A Trump Cult?

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Trump greets supporters after a campaign event in Bentonville Regional Airport near Bentonville

Writing at The New Republic, Alexander Hurst wonders if Trump supporters make-up a kind of cult.  He writes, “Millions of Americans are blindly devoted to their Dear Leader.  What will it take for them to snap out of it?”  Here is a taste:

Personality cults are a hallmark of populist-autocratic politics. The names of the various leaders are practically synonymous with their movements: Le Pen, Farage, Duterte, Orbán, Erdogan, Chávez, Bolsonaro, Putin. Or if we were to dip farther back into history: Castro, Franco, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin. Like religious cult leaders, demagogues understand the importance of setting up an in-group/out-group dynamic as a means of establishing their followers’ identity as members of a besieged collective.

Trump, like the populist authoritarians before and around him, has also understood (or, at least, instinctually grasped) how indispensable his own individual persona is to his ultimate goal of grasping and maintaining power. Amidst his string of business failures, Trump’s singular talent has been that of any con man: the incredible ability to cultivate a public image. Of course, Trump did not build his cult of followers—his in-group—ex nihilo; in many ways, the stage was set for his entrance. America had already split into two political identities by the time he announced his campaign for president in 2015, not just in terms of the information we consume, but down to the brands we prefer and the stores we frequent. And so with particularly American bombast and a reality TV star’s penchant for manipulating the media, Trump tore pages from the us-against-them playbook of the European far right and presented them to a segment of the American public already primed to receive it with religious fervor.

In an interview with Pacific Standard, Janja Lalich, a sociologist who specializes in cults, identified four characteristics of a totalistic cult and applied them to Trumpism: an all-encompassing belief system, extreme devotion to the leader, reluctance to acknowledge criticism of the group or its leader, and a disdain for nonmembers. Eileen Barker, another sociologist of cults, has written that, together, cult leaders and followers create and maintain their movement by proclaiming shared beliefs and identifying themselves as a distinguishable unit; behaving in ways that reinforce the group as a social entity, like closing themselves off to conflicting information; and stoking division and fear of enemies, real or perceived.

Read the entire piece here.

Believe Me 3d

I don’t want to debate whether or not pro-Trumpers are part of a cult, but I am struck by the fact that Hurst does not mention conservative evangelicals in his analysis.  Granted, not all of the 81% of self-identified white evangelicals who voted for Trump wear MAGA hats and scream “lock her up “at Trump events.  But a lot of them do. (I am reminded of the time Trump came to Harrisburg, PA during the campaign and I saw some members of my local church standing in line waiting to get into the rally).

Maybe instead of trying to figure out how many white evangelicals actually voted for Trump we should be trying to figure out how many people are members of the “cult.”

Is Academia a Cult?



Andrew Marzoni thinks so.  He compares his experience in academia with his experience in a cultic religious community.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Washington Post:

Cults are systems of social control. They are insular but often evangelical organizations whose aims (be they money, power, sex or something else) are rooted in submission to a dogma manifested by an authority figure: a charismatic preacher or, say, a tenured professor. The relationship between shepherd and sheep is couched in unwavering commitment to a supposedly noble, transcendent cause. For the Living Word Fellowship, that meant “the Lordship of Jesus Christ”; for academia, “the production of knowledge.” In both cases, though, faith ultimately amounts to mastering the rules of the leaders, whose infallibility — whether by divine right or endowed chair — excuses all else.

Looking back, the evidence was everywhere: I’d seen needless tears in the eyes of classmates, harangued in office hours for having the gall to request a letter of recommendation from an adviser. Others’ lives were put on hold for months or sometimes years by dissertation committee members’ refusal to schedule an exam or respond to an email. I met the wives and girlfriends of senior faculty members, often former and sometimes current advisees, and heard rumors of famed scholars whisked abroad to sister institutions in the wake of grad student affairs gone awry. I’d first come in contact with such unchecked power dynamics as a child, in the context of church. In adulthood, as both a student and an employee of a university, I found myself subject to them once again.

One department chair, who had trained as a community organizer in the 1960s, threatened to use the Freedom of Information Act to read graduate students’ emails; she could have, too, since we were technically employees of the state. Elsewhere, a senior colleague propositioned my friend for a sex act I cannot name in this newspaper before the first semester at her new job had even begun; after she complained to her boss, she was removed from her position under other pretenses. I’ve seen grad students expected to put $16 whiskeys for their advisers on nearly maxed-out credit cards at the hotel bar of an academic conference. It’s not unusual for academic job seekers to spend 10 percent of their annual income — the amount of a tithe — attending a single conference for an interview (including airfare, lodging, registration fees and incidentals). A peer of mine was even directed by her adviser to write a doctoral dissertation renouncing the subject of her master’s thesis, a philosopher whose views do not align with the adviser’s own. It should come as no surprise that the professor who made that demand is a white male alumnus of the Ivy League, and the student an immigrant from a working-class background.

Read the rest here.

My only encounter with secular academia came during my doctoral work at a large state university in New York.  I can honestly say that I did not experience anything close to what Marzoni experienced.  Having said that, I do not want to discredit his piece.  I have heard these kinds of stories (at other institutions).  Like all professions, academia is filled with good people and jerks.

Frankly, when I read the title of Marzoni’s article–“Academia is a cult”–and read the first paragraph or two, I thought it was going in another direction.  While not all academic institutions and departments are alike, many of them may be described as “cult-like” in the sense that they allow for very little intellectual diversity.

