• Monthly
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $other
  • use PayPal

Spring Donation Drive

CounterPunch is a lifeboat piggybank-icon of sanity in today’s turbulent political seas. Please make a tax-deductible donation and help us continue to fight.
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Trump Supporters: the Joyous Cult Bound by Shared Story and Ritual

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.

More articles by:

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

Weekend Edition
May 17, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Melvin Goodman
Trump and the Middle East: a Long Record of Personal Failure
Joan Roelofs
“Get Your Endangered Species Off My Bombing Range!”
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Slouching Towards Tehran
Paul Street
It’s Even More Terrible Than You Thought
Rob Urie
Grabby Joe and the Problem of Environmental Decline
Ajamu Baraka
2020 Elections: It’s Militarism and the Military Budget Stupid!
Andrew Levine
Springtime for Biden and Democrats
Richard Moser
The Interlocking Crises: War and Climate Chaos
Ron Jacobs
Uncle Sam Needs Our Help Again?
Eric Draitser
Elizabeth Warren Was Smart to Tell FOX to Go to Hell
Peter Bolton
The Washington Post’s “Cartel of the Suns” Theory is the Latest Desperate Excuse for Why the Coup Attempt in Venezuela has Failed
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Analysis of Undecideds Suggests Biden’s Support May be Exaggerated
Peter Lackowski
Eyewitness in Venezuela: a 14-year Perspective
Karl Grossman
Can Jerry Nadler Take Down Trump?
Howie Hawkins
Does the Climate Movement Really Mean What It Says?
Gary Leupp
Bolton and the Road to the War He Wants
Jill Richardson
Climate Change was No Accident
Josh Hoxie
Debunking Myths About Wealth and Race
David Barsamian
Iran Notes
David Mattson
Social Carrying Capacity Politspeak Bamboozle
Christopher Brauchli
The Pompeo Smirk
Louis Proyect
Trotsky, Bukharin and the Eco-Modernists
Martha Burk
Will Burning at the Stake Come Next?
John W. Whitehead
The Deadly Perils of Traffic Stops in America
Binoy Kampmark
The Christchurch Pledge and a Regulated Internet
David Rosen
Florida’s Sex Wars: the Battle to Decriminalize Sex Work
Ralph Nader
Trump: Importing Dangerous Medicines and Food and Keeping Consumers in the Dark
Brett Haverstick
America’s Roadless Rules are Not Protecting Public Wildlands From Development
Alan Macleod
Purity Tests Can be a Good Thing
Binoy Kampmark
Modern Merchants of Death: the NSO Group, Spyware and Human Rights
Kim C. Domenico
Anarchism & Reconciliation, Part II
Peter LaVenia
Game of Thrones and the Truth About Class (Spoiler Warning)
Manuel E. Yepe
The Options Trump Puts on the Table
Renee Parsons
The Pompeo/Bolton Tag Team
David Swanson
Where Lyme Disease Came From and Why It Eludes Treatment
Cesar Chelala
Lowering Your Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Our Problems are Deeper than “Capitalism” (and “Socialism” Alone Can’t Solve Them)
Chris Zinda
Delegislating Wilderness
Robert Koehler
War’s Unanswered Questions
Robert P. Alvarez
Let Prison Inmates Vote
Barbara Nimri Aziz
A Novel We Can All Relate To
David Yearsley
Carmen’s Mother’s Day Lessons
Charles R. Larson
Review: Ziya Tong’s “The Reality Bubble”
Elliot Sperber
Pharaoh’s Dream
Elizabeth Keyes
Somewhere Beyond Corporate Media Yemenis Die
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail