When does a political movement become a cult?

We talked to experts about partisanship and fanaticism and why some politicians inspire cult-like devotion

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published October 18, 2022 12:00PM (EDT)

Jacob Chansley, also known as the "QAnon Shaman," screams "Freedom" inside the U.S. Senate chamber after the U.S. Capitol was breached by a mob during a joint session of Congress on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Jacob Chansley, also known as the "QAnon Shaman," screams "Freedom" inside the U.S. Senate chamber after the U.S. Capitol was breached by a mob during a joint session of Congress on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

As George Washington prepared to leave the presidency, he issued a famous Farewell Address warning Americans about the dangers of partisanship. Washington — who famously refused to join a political party during his two terms — exhorted that if Americans cared more about whether their party "wins" than maintaining democratic structures, "a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community" could manipulate the masses through a demagogic leader "to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion."

In cults of personality like Bolsonaro's there are "social-psychological associations that give adherents a sense of vicarious power through a heightened sense of destiny and purpose."

While the term "cult of personality" did not exist when Washington and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton wrote the Farewell Address in 1796, the two men seemed to have anticipated the ways in which partisanship can slip into cult-like worship of individual human beings. That, at least, was the conclusion reached by experts to whom Salon reached out about the difference between mere hyper-partisanship and cult-like worship of a political leader. 

Indeed, the past two decades of world history have made manifest numerous instances of politicians — in ostensibly democratic countries — whose followers exhibit idolatry towards them. Given what we know of the march of history, that might seem peculiar: shouldn't the trend towards a more democratic world be linear, rather than regressive? And yet, as leaders like Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro, Russia's Vladimir Putin and America's Donald Trump all attest, there is an undercurrent in contemporary politics that has devolved it into something more akin to sports fanaticism. Salon interviewed experts about the nature of this cult-like devotion towards politicians — what drives it, and what it means for the future of the democratic world. 

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What is the difference between normal partisanship and a political cult? Experts say that, in the latter scenario, supporters hold their leader as infallible.

"Cult-like politicians and their supporters also hold deep commitments to ideological positions, but these commitments tend to reflect the personalistic whims of leaders, which involve the demonization of critical 'others,'" Dr. Stephen A. Kent, a sociologist at the University of Alberta who studies new religious movements (NRMs) such as the Church of Scientology and the Children of God, told Salon by email. "These opponents are evil, not merely misguided or wrong." Once a demagogue's supporters have reached that conclusion, it is not difficult for the leader to manipulate the masses in the manner that Washington described.

In those situations, power in the political movement stems not from a set of ideas or shared interests, but from the personality and will of one individual. Even the most overzealous party follower will, if they are indeed merely partisan, ultimately abandon a leader when that individual betrays their core principles. This is why a politician with partisan appeal but no strong cult of personality can be reined in by their own side if they excessively abuse their power, like Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal. When a leader has a cult of personality, however, their supporters will never abandon them, no matter their transgression.

"Partisan politicians and their adherents support, in principle, a group's basic ideology concerning political and social policies, usually developed after adherents' debates and rooted in traditions," Kent continued. While partisans disagree with and even dislike their opponents because they are perceived as "misguided and wrong on crucial issues," they do not engage in the behavior extremes of those whose political beliefs are more cultish.

For an example of a modern leader with a cult of personality, Kent pointed to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

"His racist, anti-feminist, and traditionalist family values have garnered him supposed among his country's growing, conservative, Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christian communities, some of which see him as having a godly mandate for the imposition of authoritarian values in the country," Kent explained. Kent noted that Bolsonaro has followed Trump's example in claiming he can only lose his election if it is stolen, and in trying to control the nation's judiciary.

Kent added that in cults of personality like Bolsonaro's there are "social-psychological associations that give adherents a sense of vicarious power through a heightened sense of destiny and purpose. The figures who receive adherents' adulation themselves feel validated and encouraged by their followers' energy, which supplies narcissistic leaders with emotional validation and creates for them a body of potentially mobilized people enacting their directives and whims."

