Beware the “C” Word — Is the “Cult” Label Always Helpful?

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by Neil Godfrey

I have up till now tended to use the “cult” label somewhat casually in association with Trump and his followers. But the word has many different associations and shades of meaning, and I’m only addressing its use in everyday language today and not the technical term to describe normative religious practices. A warning against the use of “cult” in connection with Trump and even with new religious movements was delivered by Benjamin Zeller late last year in The Cult of Trump? What “Cult Rhetoric” Actually Reveals.

Insofar as the popular idea of a cult is an assembly of people who have been brainwashed and are under some form of mind-control, the term simply wrong, according to Zeller. Zeller stresses that brainwashing and mind-control are concepts that have largely vanished from serious discussion and research among most psychologists. That may be so, but I would like to follow up some disagreement with Zeller that is cited in Response to Benjamin Zeller’s article: The Cult of Trump? What “Cult Rhetoric” Actually Reveals

That does not rule out psychological manipulation, though. But psychological manipulation is not a synonym for “mind control”, Zeller infers.

I don’t have a strong enough background in psychological studies to engage with Zeller’s views on “mind-control” and cults but I do find myself in agreement with Zeller’s alternative explanations that are elided when we use the “cult” label:

The actual reasons for his political success require careful analysis by political scientists, not pseudoscientific concepts such as mind-control. Personally, I think Trump’s rise must be assessed by the way he appeals to the power of tribalism, and with it the fears of others benefiting at America’s expense. It’s a simultaneous appeal to the communal solidarity of patriotism and American exceptionalism, and the resultant desire for isolationism and retrenchment of Us against the menacing Them. Others view Trump’s appeal differently, but the fact is, it’s not mind-control or brainwashing. However, it does parallel the sort of dualistic worldview of us/them, good/evil, insider/outsider seen in many new religions.

There are other problems with viewing Trump followers as a cult:

To call something a cult is to reject its validity.

While not useful from a causal perspective, the claim of brainwashing holds vast rhetorical power, especially for flabbergasted liberals or establishment conservatives wanting to explain the rise of Trump. First, it absolves individuals of personal responsibility and casts a monstrous manipulator as the root cause of a person’s choices (which, under the brainwashing claim, are not choices at all!). Hence when the mother of Rev. Pavlovitz’s friend posts racist material to her social media account and uncritically accepts the claims of political commentators, Pavlovitz and his friend can conveniently blame Trump rather than the mother herself. Sen. Corker does not need to blame his Republican constituents, but rather a “cultish” phenomenon. This is an easier pill to swallow.

Second, and more broadly, brainwashing and related cult language allow us to dismiss the actual claims and experiences of those who we simply reduce to mind-controlled victims. To call something a cult is to reject its validity. The category is inherently pejorative, which is why scholars use alternative terms like “new religious movement.” Members of NRMs never use this term to describe themselves, and the very word “cult” is generally used as an easy way to mark a religious group as illegitimate. As a former mentor of mine once said, “A cult is just someone else’s religion that you don’t like.” Such groups tend to be small and powerless, and as they assume greater cultural legitimacy lose the “cult” label. Witness the slow transformation of Mormonism—not yet complete—from being considered a cult/NRM to simply another Christian denomination.

That reference to Moonies being gradually accepted as “another” mainstream denomination raises questions that bring me back to those I set out at the beginning of the post. I can dispense with the term “brainwashing” but I am not informed enough at present to know how to distinguish between “mind control” and “psychological manipulation”. But leaving that aside, it is surely preferable to analyse Trump’s supporters in the sorts of terms historians generally use in explaining historical movements.

In sum,

It is rhetorically useful to label one’s opponents as manipulated victims, which negates the need to either explain their choices or empathize with them.

. . . [T]he mythology of cultic mind-control . . .  says a lot more about the power of the language than it does the president himself.