The Author’s Corner with Lyn Millner

Lyn Millner is Associate Professor of Journalism at Florida Gulf Coast University. This interview is based on her new book, The Allure of Immortality: An American Cult, a Florida Swamp, and a Renegade Prophet (University Press of Florida, 2015).

JF: What led you to write The Allure of Immortality?

LM: I was looking for a magazine story idea, and there was this little-known historic settlement down the road from me. The Koreshans formed a utopian society around the belief that they could achieve immortality. They followed a man who believed he was a messiah, they practiced celibacy, and they believed that we live inside the earth.

I figured I’d research and write a 2,000-word piece and then move on to my next project. But it didn’t work that way. The Koreshans wouldn’t let me go. What haunted me was the question of why a group of people would give up everything to follow a man into a mosquito-infested forest to build a city. It seemed crazy to me, but the more I researched it, the less crazy they seemed. We all know someone who has made a radical change that puzzles us, but we rarely explore why. The more I followed my curiosity about them, it became apparent that in 2,000 words, I wouldn’t get beyond “Gee, aren’t they kooky?” I saw that they deserved their own book.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Allure of Immortality?

LM: This story shows how unshakable belief can be, even when it runs counter to reality. Even when fact bleeds through, belief has the power to triumph.

JF: Why do we need to read The Allure of Immortality?

LM: There are people we would like to dismiss as crazy because it’s convenient for us not to explore our own beliefs and contradictions. The Koreshans, kooky as they seem, wanted what we all want. To live somewhere beautiful away from pollution and crime, to eat healthy food, to have more time to play, to raise our children the way we see fit, to have answers. To transcend. That’s hard to turn away from.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

LM: When I read Erik Larson’s “Devil in the White City.” I’m a reader and writer first, but it just so happens that history is what I most like to research and write about. My favorite books to read are nonfiction narratives, and I’m inspired to write history in a way that’s readable—using character, scene and dialog. That’s my formal training.

JF: What is your next project?

LM: I’m still pondering that.

JF: Thanks, Lyn! 

Kelly Baker: "Is Academe a Cult?"

Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education Kelly Baker, a gifted writer and scholar of American religion who has recently left academia, wonders if academe is a cult.  

She writes:

On her blog, The Professor Is In, Karen Kelsky tells us that “academia is kind of a cult” that doesn’t tolerate deviation from shared norms. PhD Comics proclaims that “coffee is the Kool-Aid” of higher education. In The Chronicle Review, Rebecca Schuman compares academe to a cult because it isolates grad students, breaks them down, makes them believe there is no other path than the life of the mind, and uses the threat of shunning to keep scholars quiet about the conditions of our labor. “What are the similarities between academia and cults?” someone asks on Quora, where an upvoted answer emphasizes mind control, shame, and struggling adjuncts who can’t bring themselves to quit. 

Baker adds:

IThe Chronicle in 1999, Margaret Newhouse writes about the need for “deprogramming” from the cult of thinking of academic careers as “superior to others.” This emphasis on only one type of success leads graduate students to think that other careers represent a “failure.” She asks, “On your deathbed, what are you going to regret more — disappointing your advisers or not being true to yourself?”
Also in The ChronicleMeredith Clermont-Ferrand describes how grad schools, like cults, seek to mold you in their image by giving you an identity, rituals, sacred texts, colleagues, and leaders, while also taking your money. Like other cults, the doctoral ones have “priests who, like Jim Jones or Charles Manson, use their positions as bases for abuse.” Fear of exile from academe (i.e., the job market), she admits, “drove her nearly crazy.” In spite of everything, Clermont-Ferrand describes herself as reasonably content with her choice to get a Ph.D. “Despite the difficulties of reaching the prestige of Ph.D. priesthood,” she writes, “I have experienced many more joys than sorrows.” It didn’t hurt that she got a tenure-track job.
Writing as Thomas Benton in 2004, William Pannapacker remarks on the similarity of graduate school to “mind-control cults.” He cites the controversial anticult consultant Steven Hassan’s BITE model of behavior, information, thought, and emotional control.

Baker is not comfortable with the term “cult,” but she does describe academia, borrowing a phrase from Erving Goffman, as a “total institution“:

In seeking a better metaphor, I find myself drawn to Erving Goffman’s vision of the total institution, “a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society … together lead an enclosed, formally administered form of life.” Goffman was writing about asylums, but he wanted to characterize the ways in which institutions in general take over and recreate our lives.
Religious orders and the military fall under his definition, and academe does too. Total institutions are in our worlds, but separate from them. They are “training stations” consumed by bureaucracy and chains of command, with a “work-payment structure” different from the rest of society. They untrain us in what we know, so that we can learn their system of being. Other roles are lost to us because the particularity of what the total institution wants us to be. They treat us as less than adults by wearing down autonomy and freedom of action. There are rewards and privileges for obedience, yet little loyalty from the institution. We grant institutions power over our fates when we enter into them. We don’t just participate in the total institution of academe, we support and bolster it. We help create it and perpetuate its norms. Mary Douglas cautions that we, in fact, let institutions think for us.
Right now Baker’s piece is behind The Chronicle of Higher Education paywall, but when it becomes public it is definitely worth reading. Because I resonate with Baker’s argument, I want to return to it in a few future posts here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Stay tuned.