods and their presumed priesthoods.
But, more important, because conventional religious institutions generally make their peace with the contemporary, the burgeoning of political religion usually indicates an urge to regress from a contemporary mean—to go back to a purer, simpler, nobler, or somehow better life. In the 20th century the urge to regression invariably involved a demeaning of modernity, which first established the secular divide. Both fascist and communist varieties of political religion sought to: efface individual agency and smother it in the superior collective, hence the disdain for the cacophonous messiness of democracy; dissolve the line between politics to the one side and the sacred (and all the arts that ministered to it) to the other; and replace the rationalist, Whiggish idea of progress with a mystical promise to create a “new man,” to overturn human nature itself in order to reach some sort of supposedly permanent utopian condition.
Not all forms of political religion are cultic. A good case can and has been made that American ideology is based on religious antecedents and that the symbolic stuff of those antecedents translated seamlessly into the development of the American Civil Religion, famously defined in a 1967 Daedalus essay by Robert Bellah and since adumbrated by many others.2 (The only mystery here is why it took so long for someone to define it; it must have been a fish-as-the-last-to-discover-water sort of thing.)
In civil religions far short of cults there is often if not always some concrescence of religious and political energies, yet enough of a separation between the spheres of the political and the religious remain to qualify the society as a modern secular one. That separation tends to thin in times of relative political polarization, as in the dozen years before the American Civil War and the dozen most recent years, when manifestations of cultish behavior become observable—to those paying attention, at least.
To see that concrescence with original American characteristics, just study the back of a dollar bill. Aside from the motto “In God We Trust,” which dates only from 1957, you see the pyramid, God’s eye above the sacred triangle, and the two phrases from Virgil: Novus Ordo Seclorum and Annuit Coeptis. For the Founders to have called the United States a “new order of the ages” and to have claimed that “He has approved our undertakings” calls to mind the language of Roman (Republic-era) prophecy and suggests that, like the coming of Christ, the birth of the United States will in due course redeem mankind. The God referred to is only tacitly and hence vaguely the God of the Bible, but He is certainly the God of America. The ambiguity was meaningfully significant, as it has remained all these years since.
The whole field of political religion is endlessly fascinating, but my general discussion of it here is now at an end, the basics having been adequately laid out to any reasonably educated person for whom these may be new thoughts—and I’ve left enough of a paper trail here for the ambitious to pursue if they wish. What is left is to zero in specifically on the characteristics of a cult, and then to apply them to the Trump “movement” to see the extent to which it may qualify.
What Is a Cult?
As already suggested, religious and political cults are not identical. Aside from differences between theology and ideology, another key difference is what may be called necessary effective scale. A religious cult can be fairly small, and it can stay that way for a long time and have some influence within a demarcated religious domain. A political cult in the era of territorial Westphalian states can in theory also stay small for a long time, but no one will care; a political cult has to at least threaten to envelop or reshape the national political system to make much difference. If Hitler had not been able to grow his 1923 beer hall putsch into the chancellorship within a decade, for example, he’d barely be an historical footnote today.
Much of the social science literature on cults we have today, at least in English, seems to reflect a moonie echo from the late 1970s and 1980s. The Moonie cult grew so fast that it generated great interest, fear in some quarters, and hence efforts to deprogram presumably brainwashed victims. But to deprogram someone presupposed you understood how they got hooked, and by what, in the first place. Those understandings are now caught as in amber in the extent literature, whose scholarly merits I am not qualified to judge.
That said, what that literature offers in a quick pass-through seems good enough, as they say, for government work. The characteristics of a cult are said to break down into basically two broad categories: the structure of the group, and its beliefs.
With respect to structure—just to keep it simple—four characteristics are prominent:
- First, there is sharp differentiation between the in-group of believers or adepts and outsiders, who are demonized as enemies. So loyalty is a first-order virtue, and ritualized loyalty oaths often exist in one form or another.
- Second, there is a charismatic leader.
- Third, the group has a strong hierarchical organization.
- Fourth, information is strictly controlled in order to ensure conformity and the veneration of the leader.
