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.
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.