Towards Understanding the Trump Movement as a Cult

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by Neil Godfrey

Trump – Armstrong

I was dismayed after leaving a religious cult to discover that fallacious thinking that had led me into the cult was not restricted to cult members but was evident throughout society all around me. How I had been so shut off from “the world” not to have noticed how much we shared with “the world”. We always saw ourselves as “called out of this world” and as no longer a part of “this evil world”. We also thought of ourselves as a body, a gathering of converts, unlike any other in the world, so after I had left and reflected on what our operation was “really like” I was dumbstruck to read about how our cult’s M.O. was likewise characteristic of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons, and others. Okay, so religious cults were bad news for this and that reason, but it was a real blow to my expectations of what I would find “in the world” after I began to observe the same thinking-gone-wrong among not only more benign churches but in society at large.

Then there was that TV documentary on the Hitler Youth. I listened most attentively to interviews with those who had been members before the war and was again struck with clear echoes of the experiences I had come to think, from both personal experience and wider learning, were seductive features of religious cults.

We know the jokes and sayings about the devil’s masterstroke being to convince his dupes that he doesn’t exist. The one sure constant among all cults is that cult members do not believe they belong to a “cult” — it’s all those other weirdos who are the cultists; we are not like them.

And one more thing. Too many of my friends in my old cult turned out to be friends only on condition I remained part of the collective. But there were others whom I saw as true friends, sticking with me even after I was “disfellowshipped” or “cast out into the bond of Satan”. But what a disappointment I felt as I watched so many of them merely gravitate to other cults, most often imitation breakaways from the parent church.

I think in some ways this Vridar blog is a result of those “coming out” experiences. If asked what was the biggest lesson I have taken away from my cult years it would have to be, surely: “I know only too, too well how easy it is for me to be so very wrong.” That’s why readers see so many references to the research, the evidence, the analysis of arguments, of specialists on this blog, and to the examination of common arguments and conclusions, even among other specialists, that we find to be without valid foundation. We try to be careful and get to the facts and analyse the intellectual foundations of what we think and everything is, essentially, provisional. If anything of my experience and subsequent learning can be of some use to anyone else at an appropriate point in their life’s journey I would be satisfied.

I have been saving up scores of online articles published by journalists, political scientists, sociologists, psychologists, historians, about the Trump phenomenon in the United States and only recently I have begun to return to them and read them one by one. There are a number of people in the United States I would consider good friends even though I have never met them face to face. Unfortunately, despite our friendship, I have never had any desire to visit the United States in the same way I like to visit other countries of the world. Perhaps it’s because I see too much of the U.S. here already: on TV and in movies, and especially in the news. Not that all my information has come through today’s mainstream media. I also took up a year’s course in United States history as an undergraduate, and I have followed up much of what I learned at that time by purchasing new books as they relate to special themes of interest from those student years. In our course we covered everything from the invention of the compass through to the confluence of the Kennedy assassination and Beatles Tour, from the Federalist Papers, to the judgments of John Marshall, “Manifest Destiny”, and the Civil Rights Movement. (I recall at one stage taking a special interest in the details of the history of the Rhode Island settlement, possibly at least partly because an American pastor who introduced me to “my cult” was named William Bradford.) Meanwhile, in our English literature courses, I can never remove from my mind novels and plays by William Faulkner, James Baldwin and Tennessee Williams. Then I taught To Kill a Mockingbird in high schools soon afterwards. And I have had a number of American friends, both face to face here in Australia and, of course, online even today. But I cannot presume to know more about what is happening in the United States than what I read and hear. I am always open to correction and learning.

So when I read articles by people-in-the-know comparing Trump supporters to “a cult” I cannot help but pause a moment and wonder.

The following is in no pre-planned order. It is pretty much stream-of-consciousness stuff.

First point. Our leader, Herbert W. Armstrong, had his communications training in the field of advertizing. He knew from experience and on-the-job training how to write in a way that sells. Donald Trump, I have learned, also learned a special art of communication, of how to rally and enthuse a crowd, with ringside wrestling performances. The way he approaches the microphone at rallies, the way he plays the crowd in the process, the way he plays the bad-man-but-victim persona.

Second point (the content of the numerical sequence being entirely random stream of consciousness). He is a martyr, a victim, just like his followers. Victimhood was a disposition I had that I learned too late in my own life to slough off. The damage it caused was done and I lost more than anyone wants to lose in life. But victimhood is an idea that can sustain one through all sorts of blowbacks and kickbacks and whatever else. It is a disposition that blinds one utterly to the plight of others, even to those one cares for and loves the most. And yes, indeed, Trump supporters really are victims. They really are losing, and worse off than their predecessors or parents. But it does not help to cling to a mentality of “victimhood”. That is the way of self-absorption, self-pity, all the way down the chute to the bin. Belief in oneself as another Jesus Christ crucified won’t help or defend one from that fate.