With respect to beliefs, seven characteristics are common:
- First, the symbols of the belief system, whether conventionally religious or political, are relatively few but clear, and are designed to serve as an intersubjective template for in-group cohesion. The symbols usually make some kind of contrived sense within a narrative myth of origins; this narrative usually develops more detail over time as it evolves with circumstances.
- Second, there is a strong repugnance for theologies or ideologies that are different, and a special absolute rejection of theologies or ideologies that are close but not identical. Deviations from the belief system are rarely accepted as genuine or honest doubt, but are treated either as heresy or alien-group infiltration.
- Third, the belief system is utopian.
- Fourth, in-group members aver that the group’s beliefs are obvious or natural, and that anyone who rejects them is “blind” or somehow diseased. Conspiracy theories that tend to unify all opposition to the group are common.
- Fifth, members proselytize upon opportunity.
- Sixth, members believe that any means is justified by the end—including deception, outright lying, theft, physical intimidation, and often violence.
- And seventh, in-group members believe in the inevitable triumph of the belief system; they are incurable optimists.
Some religious cults display all eleven of these characteristics. Few if any political cults do, so the characteristics listed here ought to be thought of as a repository of possibilities: the more that apply to any given case, the more cult-like it is.
The Trump Movement
Is the movement that elected Donald Trump President of the United States a cult? In other words, how many of these four structural and seven belief attributes apply to it?
By “it” I do not mean the Republican Party. The Republican Party in 2015-16 was a near hollow shell, poorly led and programmatically incoherent. Its sad state is what allowed Donald Trump-cum-insurgent to seize its nomination for President, over 16 other candidates, through a highly democratic open-primaries system that is relatively new to the party. Trump is also not well described as a Tea Party candidate: The Tea Party was an earlier insurgency that also made use of democratic methods, but Trump is in most respects several country miles to the left of Tea Party orthodoxy (and of today’s so-called Freedom Caucus). Since Trump won the election, the Republican Party has largely fallen into line, often in paroxysms of convenient amnesia, thanks to the power of incumbency and the shallow intellectual roots of most congressional members.3 But this is not the “movement.”
No, the people who volunteered at the local and state levels to support Donald Trump’s candidacy were not by and large political professionals, anymore than those who mobilized to support Bernie Sanders were. These people were and are the movement, even if we do not know many of their names, they are not mainly in Washington today, and they have neither a “headquarters” nor a corporate existence of some formal, legal kind. The question is, are they also cult-like?
To some extent, this is an empirical question. It might be possible to operationalize these eleven attributes and collect data on them among Trump true believers. It would not be easy, but I encourage enterprising scholars and their students to design the experiments and then go out and try to collect the relevant data. But for the time being, the best we can do with the understanding we have is to use it as a sort of heuristic Ouija board.
So let’s go down the list and briefly look for “fits.”
Differentiation and loyalty as a first-order virtue: differentiation yes, but there are no loyalty oaths or anything of the sort.
Charismatic leader: yes, but an important qualification is in order. Mussolini, Hitler, and the other high priests of 20th-century political religion actively manipulated the masses through rigorous propaganda machines. Karl Kraus summed up the process best: “The secret of the demagogue is to make himself as stupid as his audience so that they believe they are as clever as he is.” I do not think Trump is manipulating a movement; he is as encyclopedically ignorant as he seems.
Strong hierarchical organization: no, unless it is secret—highly unlikely.
Information is strictly controlled: no, because hierarchy is lacking.
Symbols few but clear: unclear. There is no banner or coat-of-arms of a Trump movement, no anthem or other special regalia. There is only the “make American great again” and “America first” slogans, and recognizable if varying images of big border walls, skyscrapers, and murderous, raping, illegal Mexican immigrants. But no set of policy symbols can be clear when the leader keeps changing his views by the week, day, or hour.
Repugnance for different ideologies, especially those close but not identical: yes, especially in the Bannon wing of the movement, which dominates the movement insofar as anything does. Certainly one can see this trait in the highly popular campaign tactic of wanting to lock Hillary Clinton up.
Utopian: for some, yes;“making American great again” is nostalgia on a utopian scale. The fact that utopia is behind us, in some lost golden age, is common to cults as it is to many normal, institutionalized religions. It is not the same as Reagan’s “morning in America,” which looked forward, or the same as many other political slogans associated with presidential candidates.
