Clawing Our Way Back to Reality

I’ve been thinking about cults lately. Cults of various sorts seem to be eating civilization, and not just QAnon, which is bad enough. It’s getting hard to tell where QAnon ends and the Republican Party begins. And people appear to have formed cults, of sorts, around many peripheral issues — anti-vaxx cults, gun cults, political cults.

What’s alarming to me is that people are getting sucked into cults — or fantatical, cult-like movements — through the Web. The social psychologists need to up their game and study this. I cruised around looking for psychological research into cults, and most of what I found seemed to apply only to the cults of the 1960s to the 1990s, in which people were sucked into cults through personal contacts. Now one can be indoctrinated without leaving home. All you need is decent wi-fi.

I found one article that seemed to take in more recent cultish movements, but I know nothing about the author.  Anyway, her definition is:

A cult can be either a sharply bounded social group or a diffusely bounded social movement held together through a shared commitment to a charismatic leader. It upholds a transcendent ideology (often but not always religious in nature) and requires a high level of commitment from its members in words and deeds.

Cults also operate on continuums of influence and control, she says, They don’t always require members to go live in an ashram or devote their entire lives to the cult.

The Denver Post has a fascinating look at Amy Carlson, a cult leader (not the actress of the same name) recently found several days deceased and stuffed into a sleeping bag wrapped in Christmas lights. Carlson appears to have fallen down her own psychological rabbit hole to become as much a victim as a perpetrator of the religious fantasy she built.

But the article also describes a man, unnamed, who left his wife and two children in Mississippi to join Carlson’s cult in Colorado. This was a military vet who had a six-figure income and a $500,000 house, and whose biggest concern was what fertilizer to use on his lawn, his wife says. But he’d already been drawn in to QAnon when his job evaporated during the pandemic. And then he found Carlson’s website and videos.

His behavior at home became more unsettling. He slept less, and he started following a schedule aligned with the seven colors of the chakra, so on certain days he only ate foods and wore clothes that matched that day’s color, as ordered by the cult.

“He was just staring into the sun because they were telling him to do that to get light codes,” Whitten [his wife] said.

In May 2020 he left Mississippi for Colorado. Some time later he was found “wandering in the wilderness alone, naked, dehydrated and with cactus needles in his feet.” He believed he had transcended into another dimension. His family took him home and now say he can’t fathom why he behaved as he did. Assuming that this guy wan’t predisposed to psychosis somehow, it’s disturbing evidence of how easily people can be sucked into crazy through the Internet.

“Transcendence” is an operative word here. “The term transcendence denotes an ego-dissolving encounter – a breakdown of self-boundaries – with something greater than the self,” it says here. The “transcended” person is drawn into an “all-encompassing reality” that differs from mundane reality. As a Zen student I can’t very well knock transcendence, because a breakdown of self-boundaries is part of the practice. But I think what we’re looking at with cults is less about ego-dissolving but a fusing of one’s individual ego with that of a group or leader, which isn’t exactly the effect one is going for in Zen. I wrote a couple of years ago about the Trump cult of personality,

At the same time, many of our great social observers and philosophers — Erich Fromm, Eric Hoffer, Hannah Arendt — have long noted that alienated and insecure people easily surrender their own ego-identities and autonomy to mass movements and authoritarian strongmen. People march blindly into mass movements because the group provides something the individual feels is lacking in himself. Trump, to his fans, is a larger-than-life being of great power and certitude. By surrendering their autonomy to him, they feel that they absorb that power. Through Trump, they find connection, strength and a sense of belonging. The baffling, ambiguous world becomes a place of absolute clarity, with bright lines between good and bad, right and wrong, truth and lies, all as defined for them by Trump.

What a cult can offer is personal validation — your failures are not your fault — and a sense of belonging and connection to something greater than oneself, which can be exhilarating until you’re naked and dehydrated in a desert somewhere.

And there’s also one of my favorite quotes from Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer:

Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance.

And what else is Trumpism but a complex of fantatical grievances, on steroids?

It’s one thing to be personally suspicious of vaccines. It’s something else to threaten and bully the county health officer out of her job because she tried to institute a mask mandate during a bleeping pandemic. See also Death threats, shoves, and throwing blood: Anti-vaxxers’ bullying of public health officials endangers our country.

I suppose one can be all-in for private gun ownership without being a fanatic about it. But Sandy Hook Truthers are a cult who harass the parents of slain children and anyone whose name got into newspapers in connection with the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Of the January 6 insurrectionists, some of them may have just been caught up in the moment, but some of them clearly had been living in fantasy land for some time and were serious about “taking” the Capital and stopping the certification of the election.

