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What Is a Cult, Anyway?

(Patrick Dodson)

The word ‘cult’ is tossed around quite frequently in media, but few can offer a precise definition.”

In a recent edition of his show Real Time, Bill Maher compared President Donald Trump to Keith Raniere. Raniere was recently sentenced to 120 years in prison, on charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit forced labor. Needless to say, President Trump has done nothing remotely similar to this; however, Maher insists that President Trump and Raniere are cut from the same cloth because they are both leaders of cults. In Maher’s telling, Raniere was the leader of the NXIVM cult, while President Trump is the leader of his own political cult.

The word “cult” is tossed around quite frequently in media, but few can offer a precise definition. Nobody acknowledges being part of a cult. At the end of the day, the word cult simply connotes a religion or an organization that one just does not like. And, for this reason, it is basically impossible to establish a meaningful difference between a cult and a religion or organization that could be respected.

Maher went on to point out similarities between Raniere and President Trump. In his words, “like most cult leaders, Vanguard [Raniere] had an extraordinary need to be surrounded by a— lickers telling him how great he was”; Maher then presented clips of President Trump’s followers telling him how great he is, as well as clips of President Trump boasting about his own exaggerated virtues. Sure, President Trump and Raniere have narcissistic personality traits. But, does that make them cult leaders? Founders of virtually every religion (both mainstream and fringe) have had followers singing their praises. One such man in first century Palestine is on record saying things such as, “I am the light of the world; whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Yet, in most Americans’ telling, it would be very offensive to call him a “cult leader.”

Maher also mentions “both men were unrepentant sex creeps, and they literally could not stop themselves from bragging about it.” Of course, Raniere and President Trump have behaved far from virtuously in their sex lives. However, is that the exclusive purview of cult leaders? Joseph Smith abused power to marry tens of women; Gandhi slept naked with young girls; and the Bible makes no qualms about the patriarch Judah having sex with his own daughter-in-law dressed as a prostitute. Once again: A cult is simply a religion or organization one does not like. 

One self-proclaimed “cult expert,” Steven Hassan, insists that cult leaders use hypnotic powers to lure women. Perhaps Hassan is unaware of the racist background of the idea that men can hypnotize unwilling women: In 1912, boxing champion Jack Johnson was accused by a white woman of using hypnotic powers to seduce her daughter, and Johnson was sentenced to prison in yet another ugly episode of racism in American history. The idea that a person can be hypnotized against her will is a myth, yet Hassan perpetuates this false notion by attributing such powers to cult leaders.

Hassan was once a member of the Moonies (Unification Church). He apparently could never come to terms with the fact that as a young man he joined such a bizarre religious organization. As such, he came up with the idea that, somehow, he was brainwashed and did not act out of his own free will. Now, he wants to persuade his readers that President Trump is a cult leader, just as Sun Myung Moon was. In his 2019 book The Cult of Trump, Hassan claims that President Trump’s rhetoric and conduct may actually subvert Americans’ free will, and this is extremely dangerous. Hassan is especially concerned with brainwashing: “Whatever term you wish to use—mind control, thought reform, brainwashing—it is ultimately a process that disrupts an individual’s ability to make independent decisions from within their own identity.”

We need a reality check. Brainwashing does not exist. Rebecca Moore correctly argues that “like the word ‘cult’, the term brainwashing seems to only be applied to groups we disapprove of. We don’t say that soldiers are brainwashed to kill other people; that’s basic training. We don’t say that fraternity members are brainwashed to haze their members; that’s peer pressure.” Although the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) uses it as a concept, claims about brainwashing lack scientific evidence. We like to say that someone has been brainwashed whenever he does something bizarre at the command of others, but we have no way of proving whether his own free will has been suspended. Occasionally, defendants try to get off the hook by invoking the-Devil-made-me-do-it-style arguments, and brainwashing is one such argument. Wisely, courts consistently reject such appeals.

Now, of course, someone can be compelled to do certain things, such as prisoners in the Korean War professing their loyalty to Communism—or forced confessions. However, here, we are talking about outright coercion. Neither President Trump nor any other alleged cult leader point guns to people’s heads. As much as we may be saddened by it, we must admit that the people who drank the Flavor Aid in Jonestown in 1978 were not forced to do it.

President Trump may be not a particularly nice man. Neither were David Koresh, Jim Jones, or Keith Raniere. However, to describe them as cult leaders is dangerously inaccurate for two reasons. First, such a choice of words gives other problematic leaders an unfair out (i.e. at least they are not cult leaders). President George W. Bush claimed to be in contact with God when deciding to invade Iraq; Pope Francis styles himself as the “vicar of Christ on Earth”; and the Dalai Lama is happy to be called the “Precious Conqueror.” However, few are as troubled by these episodes. So we are worried about cultish narcissism but not religious narcissism, even though we have no clue about what the difference may actually be.

Second (and more importantly), by describing President Trump as a cult leader, we deny the American people the agency they need in order to come to terms with the decision they made in 2016. To say that President Trump simply brainwashed people into voting for him amounts to suggesting that voters have no responsibility in what they do. It fails to understand the disenfranchisement of the blue-collar worker; it neglects the role of racial anxieties and tensions in American history. Instead, authors such as Hassan opt for the very simplistic explanation of saying that some Fu Manchu-like cartoonish character is the sole reason for what he sees as an American tragedy. It is an infantilizing narrative that—instead of reckoning with the complex issues at stake in any election—leaves people singing “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” once the alleged cult leader is defeated.

Hassan and the other self-proclaimed cult experts are wrong. As much as he may hate to admit it, Hassan did not forego his free will in joining the Moonies. As Eileen Barker explains, “much as the [Moonies and other] movements tried to persuade people to join their ranks, and much as they would have like to have had greater persuasive powers, they demonstrably did not have access to the irresistible or irreversible techniques they were reputedly wielding.” Likewise, the American people may have voted for President Trump for many reasons, but brainwashing was not one of them. President Trump is not a cult leader. In fact, cult leaders do not exist.

Dr. Gabriel Andrade is a university professor. His twitter is @gandrade80

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