The Cult of Trump
As of this writing, Donald Trump is making his cabinet picks, which aside from conspiracy-monger Steve Bannon, look like the usual rightward Wall Street and D.C. insiders. The Trump regime seems so far like it will promote an uglier and more aggressive version of the standard Republican policies: deregulation, privatization and tax cuts for the wealthy. We can expect to see over the coming years the continued decline of the middle class, a shrinking social safety net, an acceleration of environmental catastrophe, unchecked corporate malfeasance, expanding federal deficits, and a deepening of the surveillance state. There will most likely be diversionary tactics in the form of more warfare abroad and the concomitant curtailing of civil liberties at home. Trump will likely fulfill many of his campaign promises, albeit in scaled-down versions. But don’t expect his followers to abandon him even if he reneges on many key commitments from his electric, nationalistic rallies.
The rallies explain Trump far more than his vague policy prescriptions. His followers view him as a sort of prophet of American triumphalism. The stadium becomes the evangelical circus tent of renewal and transformation: a purgation of America through ecstatic trampling of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. The cult of personality around Trump and his family goes a long way towards explaining his popularity. His followers support him through a maneuver of sympathetic magic: by supporting this bombastic billionaire (a euphemistic phrase, but words fail the sheer scope of his ego), they hope to imbibe some of his Midas touch. Ethics and accountability be damned: his fawning admirers want a slice of the proverbial pie even if it comes at someone else’s expense. They are not bothered by Trump University or the Atlantic City bankruptcies—they just want a piece of the action.
The vast majority of Trump’s supporters will fare worse economically under his administration, but this is nothing new in the Republican electorate. What is different about Trump is that he is really more a cult leader than a traditional politician. The term “cult” carries with it associations with Jim Jones and poisoned Kool-Aid, Aum Shinrikyo and the subway attacks, the Moonies and their mass weddings. But the comparison goes beyond its shock value and usefully explains how Trump went from being a glorified carnival barker to the leader of the most powerful country in the world. Trump harnessed some of the fervor that is more typical of religious devotion than adherence to a political ideology, and that explains why he succeeded where Mitt Romney didn’t.
The Trump family has become to America what the Kim family is to North Korea. The Dear Leader will not be questioned. The Dear Leader becomes a symbol for the nation itself, a symbol for a state religion that captures minds and hearts even as stomachs rumble with hunger. Expect much pageantry under Trump. Expect even bigger portraits and even more fawning tributes. The trappings will be more important than the substance, the wrappings will be the whole present. Appearances will continue to matter more than reality, which will be contested and denied at every turn. The state religion will depict Trump as a savior figure, even as the body politic crumbles. In fact, as the collapse happens, Trump will be portrayed as the necessary antidote, the one immutable power in the midst of chaos.
The term “cult”—from the Latin, cultus, originally describing say, the devotion to a particular saint—is no longer used in the field of religious studies as it once was in Protestant Christian apologetics. Scholars like Dereck Daschke and W. Michael Ashcraft now prefer the more benign term, “new religious movement,” because it avoids editorializing or casting aspersion on the groups under study. The new terminology also avoids giving legitimacy to religions that just happen to be older and more prestigious. A New Religious Movement might have some of the tendencies formerly reserved for cults—tight control of the behavior of adherents, a central authority figure with absolute authority, techniques of “mind control,” etc.—but with the understanding that these groups usually moderate these tendencies as they become more mainstream, often after the death of the founder. Usually new religious movements have a decidedly utopian bent—promising a more just society for all people, although after a period of turbulent confrontation.
The Trump phenomenon fits into the picture of a new religious movement (or cult—the lines are not tightly drawn) in that it gives purpose and meaning to its adherents, it promises a period of peace and prosperity after a time of confrontation, and it portrays itself as an oppressed minority under the dominion of sinister outside forces. Evangelicalism, in particular, thrives upon the sense that its followers are victims of a godless society bent upon persecuting believers (see Christian Smith’s now classic Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving). Trump has been able to dispense with some of the pieties of evangelicalism while capitalizing on its victim stance. Trump followers are often aggressive and belligerent, and yet they still seem to be able to see themselves as victims of the biased media, corrupt politicians, and liberal elites. The fact that they won the election has not changed this dynamic, since it is a core part of their identity as persecuted true believers.
The disturbing part about the religious narrative now interacting with American politics is that the next logical phase in the evangelical story is one of an end-times cosmic battle. The Dear Leader/Savior Figure must now battle the Forces of Darkness, which, in this case, means that Trump must defeat liberal democracy or die trying. Now cult figures do not usually succeed in their objectives—they usually leave themselves some sort of “out clause.” For Jim Jones, the “out clause” was spectacular violence. For “Moses” David Berg of The Family International / Children of God, the “out clause” was simply to blame the Whore of Babylon (i.e. the rest of society) for the implosion of his “kingdom” under a wave of sexual abuse allegations. But Trump will have something these other cult leaders did not have: access to the full resources, both public and covert, of the United States Government.
For that reason, the Trump phenomenon is vanishingly unlikely to be a flash in the pan. Trump will pass his real estate empire and his political empire (and I would argue, his religious empire) down to his children. American oligarchy will become more and more like Russian kleptocracy. Constitutional niceties will be eroded. Dissidents will be jailed or slandered. Vast sums of money will disappear. And yet the pageantry of democracy will remain intact. Trump will still give speeches from the White House rose garden and the oval office. Those who wish to pretend that nothing is amiss will be given adequate materials, photo ops to supply their fantasies.
When toxic religion and toxic politics meet, the results cannot be pretty. A plurality of Americans have now joined a death cult of historic proportions, and the rest of us are being advised to “give Trump a chance” and “wait and see what happens.” The warning signs are more than enough to make this foolhardy advice. Those who are not on board the Trump train should do our best to work against the propaganda efforts of Breitbart, Infowars, RT, and Fox News. We should try to dissuade our friends and loved ones from “drinking the kool-aid” of believing in this fraudulent little man who serves only his own interests. A livable future only becomes possible if we resist his regime at every turn.
I think some of the hope here lies with conservatives themselves. Perhaps some of the more moderate voices in the Republican Party will stop kissing Trump’s ring and come to their senses. Perhaps the whole charade will come unraveled as we get further from Election Day and into the realities of governing. There will certainly be a plethora of scandals for those who need an excuse to leave the cult. Some evangelicals will label Trump as a false prophet and urge their co-religionists to “come to Jesus.” The photos from the Trump rallies remind me of a Billy Graham crusade, except with a message of hate instead of repentance. Maybe one day evangelicals will return to the example of figures like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who were willing to put their lives on the line to contest unchecked, idolatrous political power.
For the left, the recent (albeit temporary) victory on the part of the Standing Rock Sioux shows what can happen when people come together in nonviolent direct action. It is not time to “give Trump a chance” or “wait and see what happens.” We should assume that Trump plans to deport millions of people, move backward on climate change, roll back the rights of women, harass ethnic and religious minorities, restrict the rights of a free press, and, well, do the things that he promised to do on the apparently ongoing campaign trail. His agenda threatens democracy as we know it, and resisting Trump and his cronies in the white nationalist Republican Party is a humanitarian duty. Remaining silent will only worsen the situation: we must speak loudly and speak now.