Donald Trump has built a cult around himself. This is dangerous to America and dangerous to democracy.
Cults of personality in governance are broadly incompatible with democracy. They usually erupt in dictatorships where the Great Leader’s face and sayings are splashed all over public places. Think Mao’s China, Stalin’s USSR, Hitler’s Germany, Kim’s North Korea.
On a smaller scale and in a different context, we see how destructive such personality cults can be with the deaths around Jim Jones’ Jonestown, David Koresh’s Branch Davidians, and Charles Manson’s Family.
This is what Donald Trump aspires to.
Back in 2000, Louise and I visited Egypt. Our guide was a retired professor of Egyptology from the largest university in the country, and as we were touring Luxor he pointed out some writing carved fifteen or so feet up a stone wall at the Temple of Karnack.
“This is from when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt,” he told us, as I recall. “It says that Alexander was the child of Amen, the god of all the gods, the one who was so great that even to this day we say his name at the end of prayers.”
“Why would Alexander make that claim?” I asked.
“Because” he said, “it’s a lot easier to seize and hold power when people think you have a connection to their idea of divinity.”
While modern Hebrew scholars may disagree about why “amen” ends our prayers, it was a lesson for me that I’ve kept in mind ever since. Beware of leaders asserting connections to divinity, particularly if they’re grasping for political or financial power.
Trump is now openly encouraging his followers to think of him as divine or, at least, divinely inspired. And this isn’t a new pitch, it’s just getting a new round of attention.
Back in 2019, when Trump actually was president, Dana Milbank noted for The Washington Post:
“On Wednesday morning, he tweeted out with approval a conspiracy theorist’s claim that Israelis view Trump ‘like he’s the King of Israel’ and ‘the second coming of God’ (a theology Jews reject). He shared the conspiracy theorist’s puzzlement that American Jews don’t view him likewise.
“Hours later, he explained why he has taken a tough trade policy against China: ‘I am the chosen one.’”
Followers of the Qanon cult and the Fox “News” cult appear to believe him. And, like those who followed the people mentioned above, it’s tearing apart families, devastating our politics, and causing deaths across the nation.
As a Cleveland newspaper noted a week ago yesterday:
“A man who authorities say killed his wife and dog and seriously wounded his daughter before being shot by police reportedly was depressed by Donald Trump’s loss in the presidential election and became fixated by online conspiracy theories such as QAnon.”
The man’s daughter who avoided being shot, Rebecca Lanis, told The Detroit News:
“It’s really so shocking but it really can happen to anybody. Right-wing extremism is not funny, and people need to watch their relatives and if they have guns, they need to hide them or report them or something because this is out of control.”
And she’s right: it is out of control.
Rational people know that messiahs don’t molest women and brag about it, don’t fleece people with a phony school who just want a college education, don’t encourage racial hatred, and don’t get crowds to try to overturn democracy and kill a policeman.
But Trump isn’t after the rational people. He’s a predator, and his prey are the psychologically and emotionally vulnerable, people crushed by 40 years of Reagan’s neoliberalism, now desperate for simple answers to complex problems.
We should have known when Trump said, in a Charles Manson moment, that he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and his followers would still support him.
Charismatic con men can make some people believe anything.
For example, nearly a third of all registered Republicans believe that top-level Democrats are running international child trafficking rings to torture and abuse kids before draining their blood.
Where did this modern-day variation on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion come from?
When I was young my favorite writers were Ernest Hemmingway and Hunter S. Thompson, and my favorite Thompson novel was his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Which is why a caller last year who started on a rant about Democrats harvesting “adrenochrome” from children caused me to both cut him off the air and go back to my copy of the novel to see if my memory was right.
Sure enough, there it was. Thompson was bemoaning running out of hashish and being almost out of opium when his “fat Samoan” sidekick offered an alternative:
“As your attorney,” he said, “I advise you not worry.” He nodded toward the bathroom. “Take a hit out of that little brown bottle in my shaving kit.”
“What is it?”
“Adrenochrome,” he said. “You won’t need much. Just a little tiny taste.”
I got the bottle and dipped the head of a paper match into it.
“That’s about right,” he said. “That stuff makes pure mescaline seem like ginger beer. You’ll go completely crazy if you take too much.”
I licked the end of the match. “Where’d you get this?” I asked. “You can’t buy it.”
