Psychiatrist: Trump's cult isn't born from stupidity — it comes from lack of morality

Psychiatrist: Trump's cult isn't born from stupidity — it comes from lack of morality
Make America Great Again hat in support of Donald Trump at a rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona. // Gage Skidmore
News & Politics

The statement by the Republican National Committee arguing that the Jan. 6 insurrection was " legitimate political discourse" has sparked a renewed conversation on whether Donald Trump's MAGA movement is a cult.

MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell began his examination of the issue with quotes from two Democratic Party leaders.

"You know, the 'C' in RNC doesn't stand for 'committee,' it stands for 'cult.' It's not the Republican National Committee, it's the Republican National Cult," Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) said.

"They seem to have reached rock-bottom with their statement that happened on January 6th was normal political discourse," Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said. "I say to Republicans all the time, take back your party from this cult."

Those quotes raised questions for O'Donnell, who wondered, "Is it a cult or is it stupidity? And what's the difference?"

For analysis, O'Donnell interviewed Dr. Lance Dodes, a retired clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard.

Dodes said, "I think the word cult is probably correct.

"What a cult is — especially a charismatic cult, which is the kind we're talking about here where you have the all-powerful leader, Trump, who is seen as a god-like figure — those cults are self-contained, intentionally," he explained. "If you are in one, you are required to believe the belief system of the group. And a part of that, which is important to understand, is that you are also required to deny or ignore or attack those people who challenge the belief system, which is exactly what we see from many of these Trump followers, who simply act as they cannot hear and they attack those people who challenge it, which is what happened to [Liz] Cheney."

"The advantage of being ins such a group is that you have an echo chamber of people who are admiring you and affirming you. It is a self-affirming system, everyone agrees on the same things and they all follow and worship the leader," he continued. "On the other hand, to stand up against that, therefore, means that you aren't an outcast, you are a pariah."

O'Donnell wondered about the role intelligence plays in susceptibility to joining a cult.

"Doctor, it seems that one defense against cultism, one personal defense that we might all possess — many of us might possess — is intelligence, you're simply too smart to fall for the stupidity of what's the cult is selling," O'Donnell said. "What is the difference between adherence to a cult and stupidity?"

"It helps to be stupid, but I think that they're different because there are intelligent people who are members of cult, you know? As much as some of these people who are republicans that don't seem to care about either democracy or morality are odious to us, they may be intelligent. Unfortunately, intelligence doesn't help you when you've got these enormous internal and external pressures to stay in line with the leader.

"I think it has, certainly, a moral quality. People who have high moral qualities and values do stand up, we sometimes consider them heroic. They finally say this is not right, as Liz Cheney did. I think we have to question the morality of the Trump followers because their morality is not strong enough to overcome their self-interest of staying in the cult," Dodes concluded.



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