Dangerous Charisma, Cults and Trump

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey


“in times of crisis, individuals regress to a state of delegated omnipotence and demand a leader (who will rescue them, take care of them)”

and that

“individuals susceptible to (the hypnotic attraction of) charismatic leadership have themselves fragmented or weak ego structures.”

Jerrold Post believes the above hypotheses find support in clinical studies of persons who join charismatic religious groups, those with narcissistic personality disorders, and “psychodynamic observations of group phenomena”. Post and Doucette in Dangerous Charisma

describe the consequences of the wounded self on adult personality development and emphasize how narcissistically wounded individuals are attracted to charismatic leader-follower relationships, both as leaders and as followers.

As I read Dangerous Charisma I was regularly reminded of the time I joined a religious cult years ago and the stories that were regularly shared among members of “how God called us into his church”: certainly most, if not all, of the personal narratives involved tales of some kind of crisis each of us experienced and how “God rescued us” through leading us to encounter his “end-time Apostle”. After I left the cult I attended several other churches for a time and found the same sorts of experiences being “witnessed” even among less extreme fundamentalists or evangelical type Christians. Another perception that hit me, disturbingly, after having left the cult was seeing many of the same vulnerabilities, errors in thinking and willingness to rationalize the irrational and unprovable in society generally. Indeed, Post and Doucette make the point that the model they describe can work for good as well as evil: in times of crisis many turned to the charismatic Churchill, but that after the crisis was over the need for that sort of leader also passed and he was voted out. Other positive instances of such relationships involved Martin Luther King Jr and Mahatma Gandhi. But we all know there are weeds in the garden as well as fruit.

Two types of personality are described:

The mirror-hungry personality

This is the cult leader, whether religious (Herbert W. Armstrong) or political (Donald J. Trump)

The first personality pattern resulting from “the injured self” is the mirror-hungry personality. These individuals, whose basic psychological constellation is the grandiose self, hunger for confirming and admiring responses to counteract their inner sense of worthlessness and lack of self-esteem. To nourish their famished self, they are compelled to display themselves in order to evoke the attention of others. No matter how positive the response, they cannot be satisfied, but continue seeking new audiences from whom to elicit the attention and recognition they crave.

The ideal-hungry personality

This is the follower who is nourished by the above leader and who in turn nourishes that same leader:

The second personality type resulting from “the wounded self” is the ideal-hungry personality. These individuals can experience themselves as worthwhile only so long as they can relate to individuals whom they can admire for their prestige, power, beauty, intelligence, or moral stature. They forever search for such idealized figures. Again, the inner void cannot be filled. Inevitably, the ideal-hungry individual finds that their god is merely human, that their hero has feet of clay. Disappointed by discovery of defects in their previously idealized object, they cast him aside and searches for a new hero, to whom they attach themself in the hope that they will not be disappointed again.

The wounded self can arise from social, economic, personality crises. Job and economic and health insecurities, fears of one’s neighbours and newcomers and of conspiracies of powerful forces in government.

Post and Doucette emphasize that this model does not tell the whole story of Trump or political movements arising from the dynamics of the two types feeding off each other, but it does offer some insight into “charismatic leader-follower relationships.”

The charismatic leader as the mirror-hungry personality

The mirror-hungry leader requires a continuing flow of admiration from his audience in order to nourish his famished self. Central to his ability to elicit that admiration is his ability to convey a sense of grandeur, omnipotence, and strength. These individuals who have had feelings of grandiose omnipotence awakened within them are particularly attractive to individuals seeking idealized sources of strength. They convey a sense of conviction and certainty to those who are consumed by doubt and uncertainty. This mask of certainty is no mere pose. In truth, so profound is the inner doubt that a wall of dogmatic certainty is necessary to ward it off. For them, preserving grandiose feelings of strength and omniscience does not allow acknowledgment of weakness and doubt.

The leaders love the adulation of the crowds and can often speak for hours basking in their admiration; and the crowds love to be there, feeding and feeding off them.

The Language of Splitting is the Rhetoric of Absolutism

Central to the rhetoric is the “us-them”, the “me-not me”, the “good versus evil”, “strength versus weakness”, you are “with us or against us”. There’s nothing new here:

Maximilien Robespierre: “There are but two kinds of men, the kind that is corrupt and the kind that is virtuous.”

Hitler dwelt on the themes of strength and weakness, purity and impurity, the chosen (Germans) and the not chosen (Jews). The world is divided and one must conquer the other or be conquered.

We see this mindset in leaders who are convinced, and whose followers are also convinced, they are called on a religious mission. Followers often see the power of God behind them and the entire world of Satan is their opposition.