“Never mind,” he said. “It’s absolutely pure.”
I shook my head sadly. “Jesus! What kind of monster client have you picked up this time? There’s only one source for this stuff…”
“The adrenaline glands from a living human body,” I said. “It’s no good if you get it out of a corpse.”
When Thompson pushes his “attorney” about where the adrenochrome came from, the fictional character tells the fictional tale of having once been hired to represent a child molester/murderer who’d presumably extracted it from one of his victims:
“Christ, what could I say?” Thompson’s sidekick told him. “Even a goddamn werewolf is entitled to legal counsel. I didn’t dare turn the creep down. He might have picked up a letter opener and gone after my pineal gland.”
That little seed, entirely fictional, planted in the national subconscious back in the early ‘70s, has now blossomed into a full-blown flower of a belief held by literally millions of Americans.
As Rightwing Watch documents, uber-Trump cultist and “journalist” Liz Crokin explains in one of her many videos:
“Adrenochrome is a drug that the elites love. It comes from children. The drug is extracted from the pituitary gland of tortured children. It’s sold on the black market. It’s the drug of the elites. It is their favorite drug. It is beyond evil. It is demonic. It is so sick.”
People who have been ensnared by the QAnon cult and are gullible enough to believe this kind of thing are the explicit targets now in Trump’s crosshairs.
Similarly, when then-OMB Director Mick Mulvaney used the word “pizza” in a televised cabinet meeting, Crokin laid out how she and all the other Trump cultists were being flagged as to the “reality” of a pizza restaurant in a DC suburb being the place where the children were being held prior to being tortured and having their adrenochrome “harvested”:
“President Trump and his staffers are constantly trolling the deep state,” she said of Mulvaney’s reference as Trump nodded in agreement. “That’s President Trump’s way of letting you know that Pizzagate is real and it’s not fake. He’s constantly using their words against them and throwing it in their face and God bless him, it’s amazing.”
And now the cult that Trump has both adopted and built around himself is claiming its victims, as personality cults usually do.
Matthew Taylor Coleman, a 40-year-old Christian surfing school owner, drove his two children, a 3-year-old boy and a nine-month-old girl, to Mexico where he slaughtered them with a spear-fishing gun.
His children “were going to grow into monsters so he had to kill them,” said federal officials handling the investigation. Coleman told police that killing his kids was “the only course of action that would save the world” because they had “lizard DNA” and would grow up to threaten us all.
Federal officials believe he learned this from Qanon/Trump followers, as did Anthony Quinn Warner who died when he blew up his truck outside an AT&T building in Nashville on Christmas Day 2020 causing a widespread internet outage in an apparent attempt to cripple the “lizard people” network opposing Trump, which included Bill and Hillary Clinton and the Obamas.
The University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism notes that 68 percent of the open Qanon followers arrested at the US Capitol on January 6th who had also committed crimes before or after that coup attempt “have documented mental health concerns, according to court records and other public sources.”
Their psychological issues included “post-traumatic stress disorder, paranoid schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and Munchausen syndrome by proxy.”
The “Qanon Shaman” of so many iconic 1/6 pictures has now pleaded mental illness as his reason for showing up at the Capitol, as have two others who “were found to be mentally unfit to stand trial and were transferred to mental health care facilities.”
Of the six women arrested on 1/6 who’d also committed crimes before or after the coup attempt, the researchers note, “all six…have documented mental health concerns.”
This should be no surprise: Donald Trump also has well-documented mental illness, as do most messianic cult leaders. But his mental illness is what makes him dangerous to society, just like Jones, Koresh, and Manson.
Psychiatrist Bandy X. Lee MD edited a compilation of articles by accredited mental health professionals discussing Trump’s issues and their possible impact on America, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President. Psychiatrist Justin Frank MD wrote Trump on the Couch, a similarly chilling account of Trump’s issues and their consequences.
Even Trump’s niece, clinical psychologist Mary L. Trump PhD, has repeatedly and convincingly documented Trump’s mental illness and its causes deep in his twisted and unhappy childhood with a psychopathic father.
And, it turns out, certain types of mental illness are functionally contagious.
People with Trump’s malignant narcissism can, essentially, activate or bring out narcissistic tendencies in others, which may explain in part the explosion of air rage among Trump followers who were, until recently, infuriated by being told to wear a mask in-flight.
