The Cancer Cult is Infecting Our American Mind and Memory
I believe totally in your freedoms. I do, you’re free, you got to do what you have to do.
But I recommend taking the vaccines. I did it, it’s good, take the vaccines.
— Donald Trump at an August 21 rally in Alabama
[This is the third and final blog of a three-part series. In the first blog, posted on August 17, we examined the impact of the cancer cult on the nation’s physical health. In the second, posted on September 1, we looked at the cult’s impact on the health of our democracy. In this blog, we explore the cult’s impact on the nation’s mental health.]
After former president and current leader of the cancer cult Donald Trump recommended taking the COVID-19 vaccine, what some in the Alabama audience that night had to do was to boo Trump. They booed him because it was their right and freedom as cancer cult members.
A cult, as we defined it in the first blog of this series, is a group of people with extreme dedication to a certain leader and set of beliefs.
As we explained:
The important elements of that definition are a “certain leader” and “a set of beliefs.” In this instance, Trump is that certain leader embodying, magnifying and legitimating a set of beliefs.
Some of those beliefs are the beliefs of the members. The others are those of Trump himself. There is a reciprocity in this relationship that’s mutually beneficial to the cult specifically and harmful to society in general. In a phrase, this is a cult of personality and aligned personalities.
In Alabama, the cult members demonstrated they will accept what Trump says when they agree with his belief, but not do so when it does not match their beliefs. They are in charge when they want to be.
Trump acknowledged their prerogative immediately at his rally. After the booing stopped, he responded, “That’s OK. That’s all right. That’s good. You got your freedoms. But I happen to take the vaccine. If it doesn’t work, you’ll be the first to know. OK.”
The Members of the Cancer Cult: Leaders and Followers
Trump’s affirmative reaction to the pushback of the booing indicated the reciprocity of this relationship. The members need Trump and he needs them. This is not a simple case of “follow the leader.”
Much has been written about Trump “the leader” and much more will be written. On the other hand, little has been written about the cult members.
In this blog, we review what has and add our own insights to examine: Who the cult members are. What is in and on their minds. Why they feel the way they do. How their attitudes and actions are affecting others. Where this entanglement could lead and when it will end.
Before beginning that analysis, however, let’s take a brief look at the nature of this cult. We are among many calling some of Trump’s followers cultish. One of the first to do so was Steven Hassan, a “cult expert”, former Moonie, and licensed mental health counselor.
Hassan authored the book, The Cult of Trump, published in 2019. In his book, he stresses Trump’s use of mind control to achieve his ends with followers.
In an interview with Joe Hagan for Vanity Fair published on January 21, 2021 — the day after Biden was inaugurated — Hassan reiterated that Trump had all of the characteristics of a cult leader. And that he had built a “destructive authoritarian cult” using the BITE model of authoritarian control: B = behavior control. I = information control. T = thought control. E = emotional control.
Hassan observed that a cult can suppress a person’s “real” or “authentic self” and replace it with a “false self.” This is true in the extreme for members of the cancer cult who belong to a conspiracy group such as the QAnon or the Proud Boys. But for the majority of the members of the cancer cult, its huge size derives from the fact that it aligns with their set of personal beliefs and/or appeals to their “specific interests” such as anti-abortion, pro-gun, or anti-government.
The Cancer Cult: Trouble in Mind
The demographics of the strong Trump supporters are fairly well known. The majority are white, males without college degrees, working class, older, and live primarily in rural areas and in the red states.
The psychographics of these individuals are not as well-recognized. As noted in our earlier writings, researchers and analysts discovered that the early devotees of Trump when he was the candidate for president in 2016 were right-wing populists and Republican voters who:
- Were “true authoritarians” that scored high on authority/loyalty/sanctity.
- Felt that discrimination against whites had become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.
- Scored highest on racial resentment and were much more likely to support Trump than their moderate counterparts.
- Didn’t feel that they had a voice and wanted to wage an interior war against those who are different than them (e.g., immigrants and Muslims).
Research since then has reinforced and added depth and dimension to that characterization. Most notable is the recently published study, “Activating Animus: The Uniquely Social Roots of Trump Support,” written by Lilliana Mason, political scientist at Johns Hopkins University and author of Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity, John Kane, political scientist at New York University, and Julie Wronski, political scientist at the University of Mississippi.