The outsiders are the enemy and the belief is confirmed and entrenched that those targeted outsiders are the cause of the problems they, their group, even their nation, face. Paranoia is turned into a positive attribute. One has a responsibility to be suspicious and wary of “them”, the “not us”.

The leader conveys total conviction, total certainty. Inner doubts are locked deep down out of sight. With supreme self-confidence they have no hesitation in judging and condemning others who do not live up to their moral or political ideals or personal behaviours. They see themselves as the only sane and knowledgable guides for all others.

There is no middle ground. One is either on the side of moral righteousness, strength and justice epitomized in the leader or on the side of “utter destruction”.

It is important to reemphasize that such individuals have disowned and projected upon the environment all of the unacceptable weakness and imperfection within themselves. Psychologically they cannot permit themselves to recognize that the source of their feared destruction is not from without but from within. The mirror-hungry personality is held together by this rigid shell of apparent total self-confidence to keep profound inner doubt from breaking through. For the charismatic leader with paranoid characteristics who is projecting his inner aggression, the rhetoric becomes the basis for justifying attacking the outside enemy. “We are (I am) not weak. The problem is out there, with them. By destroying them, by expelling them (the weakness within me) from our midst, we (I) will be the strong people we want to be.” And each time the admiring crowd shouts its approval in response to his externalizing rhetoric, the leader’s facade of certainty is strengthened and his inner doubts assuaged.

A form of mass hypnosis

The crowds start to arrive early to get the best views; the atmosphere of the leader’s presence is electric. His words entrance them; they are willingly surrendering to his spell.

The followers: ideal-hungry personalities as well as the temporarily overwhelmed individuals

One must make a distinction between those who

by virtue of external circumstances, are rendered temporarily susceptible to enter into a charismatic leader-follower relationship, and those narcissistically injured personalities who are permanently prone to enter such relationships.

The temporarily overwhelmed – – – recall our earlier reference to wartime Britain and Churchill. Crisis over, Churchill is ousted. There are other instances, of course. Post and Doucette bring up the chaotic and uncertain state into which Iran lapsed when the Shah attempted to move a social revolution forward too fast, creating “massive societal dislocation and disruption of the social order” leading to the return of Ayatollah Khomeini. But it can happen on a less grandiose level, too:

We do not mean to imply that charismatic leader-follower relationships only develop at such historical moments. Rather we are suggesting that they are particularly apt to occur at those times, when the ranks of dependent followers will be swollen by normally self-sufficient individuals who have temporarily been rendered psychologically vulnerable by external events.

The Narcissistically Wounded Ideal-Hungry Followers – – – a lack of significant support or outright bullying of a young person can leave them damaged for life, just as can the inculcation into a young mind that they are born for something extra special.

. . . to leave the individual permanently psychologically scarred, with an enduring need to attach himself to a powerful, caring other. Incomplete unto themselves, such individuals can only feel whole when in relationship with, when attached to, when merged with this idealized other. The charismatic leader comes to the psychological rescue of the ideal-hungry followers. Taking on heroic proportions and representing what the followers wish to be, he protects them from confronting themselves and their fundamental inadequacy and alienation. The leader’s success becomes the follower’s success, a succor to his self-esteem.

Repeated studies have shown that

narcissistically wounded individuals are especially attracted to charismatic leader-follower relationships. . . . [T]he more lonely and isolated the individual was before joining, the more apt he was to affiliate himself strongly with the Unification Church and stay through the entire recruitment process. There was a tendency to suspend individual judgment and follow unquestioningly the dictates of the leader. Moreover, the more psychological relief that was experienced on joining, the less likely the individual was to question the leader’s requirement for actions and behavior which ran counter to his socialization.

I suspect many readers who have been mixed up with such religious groups will recognize some truth in that finding.

The same, the same

I have posted many timeshttps://vridar.org/?s=terrorism on the findings of researchers exploring terrorist groups (including the “lone terrorist”), what motivates them, their background, the triggers, etc. The fundamental principles are not all that different from the dynamics of joining religious cults and following charismatic leaders. Entire nations can be gripped by the same dynamics as we know.

When one is feeling overwhelmed, besieged by fear and doubt, it is extremely attractive to be able to suspend individual judgment and repose one’s faith in the leadership of someone who conveys his conviction and certainty that he has the answers, that he knows the way, be it Reverend Sun Myung Moon or Reverend Jim Jones, Adolf Hitler or Ayatollah Khomeini. Particularly through skillful use of rhetoric, the leader persuades his needy audience: “Follow me and I will take care of you. Together we can make a new beginning and create a new society. The fault is not within us but out there, and the only barrier to the happiness, peace, and prosperity we deserve is the outside enemy out to destroy us.