Followers yearning for a parent figure turn to a damaged leader, hungry for adulation and to create a symbiotic relationship that binds them together, notes Dr. Lee in an interview with Psychology Today.
When it reaches a lot of people, we see a repeat of the Salem Witch Trial-type of mass insanity that ripples through society. This is called shared psychosis.
“When a highly symptomatic individual is placed in an influential position,” Dr. Lee notes, “the person’s symptoms can spread through the population through emotional bonds, heightening existing pathologies and inducing delusions, paranoia and propensity for violence – even in previously healthy individuals.”
We have multiple Republican governors now using the power of law, enforced by armed police, courts, and prisons to force women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, an emulation of Trump’s misogyny.
In an attempt to out-Donald his role model, Ron DeSantis is using Florida taxpayer’s money to fly Texas-based asylum-seekers to Martha’s Vineyard and elsewhere: it got him a standing ovation in Kansas this past weekend.
Half of the Republicans in Congress refuse to say if they’re vaccinated (although all probably are; outside of Gohmert, Greene, and Boebert these people are grifters, not idiots), thus modeling behavior that is destroying families and even today killing around 400 people a day in America.
Liz Cheney put down how Republicans in Congress refer to him as “Orange Jesus.”
Meanwhile, a clearly delusional pillow salesman promotes a democracy-destroying conspiracy theory that the Senate of the State of Arizona has endorsed and thrown a pile of cash at, while Republican state officials in Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia, Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania tried to emulate Arizona’s “audit.”
If it all seems insane, that’s because it is.
There’s a very sad and very human aspect to all this.
We’re all primed to be a bit gullible when it comes to fantastical ideas. Childhood myths like Santa Claus and most organized religions teach us that things beyond our understanding were both real in the past and will cause events in the future.
We all grew up tiny and helpless, depending on giant magical-seeming adults to take care of our needs, and that little, frightened child who just wants to be protected and loved is still alive and buried deep in the psyche of each of us.
The 918 people who died at Jim Jones’ jungle camp in Guyana didn’t join the People’s Temple because they were suicidal: Jones’ own psychosis either infected them or wore them down to a passive compliance.
We’re all vulnerable to mass psychosis as a condition of our humanity.
That’s why true leaders like Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders openly refuse to allow cults of personality to form around them.
Back when Bush was president, Bernie ridiculed the idea of voting for him “because you’d like to have a beer with him” on my program. Vote for a politician’s policies, not his personality, Bernie said emphatically.
Even John McCain had the decency to correct a woman saying that Obama was a “secret Muslim.” While he appreciated political support, he was wary of cults around him or cults that were demonizing other politicians. He’d been in politics long enough to know it’s a two-edged sword.
So what do we do as a society when we’re confronted with a psychotic former leader who’s continuing to inflict and spread contagious forms of mental illness among our nation? How do we handle it, and repair the damage?
Dr. Bandy X. Lee says, “The treatment is removal of exposure.”
Point out as often and as clearly as possible what a criminal, hustler, con artist and genuinely damaged person Trump is, and put him safely in prison.
Break the bond with his followers by crushing his aura of invincibility: indict and convict him of very ordinary crimes like public corruption, tax fraud, bank fraud, treason, theft, and rape.
Make clear how corrupt and destructive his policies were when he was in office, his criminality and treason around classified documents he stole and perhaps shared with or sold to hostile nations, and the long con he’s run the past 20 months fleecing donors out of a half-billion dollars just since he was forced out of the White House.
If we fail to deal with Trump in this way and keep him in jail and out of the headlines for a good long time, it’ll be extremely difficult to rescue his followers who’ve fallen deeply into the Qanon/Trump rabbit hole. And in their induced psychotic state, the damage they could wreak in a country awash in 400 million guns is breathtaking.
Like so many infamous leaders in history, if Trump isn’t both stopped and imprisoned for at least another presidential election cycle (until 2028) he’ll simply attempt a comeback and further tear apart the psychological and political fabric of our nation. Hitler came out of prison stronger than when he went in: Trump would, too.
As Liz Cheney pointed out this Monday:
“Excuse by excuse, we’re putting Donald Trump above the law. We are rendering indefensible conduct normal, legal, and appropriate — as though he were a king.”
If we are to save America, we must convict and meaningfully imprison Trump for his lifetime of very real crimes. And we must do it now.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.