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“We call that kind of love a cult”: Experts on the latest disturbing poll of Trump supporters

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As I have previously explored in a series of conversations with cult and mind control expert Steven Hassan, Donald Trump meets most if not all the characteristics of a cult leader. Trump holds extreme power over his followers, who subsume their own identities and will to him. He persuades them to reject their own perceptions of reality and to trust only him and his approved messengers. To a large degree, they have lost the ability to engage in what psychologists describe as “reality testing.”

Trump’s mug shot, taken at the Fulton County jail in Atlanta last Thursday, is as an image of murderous rage and a bottomless lust for revenge. Trump has already used it to raise yet more campaign cash. In all probability, Trump’s upcoming criminal trials will only make him more popular and powerful among his core followers, not less.

Like other cult movements, the MAGA phenomenon is rooted in manipulation and psychological abuse. Trump effectively exploits the death anxieties and other existential fears of his followers, presenting himself as their only protector and savior. The MAGA cult is authoritarian, preying on lonely, socially isolated and otherwise vulnerable people and providing them with a sense of order, meaning, community and destiny.

A poll conducted from Aug. 16 to 18 by CBS News/YouGov demonstrates just how firm Trump’s power over his followers continues to be. A large majority of Republican voters view Trump as “honest and trustworthy,” which would be hilarious if it were not deeply alarming. Furthermore, “Trump’s voters hold him as a source of true information, even more so than other sources, including conservative media figures, religious leaders, and even their own friends and family.” When asked who they believe tells them the truth, 71% of Trump voters picked him, more than picked friends and family members (63%), right-wing media commentators (56%) and religious leaders (only 42%).

Beyond the numbers, mental health expert Dr. Justin Frank, author of the bestseller “Trump on the Couch,” perceives a tragicn and pathetic human dimension to the CBS News poll, as he told me by email: 

What this poll doesn’t measure or explain is the cause and effect of the profound loyalty of Trump’s core supporters. It’s this factor that continues to baffle pundits and call into question everything we thought we knew about American politics and the future of democracy. How did these startling figures come to be?

Trump taps into specific needs certain people have to love and to feel loved in return. People who feel they have been lied to — whether as children or adults — yearn for a person or group to trust, in which to place unwavering faith. While I think this type of blind loyalty to Trump is a delusion, it’s also a common human experience. In some people it overwhelms an otherwise healthy emotional state in which most of us simultaneously understand that authority figures can be both admirable and disappointing. Televangelists are able to captivate and exploit their vulnerable audiences for this reason. It’s also why cash (from many who can ill afford it) pours into Trump’s coffers each time he’s indicted for a new crime.

As I wrote in “Trump on the Couch,” Donald Trump himself felt lied to by his parents, which binds him and his fan base even closer. Trump provides the kind of love they crave because he instinctively meets those unconscious needs, in part because he shares them unconsciously himself.

Frank further suggests that Trump “invites maternal love” from many of his followers, who “are touched at a deep level by their awareness of his neediness, which endears them to him”:

In his rallies he repeats “believe me” the way a child does when telling a lie or feeling unloved. He is quick to … paint himself as a maligned victim. He becomes someone they want to protect from assault … [by] sharing his sense of betrayal with his audience and psychologically merging with their own histories of having been disappointed. What evolves is an inability to differentiate oneself from the idolized other that results in an emotional bond that is deep and thrilling to share. To those outside the mystical Trump romance, this unconditional love makes no sense. We call that kind of love a cult. How can such an overt liar and accused criminal can be so admired?

What we don’t remember when we see such a cult in operation, Frank says, is that all children seek to protect “the image of their loved parents from the inevitable disbeliefs and hurts that even the best parents create”:

They do this by splitting their early experiences into good and bad, black and white. What evolves is a yearning for comfort, aided by binary thinking, from a figure who is only good, despite any evidence to the contrary.

So, here we are as a nation, confused and divided in the darkness of our deepest fears and needs. Trump offers his devoted flock a shared sense of purpose and meaning. They’ve been groomed to look outside for someone to safeguard their best interests and provide shared faith and support. I think it may not be possible for those diehard Trump adherents to discover that this a dangerous illusion.

