The Manson Family. The People’s Temple. Heaven’s Gate. Aum Shinrikyo. The Nazi Party. The Grand Old Party.
These are arguably some of the most dangerous cults in modern history. The new kid on the block, the GOP, is the first American political party to transform into a cult (though it has happened repeatedly in other countries). That uniqueness may undercut acceptance that one of our two major parties has become what it has but that hurdle needs to be jumped or the existential threat our nation faces from this cult may come to pass.
What is a cult? A cult is not just a group of people who share the same beliefs that a majority may disdain because they are not commonly shared. There are specific markers that separate religions, political parties, fans, etc. from cults.
Why this matters is that cults are always destructive. Whether they lead to physical and sexual abuse (including pedophilia), destruction of families, brainwashing, domination, or the killing of human beings (sometimes themselves), they are vehicles for the suffering of many to aggrandize and serve the sociopathic and narcissistic egos of their leader.
From a Guardian article back in 2009, intentionally offered from a time before the former president ran in 2016 and completed the transformation of the GOP into a cult:
Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, who once taught at Harvard Medical School, wrote a paper titled Cult Formation in the early 1980s. He delineated three primary characteristics, which are the most common features shared by destructive cults.
1. A charismatic leader, who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose power. That is a living leader, who has no meaningful accountability and becomes the single most defining element of the group and its source of power and authority.
2. A process [of indoctrination or education is in use that can be seen as] coercive persuasion or thought reform [commonly called “brainwashing”].
The culmination of this process can be seen by members of the group often doing things that are not in their own best interest, but consistently in the best interest of the group and its leader.
Lifton’s seminal book Thought Reform and Psychology of Totalism explains this process in considerable detail.
3. Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.
The destructiveness of groups called cults varies by degree, from labor violations, child abuse, medical neglect to, in some extreme and isolated situations, calls for violence or mass suicide.
Let’s examine these three primary traits of a cult and honestly consider if they apply to today’s GOP.
First, there doesn’t need to be much of an argument as to whether the GOP is led by a charismatic leader who is worshipped, has no accountability to Republicans, and defines the GOP. Check.
Second, the indoctrination of Trump cultists (AKA Republicans) is very widely known and even finally restricted to a degree by the very social media companies that have acted as the conduit and collaborator. A key part of this indoctrination and brainwashing on Facebook, Twitter, etc. is performed by those secretly behind QAnon and their malign, addictive conspiracy theories. Add to this the power of media like Fox News, OANN, Newsmax, etc. which defiantly and constantly brainwash and manipulate their viewers.
Thirdly, the exploitation of Republican followers by the GOP and their leader (not deserving of having his name mentioned) is widely known. Whether subjecting them to death and suffering by instilling in them that avoiding infection from COVID-19 is a test of loyalty, to the defrauding of them of hundreds of millions of their dollars by falsely claiming to fight a fraudulent election (while they just pocketed the money) to, of course, losing their lives, livelihoods, families, and freedom by manipulating them to participate in an insurrection against their own elections and democracy. And after many of these cult members who participated in the sedition their leader and party ordered were arrested, they were left hanging from that limb as their leaders turned their backs on them.
This is truth. These are the characteristics of a cult and the GOP and their leadership check each box. In fact, here is a more detailed list of attributes from Dr. Lifton in the same Guardian article:
• Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.
• No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.
• No meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget or expenses, such as an independently audited financial statement.
• Unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions.
• There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even evil.
• Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.
• There are records, books, news articles, or broadcast reports that document the abuses of the group/leader.
• Followers feel they can never be “good enough”.
• The group/leader is always right.
• The group/leader is the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or receiving validation, no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.
I think it would be common sense to say that the majority if not all these aspects are reflected by the GOP and its leaders.
So the GOP is by definition, now a cult. Why does that matter? Historically speaking, political cults almost always lead to the terrible oppression and suffering of its own and other people as well as to chaos and the disintegration of that country and potentially the world.