The potential follower is lured by the assurance that he or she will no longer be alone by joining “the ride”, and he or she then acquires additional strength from being part of the larger body of followers with the same allegiance. They have joined an exclusive club. They can walk with pride. The group’s success becomes the individual’s success.

I recently wrote about “identity fusion“. Here it is again:

For isolated individuals with damaged self-esteem and weak ego boundaries, the sense of “we” creates and imparts a coherent sense of identity. For such individuals, the self and the “we” are fused so that the self is experienced as the relationship. This leads to a tendency to merge themselves with the group. In a figurative manner, as we have noted, we can speak of the development of a group mind or group ego. The group becomes idealized and the standards of the group, as articulated by the leader and his disciples, take over and become the norm. This helps explain the startling degree to which individuals can suspend their own standards and judgment . . . . 

As clarified at the beginning of this post, “there will always be individuals whose internal needs lead them to seek out idealized leaders.” Sometimes the fruits are positive, transformative in a positive sense as when people attach themselves the Atatürks, the Gandhis, the Kings, the Mandelas; other times they can be destructive, as with the Hitlers, the Khomeinis, the bin Ladens . . .


The above post draws on the Introduction to

Post, Jerrold, and Stephanie Doucette. 2019. Dangerous Charisma: The Political Psychology of Donald Trump and His Followers. Pegasus Books.

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

8 thoughts on “Dangerous Charisma, Cults and Trump”

  1. Alexander Hamilton wrote on Aug. 18, 1792, in his “Objections and Answers Respecting the Administration” letter to George Washington:

    “When a man unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents, having the ability of military habits—despotic in his ordinary demeanor—known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty—when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity—to join in the cry of danger to liberty—to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion—to flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day—It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.'”

    Those who will understand will understand.

  2. My experience in getting involved in a cult (Unarius) was exactly as stated in examples above, but I didn’t continue searching. I had my fill the first time. Looking back, it was a stepping stone which I value, and necessary for my growth in order to free myself from toxic personalities. I don’t know anybody whose parents are not wounded. Even in the best scenarios of parents trying to teach their children the differences between healthy and nonhealthy relationships, our societies stunt the growth of our children anyway.

  3. It is not true that the Nazis divided the world into the chosen (Germans) and the unchosen (Jews). They divided the world into the ubermenschen (supermen) and the untermenschen (the lesser races – plural). The Holocaust resulted in the death of not just 6 million Jews, but 6 million other people, including 3 million Poles, a million gays, thousands of gypsies, and thousands of “mental deficients”. The common crime of all these groups, according to the Nazis, was that of being “anti-social”. This was a catch-all term that could be used to label anyone who “would not sing along with Mitch”. (This is a reference to a song parodying a daytime TV show from the 1950s). They called their regime the “Thousand Year Reich” because they thought it would take a thousand years to “cleanse” the world of all the so-called untermenschen.

    It should be noted that the first group on Hitler’s enemies list was atheists. One of his first initiatives when he took power was the announcement of an “anti-godlessness” campaign.; and, three days after the Enabling Act took effect, his stormtroopers attacked the German Freethinkers Hall. Atheists were his priority before communists, socialists, democrats, and Jews. It was three years into his regime before his racial laws came into effect.

    The psychology of leader and follower only explains part of the rise of mass based totalitarian regimes. Hitler never achieved more than 43.9 percent of the vote. (Some people claim he got more than 90 percent; but, that can only refer to a peace referendum later in the decade, not a political election. No further elections were held during the Nazi regime after 1933).

    Most of the people voting for him in 1933 had not heard of him prior to that election. They were not true blue believers, just desperate people looking for a way out of the economic situation of the 1930s.

    1. Post and Doucette try to make clear, and I hope I made that clear, that their psychoanalytic interpretation is not the complete explanation of Trump. As for Hitler, you are right to point out that the Nazi party did not win a majority vote in 1933, as I think anyone who has done a basic course in modern German history knows. As for the relevance of Hitler’s presumed “atheism” and “antigodlessness”, I know of no evidence that suggests that any attacks on “atheist” or “freethinker” groups were motivated because of some hatred of atheism per se. According to our reading of Mein Kampf Hitler associated godlessness with Jews (via Marxism and intellectual questioning of traditional “Aryan” values). Jewish intellectuals dominated (perhaps monopolized?) such institutions as the German Freethinkers Hall. We can read Hitler’s speech on the Enabling Act that you refer to, and there is but one mention of the word “atheist” there.