In an August podcast interview on The Ezra Klein Show, Mason stated that these Trump voters resembled other Republican voters on a number of characteristics,
However, for Trump himself and Trump alone, the other thing that predicted whether they would like him was that they disliked Muslims, African Americans, Hispanics and LGBTQ Americans. Any mix of those, but largely all of them. And that animosity towards those marginalized groups did not predict support for the Republican Party.
These Trump supporters and Republican voters are not alone in their animosity. As Kane pointed out, in written comments to Thomas B. Edsall for his July 7 New York Times column:
…approximately 18 percent of Democrats have scores above the midpoint of the scale (which would mean negative feelings/animus). For Independents, this percentage grows to 33 percent. For Republicans it jumps substantially to 45 percent.
What distinguishes the Trump supporters’ attitudes is that they control the Republican Party. The Republican Party today should be labeled the Trump Party.
The members of the Trump cult are not necessarily running the party — although some are — but they are exercising control over those who do. And they want that party to be run in their image and likeness. When they look in the mirror, they don’t want to see someone who looks different than themselves looking over their shoulder.
Donald Trump understood this from the time he came down the escalator in Trump Tower on June 16, 2015 to announce his presidential candidacy. He ran his campaign with the trouble he had in mind and the trouble his supporters had in theirs.
More importantly, that’s how he governed as President. As Adam Serwer summarizes in the introduction to his book, The Cruelty is the Point: The Past Present, and Future of Trump’s America, “… voters stood by him because he kept the promises that mattered to them.”
Serwer goes on to enumerate those promises. They include, among others: restricting immigration; trying to rig the census in favor of whites against Hispanics and Blacks; imposing speech restrictions on discussions of systemic racism; encouraging police brutality to suppress peaceful protests; and barring transgender people from serving in the military.
The Cancer Cult: Canceling Civility
Now that he is not in office Donald Trump can no longer deliver on those promises. But with the Big Lie, he has extended his mind control over the cult members who are of one mind with his.
He has been able to accomplish this because his loss is their loss. It is personal to them because they are now engaged in what Lilliana Mason calls “identity politics.” Their identities are wrapped up with Trump’s and they must not surrender because if they do so, they will slide back down the political/societal totem pole.
With Trump in the Oval Office, they no longer felt marginalized and disadvantaged by those whom they detest — those in traditionally marginalized and disadvantaged groups. With Trump on the sidelines, they have lost the perceived progress they made with their commander in chief in charge. As a result, they have moved to “take charge” themselves by proclaiming their freedom and protecting their rights.
The most extreme example of this was provided by the group of cult members who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6. That was an act of sedition and an attack on our American democracy.
The more common form of resistance has come in uncivil behavior such as: Striking out against the government and those in the other political party by refusing to get vaccinated. Refusing to wear masks in public places when encouraged to do so. Protesting to school boards and outside schools in a confrontational manner against having students wear masks.
And recently, after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, the fringe elements of the cult, including white supremacists and anti-government extremists, went as far as using social media to praise the Taliban, saying their victory might serve as a model in the U.S.
Uncivil behavior can breed uncivil behavior in return. Animosity can breed animosity and lead to contentious conflict.
At a shooting range, the range master, to ensure safety, says “Ready on the left, ready on the right, ready on the firing line.” After waiting a moment to ensure all are ready, the range master says “Commence firing.”
The United States of America is not a shooting range. But, sadly in this twenty-first century, it has become more like one. More people on the left and the right are buying guns.
But it is not just guns that might be fired. Those on the left and those on the right are pointing fingers at one another and assigning blame for the current divided nature and fragile condition of this democracy.
At the beginning of his July 14 New York Times column, Thomas Edsall asks the question, “Should responsibility for the rampant polarization that characterizes American politics today be laid at the feet of liberals or conservatives?”
Edsall presents arguments from both sides in his column. The point that stuck out for us was one made by Brian Schaffner, a political scientist at Tufts who asserted, ‘The overall median among the population of Americans has moved leftward from 1994 to 2017.” This was true for Democrats and Republicans and independents, even if they had shifted less leftward than the Democrats.
The members of the Cancer Cult are not part of the median group or moderate Republicans. As noted, they are at the extremes and there are millions — and perhaps tens of millions — of them. They are the most influential group in the Republican Party today and win the numbers game hands down.
