For me, and probably for most of my readers,the political events unfolding in America have been gripping. Watching how individuals respond to the irrationalities of the current American president never ceases to provide a drama of quite extraordinary fascination. At the time of writing there seems to be the promise of some rationality and sanity being injected into this maelstrom of political chaos. The appointment of a highly respected former head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, offers the chance that an analytical brain, politically independent, will successfully establish truth amid the swirling and confusing facts over possible collusion with the Russian state. All of us have come to recognise that ‘truth’ in the White House is less about actual facts but more about what makes President Trump feel good.
Alongside the extraordinary mental processes at work in the President and in others in charge of the American State, we have glimpsed a further widespread fanaticism. Quite substantial swathes of the American population seem unable to see anything amiss in the current political situation even though the processes of government in some areas have almost ceased to function. A full 80% of those who voted for Donald Trump still believe that he is on track with his stated aims of ‘draining the swamp’ and destroying the political legacy of Obama. For this group any obstructions in completing his programme have been caused by an unholy alliance between the old political elite and a ‘lying’ media. Trump himself is caught up in this extraordinary widespread corruption of thought. Such an immersion in an Alice in Wonderland world of ‘alternative fact’ and ‘fake news’ is simultaneously alarming and intriguing.
One of the current ways for understanding the way that members of cults think is to use what is known as the Lifton model. I do not have the space here to explore fully this particular analysis of cult thinking, but the theory stems from the work of one Robert Lifton. He sought, in the 1950s, to understand the victims of Chinese ‘brainwashing’. His analysis provides for eight characteristics of mind control as used against American prisoners of war. Many see these techniques being applicable to members of harmful religious groups. I would further add that many Trump followers are behaving in the same ways that we associate with cult victims. There are two of these criteria creating ‘mind-control’ that I want to mention here. The first of these Lifton principles is the insight that to create a controlled group, one must cut them off from all reasoning and discourse except that being peddled by the group leadership. In the case of Trump followers there is one source of information which is being endlessly presented 24 hours a day in the form of Fox News. I have tried to watch small segments of this propaganda outlet but find it quite hard to stomach. It is a combination of lies, half-truths and conspiracy theories. Those who try to get a handle on what is really going in American politics through the mainstream media also find it quite hard to cope with. Fox News is not just presenting another point of view but is attacking rationality and even the sanity of people who want to think for themselves. I can see that prolonged exposure to this kind of broadcasting would either create mindless compliance or a nervous breakdown in the one watching. President Trump himself would count himself as among the passive consumers of this outlet. Fox News does precious little to enhance his rational understanding of what is going on in America or in the wider world. Every time Trump utters his accusation of ‘fake news’ or ‘lying media’, it is because has heard it on Fox News first.
There is a second Lifton principle which applies to both political propaganda and religious language known as ‘loading the language’. When Lifton was studying his American survivors of Chinese prison camps after the Korean War, he noticed how easy it is possible to corrupt the thinking of an individual by subtly changing the meaning of words. After words have had their meaning changed within a closed community like a cult or a prison camp, it becomes difficult to communicate with the old pre-cult world. We in the church are sometimes guilty are using words which have coded meanings for an ‘in-crowd’. To be able to use such words in this way is an expression of power over those outside or otherwise uninitiated. The consumers of Fox News and Trumpist slogans have also learnt to think and speak in a way which has little meaning or currency outside the group. People outside the group neither can, nor indeed want to, speak with them because of the difficulty of establishing a common meaning. Trumpists have developed an infuriating way of bombarding their political opponents with words and slogans which have acquired meanings which seldom connect with normal discourse.
The situation in the United States is a very serious one because the divisions in society between Republicans and Democrats represent a huge gulf of culture and communication. One side, fed by lies and propaganda has removed itself from many of the rules of language and meaning. Communication with such a group who refuse to speak about truth in a coherent way makes it hardly possible to develop mutual lines of comprehension. Similarly, former members of cultic or extremist religious groups have comparable difficulties. Some cult experts speak about a cult personality. By that they mean that the individual has come to develop a new personality outside the norms of society. In thinking, culture or language, he/she is virtually identical to the cult leader.
I think in a previous blog I discussed the role of Donald Trump in terms of his fulfilling some of the roles of a charismatic leader. By this I was referring to the way that Trump attracts to himself the hopes, the expectations and even the dreams of many unhappy or desperate people. He appears to speak for such people. Thus he evokes a mindless devotion to himself similar to that exercised by some religious leaders. Such a projection is of course unable to be fulfilled or satisfied. The narcissism of President Trump knows how to receive adulation but is unable to give anything in return. It was instructive to notice how, when speaking to a graduation ceremony of coastguards, Trump could only speak about himself. He had nothing to offer these young people. They looked for words of encouragement or wisdom but all they received were the rantings of a petulant child.
This reflection, which links the dynamics of President Trump and his followers with the dynamics of some religious groups, may help us to understand the dangers in both scenarios. The dangerous lack of rationality and clear thinking in large parts of American society has some eerie religious echoes. In both political and religious contexts, we sometimes see rational and clear thinking melt away to be replaced by primal human activities such as hate. When language and reason are corrupted in this way by unscrupulous leaders, whether political or religious, we should be alarmed. We should also be prepared to speak clearly about what we see is going on. There may be enormous problems of communication with the victims of such irrationality. We should never cease to try to express what is clear and rational as well as infused with the spirit of love and acceptance.