June 16, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Do we have to use ‘cult’ to describe normal illiberal politics?
Hillary Clinton knows the answer.
Hillary Clinton said during a recent presentation that Donald Trump’s followers won’t abandon him no matter how many criminal indictments are brought against him. The former Democratic presidential candidate added that the Republicans are “more of a cult than a political party at this point and they’re going to stick with their leader.”
With that, “cult” became the appellation of the week in the rightwing media apparatus, which is global in scale, because anything that Hillary Clinton says about Donald Trump and his followers is automatically a cut so deep that it demands a week’s worth of fever and ague.
Complicating matters was Sarah Palin. Alaska’s former governor said, “the definition of a cult is a group of people who are excessively supporting one another and a cause, all about conformity and compliance, and intolerance of anyone who doesn’t agree with” it.
My fear is that she used “cult,” because she still can’t quite bring herself to accept a reality in which the Republicans are reverting to their natural, primordial state. My fear is that even Hillary Clinton, who knows better than anyone, still can’t accept that the Republicans are amassing toward a restoration of their true selves, toward becoming a party akin to the Chinese Communist Party.
She went on to say that she was describing “the left,” a remark that generated its own debate. But many on “the left” took her definition to be an inadvertent admission. They said Palin, because she understands the company she keeps, was dodging the truth with whataboutism.
I don’t know why we have to use “cult” to describe normal illiberal behavior. Why must we reach for something extraordinary to talk about something rather ordinary, which is the tendency in rightwing politics to sort the world between us and them, between friend and enemy?
I don’t know why Hillary Clinton, of all people, would think that it’s accurate and truthful to describe the Republicans as “more of a cult than a political party.” She has been their enemy for so long that she’s less a person than a fetish – a representation of a representation. No one in America knows better than she does that what’s happening to the Republicans is a consequence of routine authoritarianism.
My fear is that she used “cult,” because she still can’t quite bring herself to accept a reality in which the Republicans are reverting to their natural, primordial state. My fear is that even Clinton can’t accept that the Republicans are amassing toward a restoration of their true selves, toward becoming a party akin to the Chinese Communist Party.
Chinese “President” Xi Jinping is the leader of the CCP. He is, officially speaking, infallible. Obedience to the party line is enforceable by death. Dissent from the party line is continually crushed. There is, generally, “intolerance of anyone who doesn’t agree with what their mission is.”
Xi Jinping is, in many ways, like Donald Trump. But are we really going to assign “cult leader” to him? Are we really going to assign “cult follower” to hundreds of millions of Chinese loyal to the CCP?
Let’s instead recognize routine authoritarianism for what it is.
And what it is not.
Cults are many things, many of them terrible, but they are not what Donald Trump’s campaign has become – a vengeance movement.
He has centered the criminal indictments against him, according to the Post, and is now “determinedly delegitimizing the legal system, as he has … with public health measures, the intelligence community, elections and other people or agencies he views as opposing him.”
Cults do not center revenge, because they are utopian. They seek transformational change that’s personal. Their followers are idealists, true believers, anarchists in the purest sense. That’s why, in the words of sociologist and cult expert Janja Lalich, cults demand such “a high level of personal commitment from its members in words and deeds.”
Trump is many things, most of them terrible, and many indeed similar to what a true cult leader would exhibit, but he is not asking his followers for “a high level of personal commitment.” There’s nothing about Trump that “includes a call for a personal transformation.” A cult, however bad it is, offers a vision. Trump calls only for defeating the enemy, for victory in war and for rejoicing in the spoils of war.
Clinton said the Republicans, under Trump, have become “more of a cult than a political party at this point and they’re going to stick with their leader.” She could have said the same thing of George W. Bush.
A charismatic leader in his own right, the former Republican president was, and was surrounded by, true believers with “a high level of personal commitment” to transforming the world order according to a cult-like vision of “democratic” utopia. The invasion of Iraq was a crusade prosecuted in the name of America, their one true god.
They killed thousands of Americans. They killed millions of Iraqis and Afghans. They destroyed a civilization. They wrested a gothic romance out of its ashes. And they set in motion the restoration of their political party toward something akin to their ideological enemies in China.
Only, instead of being voted out, as Trump was, Bush was voted back in. And he was given a second term, in 2004, by more than his own people. No one called him a cult leader, though. They called him the president.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.