This dominance of the Party is very concerning because as Adam Enders, political scientist at the University of Louisville, and Joseph Uscinski, political scientist at the University of Miami, discovered through their research, these individuals have an “anti-establishment orientation toward the existing political order irrespective of partisanship and ideology.”
As quoted in a Thomas Edsall column, Uscinksi and Enders conclude that “…an additional “anti-establishment” dimension of opinion, can, at least partially, account for the acceptance of political violence, distrust in government, belief in conspiracy theories, and support of ‘outsider’ candidates.”
Given this, and the fact there is no range master for this country who can say “Cease Fire” and ensure compliance with that order, the question becomes what should be done to address this incivility quagmire and to renew Americans commitment to the United States and to each other.
Searching for the Cure to Cancer
It must start by recognizing the seriousness of America’s cancerous condition and that a “a war on truth is raging”.
That’s the opening sentence for the title of an opinion piece by Lee McIntyre, research fellow at Boston University and author of Post-Truth, and Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of The Constitution of Knowledge: a Defense of Truth. The second sentence of their piece is “Not everyone recognizes were in it.”
McIntyre and Rauch do. In their op-ed they assert: “He (Donald Trump) and his allies in conservative media and Republican politics seized upon Russian-style disinformation techniques and applied them to domestic politics.” They go on to assert further that:
For years, Americans have been targeted with epistemic warfare — that is with attacks on the credibility of the mainstream media, academia, government agencies, and other institutions and professionals we rely on to keep us moored to facts.
McIntyre and Rauch note that that we might “fight back” using measures such as revamping social media and teaching media literacy.” But they conclude by recommending, “The first step toward winning the war on truth is to accept that we are in one.”
We agree. What steps should come after that?
We have reviewed many thoughtful recommendations in this regard. Those which we found among the most interesting are introduced here.
Fair warning at the outset, however. There is no miracle cure or easy fix for this cancer of our society and body politic, just as there is none for a cancer that’s in an advanced stage and has metastasized throughout the human body.
That said, following, in no particular order, are recommendations for consideration to curtail the impact of the cancer cult and to begin America’s recovery process.
Steven Hassan, author of The Cult of Trump, hones in on confronting the contaminating role of the social media. Hassan states, “I would put undue influence or mind control as the number-two most important thing that we address for the planet. Because otherwise authoritarianism, using social media, is a threat.”
Jonathan Holloway, president of Rutgers University, calls for bringing people from diverse backgrounds and locations together to help unite America. Holloway hypothesizes that “A good foundation would be a one-year mandatory national service program.”
Ross Brooks, professor of law and policy at Georgetown University, advances the necessity for the development of competence. Brooks observes, “Democracy, too is unsustainable without competence at every level. We need citizens who understand our political system and who are capable of evaluating competing arguments, and we need leaders capable of developing and carrying out wise polices.” He suggests that “…the idea of competence also needs to encompass justice, humility, and empathy.”
Michael Gerson, op-ed columnist for the Washington Post, proposes a national effort at civic healing. Gerson declares that “Civic healing is possible only with a measure of civic idealism.” He notes that the Partnership for American Democracy is a bipartisan organization “created to catalyze civic healing” by doing things such as encouraging civic literacy, promoting community bridge-building, and holding media organizations accountable for ethical behavior.
Adam Serwer, author of The Cruelty is the Point, in an NPR interview encourages us to follow our better angels. He said he was inspired in writing his book by people who fought to “expand the blessings of American democracy to everyone.” After stressing that “America is the Declaration of Independence and its three-fifths clause,” Serwer advises “All we can do is try to hew as best we can to our best traditions rather than the ones that make us feel shame.”
Building on what Serwer suggests, Americans need to be able to hear the whole story of America, not just the sanitized and politically correct version of the evolution of our American democracy. As we proposed most recently in a June blog, that requires an excellent civic education, rather than a patriotic one that, among other things, would not permit discussion of race-related topics in the classroom.
And it also demands civic learning and engagement programs that get students out of the classroom and into their communities to make a positive difference there. America has fallen far short in this regard in the twenty-first century, and didn’t do that well even in the twentieth. That is part of the reason for the current cancer culture.
Those are some of the ideas that should be put on the drawing board for dealing with America’s cancer culture problem. This is a complex problem and no single action will resolve it.
