In my Introduction to Sociology course I ask groups of students to design a cult. After some exposure to concepts basic to the discipline, socialization, sanctions (positive and negative), and the theorist G.H. Mead on how the self is formed through stimulation, interaction, and bonding, I set them off to create the guide manual for the formation and maintenance of a fictional cult of their choosing. They mostly get it wrong at first, always thinking that the successful cult is the one offering the most enticing product. In consumer culture where individual choice is emphasized it is assumed that the consumer will choose from the best available option in the name of capitalistic acquisition. They overvalue this aspect and underestimate the value of the social rewards that really propel individuals. They miss just how profoundly the group can shape individual thought and action by transforming the self in total. The product or idea is almost entirely irrelevant. Cults are successful when they can stimulate and bond with individuals to the degree to which the individual’s very sense of self is entwined with group values.
We all learn the norms and values of culture through the socialization process, through subtle or not to subtle rewards and punishments. In youth a smile and “good job” may suffice on the positive side, or if you’ve behaved poorly, a disapproving stare and the revocation of internet privileges for a night. The socialization process never ends, and it is a human universal to revel in approval from our peers and to fear punishment, particularly in the form of ostracism. Early socializers are usually parents (and television), but later peer groups become more valuable.
Sports teams, church groups, the workplace, and other peer groups are all comprised of individuals who offer rewards when the group norms are adhered to, and punishments when they are not. Through this process we are enticed to think and act in ways proscribed by others. I like to tell students that understanding how is process works is a step in how we might truly learn to think for ourselves. Of course, not all socializing peer groups are cults. Cults go a step further, by introducing stories and rituals meant to unify the group and separate targeted individuals form outside influence.
The Trump rally, appearing to many as a hate mongering pit of ignorance, is for adherents a happy place. In “The Church of Trump,” The Atlantic contributor Alex Wagner explains that Trump adherents earn support, solidarity, and even spiritual elevation from participation. There is a great sense of joy that comes from being around those who share your worldview, bonding with friends and interacting in an increasingly atomized world. Given this who would trade the joy of belonging for facts? Participation isn’t about truth seeking or problem solving. Expecting so would be like expecting a church parishioner to attend in order to gather data so to one day square science and the holy book once and for all. No. They’re present to hug, shake hands, and receive the approval of friends and family affirming that they are in fact good people. Changing course would not just be a matter of changing one’s mind, it would be a form of betrayal that would come at a huge social cost. But it doesn’t end there.
Christianity offers the story of a dramatic execution and ascension, virgin birth, the rapture, etc., etc. Other faith traditions similarly indulge in myriad tales of murder and intrigue often played out ritualistically on a regular basis. Similarly, the Trump rally holds all the elements of a good service, however far-fetched, but again, the product (in this case truth value) doesn’t matter. The heroic protagonist battles corruption to “drain the swamp,” and promises to banish or imprison the devilish villains in the form of Mexican gang members and Hillary Clinton. Rituals are plentiful here as well, such as following the breadcrumbs left by “Q,” apparent infiltrator of the deep state. Seen this way we should not be surprised that Trump supporters appear to believe so many outlandish things. We should expect a stream of new and wilder conspiracy theories to develop as the cult of Trump grows and develops into a more fully-fledged religion.
None of this is crazy if we’re willing to frame Trump support in the context of religious belief. The so-called new atheists, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and the like stress that dogmatic religious belief is not benign. The evidence for this stretches over decades of climate change denial, denial of evolution and the wholesale rejection of basic scientific principles. What has changed now is that instead of being a hidden engine for conservatism by generating easily manipulated dupes this rampant fervor for the otherworldly is now the party itself. Believers and non-believers alike witness the snake handling. Human survival on the planet may depend on somehow breaking this spell and reinstalling Enlightenment values. But we won’t do this by making the better argument.