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his followers also fulfill some of the cult rubric. This includes cultivating a hyper-macho public image and spreading his own "Big Lie" about Ukraine (claiming it needs to be de-Nazified). Indeed, one of Putin's chiefs stated that Putin's reason for invading Ukraine related to an esoteric belief, promulgated by Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, that Russia has a historical and spiritual claim to the country. Since this is Putin's view, supporters who do not necessarily share Putin's obscure geopolitical philosophy but seem to be part of his cult of personality wind up repeating those nationalistic talking points.

As a former KGB officer, Putin is also intimately familiar with Russia's history of creating both secular and metaphysical cults of personality for its leaders, one that traces all the way back to Vladimir Lenin and the rise of the Soviet Union. Yet like Trump, Putin wins support among his followers through his narcissistic traits. It is no coincidence that both Trump and Putin supporters find themselves in comparable social positions when compelled to stand up for their heroes: They're championing leaders who behave like malignant narcissists.

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"Both figures demonstrate numerous characteristics typical of malignant narcissists, involving inflated evaluations of self-worth, a need for adoration, high demands upon inner circle supporters and facilitators, and vengeful responses to perceived critics," Kent said of Trump and Putin.

At the time of this writing, Trump has spent years focusing his cult of personality on promoting what has become known as the Big Lie — i.e., his claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him despite conclusive evidence to the contrary. Unlike a normal political issue which springs from authentic mass opinions (abortion rights, gun control, economic policy, etc.), the Big Lie exists because of the personality quirks of a man in charge of a political cult. It survives because, instead of being discredited by Trump's years-long history of refusing to accept election results unless he wins and the fact that Trump's arguments having been debunked, Trump supporters are trained to disregard any voice that dissents from their leader's word.

"When you're in a mind-control cult what the leader says goes, and that's it. The power is concentrated from the top down."

"People who are believing in the Big Lie have been indoctrinated for the most part into believing only this and into disbelieving any media that is critical of it," explained Dr. Steven Hassan, one of the world's foremost experts on mind control and cults, a former senior member of the Unification Church, founder/director of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center Inc. and author of the bestselling books "Freedom of Mind," "Combating Cult Mind Control" and "The Cult of Trump."

"When you're in a mind-control cult what the leader says goes, and that's it," Hassan pointed out. "The power is concentrated from the top down. Anyone who raises a ruckus, like [former Attorney General William] Barr saying that the election wasn't stolen, becomes persona non grata because they are not following the glorious leader."

Unsurprisingly, narcissism is the glue that hold together political cults such as Trump's — and not just the narcissism of the leader at the top, although in Trump's case his narcissistic traits helped psychologists predict his violent response to losing the 2020 election. In a condition known as narcissism by proxy, individuals who fall under a narcissist's sway will often mimic the narcissist's behavior and act as extensions of the narcissist's will. Even though the victims may not be narcissists themselves, and are often simply vulnerable to manipulation for a variety of personal reasons, they willingly serve as effective minions for the narcissist by entering their political cult.

Perhaps this is why even people who agree in the abstract about opposing cults become uncomfortable when observers notice cult-like behaviors among their preferred politicians. Hassan, for his part, told Salon about how he observed this when appearing as a guest on Joe Rogan's right-wing podcast.

"I was on Joe Rogan's show in 2015 regarding my first book 'Combating Cult Mind Control,'" Hassan recalled. "He loved my work and invited me back. But then when I did 'The Cult of Trump,' he passed."

In retrospect, it is unlikely that Rogan's Trump-supportive listeners would have been sincerely interested in hearing that their political hero had indoctrinated them into a cult. It is a dark irony, since that very cult of personality empowered Trump to break the precedent of peaceful transitions of presidential power that was established by George Washington himself.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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