As stated, the cancer is in an advanced stage and will require a multifaceted treatment, just as advanced stage cancers in the human body frequently requires a mix of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery for successful results. And just as in treating those cancers, success, in many instances, is not completely eliminating the cancer or any chance of recurrence.
As Lee McIntyre and Jonathan Rauch observed, “Since epistemic war has proved its mettle so spectacularly in U.S. politics, it is likely here for good.” The war the cancer cult, its leader, acolytes, and surrogates have brought upon us is actually here for bad and not for good.
Strengthening Our American Memory and Democracy
That war will be etched into our American memory. Most indelibly etched will be the date of January 6.
January 6 will join September 11 and December 7 as dates that will live in our memory because of attacks on the United States. The attacks of 9/11 and 12/7 were conducted by foreign elements. The attack of January 6 was conducted by domestic terrorists who claimed they were patriots.
That assault on the U.S. Capitol turned the war on the truth, which had been waged by the cancer cult throughout Trump’s presidency, and which had become more confrontational with his departure, into one of violence
In spite of the countless video clips showing the reprehensible actions of the mob storming the Capitol, some elected officials and others are attempting to write this out of our memory and to move on as if this extraordinary event was not that unusual.
This is just another manifestation of the war on truth and an attempt to white-wash our American memory. The cancer cult is engaged in this war because they want us to have a selective memory, to not look forward but to gaze fondly backward when whites were in the majority and enjoyed supremacy, and to believe fake news and fabrications, rather than facts and science.
It is an attempt to rewrite history and to shape America’s future by looking incompletely and inaccurately at its past. “What, then, of the past?” Jill Lepore, professor of American history, asks that question in the introduction to her groundbreaking book , These Truths: A History of the United States.
Lepore answers that question eloquently, writing:
There is, to be sure, a great deal of anguish in America’s history and more hypocrisy. No nation and no people are relieved of these. But there is also, in the American past, an extraordinary amount of decency and hope, of prosperity and ambition, and much, especially, of invention and beauty. Some American history books fail to criticize the United States, others do nothing but. This book is neither kind. The truths on which the nation was founded are not mysteries, articles of faith, never to be questioned, as if the founding were an act, but neither are they lies, all facts fictions, as if nothing can be known in a world without truth. Between reverence and worship on the one side, and irreverence and contempt on the other side, lies an uneasy path, away from false pieties and petty triumphs over people who lived and died and committed both their acts of courage and their sins and errors long before we committed ours.
Lepore nails it! If we want to make progress as a nation and a democracy, we need to figure out how to walk that “uneasy path” together. Finding that path will not be easy and it is certain there will be many a stumble along the way.
Moreover, it is completely unrealistic to believe that there will be a kumbaya moment — a lightning bolt of reality — and that all members of the cancer cult will convert and join hands with those on the other side of this war on truth to jaunt merrily down the path. They have not drunk the Kool Aid. But some of the cult members are taking hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin, the deworming medicine used on horses and cows.
Most importantly, many of the cult members have been “brainwashed” — not by Trump, but through their early development of hardened values, attitudes, and beliefs. Social psychologist Milton Rokeach from Michigan State University was one of the foremost experts on belief systems. His research disclosed that we as Americans had similar values and all have value hierarchies, but our hierarchies vary considerably from individual to individual.
Based upon further research, Rokeach developed a psychology of dogmatism. He found that dogmatism was a measurable personality trait created by the convergence of a closed cognitive system, authoritarianism, and intolerance.
If that sounds familiar it should, because those are the dominant characteristics of many Trump supporters outlined in the “Trouble in Mind” section of this blog. They have closed minds and immutable values and opinions on certain things that can’t be changed no matter what.
Other Trump supporters might not be dogmatists, but when something does not square with their view of reality, they resolve the cognitive dissonance by rejecting or reinterpreting it. This accounts for the ability to accept and perpetuate the Big Lie and the other blatant falsehoods put forward by the former president that have been supported over time.
Given these characteristics, it is apparent that this war on truth, to some extent, will be a forever one. There are millions, and perhaps tens of millions, who are not and will not be willing to change, because it is as much or more about allegiance to their self-concept as it is to country.
Nevertheless, early in this second decade of the 21st century, the United States of America is at a crossroads — a pivot point. The challenge/opportunity is to use this period of time to communicate, educate, and engage with those in the cancer cult who are persuadable, and to enlist them to collaborate in charting a course to strengthen our American memory and democracy.