Pro-Trump protesters storm into the U.S. Capitol during clashes with police, during a rally to contest the certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election results by the U.S. Congress, in Washington, U.S, January 6, 2021. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton – RC2P2L9YHHVX

And then there’s the Arizona “audit.”

This audit, as ridiculous as it is, has inspired Trump culties around the country to attempt the same thing. If they could just get their hands on the real ballots, surely they will reveal that Trump won. And if they don’t, the ballots can be manipulated somehow until they do, because Trump must have won. They are certain no other result is possible, because “Trump loses” is not part of their new reality.

Paul Waldman asks, What would it take to drag the GOP back to reality? “For those who have fallen down the rabbit hole, 2020 was just one manifestation of the larger problem, which is that elections are pretty much all rigged and no result in which your party loses can ever be legitimate,” he writes.

What’s especially troubling is that political leaders who, one assumes, know this is nuts are indulging the craziness because it’s politically useful to them. Which means it’s not going to end any time soon.

I sincerely believed that once Trump was out of Washington, the old GOP establishment would, perhaps gradually, reassert itself and take charge of the party. But that didn’t happen, and now it’s clear that the clowns are running the circus. Either go along with the act or, like Liz Cheney, be cast out. And I don’t see that the Republican Party has left itself a graceful way out of this.

See also GOP: A Cult Looking for a Personality from 2012.

17 thoughts on “Clawing Our Way Back to Reality

  1. IMO, the last sentence is the operative driver,

    "And I don’t see that the Republican Party has left itself a graceful way out of this."

    Trump's popularity shouldn't have happened. It was only possible because the GOP years ago thought they could weaponize a mentality of resentment.and dismises critical thinking. Trump became the embodiment of the resentment they cultivated for years.

    One difference between cults and religions is continuity. The leader of a cult wants the cult to fall apart after he dies. A religion plans on its survival regardless of when/if the leader kicks off.  

    Trump can destroy the GOP in a day by setting up his own party. Something between 50% to 70% of GOP voters would leave. The Trump party would only win in a few states, not enough to have a majority in Congress. The GOP that remained would lurch to the center when the extreme right leaves, possibly gaining strength from  Independents. But neither conservative party would have the strength to overcome the Democrats and as the product of a Civil War, they wouldn't work well together.  

    The GOP knows that Trump holds the party hostage. They are acceding to Trump's demands because sooner or later, Trump will die without a political heir. Their only goal is to survive Trump until Trump dies because it's a cult of personality and the 'normal' laws of politics will return if the party survives.

    • The GOP knows that Trump holds the party hostage.

       Or does Trump represent a lifeline for those who have tied themselves to his coattails? Like the old Chinese proverb…Those who ride the back of the tiger cannot dismount.

  2. Thanks for including the link to your 2012 article, reminding me that most of us had hoped the country had reached peak wingnut first in 2004, and again in 2008.

    I had always thought political norms and beliefs swung back and forth like a pendulum.  My hope was that, with the election of a Democratic Senate in 2006 and the election of Obama in 2008, we were about to experience a couple of decades of political calm and enlightenment.  That hope was dashed against the rocks with the rise of the "Tea Party" in 2010.  Since then, the Republican Party has only gotten worse.

    I'm beginning to think this country will never regain its political sanity absent another civil war or another deep and painful economic depression.


  3. As for the Republicans, I had no such hopes or expectations for a post-election/post-inauguration return to sanity. I'm extremely pessimistic about the overall situation in the US, the devolution we're seeing has been transpiring for years now and the process is deeply entrenched. Whatever breaks the cycle may be quite disruptive.

    But the voices of reason and optimism always challenge my dark mood – "We won! Enjoy the respite and the next major election is almost two years from now, quit worrying."


    As for the cult thing. The internet is a very big deal in that regard. For one thing the constant barrage of suspect news is harmful. Outside of blogs I am unfamiliar with most social media apps as I don't have or use them so their impact is distant from me, but much has been written about them and their influence. I wonder about how much people rely on depersonalized interactions now.

    Personally, I've never felt so disoriented and discombobulated in my life and feel very much out of synch with society as a whole, that's never happened to me before. I'm constantly reassessing my boundaries and gauging my reactions to events just to reassure myself that I haven't gone off the rails. I'm alarmed at what I see happening and that constant state of heightened stress can be debilitating. Maybe I'm just older now and finding it difficult to adjust? Perhaps a similar sort of thing is happening in general, partly driven or enhanced by the internet, and more people than ever are dealing with it in dysfunctional or bizarre ways i.e. cults or cultish behavior. The rabbit holes are legion, tempting and potentially dangerous or ruinous. For just one more example, the cryptocurrency phenomenon is strange territory and it seems to be quite a popular thing to dive into.

