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.

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Neil Godfrey

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

  1. It is perhaps a loose usage of language to compare a political figure such as Trump to a [religious] cult leader, such as Jim Jones or HWA, but there is a specific meaning to the phrase “cult of personality” that is well defined and conveys a precise meaning within the context of politics. The definition/description from Wikipedia, “Cult of Personality,” is as good as any:

    “A cult of personality, or cult of the leader, arises when a country’s regime – or, more rarely, an individual – uses the techniques of mass media, propaganda, the big lie, spectacle, the arts, patriotism, and government-organized demonstrations and rallies to create an idealized, heroic, and worshipful image of a leader, often through unquestioning flattery and praise. A cult of personality is similar to apotheosis, except that it is established by modern social engineering techniques, usually by the state or the party in one-party states and dominant-party states. It is often seen in totalitarian or authoritarian countries.”

    I think applying the phrase “cult of personality” to the core Trump constituency is on the whole accurate and non-misleading. I also prefer propagandizing as the accurate word rather than brain-washing (which I would argue is entirely appropriate to the Moonies, Scientologists and Rajneeshies, but not to a political movement or constituency). That is not to say that religious cults are not in some way comparable to a political “cult of personality”. There are certainly intersecting characteristics, if you plotted them in a Venn diagram. But the terminology is different or carries different meanings in religious studies and political theory.

    To illustrate the difference, a true religious cult is a self-isolating, claustophobically closed community centered on a charismatic personality. Think Jim Jones, Waco, Rajneeshies, Scientology, and to a lesser degree the Worldwide Church of God (which was at least intellectually self-isolating). I think the term cult is entirely appropriate in these examples. By contrast, a political cult of personality is more typically an affiliation within a by-and-large open society (at least initially) that seeks to expand its power rather than isolate itself from others. An exception is North Korea, which is a consciously closed society. Most other political cults of personality are socially expansive, despite occupying a propagandistic alternate reality. That is to say, cults make social contacts primarily for proselytizing purposes, and then the proselytes “disappear,” swallowed up within the community. But a cult of personality is aggressively expansive, seeking to interact with and dominate others. Another contrast, religious cults tend to have persecution complexes, whereas political cults of personality often embrace the role of persecutor.

    So compare-and-contrast helps highlight the specific characteristics of both. Yes, IMHO there is an undeniable cult mentality in both, but it is manifested differently in the religious and political spheres.

    1. I like your mentioning the cult of personality. But am unsure about the introvert vs. extrovert distinction. Particularly in Evangelical cults, Moonies, etc.. Evangelicalism is named after the alleged “great commission,” to go out and spread the word.

      Otherwise I like your work quite a lot, and thank you for it.

    2. Another contrast, religious cults tend to have persecution complexes, whereas political cults of personality often embrace the role of persecutor.

      Trump also presents himself as a persecuted victim and one thread in his message is the narrative of victimization: no president, he tells us, has ever had to endure so much injustice, lying etc as he has; he promises to release his followers from the tyranny of political correctness and the “lies” of the liberal elites in education, health…. you name it.

      Thanks for the detailed discussion of the point about personality cult. For some reason that side of the question had escaped me as I was thinking through the post.

      1. There was an interesting recent article in Psychology Today on varieties of narcissism. It notes that a narcissist can be either a persecutor (bullying others) or a victim (everyone is against them), in both instances with the world revolving around them. The article also notes that a narcissist can alternate between both roles. This seems to be the case with Trump, who is in a constantly recurring cycle of grievance (victimhood) and retaliation (bullying). This was interesting to me, because I had previously associated narcissism with bullying and ignored the pheonomenon of narcissist professional victimhood. If I may quote from the article:


        The persecutor role particularly suits the narcissist. They dominate, think they know best and ignore other people’s opinions. When things go wrong it is because someone else is useless. They may bully others and become aggressive if they don’t get their own way. They may use passive-aggressive means to be nasty to people. By persecuting others, the narcissist’s fragile sense of identity is shored up and their need to exert power over others is met.


        Victims view the world as being against them. Like the persecutor, when anything goes wrong in their life it isn’t their fault. They project a helpless image to those around them and manipulate others into helping them. They are exhausting to be around. Vulnerable narcissists, in particular, often play the victim.


      2. There was also a third vertice in the “narcissist drama triangle” in the above-cited article, namely that of Rescuer. The Rescuer intervenes against the Persecutor on behalf of the Victim. Rescuers are often people with good intentions sucked into a narcissistic drama. Or, a narcissist can take on the role of Rescuer.


        Narcissists can also be the rescuer. They may surround themselves with people who they view as weaker than they; this also meets their need to be surrounded by people who feel too threatened to offer a challenge. Rescuing people can meet their need for attention, and they look like the “good guy” to everyone else. Being the rescuer can also mean that they can control the person they have rescued.


        I would observe that authoritarian narcissist demagogues often take on the role of Rescuer or Savior: “Only I can save you” from an often-artificial narcissistic drama. One can point to the Cult of Personality that arose around Hitler as a classic example. According to the message by which he rose to power, (1) Jews and Communists were cast in the role of conspiratorial persecutors, (2) the good working class German people were their victims, and (3) only Hitler and the Nazi Party could save them.

        One can see similar political dynamics at work in America today, but with Democrats cast as socialists and Antifa terrorists and blamed for all working America’s problems.

  2. “A cult is just someone else’s religion that you don’t like.”

    This reminds me of something Robert M. Price said during the 2012 presidential campaign. For all his radicalness about Christian origins, his political views are pretty far to the right, and so he supported Mitt Romney. Someone challenged him along the lines of, “How can you support a Mormon? You know how irrational that religion is.” To which he replied, “You mean compared to orthodox Christianity?”

    1. The reason I find it difficult to accept that definition (a cult is just someone else’s religion that you don’t like) is that some religions are vicious and harmful on the inside (the harm done is often not recognized by outsiders — or reports of it are too easily dismissed by outsiders) while others are benign by comparison. It is not about theological doctrines, but organization and authority. We would not (should not) allow Sharia Law to exist within our secular democratic societies, and we don’t allow religious practices of our First Nations people where they violate fundamental human rights (according to the UDHR). Yet we are too often blind to harmful practices in certain churches that put on a benign front — Mormons included, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and even (according to what I hear) the successor organization to the Worldwide Church of God despite its embrace of mainstream orthodox teachings.

      1. Neil: I rather hope your book here is right, and that religion and politics are still very separate. Though I worry about that. In America, Pat Robertson regularly repeats the talking points of the Republican party, as gospel.

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