Third. Idealism, even if crushed idealism. I was sincere. I was dedicated and honest. I believed totally in what my Methodist church taught me. But I could see as I entered adolescence that what I believed in was not what people practiced. It was not happening. It remained an ideal, out there, beyond reach. Yes, I look back and see I was an idealist. I believed in justice, in truth. I saw a man, a group, that appeared, unlike all others, to speak out and actually practice these things. The leader, the group to which I aspired to identify, gave me hope, and confidence, to “be the truth I wanted to be”, that I believed was right, to act on it, to live it. Yes, indeed, and painfully so, that did in some respects mean having to cut myself off from my family. It even meant giving up on sensible courses for promising careers and futures. It meant pain and sacrifice, yes. But that was the price to pay for integrity. Such were the limits of my world.

Fourth point. Yes, I was not dumb. I could see some logical fallacies and wrongs in the arguments and speeches/sermons. I could even acknowledge some flaws in the characters of the leaders. Yes. I could concede that they, too, were human. Keep David in mind. A “man after God’s own heart”, yet a murderer and an adulterer. Murder and adultery made no difference to God so who are we to judge an Armstrong, or a Trump? Yes, some of the writings were problematic, but I could still believe despite their flaws. How insignificant, in the grand scheme of things, could such flaws have been, therefore?

And so I was led, step by step, or rather slip and slide by slip and slide. I knew my “steps” could always bring me back to shore if and when called upon. But they never were called upon. Those who were calling out were on the wrong side of “history”, of “experience”, of “the world”. And so on I went.

Some decades later, here I am today.


And continuing . . . .




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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “Towards Understanding the Trump Movement as a Cult”

  1. • Sometimes the very name that people identify themselves by, often reflects an archaic regional tribalism, which may indicate the human predisposition towards cultism.

    “deutsch – Wiktionary”. en.wiktionary.org.

    [deutsch:] from Proto-Germanic *þiudiskaz (“of the people, popular”), an adjective from Proto-Germanic *þeudō (“people”) (compare Old English þeod [“people”])

    “Hebrew language”. Wikipedia.

    The modern English word “Hebrew” . . . The name is believed to be based on the Semitic root ʕ-b-r (עבר) meaning “beyond”, “other side”, “across”; interpretations of the term “Hebrew” generally render its meaning as roughly “from the other side [of the river/desert]”—i.e., an exonym for the inhabitants of the land of Israel/Judah, perhaps from the perspective of Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, or the Transjordan (with the river referenced perhaps the Euphrates, Jordan, or Litani; or maybe the northern Arabian Desert between Babylonia and Canaan).

    “Eber-Nari”. Wikipedia.

    • Akkadian: (Cuneiform script), translit. Eber-Nāri (EbirNari), lit. ‘trans river’ — i.e. the region west of the Euphrates.
    • Old Aramaic: עבר נהרה, translit. Avarnaharā’ (AbarNahara), lit. ‘trans river’ — i.e. the other side of the Euphrates.
    • Hebrew: עבר הנהר‎, translit. Ēver-ha-Nāhār (EberhaNahar), lit. ‘trans river’ — i.e. beyond the river.

  2. “But by definition, there can’t be any particular feeling associated with simply being wrong. Indeed, the whole reason it’s possible to be wrong is that, while it is happening, you are oblivious to it. When you are simply going about your business in a state you will later decide was delusional, you have no idea of it whatsoever. You are like the coyote in the Road Runner cartoons, after he has gone off the cliff but before he has looked down. Literally in his case and figuratively in yours, you are already in trouble when you feel like you’re still on solid ground. So I should revise myself: it does feel like something to be wrong. It feels like being right.”

    Kathryn Schultz Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error

  3. An interesting book I read a few years ago is Eric Hoffers “ The True Beleivers.” It’s a great read and fairly short. He makes connections between religious cults, and political cults, economic cults, even multi level marketing schemes. Once you learn the patterns, you recognize them all over. They are feeding in Human biases. To kind of quote from the book, the general pattern is “ Things were much better in the past, things are terrible now, if you just apply this thing I’m promoting, everything will be better again.” Once you buy into it, to be part of the group, then the more outlandish things you beleive, the “better” a beleiver you are, so beleiving fantastical things is a benefit to the true beleiver. I see this in Trump followers. I see this in the pro-birth followers in the U.S. The problem is, even once you understand their beleifs aren’t based in fact, but instead group membership, you still aren’t left with any good ways to peal them off, because to change their mind means to essentially leave the cult, and you know how that is. I’ve got one old high school friend, who is a registered Nurse, who’s daughter got pregnant young and out of wedlock because she wasn’t using birth control, who absolutely can’t be convince that sex education and birth control availability and use just might have helped her daughter. And she’s far from alone. Thinking of this general type is everywhere, once you know the signs of it.

