Reviewed in the United States on June 19, 2020
The Cult of Trump by Steven Hassan compiles research and opinion by many authors who, like Steve Hassan, find the bizarre Trump phenomenon not only repugnant, but also dangerous for the already stressed political climate in America, if not worldwide. The trend toward authoritarian government leaders who stress a fundamentalist nationalism has come to roost in America in the guise of the queer populism of Donald Trump. I am using “queer” with its classic definition (deviating from the expected or normal) so as not to appear politically correct—political correctness has become a whipping post among populist pundits on the Right who rage against the progressive, hypersensitive Left-leaning intellectuals who reinvent language every few years to reflect social trends. What was queer decades ago has now morphed into LGBTQ…, for example. And no one says “the bomb” anymore to mean something highly favorable. But we do chime in with “perfect” and “absolutely” to indicate any agreement despite knowing that nothing is perfect or absolute in human affairs. Pundits on the Right like to mock the populist Lefties as “woke.” Condescending labels and slogans are at the heart of the populist language games rampant among both the extremes of Left and Right. The extremes get the lucrative ratings craved by populist media outlets. Trump landed firmly in the Right camp (for him—the pun is intended) where his queer language use rings like angelic speech in the ears of his most devoted fans. They love it when he exaggerates with crude hyperbole, taking what he says as both humorous to jerk the sensitivity of the Left and as serous because underneath the superficial psychobabble is the language from God, if you are enlightened enough to discern it. Trump, if anything, is especially queer as a president, so how did this happen? Hassan, to his credit, did a credible job breaking down the history and psychology behind Trump’s character and base and why they care so much for him. Hassan offers an answer for those who puzzle over Trump’s influence over sixty million Americans.
Hassan elaborates on what he means by cult early on and later in the book, but for my purposes, remember this: Cult comes from the Latin cultus which meant to care for and came to mean to care for the gods or to care for something special using rituals, sacrifice, sacred language, and devotion. Later cult also meant excessive and perhaps spurious devotion to a cause, person, object, or idea.
Hassan goes further like a man on a mission using his extensive knowledge as a cult interventionist to offer his book as a remedy for Trumpism. He offers advice on how to approach someone caught up in the Trump bubble. The idea is not to go in with pins (Can’t you see that Trump is a malignant narcissist?), with hopes of popping the bubble—that rarely if ever works—rather, use rapport and sympathy exploring the world inside the bubble with the cult member, give them the tools through careful education to see better, and allow them to pop the bubble all by themselves through choice. That is freedom of choice, and that, I think, is the intent of all of Hassan’s work as one of America’s “leading cult experts,” as the book describes him. It is worth a read if you care about changing minds.
Weird things happen whenever you dig into a topic like this that is on so many minds today. I no sooner finished Hassan’s book last night (June 18th) when someone sent me an email link to this just-published Vanity Fair magazine article: ““He’s the Chosen One to Run America:” Inside the Cult of Trump His Rallies Are Church and He Is the Gospel” by Jeff Sharlet (VF, June 18,2020). Sharlet does not mention Hassan’s book, but he is far more focused on one aspect of the Trump cult, the people who clamor to attend his rallies. Who are these people? In a nutshell, thing back two hundred years when unchurched itinerant preachers set up meetings to preach the Gospel. That style of evangelism morphed into what Howard Bloom called “the American religion” which is a kind of do-it-yourself, neo-Gnostic approach to basic King James Bible—sola scriptura—all you need is the Bible and the Holy Spirit. But the Gospel and the Bible are dense, mysterious, and difficult by any standards, so to ease the puzzlement, most Christians and Jews turn to specialists. From the Great awakening to Billy Graham to Joel Osteen what we have is primarily entertainment, an arena where you can transcend your ordinary life and feel the heavens touching you, preferably in your heart and soul. What Jeff Sharlet found was a populist form of neo-Gnostic fervor. He met people who believed that Trump’s tweets have occult (hidden) messages that can be divined through prayer. He heard people at the rallies talk about gematria, the sacred meaning of numbers in Trump’s speeches. All that reminds me of the Spinners, the cult that followed the Grateful Dead band on tours and believed that band leader Jerry Garcia’s guitar riffs had mystical messages that only the enlightened could grasp.