Moving the American Experiment Forward
It might seem that it will be impossible to achieve a collaborative course for the United States of America in these trying and testing times. Indeed, it does seem impossible until one stops to think where America was on July 4, 1776 and where it stands today in 2021 — 245 years later.
Who could have predicted where this American experiment has taken this country and its citizens over nearly two and one-half centuries — the progress made, the results achieved, the battles fought, and the conflicts resolved and unresolved? Even some the founding fathers were concerned and fearful about the future of the American experiment they had launched.
That’s the secret Dennis Rasmussen, political scientist at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, reveals in his book, Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of American’s Founders. Drawing upon correspondence from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton written later in life, Rasmussen shows they each had doubts about the future direction and longevity of the country.
As Jamelle Bouie, opinion columnist for the New York Times, points out in his article discussing Rasmussen’s book, James Madison, with his continuing optimistic perspective, stood in stark contrast to the pessimism of those founders. Bouie notes that Madison outlived his peers, and in his final public speech when Andrew Jackson was president, Madison stated, “I have never despaired. Not withstanding all the threatening appearances we have passed through. I now have more than a hope, a consoling confidence that we shall at last find that our labors have not been in vain.”
Put us in the Madisonian camp. The going looks extremely tough right now. But it has looked tough many times before in America’s history.
We review a number of those historic times in our 2013 book , Working the Pivot Points: To Make America Work Again, concluding that how pivot points are handled matters enormously. We cite three major takeaways, based upon our analysis of those pivot points, that may be even more relevant today than they were nearly a decade ago:
- Memory Matters: Or our American memory should. George Santayana famously said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” An understanding of the contexts and backstories at pivot points facilitates the development of knowledge and insights for forward progress. A partial or inaccurate recollection retards momentum and leads to inertia — intracranial and otherwise. We offer the following adaptation to Santayana’s saying, ‘Those who remember or want to go back to a past the way that it wasn’t are condemned to no future.’
- Mindsets Matter: If one reviews the accomplishments that government has spurred in American history, it would seem that there might be some agreement on government’s contribution to making the United States a better place. But quite the contrary is true. If you review various pivot points, you will see the same arguments being played out continuously and over and over again from the time of the Constitution. Being anti-government and anti-establishment is an American state of mind for those who, in spite of factual evidence to the contrary, will resist at all costs.
- Momentum Matters: The accomplishments at the pivot points were not achieved instantaneously. In many cases, it took years and decades to achieve the final results. That demonstrates the need for persistence and movement forward.
Forward momentum is what the United States needs desperately right now to improve the nation’s physical health, its mental health, and the health of the fragile crucible called our democracy. The platform for positive momentum must be provided by institutional players such as businesses, educational institutions, religious groups, non-profits, governments, and elected officials. The source for the momentum, however, must come from “we the people”.
Joe Klein begins his New York Times article on Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan by quoting Senator Moynihan saying, in a lecture at Harvard in 1986, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” Klein proceeds to observe that “Moynihan, an apostle of complexity, lived at the intersection of these two truths.”
In 2021, because of the changing dynamics, all of us live at the intersection of those two truths. And, given the radically changed nature of the Republican party since the emergence of the Tea Party, the Freedom Caucus, and the ascendancy of Donald Trump and his cultish supporters, politics now is culture, and vice versa, for many members of that party.
To establish the necessary forward momentum, there is a need for a counterbalance that can only come from concerned citizens who are committed to moving this democracy forward in a positive way. As Adlai Stevenson so aptly put it, “As citizens of this democracy, you are the rulers and the ruled, the law-givers and the law-abiding, the beginning and the end.”
When a large group of citizens does not want to play by the rules or to be law- abiding, it could spell the end for this democracy that obliterates its beginning. The citizens who understand this must be willing to step forward.
In doing so, they must recognize that while the perception of the conservative or Republican will differ from that of the liberal or Democrat, the definition of facts should not. Those citizens who understand this perspective will have the right starting point in order to collaborate and compromise to come up with a mutually agreeable solution to our problems.
They will move the American experiment forward and continue the progress toward a more perfect union rather than a regression toward an autocracy.
Originally published by the Frank Islam Institute for 21st Century Citizenship. For more information on what 21st century citizenship entails, and to see exemplars from around the world, please visit our website.