  4. Excellent analysis and observations, especially showing that cultism is not limited to religions.
    I consider myself fortunate for being exposed to a variety of religious beliefs and practices since early childhood. The son of a Seventh-Day Adventist who was converted by mu mother from being raised as a R. Catholic, because religious education was mandatory in Hungary, he registered us as Reformatus (Calvinist), so, in addition to the Adventist belief system at home and in the church on Saturdays, I studied Calvinism and went to the Reformatus church on Sundays with my school. Then my grandmother took me to visit her brother and family, who, as Transylvanians, were in the Unitarian Church, a religion that started in Transylvania. And because of my semi-Jewish Adventist religion, with Sabbath worship and kosher diet at home (we never ate pork), I even had some Jewish friends in school and was invited to some of their high holiday celebrations like Yom Kippur.
    Did not take me long before I began to question my father why he believed his form of Christianity was the only correct, true belief. He tried to explain it, but never to my satisfaction. He also had a small library in which I even learned about Islam and Hinduism and Buddhism, and realized how each of these claimed to be the only proper ways to God.
    Later, with my college studies, including science, psychology, philosophy and cultural anthropology, I realized that I have left it all behind and had become what I semi-kiddingly call a “born-again skeptic”.
    I have given up “believing” and claim only “provisional stipulations” with an open mind to rational, reasonable evidence.

  5. There is just as much of a “liberal/democrat” cult here in the US. It is clearly becoming more an more authoritarian. They want to decide what pronouns can be used, they want to decide what is considered free speech, they want to force their ideals, which many people find abhorrent, upon all people. Unfortunately there are too many disparate groups in this society now and therefor no government can make them all happy, conflict is the only outcome. Add to that the constant manipulation by the media and the general unwillingness of the greater part of the populous to think and you get a lot of outrage and division. A cursory study of history shows that nations in these types of situations don’t last very long or, if through sheer size and might they do, it is with increasing levels of despotism that they manage to control their subjects.

    “When an objection cannot be made formidable, there is some policy in trying to make it frightful; and to substitute the yell and the war- whoop, in the place of reason, argument, and good order. Jesuitical cunning always endeavors to disgrace what it cannot disprove.” Thomas Paine

  6. America is a very propaganda driven culture IMO. And by propaganda I mean communication with ulterior motives. Most of that propaganda is driven by marketing and advertising, but it creates a culture in which propaganda is commonplace and widely accepted as a fact of life.

    Americans are lied to an manipulated on a constant daily basis, likely more than any culture in the history of the world. This, I think, tends to have two effects: 1) some people become highly skeptical and not prone to manipulation, but also 2) many other people are even more prone to manipulation and cult-think because they are just so entrenched in it all the time.

    I would say that the overwhelming majority of communication that Americans experience on a daily basis is motivated by a desire to manipulate an individual’s behavior for the benefit of the entity originating the communication. In other words, it’s non-altruistic communication.

    What makes American culture so interesting in this regard is that this isn’t centralized or directed in any top-down way, it’s a product of the system that we have in place, which motives all individuals to become manipulators. America is a culture in which manipulation and deception for self-gain are rewarded as virtues. Trump of course is epitomizes that.

    But what’s true about many Trump supporters is that they know he’s a manipulative liar, but they also have bought into the idea that being a manipulative liar is a virtue, because that is what American culture teaches. American culture teachings this, of course, because of its basis in hyper-capitalism. Manipulative lairs are successful in a society that prizes profits above all else, and thus it becomes a virtue, because what makes people successful is, by definition, a virtue.

    It interesting to contrast American propaganda with state driven propaganda in places in North Korea or the former Soviet Union. Americans believe and buy into American propaganda more-so than people living in state-driven propaganda environments because our propaganda is home-grown, grass-roots driven propaganda.

    What the American system does is simply reward individuals and organizations for being propagandists, and so everyone becomes a propagandist to succeed in the system.

    1. The difference between traditional state propaganda in totalitarian states and the propaganda prevalent throughout western democracies but especially the United States, is that the former has little need for subtlety given it is backed up by state police and fear, while Western propaganda traces its origins to Bernays and the science of psychology also known as “public relations”. Without force to back up the message the message makers have had to learn to be very clever and sophisticated in how they go about the “art of persuasion.”

      I think a number of studies (similar to those I have posted on from the book Friction) argue that there are a range of factors that tend to lead persons into cults at certain times in their lives.

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