I also asked Jen Senko, director of the documentary “The Brainwashing of My Dad,” about what insights she could share on the findings of the CBS News poll regarding Trump’s hold over his followers. She said she found it “stupid, and maddening, that many on television ‘news’ seem shocked” by the poll’s findings:  

Have they been living under a rock? More likely they’ve been living in denial because it’s a lot easier than accepting the truth. … Though many of us understand this now, too little emphasis has been put on how millions of Americans lost their minds and became right-wing zombies. It’s the media, stupid! … As someone who saw the writing on the wall decades ago and made a documentary about it in 2016, it’s particularly frustrating. Too many people laughed at Rush Limbaugh. Too many people thought Fox News was a legitimate “conservative'”alternative to the “liberal media.” Too many people didn’t question the barrage of email propaganda (often put out by think tanks and disguised as homespun bits of wisdom) emphasizing over and over: Democrats bad, Democrats evil. Democrats not real Americans. Republicans are all that is good and holy. 

Limbaugh was allowed to get on the Armed Forces Network. Fox News is still on it, and became the go-to news station for bus stations, airports, restaurants, bars, doctors’ offices. When humans immerse themselves in false information that gets repeated, it stands to reason that millions of them become “cultified” right-wing zombies. What can be done about it, I leave to the experts. When will America acknowledge that we are in an information war? That’s what worries me every day.

Former right-wing pundit Rich Logis was immersed in TrumpWorld and the MAGA movement for years, but managed to escape. He said it was an “irrefutable fact” that MAGA had a cultlike ethos: 

I know this because I was once quite deep in the MAGA rabbit hole. Had Trump won in 2020, I probably would have gone deeper into it, with the odds of escaping close to zero.

There are two prevailing ties that bind the MAGA cult. The first is that Trump is an omniscient, omnipotent, martyred savior of America; some believe him to be sent by God. (Note that Ron DeSantis poached this heresy last year, in his re-election campaign.) Martyrdom is the final stage of cult leadership, and to those in a cult, it is the outside world who are deceived. Those in this first category are willing to see through the cult to its fiery end. The second is among those who are … politically traumatized by their hyper-partisan, paralytic, paranoid worldview that Democrats, socialists, communists and Marxists have long conspired to tyrannically infringe upon their rights and freedoms. I knew some who fell into one, or both, categories.


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Logis suggests that Trump’s voters should not be dehumanized “and had some valid motivations for supporting Trump, even though he exploited those concerns and fears”:

We must, as a nation, build a broad consensus that electing Trump was one of the most egregious mistakes in our history. Admitting when we’re wrong is an unnatural act, but it is possible — and liberating. When I look back at my MAGA time, I remain stunned at the level of political trauma I put upon myself; my hope is that others will begin to recognize their own trauma, which has been, to some extent, self-inflicted.

The only real hope for awakening or deprogramming MAGA cult members, Logis said, will come from “resounding losses of MAGA candidates next year, up and down the ballot. Though such losses will probably not “save” most MAGA voters, it will, likely, save some — and ‘some’ equals millions of Americans.”

Former Republican congressman Joe Walsh, now a leading never-Trumper conservative and democracy advocate, described the CBS News polls findings as “the least surprising thing ever.” I conclude here with his words of warning:

Three and a half years ago, while campaigning in Des Moines against Trump, I asked 40 people in line to enter a Trump rally if Donald Trump had ever told a lie. All 40 Trump supporters said no, Donald Trump had never told a lie. I knew then and there that my primary challenge against Trump was hopeless, but I also knew then and there that my soon-to-be-former political party was hopelessly gone too. I knew then and there what I’d sensed for the past six years: The Republican Party is a cult, an authoritarian-embracing, truth-denying cult. So what do we do about it? Well, we all come together in 2024 to defeat this anti-democracy cult. Again. That’s job No. 1. But my other job is to continue to try to rescue members of the Trump cult. That’s not a job for everyone, but as someone who helped create the cult and then escaped from the cult, it’s my job. It’s my penance.

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