Sharlet wrote: “Many followers deploy a familiar Christian-right formula for justifying abuses of power, declaring Trump a modern King David, a sinner nonetheless anointed, while others compare him to Queen Esther, destined to save Israel—or at least the evangelical imagination of it—from Iran. Still others draw parallels to Cyrus, the Old Testament Persian king who became a tool for God’s will. “A vessel for God,” says former congressman Zach Wamp, now a member of The Family, the evangelical organization that hosts Trump every year at the National Prayer Breakfast.” Those who do not accept Trump as the vessel for God are of the devil in this cult, and that means all Democrats. I am reminded of a cult I once devoted time to over forty years ago now called Summit Lighthouse. That cult was formed in the 1950s and 60s by Mark Prophet (his actual last name) and Elizabeth Prophet. The Prophets were Messengers for Ascended Masters who revealed a kind of Gnosis or Theosophy to guide mankind. They believed in private revelation, positive thinking, and enlightened self-interest much as the Christian Right. I recall the Prophets teaching that their founding master, St. Germain, was the real entity behind who we call Uncle Sam, and it was St Germain who mystically appeared among the founding fathers when they could not agree on the Constitution as written and commanded them, “Sign that document,” and they did. Like Trump’s cult as described by Sherlet, the Prophet’s cult believed in bizarre conspiracies and evil energies coming from Liberals and Democrats. In a real way, I know these people (Trump’s cult) because I was one of them long before Trump was anybody important.
Hassan also mentions The Family which is part of a Christian Right movement that includes the New Apostolic Reformation allegedly bent on creating a theocracy (We are a Christian nation). Think back to Jerry Falwell’s “Silent Majority.” Neither Sharlet nor Hassan mention Patrick Henry College examined in God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America by Hanna Rosin (2007) where a fundamentalist brand of religion in Washington DC grooms students to fill political posts and influence government since 2000. Rosin got to know one young lady at the college quite well. When one of Rosin’s liberal Jewish friends in New York met the young woman, she was duly impressed with her intelligence, good looks, and essentially solid personality and she quipped, “We [on the Left] should be very scared.” In other words, not all of Trump’s “deplorables” as Hillary Clinton called them, are anti-intellectual, enthusiastic neo-Gnostics who do not like to read high literature any more than Trump does. Many, like the young woman in Rosin’s book, grasp evolutionary theories and reject them with sophisticated (if flawed) Intelligent Design arguments. They know their stuff.
My point is that you, like Hassan and Sharlet, can expend enormous effort exposing the Trump cult, you can mock it, you can pity it, and you can approach it with understanding and respect, but do not think for a minute that those folks are any more brainwashed than anyone else about their point of political view. Admittedly, as Hassan reminds us, there are degrees of psychological closure or mind-sets that constitute what we call brainwashing and there are degrees of harm when any social system becomes self-sealing, rejecting outsiders and deviant information as heresy or worse, demonically inspired. The Left has its socially constructed realities as well with high-brow intellectuals and liberals (hated by the alt-right intellectuals) leading the way—they have cult followings.
Hassan does not mention the influence of Leo Strauss (1889-1973). Many new conservatives find his philosophy compelling. Strauss argued for a return to the wisdom of classical Greece and others in the traditions rather than seek answers among the disparate philosophies of Modernism and Post-modernists that have dominated the Left’s thought process for over a century. Progressive movement is a destructive force among some Straussians because it never stops changing for the sake of change itself. Strauss’s core idea, if I may parse it my way, stems from Plato’s teaching about the necessity of the noble lie or pious frauds that all religions and political systems employ. Because social reality is a human construction anyway, why not settle on the one most prevalent or useful in the existing culture? Constantine did it with Christianity in the 4rth century. Mohammed did it with his revelations to not only unite the Arab cultures, but also to sustain them over the long haul. After all, cohesion in the Polis is always better than anarchy, even if the cohesion is based on a prophet’s fabricated visit from God. America’s founding fathers fabricated a system of government as an experiment using the wisest ideas of men available, men who did not all agree yet agreed to compromise just to have Something to go by. The wisdom of the founding fathers was in their openness to change and add things when the system appeared flawed or inadequate.
And perhaps that is what is most wrong with Trumpism, namely its rigid reactions to anything that critiques what could be wrong with Trumpism. Both Hassan and Sherlet mentioned Trumpism’s penchant for “positive thinking” as expounded by Norman Vincent Peale who was Trump’s minister in his youth. Peale, in so many words, suggested to never allow a doubt to enter your head and never apologize. Always be the predator—attack with a vengeance. Be a MAN. If you manage to gain great wealth, it is because God willed it and you did the will of God. Hard line conservatives and neo-Gnostic evangelicals will recoil with rage when feeling the heat of needed improvements to their ways of thinking: If it is a doubt, it must be from the devil, or if it’s from a liberal, it will lead us into Marxism and Mao’s Communism. That, in a nutshell, is what Hassan is arguing for: Unchain your brain, friend. Stop with the paranoia, already. You will do better and so will everyone else around you.