The Abdication Syndrome

Why we are vulnerable to authoritarian leaders, corrupt gurus, and cults.

Posted Sep 12, 2020

RV1964/flickr
Source: RV1964/flickr

One reason I remember my early childhood with affection is because I had the feeling that my parents were in complete control of the world. I felt that they could protect me, provide for me, and take responsibility for my life. If there were any problems, I was sure that they would work them all out. If there was anything I didn’t understand, I was sure that they would tell me the answer. I didn’t have to worry about anything. I could go to school, play, and have fun, and they would take care of the rest.

I remember being disappointed when I was little older, perhaps 11 or 12, and began to realise that my parents weren’t as omnipotent and omniscient as I’d thought. One day I asked my father a question about my school homework and I was surprised when he couldn’t help me. I began to realise that my dad was actually a very anxious person who constantly worried about the smallest things. But by that point, I was beginning to feel independent, so I no longer need their protection so much. 

For many people, this phase of early childhood represents an ideal which they long to return to (if only subconsciously). How wonderful it would be to worship powerful parental figures, who take responsibility for our own lives, protect us from the world, and provide answers to all our questions.

Cult Leaders and Corrupt Gurus

The urge to return to this ideal state is one of the reasons some people are attracted to charismatic cult leaders and gurus. Although many people seek gurus because of a genuine impulse for spiritual development, others are motivated by a more unhealthy impulse. They are not actually seeking enlightenment, but a return to a childhood state of unconditional devotion and irresponsibility. They want to abdicate responsibility for their own lives, and hand it over to the guru or cult leader. They don’t have to worry about anything, because the guru will guide them in the right direction. They don’t need to think for themselves, because the leader knows all the answers. They don’t need to struggle in their lives; they can just bask in the love and protection of the guru, as they did with their parents when they were young children. I call this impulse the 'abdication syndrome.'

Because of this, it’s easy for gurus and leaders to exploit their position. Some gurus are wise and altruistic people who feel an impulse to share their spiritual insights. But unfortunately, there are countless stories of gurus behaving in immoral ways, and abusing the trust and loyalty of their followers. Even some gurus who start out with good intentions end up losing their moral compass and behaving in appalling ways.

Part of the problem is that, once people abdicate their lives to a guru or cult leader, they find it impossible to believe anything negative about them. When a guru does act immorally, his followers explain away the behaviour, as some kind of ‘divine play’ or test. They are sure there is some rational, spiritual reason for their actions. This is exactly the same syndrome as when young children find it impossible to believe anything negative about their parents. The disciples refuse to accept that the guru is imperfect because they don’t want to give up the sense of protection and safety that the guru gives them. They don’t want to face having to take responsibility for their own lives.

Authoritarian Leaders and Political Cults

There is another area where the abdication syndrome occurs in a more widespread and dangerous way: politics. Because of the instinct to worship powerful paternal figures – or the subconscious impulse to return to a state of childhood irresponsibility – people have a tendency to be taken in by charismatic authoritarian leaders. A leader may act as appallingly as a corrupt guru, and show himself to be incompetent and ignorant, but once people have attached themselves to him (these leaders are usually male) they are unwilling to give up their allegiance.

This explains why many of the world’s most murderous dictators have enjoyed massive support. Before the Second World War, Adolf Hitler was idolised by most Germans, who saw him as an infallible figure who embodied the destiny of the whole country. Despite their obvious brutality, figures such as Stalin, Mussolini, and Chairman Mao were worshipped in a similar way. 

Of course, the myth of these figures as infallible leaders was heavily promoted by propaganda. Every authoritarian leader (and his cohorts) is instinctively aware of the abdication syndrome and takes advantage of it. The formation of a ‘personality cult’ is a direct attempt to appeal to the abdication instinct. Notions of a ‘great leader’ play on people’s instinct to return to the childhood state of irresponsibility. The leader becomes an omniscient and omnipotent father, who assumes responsibility for our lives.

In the case of corrupt gurus, there is a tacit agreement that a narcissistic individual (the guru) needs to be worshipped, and his disciples need someone to worship. Similarly, in the case of a political leader, a narcissist or psychopath relishes his power and adoration, and a large group of the population relish the feeling of being protected by a powerful father figure.

In politics, the abdication syndrome is especially likely to occur in times of hardship and uncertainty. In the same way that when children feel insecure, they cling more tightly to their parents, people are more vulnerable to the paternal appeal of dictators in times of insecurity. Similarly, individuals feel more attracted to gurus and cults during times of upheaval and trauma in their lives. 

The Appeal of Donald Trump

It is tempting to apply the ‘abdication syndrome’ to Donald Trump. Perhaps this helps to explain his appeal to a sizeable proportion of the American electorate. Those who describe Trump’s following as a ‘personality cult’ are correct in the sense that he behaves like a narcissistic guru who craves the adoration of his disciples. And in turn, he provides his disciples with an illusion of responsibility and control. Despite his seemingly narcissistic personality, Trump's supporters believe that he has their best interests at heart and that he loves them and their country. As with a corrupt guru, it doesn’t matter how incompetently he performs, or how immorally he acts; nothing will affect their devotion. His followers either explain away or deny his incompetence and corruption, in order to preserve their image of him as an infallible father figure.

Trump was probably correct when he said 'I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.' No doubt his supporters would find a way of justifying the act, in the same way that the disciples of a guru might try to explain away his ownership of dozens of expensive cars and houses, his violent outbursts, or his sexual promiscuity. This helps to explain why Trump’s popularity has remained stable throughout his presidency. Particularly now that they are in the midst of economic hardship and uncertainty, many Americans are reluctant to let go of their authoritarian figure, and the illusion of his parental care and control.

The abdication syndrome never has a good outcome. In some cases, the guru or leader’s corruption reaches such an extreme point that external authorities intervene. Sometimes followers finally come to their senses and protest against their mistreatment. Or in the worst-case scenario, the leader or guru’s narcissistic or psychopathic impulses build up into a final crescendo of violence and destruction. We should be grateful that, in the United States at least, there are democratic systems and processes to help ensure that the latter scenario should not take place.