The recent revelation that Donald J. Trump paid just $750 in federal income taxes for two recent years, and zero for another ten might help Biden among Biden’s own followers, but odds are it won’t actually help Biden at all among the deeply loyal followers of the current occupant of the White House. Donald Trump has cultivated a base so loyal, so trusting of his word, so willing to imbibe whatever he tweets, that at last he may be right about one thing: he probably could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters.
If you’ve watched the first six episodes of The Vow on HBO Max about the self help group NXIVM or followed the legal struggles of their embattled leader Keith Raniere and his most inner circle of followers which include actor Allison Mack, two Bronfmans, and a spattering of Hollywood B listers, you know how dangerous personality can be. It’s a cycle that seems to repeat itself over and over throughout history. Charismatic people, usually displaying extreme forms of telltale narcissism, are able to convince other people to follow them without question even in the face of concrete evidence of their fallibility. Like with most cults, detractors of NXIVM were ostracized and attacked — some are even thought to have ended up dead. Cults of personality can be very difficult to crack, hard to leave, and sometimes, in the worse case scenario, when maniacal leaders demand it, impossible to survive.
Cult leaders have expertise in making people put more trust in their words than in their own self interest. It seems Donald Trump has tapped in to the same skill set. When Donald Trump wouldn’t wear a face mask many of his followers wouldn’t either, even well past the point masks were proven effective tools in slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
What drives our current national crises to the level of American Horror Story for people who have not sipped the Kool Aid is that in the current iteration of America, Trump loyalism is high for the same reason loyalty to Keith Raniere is still high even after NXIVM was exposed to be a pricey pyramid scheme pathway to sexual enslavement and branding. Personality can be everything. It’s why Clare Bronfman, heiress to the Seagram’s fortune, wouldn’t disavow Raniere at her sentencing yesterday. Her willingness to go to jail rather than to renounce Raniere, doesn’t strike me as much different than Roger Stone’s willingness to do so for Donald Trump. It’s why Jonestown happened. It’s why this or something very much like it will happen again maybe in our life times, maybe somewhere else in the world, maybe here.
In fact, it may be happening right now to us, America. Trump’s leadership is premised on personality not ability. Trump isn’t president because he’s the smartest man in the room, or the most politically skilled, or even good at his job. Trump is President because he has created a cult of personality and he will likely win again because he is good at maintaining it, if at absolutely nothing else. The insidious lies that spiral out of this personality cult including the most repeated one that any negative news about him is by default, fake, are necessary to bolster his persona and maintain loyalism.
Watching Keith Raniere build a myth around himself about having the highest IQ in the world and all the other mythologized narratives he used to convince people that he was worth their adoration, submission, and dollars, doesn’t look a lot different than Trump leaning in to his alleged billions and supposed business skill to convince Americans that he was qualified to lead the largest corporation on earth — our republic. It’s just been not ironically proven that for all his talk, it was always just fake news. And yet, his followers don’t seem any more flustered by the idea that the underlying business prowess on which his persona is based is a lie than they have been by any other proven to be false statement he has ever made.
Just like so many people fell in to Keith Raniere’s orbit in Albany to the point that he could ask them to brand themselves with his initials, Americans have become increasingly primed to accept each increasingly baffling and horrifying thing the President has done or said. Just like Raniere, Trump has incrementally coached America to accept the next more ludacris thing. If you could permit the chanting of “Lock Her Up,” at 2016 election events, your ability to resist the locking of children in cages was diminished to the point that you could accept that some of the people chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” in Charlottesville were, “very fine people,” and on and on. It doesn’t matter that he hasn’t followed through on the vast majority of his promises. No matter, when cult leaders get the date that the world will end wrong, they invent new ones.
This is how cults work. Leadership slowly ups the ante until followers are willing to drink the Kool Aid, or take the hydroxychloroquine as the case may be.
We might be living in a cult, America and unfortunately, I’m not sure we have a clear way out.
Here’s to hoping on November.
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