A year into the extraordinary Trump presidency, much of the attention, unsurprisingly, is focused on Trump himself and the attributes and words that make him unfit to hold the highest office. But how to explain what Senator Cory Booker, in his excoriating criticism of Homeland Security appointee Kirjsten Nielsen, called the extraordinary ‘amnesia’ and ‘complicity’ of those who surround Trump?
Listening to people like Nielsen and the White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who are quite willing and able to claim that black is white on Trump’s behalf, it struck me that they are like members of a cult: unwilling and unable to criticise the cult leader.
That thought led me to so some reading about cults, and I was particularly struck by what I read about cargo cults.
Cargo cults often develop at times of crisis, and particularly during a period when there is a combination of crises. In the case of America there is the destruction of the old industrial heartlands and the resulting unemployment and opioid crisis, the widening gap between rich and poor, racial tensions, etc. Under the pressures of the resulting social stresses and strains a cult may form under the leadership of a charismatic figure. This leader may have a “vision” (or “myth-dream”) of the future e.g. “Make America Great Again”, “America First” – often linked to an ancestral efficacy thought to be recoverable by a return to traditional morality – e.g. White Supremacy. This leader may characterize the present state as a dismantling of the old social order e.g. “Drain the Swamp”. Cult members must display total belief at all times, even when facts and circumstances might dictate otherwise e.g. Nielsen, Huckabee Sanders and Co., and critics and non-believers must be denigrated e.g. Fake News and cast out e.g. Bannon and co.
A particular characteristic of cargo cults is the need to undertake a large building project in order to fulfil the promises of a ‘golden future’. The original cargo cults of Melanesia would, for example, build a runway in the belief that many planes would land bringing a wealth of goods (hence the name ‘cargo’). In Trump’s case we have Exhibit A: The Great Wall.
The Melanesian cargo cults were typically created by individual leaders (the ‘big men’) and it is not at all clear if these leaders were sincere, or were simply running scams on gullible populations. There is also, what the novelist Chinua Achebe calls the “cargo cult mentality” of the rulers of countries who issue lofty proclamations about the future of their countries but fail to exert the necessary effort to bring about those improvements.
So, yes, Trump is a cult.