Belief in obvious or natural correctness: yes, and the Trump movement’s penchant for either hatching or believing in conspiracy theories that unify all imagined opposition to the movement is beyond doubt.
Proselytizing upon opportunity: no, it’s not distinctly different from standard politicking in other organizations and movements.
Means justified by the end: unclear, depends who you ask; certainly there is no Trumpean paramilitary force in evidence. But a willing to dissimulate or outright lie on behalf of the movement’s fortunes seems undeniable, as does the White House’s demeaning of the courts whenever there is a difference of view.
Inevitable triumph; optimism: unclear, probably not.
This brief thought experiment yields the tentative conclusion that the Trump movement is more cultic that other recent political movements, though not (yet) a genuine cult—and it has perhaps become less so since November 8. Since the Leader became President, a falling off of some cult-like characteristics due to the leader’s own vacillations and seeming outright betrayals of the Trumpenproletariat has to be reckoned as significant, as does the inevitable if still very awkward and incomplete enmeshing of the man and movement into the institutional structures of American government. Rather like the Millerites, perhaps, who became the Seventh Day Adventists, the core of the cult is getting more concentrated as untrue believers fall away. But that more concentrated core is still there, even if hordes of opportunistic joiners and hangers-on seem now to dilute their significance.
If the Trump movement is to some low to middling extent cultic or pre-cultic, does it follow that it is a potential form of political religion that is competing or will complete in some nontrivial way with conventional American religious institutions? Is there an inviting vacuum in the latter that is turning or could turn many worried Americans to political religion to assuage their fears?
My answer is “not yet,” but some potential is indeed there. That is because most self-avowed Christian religious fervor one sees today in the United States, especially of the Protestant sort, is not born of traditional, innocent faith. Much of what professed fervor there is, it seems to me, reflects a deep desire for community and identity in an alienating hyper-commercial culture that is best at manufacturing material fetishism and emotional insecurity. A good deal of it, in reaction, is intellectualized (neo-fundamentalist) religion that often seems to lack the power of the real thing in a pinch.4 And that small but influential shard of it known as the evangelical movement is itself already highly politicized, so can be seen as an element breaking down the divide of secular arrangements moving from the religious side toward the political. This seems the most persuasive way to explain evangelical support for Trump—as a form of political transactualism—a man who in no way resembles the model of a pious Christian.
Will the Trump movement, to the middling extent that it is cultic, upset the ambiguous balancing act between political faith and religious faith in the American context? Will the God mentioned on the dollar bill rebalance to become significantly less the God of the Bible and more the God of a national enterprise? In other words, how will the relative stabilities of America’s civil religion and its formal secular habits be affected by the working through of the Trump presidency?
I don’t know, and at this early point no one can know, not least because this President is neither a predictable nor stable character. But for that very reason, if not others, it bears watching. After all, we are barely passed a hundred days into this adventure. Anyone who assumes that, since the worst did not eventuate, the prospect of sharp future reversals away from relative normalcy is unlikely is assuming too much. We do not know how this President will react to political crises born of seemingly baked-in scandals—of which the Comey firing seems an ominous portent—and the various fruits of his incompetence. But whatever happens, we would be well advised to watch not just the man but also the movement. To the extent it is more cult-like than its recent predecessors, the “excitement” may be just ahead of us as the movement circles the wagons.
1Many other scholars have boarded this same train in one way or another. Paul Hollander’s career obsession with understanding why so many intellectuals end up adulating totalitarian and authoritarian political figures elides usefully into the politics-as-religion template. See his latest book, From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez: Intellectuals and a Century of Political Hero Worship (Cambridge University Press, 2016).
2For two recent examples, one on the domestic and the other on the foreign policy aspects of the American Civil Religion, see Philip Gorski’s American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present (Princeton University Press, 2017) and Walter A. McDougall’s The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How American Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest (Yale University Press, 2016). McDougall reviews Gorski is the forthcoming issue of TAI.
3See Claire Berlinski, “Not with My Book, You Don’t!” The American Interest (May-June 2017).
4Anyone who may be unclear what is meant here is directed to Peter Berger, “Between Relativism and Fundamentalism, The American Interest (September-October 2006).