      Check out The Pity of It All by Amos Elon and you will learn that Germany’s Jews in the 1920’s and 1930’s were not, (apart from those who clung to their ghetto lives), particularly religious: they were the leaders among freethinkers, atheists, socialists, Marxists. Other non-Jewish atheists tended to be anti-Semitic — check out From Prejudice to Destruction by Jacob Katz.

      I suspect the evidence will inform us if Hitler made an attack on a freethinker society his first option the reason was connected more with antisemitism (or, at best, explicit anti nazi philosophy) than opposition to “atheism” per se.

      I do not buy any of the arguments I have seen that Hitler was a “Christian” in any serious sense. It is evident to all that he espoused values contrary to Christianity. If he had a religion at all it was faith in racial destiny, in Germany’s salvation in history.

  4. I am a U.S. citizen, and a fan of a sport we call Baseball. I have been a fan of the NY Yankees and the Washington Nationals. Here’s the relevance here: I hate it — hate it — when players on my team(s) do something stupid. As in, there’s a pop fly to short center field — the outfielder, shortstop, and second-basemen converge on it — they all look at each other — and the ball hits the ground.

    I am old enough to remember The Johnson Years (Vietnam, 500,000 troops at one point) and The Nixon Years (There were almost 6 of them, I could go on at length).

    I’ve been to Africa. When Greta says “you’ve stolen my childhood,” my wife and I think about some of the young people who live there. They were not awarded a childhood. And climate change has nothing whatsoever to do with that.

    And so, to Trump.

    I’m not going to poo-pooh the impact of Trump and his supporters. But as early as the late 1960s, the Republicans pursued “The Southern Strategy.” This was in reaction to the national rejection of the ideas of Barry Goldwater in 1964. You can look at of that up!

    Trump has expanded that strategy (there are haters in the North, too, I guess). There is little new here, and calling it a cult might make it seem bigger than it is.

    What troubles me is the LACK of opposition — and I mean active opposition in the Senate and House — to what Trump is doing (not what he’s saying mind you):

    The destruction of scientific research; this extends to the devaluation of brainpower (and the emasculation of the EPA, for one thing). Trump leads, his party follows, the Dems do nothing.
    Judges. Trump has appointed YOUNG-ish right-wing judges (some of them far-right) to our courts. These are Lifetime appointments (the only way these men and women can be removed is via impeachment!!!). If the Dems have tried to do anything about this, I’ve missed it. Do what? Maybe slow-walk the approval process. There are many little tactics that can delay things in Congress. If those fail, you can just NOT SHOW UP (all of the Dems in the Senate, for example, for a week or two) — and dramatize your opposition to what’s going on.

    Did they do any of that? No.

    And: He’s appointed 1 out of 4 serving judges to key federal courts. These right-wing people can be there for life.

    Trump has made it impossible for so-called moderate Republicans (the few that were left) to survive. They are disappearing. Thus, in 2020 — and beyond — the divide in the U.S. is likely to get worse. I hope this isn’t the case, but if you get out a ruler and draw a line on the trend, you get to catastrophe.
    Finally, in line with this website’s purview — he made Mike Pence his VP. Pence seems to be a religious fanatic. No atheist (i.e., me) would advocate beheading these people. However, putting one of them “a heartbeat away” from the presidency is quite another thing.
    [then again, Nixon’s VP was Spiro Agnew, a human sinkhole)

    No, you can’t impeach Trump for any of this. But you can fight him. The way the Dems “fight” seems lame — almost as if they are really on the side of what Trump is doing. Are they part of the “cult” now?

    What could be done? Well, how about trying to impeach Pence first? After all, if you get rid of Trump now, you get Pence as President — which might well be worse. If you found a way to impeach Pence first, then if you got rid of Donny boy — you’d have Nancy Pelosi, President of the United States.

    What upsets me no end is that instead of fighting the judges tooth-and-nail, instead of supporting the scientific community and those who use science to regulate things like emissions, and instead of coming up with better ideas than I have voiced here — the Democrats (my team) have chosen to pursue impeachment on flimsy, unsupportable grounds.

    Note that they could have gone after him as they have, but really made his efforts obvious — by at least fighting the judges, and the idiotic insults to science, and much more. THEY HAVE NOT.

    Once again, my team has watched a catch-able pop-fly hit the ground. Only in this case, the destruction goes beyond a run, or an additional man on base. It could last for decades.

    Blaming a “cult” is short-sighted and probably not helpful. Why not blame Nancy Pelosi and Charles Schumer who — if anything — seem dedicating to fighting tanks with bamboo sticks?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading