In the early 50s the American public was greatly disturbed by film of their own soldiers in Chinese captivity speaking anti-American rhetoric. These individuals had been somehow psychologically manipulated so that they had lost touch with their old identity. They were apparently fully under control of their Chinese captors. Much ink has been spilt since those days about the process by which an individual could be coerced to change beliefs and personality. The popular expression was ‘brainwashing’. This expression, however, proved so hard to define that it ceased to be used in academic or legal circles. More common now is the notion of mind control or thought reform. The latter term is the one used by the author Robert Lifton. Lifton wrote an important book in 1961 called, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. This showed how it was possible to manipulate an individual so that he would think and speak in a way that was out of character and contrary to a previous personality.
I was reminded of Lifton’s work on thought reform techniques when I watched the adulation being handed out to President Trump by each member of his Cabinet in a recent newscast -Trump’s ‘lovefest’. A further historical memory took me back to the Soviet show trials in Russia in the 1930s. The condemned individuals who were about to be executed for counter-revolutionary activity, were shown to be publicly venerating Stalin. As Trump’s Cabinet members spoke their words of flattery and obsequiousness, one felt almost nauseous at this Soviet-type manipulation. One hopes that at least some of the humiliated Cabinet members were aware of the historical parallels. Trump himself with his weak grasp of current affairs or history would have been totally unaware of the way that he is leading his country to become in certain respects to be more and more like North Korea.
I have already written a piece on Trump as a cult leader who is apparently firmly in the grip of a narcissistic disorder. I want to return to this theme because once more we see in the behaviour of his government certain aspects of the functioning of an extremist religious group. Robert Lifton described eight characteristics of a ‘totalist’ group, whether political or religious. One of these eight which we have looked at in the last blog, was the manipulation of language. When language only connects you with people who are in your group, you find yourself effectively in a social prison because you are cut off from the wider world. I do not propose to go through the other eight characteristics of a Lifton’s totalist group, but to summarise, there are two main features. Totalist groups, which we would describe as cult-like, involve the subservience of each member, emotionally and psychologically, to a leader. The exact nature of this relationship for both parties is complex but we can say that each side has something to gain from the relationship. In the second place the group possesses an ambiance or culture which simultaneously draws members together while isolating them from the world beyond. Both physical and psychological barriers are erected to stop the flow of information from the rest of the world. It is not hard to observe this cult-like environment in the appalling spectacle of the current Trump Cabinet.
Each of the members of Trump’s Cabinet has obtained a level of influence, prestige and power by being given some responsibility for government. Most of them have been chosen for their ability to amass enormous sums of money in their working life. The Republican agenda is also offering them the opportunity to become even more wealthy. But the price they have paid for this elevation is to drink the Kool Aid of believing (or pretending to believe) the conspiracy theories, the fake news and the outright lies which have pushed their leader into his present position of power. Like cult followers they have become strangers to any real dialogue with the truth. They are certainly no longer thinking in a way that connects with wider reality. They do not (yet) realise that each of them has utterly humiliated themselves both professionally and personally by hitching their wagon to such a corrupt individual as President Trump. Like members of a cult they have been corrupted by the process which Lifton describes as thought reform. They probably for the moment really believed the nonsense that they uttered when the camera went round the cabinet room asking for their opinions about Trump’s presidency. The problem is that Trump also believes the false narrative that his government is putting out to the world.
A few years back we witnessed dramatic public scenes of grief when the North Korean leader died. We naturally asked ourselves whether this emotion was faked or not. I would suggest that the cult personality was so ingrained in the population that the weeping masses could be said genuinely feel their demonstrations of sorrow. The one main difference between North Korea and the United States today is that there are still many strong democratic institutions alive to challenge the narrative of alternative facts and fake news. These institutions particularly represent the educated and informed population. They will not disappear. Through newspapers and humour, the cult culture of Trump and his followers is constantly being challenged. While for the time being the Trump Cabinet members can offer their false and deluded perspective on what is going on to the world, in the longer term, truth must prevail.
There is a clear reason for this blog to be concerned about thought reform in political life. We see the devastating effect of such mind control within religious institutions. People are shown not only to be misled by such manipulation but they are often traumatised by it for a long time. Many of the influential people in America associated with Trump will take many years to recover from what is effectively cultic contamination. Others, including Trump himself, may never recover from the lies and falsifications that have absorbed into their personalities as the price of obtaining power. When power is obtained through a massive manipulation of truth, then that power becomes something corrupt and permanently damaging to the soul.