November 25, 2022

When does a political movement become a cult?

As George Washington prepared to step down from the presidency, he issued a famous farewell speech warning Americans of the dangers of partisanship. Washington – which has refused to join a political party during its two terms – urged that while Americans care more about whether their party “wins” than about maintaining democratic structures, “a small but shrewd and enterprising minority in the community “could manipulate the masses through a demagogic leader “to subvert the power of the people and seize the reins of government, then destroying the very engines that elevated them to unjust domination.”

In personality cults like Bolsonaro’s, there are “socio-psychological associations that give adherents a sense of vicarious power through a heightened sense of destiny and purpose.”

While the term “cult of personality” didn’t exist when Washington and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton wrote the farewell speech in 1796, the two men seemed to have anticipated the ways partisanship can turn into a cult of cult type of individual human beings. At least that’s the conclusion reached by the pundits Salon spoke to about the difference between mere hyper-partisanship and bigoted worship of a political leader.

Indeed, the last two decades of world history have brought to light numerous examples of politicians – in ostensibly democratic countries – whose supporters manifest idolatry towards them. Given what we know about the march of history, this may seem odd: shouldn’t the trend towards a more democratic world be linear rather than regressive? And yet, as leaders like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and America’s Donald Trump all attest, there is an undercurrent in contemporary politics that has turned it into something closer. sports fanaticism. Salon asked experts about the nature of this sectarian devotion to politicians – what drives it and what it means for the future of the democratic world.

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What is the difference between normal partisanship and a political cult? Experts say that in the latter scenario, supporters hold their leader to be infallible.

“Sect-like politicians and their supporters also have deep commitments to ideological positions, but these commitments tend to reflect the personalistic quirks of leaders, which involve the demonization of ‘other’ critics,” said Dr Stephen A. Kent, a sociologist at the University of Alberta who studies new religious movements (NRMs) such as the Church of Scientology and Children of God, told Salon via email. “These adversaries are evil, not simply misguided or wrong.” Once the supporters of a demagogue have come to this conclusion, it is not difficult for the leader to manipulate the masses in the way Washington describes.

In these situations, power in the political movement derives not from a set of shared ideas or interests, but from an individual’s personality and will. Even the most zealous party supporter, if indeed merely a partisan, will eventually abandon a leader when that individual betrays his fundamental principles. This is why a politician with partisan appeal but without a strong cult of personality can be held back by his own camp if he abuses his power excessively, like Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal. When a leader has a personality cult, however, his followers will never abandon him, no matter his transgression.

“Partisan politicians and their adherents support, in principle, a group’s basic ideology regarding political and social policy, usually developed after adherent debates and rooted in tradition,” Kent continued. While supporters disagree with and even hate their opponents because they are seen as “misguided and wrong on crucial issues”, they do not engage in the extreme behaviors of those whose political beliefs are more sectarian.

For an example of a modern leader with a personality cult, Kent cited Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

“His racist, anti-feminist and traditionalist family values ​​have led him to be among the growing Christian, conservative, evangelical and fundamentalist communities in his country, some of whom see him as having a divine mandate for the imposition of authoritarian values ​​in the country” , Kent explained. Kent noted that Bolsonaro has followed Trump’s lead in saying he can only lose his election if he is robbed and trying to control the country’s justice system.

Kent added that in personality cults like Bolsonaro’s, there are “socio-psychological associations that give adherents a sense of vicarious power through a heightened sense of destiny and purpose. The characters who receive the adulation of adherents feel themselves validated and encouraged by the energy of their followers, which provides narcissistic leaders with emotional validation and creates for them a body of potentially mobilized people implementing their directives and whims.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his supporters also fill part of the cult column. This includes cultivate a hyper-macho public image and spreading his own “big lie” about Ukraine (claiming it needs to be denazified). Indeed, one of Putin’s leaders said that Putin’s reason for invading Ukraine had to do with an esoteric belief, promulgated by Russian Orthodox Patriarch Cyril, that Russia has a historical and spiritual claim on the country. Since this is Putin’s view, supporters who don’t necessarily share Putin’s obscure geopolitical philosophy but seem to be part of his personality cult end up repeating these nationalist rhetoric talking points.

As a former KGB officer, Putin is also intimately familiar with the history of Russia’s creation of both secular and metaphysical cults of personality for its leaders, a cult that dates back to Vladimir Lenin and the rise of the Soviet Union. Yet, like Trump, Putin wins the support of his followers through his narcissistic traits. It is no accident that supporters of Trump and Putin find themselves in comparable social positions when forced to defend their heroes: they defend leaders who behave like malignant narcissists.


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“Both characters exhibit many of the characteristics typical of malignant narcissists, involving inflated ratings of self-esteem, a need for adoration, high demands on followers and inner-circle facilitators, and vengeful responses to perceived criticism” , Kent said of Trump and Putin.

At the time of this writing, Trump has spent years focusing his cult of personality on promoting what has become known as the Big Lie – that is, his claim that the elections of 2020 was stolen from him despite conclusive evidence to the contrary. Unlike a normal political issue that stems from genuine mass opinions (abortion rights, gun control, economic policy, etc.), the Big Lie exists because of the personality quirks of a responsible man. of a political cult. He survives because instead of being discredited by Trump’s long history of refusing to accept election results unless he wins and the fact that Trump’s arguments have been debunkedTrump supporters are trained to ignore any voice that opposes their leader’s word.

“When you’re in a mind control cult, what the leader says is valid, and that’s it. Power is concentrated from the top down.”

“People who believe in the Big Lie have mostly been brainwashed into believing only that and not believing any media that criticizes it,” explained Dr. Mind and Cults, a former senior member of the Unification Church, founder/director of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center Inc., and author of the best-selling books”freedom of mind,” “Fighting cult mind control” and “The cult of Trump.”

“When you’re in a mind control cult, what the leader says is valid, and that’s it,” Hassan stressed. “Power is concentrated from the top down. Anyone who raises a heckling, like [former Attorney General William] Barr saying the election wasn’t stolen, becomes persona non grata because they do not follow the glorious leader.”

Unsurprisingly, narcissism is the glue that holds political cults such as Trump’s together — and not just the narcissism of the leader at the top, though in Trump’s case, his narcissistic traits have helped psychologists predict his backlash. to losing the 2020 election. In a condition known as proxy narcissism, individuals who fall under the influence of a narcissist will often mimic the narcissist’s behavior and act as extensions of the narcissist’s will. Even though the victims are not narcissists themselves and are often simply vulnerable to manipulation for various personal reasons, they willingly serve as effective servants for the narcissist by entering into their political cult.

Perhaps that’s why even people who agree in the abstract about opposing cults become uneasy when observers notice cult-like behavior among their favorite politicians. Hassan, for his part, told Salon how he observed this while appearing as a guest on Joe Rogan’s right-wing podcast.

“I was on Joe Rogan’s show in 2015 about my first book ‘Combatting Cult Mind Control’,” Hassan recalled. “He loved my work and invited me back. But then when I did ‘The Cult of Trump,’ he passed away.”

In retrospect, it’s unlikely that Rogan’s pro-Trump listeners would have been genuinely interested in hearing that their political hero had indoctrinated them into a cult. It is a dark irony, since this very cult of personality allowed Trump to break the precedent of peaceful transitions of presidential power set by George Washington himself.

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