We all know the old saying, “Those who do not know the past are condemned to repeat it.” The fact this saying is so well-known doesn’t mean it’s trite or false. It isn’t. It’s too, too true. Trumpism is a cult and not knowing the history of cults makes one, or one’s society, condemned to be victimized by a cult and a cult leader.
Our English word cult comes from the Latin “cultus,” which meant the care and devotion of the gods. For the Greeks and Romans, it was always the gods, plural. One of earliest cults common among the Greeks and Romans was the “hero cult,” the worship of a human who was the product of a god mating with a human woman — Heracles was the son of Zeus and Alcmene, for example. A cult hero might also be a mortal who had received special favor from the gods and was, in effect, brought into their family. There were also cults dedicated to specific nature gods, each having his or her own shrine and special location. The city of Rome had hundreds of such shrines/temples, each one having its specific group of devout followers and temple keepers. The same was true across the whole empire. It was chaos.
The early Christian “catholic” church, during its first several centuries, had to figure out how to somehow accommodate this age-old habit of cults for gods and heroes. “Catholic” was originally just the Greek word for “universal” and it was used by the Roman government and Roman law; it referred to the church under the bishop of Rome as “Catholic,” meaning “Universal” throughout the empire. This was seen as a way to unify the hugely varying religious beliefs and rituals of so many widely different peoples living under Roman law.
But these old cults were very, very powerful phenomena and they did, indeed, contribute to inter-group distrust and violence. The human tendency to become a member of a cult is truly ancient, one could even say primordial. The early Church of Rome (and Constantinople) came up with a solution of genius: the acceptance and encouragement of the “Cult of the Saints.”
Saints were defined (and still are defined) in Catholic teaching as humans whose lives were highly exemplary and heroic, and in death, they occupy and position closer to God than humans in general. And similar to the ancient pagan gods and heroes, the saints could then (and can now) intercede and provide special assistance to those who venerate them. Saint Mary, the mother of Jesus, is certainly the best-known saint and the very first one.
You might justifiably ask, “How much of this old stuff has anything to do with Donald Trump and Trumpism in America?” And I have to answer, “A lot, a heck of a lot.” As almost everyone knows, the Cult of the Saints is something that has always been flatly and violently condemned in Protestantism all the way back to Luther and Calvin. OK, they had their reasons, I get it. But this means that the difference between types of honor and devotion has also been lost — leaving one and one’s society wide open for an attack of cultism on an exposed flank. In our case, it’s on the right flank.
The distinction that has been lost is God alone is to be worshiped while the saints and heroes are only to be revered, given reverence. Built into this distinction is an awareness that we must take great care regarding to whom and how we give our devotion and unwavering support. The problem with cults and cultism is, and has always been, absolute worship is given to objects of worship that are somewhat or highly unworthy.
We hear over and over again from the religious right that Trump has “been chosen by God” to lead this country. The fact such a statement is almost exactly the same as affirming “the divine right of kings” doesn’t bother Trump supporters. It is worth remembering the idea was, long ago, that a king is put there by God himself in the divinely ordained system to rule over men (out-of-date gender gaffes intended). Any and all cult leaders of today make use of this socio-psychological-religious construct — even leaders of purely secular and/or atheist and/or fascist, totalitarian groups.
For all of these reasons, this word “cult” now has a largely negative connotation — and for good reason. Cults are indeed very dangerous things. This past December, one of the world’s foremost authorities on cults, Steven Hassan, published a book titled “The Cult of Trump” with the subtitle “A Leading Cult Expert Explains how the President uses Mind Control.” It is a disturbing but important book.
The problem of cults has been around a long, long time. In a very real sense, Christianity itself was founded and spread in order to overcome the power of cults. It was no mere accident that one of the newest and most widespread cults in the time of Jesus was the Emperor Cult, whereby each Roman emperor was proclaimed a “divi filius,” “son of god,” on a divine mission to rule; sacrifices to his divine spirit were mandatory in temples throughout the entire empire. Many early Christians got in big trouble for refusing to do it. It was no mere coincidence that Jesus was called Son of God: He was, via instruction by example, the polar opposite in every way to the “sons of god” who were absolute rulers of the violent Roman state.
It’s not easy to deprogram the minds of cult members. We’ve known this for a long time now. Looking back in history, we can see clearly that it took Christianity hundreds of years to deprogram the minds of the peoples of the Roman empire. We cannot allow the minds and government of Americans to revert back to a form of politics that is 2,000 years out-of-date.
Religion and politics don’t mix well together. The genius of the American Constitution was, in no small degree, the recognition of this crucial fact. This is not to say religion is unimportant. Quite the opposite. It is to say that religion is so powerful, we have to find a way to keep it out of elections and separate from the state.
“Everything old is new again,” as the greatest political satirist in the English language, Jonathan Swift, said in his apropos essay “Political Lying” (printed in 1710). As Hassan has shown in excruciating detail, the core supporters of Trump have become members of a cult, in the clinical psychological-religious sense of the term. The Democratic Party and the American people have to realize this is a big part of what we are up against.
The cult of Trumpism must be stopped. This is no ordinary election.
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part time in Mexico.