    I also remind myself that my alarm and my concern and my anger are apparently mirrored on the other side of the political divide. So what does that mean and why does meeting in the middle feel so distant and unrealistic today? I've speculated on the answers of course but in the end it's a muddle. It's a very strange time, I think.

    I'm pretty much baffled as well as fascinated but in a depressing way.

  4. What snow_watcher said!


    How relaxing it must be, watching snow.

    Just watching the snow fall.

    It sounds… "Zenish."

    If you started a cult, snow_watcher, I just might join….


    Maybe this is how it all starts?

    Some dupe thinks he found a prophe…

    Wait, that would make ME the DUPE!!!

    Never mind, snow_watcher.

    Never mind…

    (Just kidding, snow, baby!  😉 ).

    But I did like what you wrote.


    • Thanks, I've appreciated many of your comments as well.

      The snow has been very persistent this spring, we had some last week.

  5. I'm starting to think the great historian, Barbara Tuchman, was off by a century in comparing the 20th Century to the 14th Century in her great work of history, "A Distant Mirror: A Calamitous History of the 14th Century."

    I'm starting to see more comparisons between the 14th Century and our young 21st Century than to the old 20th.

    Note to self: Reread Tuchman's great history. 

    I haven't read it since it came out over…  ZOINKS!!!  That book came out over 40 years ago!


    AM I OLD!!!!!

  6. …Personally, I’ve never felt so disoriented and discombobulated in my life and feel very much out of synch with society as a whole, that’s never happened to me before. I’m constantly reassessing my boundaries and gauging my reactions to events just to reassure myself that I haven’t gone off the rails. I’m alarmed at what I see happening and that constant state of heightened stress can be debilitating. Maybe I’m just older now and finding it difficult to adjust?

    I felt this way beginning with George W Bush. The quantity + quality of lying (“we make our own reality”) went off the scale during his reign. I emotionally left the USA during this time, although I’m physically still here. I am working my butt off to be able to leave.

    Welcome, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen your screen name here before…

    • We've only scratched the surface.

      The GWB years were a great awakening for me and I too checked out emotionally. And now we know that was only the beginning.

      I come here to read, learn and think. Maha sets a high bar so I've only posted a few comments.

  7. I have been perplexed about Trumps followers since Trump came on the scene. Trump is obviously a big blow hard confidence man. If he can't understand something, he shovels some shit and carries on. I suppose that gives the appearance of a "strong leader" to his followers. I have never been into "strong Leader" types , rather to wander in awe through the beautiful wilderness, while followers slink and cower because of the unkown.  I think this is the difference and the reason. I see lots of Trump signs and flags in rural Florida to this day , and I swear it mirrors the religious followings because of a big daddy who will smite your ass if you get out of line. It's like the fucking handmaids tale . It's ALL fear based. eliminate the fear, and it goes away. Part of the fear is the 24/7 fear being shoved at us all day from angles. Trump is EVERYTHING I grew up to resent as a kid in Florida. Another smart assed blow hard Yankee asshole, and the homies wanted him. WTF.

    • Good to see you back posting, Erinyes.

       I swear it mirrors the religious followings because of a big daddy who will smite your ass if you get out of line. 

      I agree that it mirrors religious following but, not for the same reason. To me it has more to do with the ability to block out reality and craft a narrative and belief that sooths an emotional need. There is no denying an element of connectedness between Trumpsters and over zealous religious adherents.

  8. snow_watcher:  I like the cut of your jib!

    But not as much as I'd like I cut a finer figure.  Mine's been too round for…  Let's leave it at years, ok?  No need for specifics.


  9. Iniquitous power figure is a phrase used by Michelle Goldberg in her analytical article about cults today.  I had to look that up and really appreciate her word choice now.  It does much better than Evil power figure or other options in the description of leaders that might be considered borderline cult leaders or even saints.  Manipulation has a dark side, even in more socially acceptable forms than in classically defined cults.

    It is not like I totally understand now what people see in Trump, but the cult classification makes an angle for exploration of this odd, apparently dysfunctional behavior.  


  10. I watched a show about Jim Jones and Jonestown Guyana today. It follows a similar path as the trump cult.

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