Is the Trump Party a Cult? It Depends on How We Define Cult
Cults as mutual affirmation societies that issue trump cards to all members.
Posted July 13, 2018
John Gottman's Love Lab research demonstrates that in order to sustain a romantic partnership you need five good interactions to offset every bad one. Apparently, we're so much more sensitive to discouragement that we need five encouraging experiences to dilute one disappointing exchange.
Could that five to one ratio also help explain the encouragement so many people thrive on in cults?
“Cult” is a pejorative term. We know they’re dangerous and bad, but what are they exactly? Without a clear, objective definition, people feel free to go around accusing any movement that they don’t like of being a cult.
We could define them by their consequences – people, in effect, marrying them through membership, sacrificing all else to maintain their commitment. Or we could define them by how that marriage is achieved – through brain-washing – and then focus on the sacrifices people make, for example, “drinking the Kool-aide.”
“Aid” may be the real key to what distinguishes cults. For members, cults are a reliable bounty of encouraging affirmation.
Cults say, in so many words,
“You have joined the winning circle. Bask in it forever more. From now on, you are right and righteous. By committing our mutual adulation society, you are guaranteed lifelong affirmation so bounteous that you can take whatever lumps the world serves you. We provide you with the means to deflect and reject all criticism. Your outside family, friends, and peers may turn against you, but now you’ll have a way to keep that from eating at you. You’ll know that you’re right and they’re wrong, that you’ve found the truth and they’re just living lies, that they’re the unfair oppressors and you’re the oppressed victim. With us, you never again experience self-doubt and anxiety.”
We don’t think of cults as havens of ease. Cult members are quick to tell you how much they sacrifice to belong. Of course, cults have their ritual sacrifices but the operative term is ritual. To enter a cult's select and righteous winner’s circle, people have to go through some sort of hazing process ­–nothing too difficult, perhaps like baptism or even entrance exams at Trump University – a small price to pay for the bounty of affirmation a cult provides.
This definition of a cult is good news for people who don’t feel inclined or qualified to pick sides in politics, religion or spirituality, especially those who worry that in doing so, they would be just contributing the partisan cultural rifts they would like to mend.
Cult behavior is non-denominational. By this definition, there are cults of all kinds – on the political left and right, cults for every religious, spiritual or philosophical perspective. Cults are not defined by what their members believe but by how they enable members to translate their beliefs into a source of permanent self-affirmation, self-protection, and self-aggrandizement, sacrificing all else to maintain their membership in something that keeps their encouragement-to-discouragement ratio forever high.
For those of us who don’t want to pick sides, we don’t have to. We can say “Hey, whatever floats your boat!” while opposing all cults because of the way they float people’s boats by making the waters choppy enough to drown others.
Cults are the problem at the heart of egonomics – the allocation of finite affirmation in a world of people scrambling to keep their ratio high. There’s not enough affirmation for everyone to have all the affirmation they want.
There’s greed for money but also greed for affirmation. Gloataholic cult members who can’t get enough are a danger to the rest of us. They’re the ones who, in an increasingly threatening and disappointing world will join the Communist, Nazi, ISIS, Libertarian, messianic, spiritual or Far-right cults, reaching up with one hand to snatch any highfaluting abstraction that justifies them reaching down with the other to grab all the affirmation they can get. And cults breed opposing cults. As one cult threatens to drown others, those others will join counter-cults that threaten to drown the first cult. Trickle-down economics doesn’t work, but trickle down havoc does. Cults in power breed cults out of power. It’s how wars start.
That’s what makes cults so dangerous. When people put themselves in permanent winner’s circles, they put others in permanent loser circles. They deflect all challenges to their authority, gaining members and acquiring not authority on what’s true but power nonetheless –authoritarian control, cult leaders, and members claiming infallibility and sinking everyone else’s attempts to just float their boats.
Cults don’t merely live in bubbles. Bubbles are OK. In fact, we all live in them. As Will Rogers said, “we’re all ignorant about something.” What’s not OK are cults—rolling fortress surrounded by landmines that can blow up anyone who gets in their way. What’s not fine is pretending everyone else is wrong just so one can feed a gloataholic addiction to a through-the-roof affirmation ratio.
And while this definition is non-denominational, it doesn’t mean that all cults are equally dangerous. They’re best nipped in the bud because they escalate rapidly, often taking over whole nations that take decades to restore sanity and still more decades to recover. The bigger the cult the harder it is to nip.
Senator Bob Corker recently suggested that the GOP is becoming a cult to Trump. If he’s right, it no longer should be called the Republican or Grand Old Party. It’s the Trump Party now.
A more apt name would be hard to find. All cults on the left, right or whatever, are trump parties.
They all have no higher mission than trumping absolutely anyone and everything in their way. They thrive by collecting and then issuing trump cards to all cult members, all of the lying, hypocritical, vengeful, deflection and projection ploys ever discovered in cult history – the generic trump carts designed to beat all cards that other people play.
The party that took over the GOP is the Trump Party. It conserves what has always been most precious to some: Their impression that they are invincible. It liberates what has always been most precious to others: The freedom to claim infallibility, to never ever again be shackled into having to compromise, learn, or adapt. And to some, it provides the ultimate salvation – eternal grace, rescue from life’s discouragements.
No wonder Trump Party members are OK with a cozy relationship with Donald, Kim and Putin. No wonder the cult is growing so fast. These are inherently scary times. Discouragement is up. The cult members are mainlining as much self-encouragement as they can get, damn the costs.
In schools, when a student isn’t keeping up, the teacher slows down. In reality, when people aren’t keeping up, the problems gallop faster and faster. Cults, again of any stripe, generate ever greater problems, problems that it takes decades, even centuries to resolve.
But if we focus on the cult-ness, not the politics or values we could still nip it. Opposition to the threat posed by all cults is the key to our unified de-escalation not of the culture wars but the cult wars that threaten us all today.
Stevie Wonder sings “Everybody’s got a thing but some don’t know how to handle it.” We all need affirmation, especially in hard times. If we don’t get better at handling this universal egonomic human need for affirmation the times will get much harder.
GOP senator says Republicans in 'cult-like situation' with Trump CNN, June 13, 2018
Gottman, John (2015). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, NYC, Harmony Publishing.