Of Cults and Cultishness

A regular reader who likes to play devil’s advocate sent an e-mail to challenge my continued use of the terms “cult” and “cultist” in describing Donald Trump’s support base. Specifically, he questioned whether I am not simply calling Trumpists a cult out of emotionalism, and whether one might not level the same accusation against anyone with whom one disagrees, i.e., whether a “cult” is not in practice merely any belief or idea to which one might adhere, as judged from the perspective of non-adherents.

Since he is a good reader, and his provocations are about as spirited a defense of Trump as can be mustered — precisely because he is not directly defending Trump, but rather critiquing my criticisms of Trump — I thought this line of attack deserved a reasoned response. 

First of all, “cult,” at least as I use that term, is not just a smear for any belief with which I do not agree. Nor is it applicable to any of my own beliefs, or to my view of the people I regard as especially admirable (thinkers, statesmen, artists, whatever). That is, my adherence to my preferred ideas and individuals cannot be equated with the cultist’s adherence to his preferred ideas and individuals. I think I can explain the difference by way of stipulative definition.

While there may not be a perfectly satisfying formal definition of the concept, I believe we can be clear enough about some of the consistent signs of cultish belief and behavior that the category is meaningful, in the sense of being strongly distinguishable from other forms of belief.

The following list of some typical and representative indications of cult membership should clarify the issue:

1. The person of the group’s leader is regarded as more important than any particular set of beliefs or ideas, such that even if the leader should prove to be highly changeable in his principles and declarations, radically inconsistent, or even (as seen from the outside) pragmatically dishonest, the follower will continue to adhere to him without suspicion or skepticism, rather than to the ideas he once seemed to espouse, and which were the cult member’s ostensible reason for following the leader in the first place.

2. The cult member believes that non-adherents (see 1, above) are despicable, insane, or perhaps even evil. Hence, anyone who has been exposed to the leader’s charisma and yet remains a non-member or a skeptic is to be reviled and rejected outright.

3. (As following from 1 and 2) Critical thinking regarding the group’s positions, behaviors, and attitudes is strongly discouraged, since under no circumstances will the cult member brook any doubts about the ultimate truth and supreme authority of the leader. In short, he will believe whatever the leader tells him to believe, sacrificing his own mind to the overriding (perceived) good of fealty.

4. The cult member will accept and declare positions and attitudes that he himself formerly (as a non-cultist) regarded as false or immoral, and will do so without any substantial supporting arguments or explanations for his altered views. (Rationalizations — see 6, below — do not count as “substantial supporting arguments and explanations.”)

5. The cult member believes that his group, as embodied in the person of the leader, stands athwart History as the only legitimate barricade against evil, and the only legitimate path to good.

6. The cult member is adept at offering ready-made excuses and rationalizations for every radical inconsistency from the leader, every apparent error of the leader, every extreme cruelty or angry outburst of the leader. At the very least, he will excuse the most incomprehensible or questionable decisions by saying such things as, “I’m sure he knows exactly what he’s doing,” or “This is all part of his master plan, so of course we can’t understand his intentions yet.”

7. The cult member has (typically) radically altered his own views, in very obvious ways, to accommodate the cult, but is seemingly unaware of any change in himself, or at least vehemently denies that he has changed when challenged. (Unless he is proselytizing his change as a “conversion event.”)

8. The cultist is excessively, almost maniacally, responsive to mantras, group chants, and “magic words” which hold deep psychological significance for him, superseding any need for rational argument or detailed explanation.

9. The cultist is quick to reduce the entire world to Us vs. Them, to feel highly motivated by calls to circle the wagons for the group and especially the leader, and to regard “Them” with a combination of (mutually-fueling) extreme fear and deadly hatred.

10. The cultist is perpetually convinced that the leader is the victim of unjust persecution, that he has nothing to answer for, and that any criticism or disagreement is by definition irrational, petty, and vindictive in nature.

Following these criteria, I think we may conclude that most beliefs and “belief systems” fall well outside of the cult category. On the other hand, we may easily see that the people I identify as Trump cultists really do fall well inside this category.

There are certainly other cultish beliefs in the political realm. Progressivism, in a certain way, is a cult, apart from the specific personality cults that have existed within progressive political movements. But no, every belief or set of principles is not properly identifiable as a cult, from an opposing point of view, anymore than everyone who is not a progressive is a “fascist” or everyone who disagrees with Barack Obama a “racist.” To say that any belief or adherence is reducible to cultism would be to espouse extreme relativism regarding language and meaning, with all the usual incoherent consequences of relativism. That is, if everything is a cult, then nothing is a cult.

To fortify the distinction between cultish thinking and other forms of belief, I would note that the ten criteria above may be applied negatively to determine whether someone’s views and attitudes do not constitute cultish thinking. You are welcome to try this test on your own points of view, settled opinions, or personal allegiances, assuming you are honest and reflective enough to identify your own ideas and evolution.

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