Monday, September 04, 2023


A few days ago, Peter Sagal, the host of Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me!, published a piece in The Atlantic titled "The End Will Come for the Cult of MAGA." Sagal believes it's clear that Trumpism is a cult. He writes:
Steven Hassan, [a] former cult member ... published his book The Cult of Trump in 2019.... Hassan told me that the MAGA movement checks all the boxes of his “BITE” model of cult mind control—behavior, information, thought, and emotional control. Like all cult leaders, he argues, Trump restricts the information his followers are allowed to accept; demands purity of belief (beliefs that can change from moment to moment, as per his whims and needs); and appeals to his followers through the conjuring of primal emotions—not just fear but also joy.
But is the MAGA cult strictly a Trump cult, with Donald Trump as the stereotypical cult leader, or is it a cult of rightism, with multiple leaders, and in some ways leaderless?

Recall that long before Trump entered electoral politics, right-wingers were practicing mind control on themselves: surveys showed that while liberals trusted a range of news sources, right-wingers overwhelmingly trusted Fox News above all other outlets, though they also trusted Rush Limbaugh and other radio talkers. As for demanding purity of belief even when the "correct" beliefs change, consider the fact that a generation ago it was considered heresy on the right to question the necessity of the Iraq War, whereas now the war is seen as an evil scheme foisted on America by "globalists" like George W. Bush. (Respect for the Bush family has followed a similar arc on the right. Right-wingers despise Dubya and his family now, and never acknowledge that they once regarded him as a demigod.)

Sagal tells us that Steven Hassan sees the Trump cult affiliating with other movements to extend its own reach:
In the four years since the publication of The Cult of Trump, Hassan believes, the movement has gained strength through de facto alliances with other “authoritarian cults” such as QAnon, as well as with groups like the Council for National Policy, a secretive networking organization of powerful conservatives, and the New Apostolic Reformation, a theological movement calling for Christian dominion over politics. The danger is metastasizing, Hassan said, thanks primarily to digital and social media, which take the place of sermons and indoctrination sessions. “We’re on our phones 10 hours a day. People are up all night getting fed YouTube videos,” he said. “You don’t need a compound anymore.”
I don't think a compound was necessary even before Trump came along -- all you needed was basic cable for Fox and an AM radio for Rush and the Rush wannabes. Now, when even Fox is considered suspect by some cultists, what you need is a device that allows you to a follow a broad range of right-wing influencers and podcast hosts. And if the cult has such a large number of leaders, then maybe it isn't a traditional cult at all, and Sagal's conclusion -- that Trumpism will die out when Trump cultists die, because the young aren't into him -- may not be correct. Or, to be more precise, the Trump cult might die but the right-wing cult might live on, led by some combination of Steve Bannon and Christopher Rufo and Jack Posobiec and Marjorie Taylor Greene and Candace Owens and Elon Musk and Andrew Tate and Moms for Liberty and dozens of other people who aren't Trump.

I'm reminded of our discovery, sometime during the post-9/11 era, that terrorism was being inspired not directly by charismatic leaders of Al-Qaeda or ISIS, but more immediately by lesser-known online influencers. The behavior of the followers was cult-like, but it seemed like cultural worship of certain ideas (and violent tactics) rather than worship of Osama bin Laden or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. That, in a somewhat less violent form, is what we've had on the American right for years, even if it looks like a personality cult now. When Trump is gone, I think rightism will revert to being the kind of non-personality cult it used to be, with a wide range of gurus taking Trump's place. It might not be the MAGA cult, but it will still be dangerous.

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