When does a following become so avid, so unquestioning, so blindly loyal that it deserves to be called a cult?
That question, and that label, have spiked in recent discourse. “We’re in a strange place. It’s becoming a cultish thing, isn’t it?” U.S. Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, mused to reporters last Wednesday. He continued: “It’s not a good place for any party to have a cult-like situation as it relates to a president that happens to be purportedly of the same party.”
No, no, no, joked Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina: “You got to be organized to be a cult. ... I don’t think we’ll ever qualify as a cult.” Or maybe Graham was deflecting; after all, in May 2016 he had tweeted: “If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed.......and we will deserve it.” What a difference 13 months make.
Happy Birthday, Mr. President!— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) June 14, 2018
You’re keeping your promise to make America safer and more prosperous.
And unfortunately for me, you’re doing all this without losing a step in your golf game!@realDonaldTrump #TrumpBirthday pic.twitter.com/PJRa54FVAP
(Alternate word of the week: toady.)
“Cult 45” – often seen as a hashtag on social media – spoofs Colt 45, the malt liquor brand. “45” is a reference to the 45th president. Colt .45 is a firearm cartridge; Colt 45 is a 1950 western starring Randolph Scott.
Trump wants his #Cult45 followers to think a jokey 7-word text between two FBI agents "will go down as a dark and dangerous period in American History!"— The Daily Edge (@TheDailyEdge) June 16, 2018
Meanwhile, his #AmericanGestapo is terrorizing families and horrifying the world: https://t.co/HCowVQMRMY
Cult’s origins are religious: Latin cultus is “an act of worship”; Middle French culte was associated with the veneration of saints or holy relics. The word is related to cultivate and culture but not to occult, which comes from Latin occulere, "to cover over, conceal.”
“Cult,” Season 7 of “American Horror Story,” is set in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Cult was imported into English in the early 17th century, rarely used in the 18th, and revived in the mid-19th century with the expanded sense of “devoted attention (not necessarily religious) to a particular person or thing.” Writers began referring to “the cult of beauty” and “the cult of Buffaloism” – the latter a quirky fraternal society, the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, that was neither royal nor antediluvian – it was founded in London in 1822 – and had nothing to do with buffaloes. Cult of personality emerged in 1898 (in the New York Times!); the OED defines it as “a collective obsession with, or intense, excessive, or uncritical admiration for, a particular public figure, esp. a political leader” and notes that it is “frequently with totalitarian leaders (esp. Stalin) and their idealized portrayal by means of propaganda, manipulation of the mass media, etc.”
Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art, an exhibit currently view at San Francisco’s De Young Museum.
Cult found new lexical life in the second half of the 20th century, which saw the rise in the U.S. of Scientology, the Unification Church (aka the Moonies), the Rajneesh movement, the Hare Krishnas, the Manson Family, the Branch Davidians, Peoples Temple, and Heaven’s Gate, to name only some of the era’s best-known groups. What all of them have, or had, in common was a charismatic founder who inspired blind devotion, sometimes to the point of literal self-sacrifice.
Is that what we’re seeing with #Cult45? Certainly Trump’s history as a hype merchant (see: Trump University, Trump Steaks, Trump perfume, et al.) suggests common ground with the likes of L. Ron Hubbard and Jim Jones. Certainly his campaign-rally boast that he “could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters” – which, as Snopes points out, was less an expression of murderous intent than a tribute to his followers’ unwavering loyalty – suggests a casual willingness to assume the mantle of cult leader.
In his essay “Explaining Cult45,” published in Logos in 2017, the sociologist Darren Barany observed that Trump and Trumpism may “reflect a kind of ideological and social media- and reality TV-mediated fascism, where individuals internalize proto-fascistic precepts but believe they are fighting for ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’ over and against a straw-man they may themselves recognize as a kind of liberal tyranny.” Trump’s followers, Barany wrote, “are ardently following Trump and seem to truly identify with his pervasive Tweeting, TV huckster persona, and phony billionaire bourgeois pageantry.”
I am not in a cult. I just love Donald Trump so much, and since deciding to love Trump, my pores have become clearer and my flocks have thrived, and my atherosclerosis went away — maybe spontaneously, but maybe not. I am prospering now as I have never prospered before. I would say that if loving Donald Trump is wrong, I don’t want to be right, but I know that loving Donald Trump is not wrong. It is the only thing that is right. I would give him my arm. I would give him my kidney. I would give him everything that I am. I would have nothing left.