That list is unfortunately quite long so here’s just some of the greatest worsts from history when it comes to cults of personality that reigned over their people and caused great suffering: Russia’s Joseph Stalin, China’s Chairman Mao Zedong, Haiti’s François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Italy’s Benito Mussolini, Korea’s Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un and Germany’s Adolph Hitler.
The conclusion one should have from looking at this partial list is that it’s not uncommon for cult leaders to come to power in a country. It’s happened quite a lot in history. It’s the case right now in a number of countries. And once cult leaders become entrenched in power, their cult becomes a violent enforcer of their entitlement to leadership and it can be next to impossible for the people to dislodge him.
So this is why Americans should be concerned. If the GOP is indeed a cult, naturally, their next presidential candidate will reflect that and whether it’s The Former Guy or someone new, they will only secure the nomination from a cult by standing as their cult leader. This is unavoidable. Whoever the GOP nominee for president is in 2024, he or she will have to conduct themselves as sociopathic and authoritarian to win over these brainwashed cultists and their votes.
It’s important to remember that while Joe Biden won by over 7 million votes, his margin in a number of swing states that handed him the victory was only in the thousands. We know all too well that the majority vote doesn’t win the presidency, it’s electoral votes that do. And with the tsunami of voter suppression laws panicked Republicans are piling up in states that they run, over 200 bills already and the election was just a matter of months ago, represent the GOP cult’s mission to derail enough voting rights to win in future elections the only way a cult minority can, by preventing Americans who don’t support their cult from voting.
A political party that has become a cult combined with using their existing power to take away the rights of their opponents to vote, is a recipe for the end of American democracy.
We dodged a bullet in 2020. The GOP pulled out all the stops to steal the election, hobbling the USPS from delivering votes they already called “phony” and “fraud”, trying to pass voter suppression laws, filing a mountain of lawsuits, and even appealing to the Supreme Court, creating alternative lists of electors, pressing Republican legislatures to simply throw out the election results and just hand their state’s electors to The Former President, Attorney Generals filing federal lawsuits to strip other states of their electoral votes and of course, inciting insurrection to disrupt Congress from confirming the actual winner of the election as President.
Do we think that this cult will just wave a white flag in 2024 or might they believe that no matter how extreme their measures were in 2020, they failed and greater measures are needed to assure the theft of power?
Cults and their members can’t be reasoned with. As mentioned above, the only party they listen to, the only one who can convince them of anything at all is their cult leader. Knowing how hateful and vindictive their leader is, even if he isn’t the nominee in 2024, it is unimaginable that he wouldn’t want to “get even” with everyone who stood against his continuation of holding power and securing his authoritarian grip on power for the foreseeable future.
It’s hard to imagine but if this GOP cult is still in place in 2024, the conflicts and madness in 2020 will look quaint in comparison.
Cults can’t be negotiated with, just like their cousins, terrorists. Neither can their followers be reasoned with as many folks already know if they’ve ever tried, online or in person. So reasoning the GOP cult out of being a cult is obviously not the path.
How can a cult be crushed? It all comes down to the cult leader. Putting Charlie Manson in prison ended his cult. Though having tens of millions of people in the GOP cult makes this a somewhat different situation, using the law to take The Former President down, both criminally and civilly would hopefully be a big step towards disempowering the GOP cult. Yes, there are plenty of GOP sociopaths and narcissists waiting in the wings, hoping they can just step into The Former President’s shoes and continue the authoritarian dream with them on the throne. While there will be many Republicans happy to take the bargain brand as a replacement when their original leader is pulled down like a Saddam statue, it won’t be the same.
Step One: Americans must strongly press for the GOP’s cult leader to be prosecuted criminally and civilly for the many crimes he’s committed. Not settle, not take a plea, he needs to convicted and ideally imprisoned but if not, under house arrest with an ankle monitor and forbidden to incite any further crimes or face imprisonment.
Step Two: The GOP needs to be criminally investigated by the DoJ for complicity in the 1/6 insurrection attack on The Capitol. Dem leadership in The House and The Senate need to aggressively investigate as well and do all they can to expel or at least sideline all Republicans who colluded to spread The Big Lie and the insurrection it caused.
Step Three: The malign actors behind QAnon need to be rooted out, here and in other countries, investigated and where possible, arrested and convicted of sedition, RICO crimes, or whatever properly apply.
Step Four: Congress must pass laws and the Attorney General must act using existing laws to sanction media outlets that promote sedition. It is a sensitive issue due to concern of violating the 1st Amendment so trying to prevent RW media from spreading lies may be complicated but regurgitating Russian propaganda intended to undermine the U.S., promoting insurrection against the government using lies about elections, etc., can be criminally pursued if narrowly limited to sedition-related statements. Congress should also revive and update The Fairness Doctrine to combat the silo effect of people only hearing fraudulent propaganda from the RW outlets. Since it’s risky to sanction lies, providing balance could be the best way to disrupt the propagandizing and brainwashing of Americans.
Step Five: Congress needs to break up and regulate social media giants. It’s common knowledge that Facebook has not only passively allowed itself to be used for organizing white nationalist, insurrectionist groups but has used its algorithms to steer millions of people to white supremacist pages. Facebook and other social media are also a big part of the problem and our government needs to take away their power to help overthrow our democracy even if their main motivation is greed.
Step Six: Congress needs to pass the For the People bill and the John Lewis Voting Rights bill. Both will finally protect the voting rights of Americans in all states from voter suppression, gerrymandering, and other schemes that the GOP uses to prevent people from voting and elections reflecting the true will of the people. With the filibuster in place, these bills can’t be passed and Dems in conservative states like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have stated that they will not support killing the filibuster. There are ways around this though, The Senate could vote by a simple majority to change the rules of filibusters so that they don’t apply to voting-related issues. They could require filibusters to return to being held by Senators physically standing and arguing to keep it going, they could have a sliding scale on how many votes are needed to end the filibuster depending on how long it continues, etc. The Senate can always make its own rules and if Manchin and Sinema are standing against stopping a rigging of our elections and minority rule by an authoritarian, the filibuster rules can be changed so it is not eliminated but also not a tool that can be used to end our democracy. This article was my source for these alternatives, I recommend it highly: From Vox: How to fix the Senate without abolishing the filibuster
Step Six: Tirelessly hammer the GOP in the media as a dangerous cult that threatens our society and democracy. Let’s not worry about the “unity” thing when deranged people are trying to set our democracy on fire. As Pres. Biden has wisely framed it, unity needs to be defined by appealing to Americans of all parties, not bending a knee to the GOP politicians who absolutely don’t reflect the opinions and preferences of the majority of their constituents. Dems need to understand that the GOP is already wholly at war with Dems, even if they pretend to be seeking unity. Zero Republicans voted for the COVID relief bill in The House and it’s likely not one Republican will vote for it in The Senate. They may say the opposite but as with Pres. Obama when he started his first term and tried futilely to work in a bipartisan way, all they care about is making Biden a one-term president and grabbing back power. That’s it. There’s no profit in playing the unity game with cultists. As the old saying goes, if you don’t know when you’re in a fight, you’ve already lost. Fortunately, Pres. Biden and many Dems in Congress know they’re in a fight that they need to win to protect our country and democracy.
With their charismatic leader buried in legal matters and hopefully convicted and imprisoned one way or another, the momentum of the GOP cult will slow. The GOP cult leader hopefuls may have the hatred and sociopathic chops but none of them can rival a reality show host. They’re not showmen and showwomen, they’re just craven narcissists. They won’t have the charisma and magnetism of The Former President so with him otherwise occupied (and hopefully occupying a prison cell), this cult of the GOP may deteriorate.
One thing that will definitely help take down the GOP as a cult will be the protection of voting rights as mentioned in Step Six. It’s pretty simple, if Republicans can’t win elections despite their failure to appeal to a majority, they will have to abandon their cult status if they ever want to be in power again.
As they say with alcoholism, the first step is recognizing that you have a problem. With the GOP, drunken constantly on their greed, hatred, manipulation of their voters, and corruption, our first step as a nation is to recognize them as the cult that they are then take the steps listed above and others that make sense to get them on the wagon while we protect our country and move forward under a true democracy.