The cult of a thousand cuts

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

In 1978, more than 900 people committed mass suicide by drinking Kool-Aid laced with cyanide. The people belonged to a group called Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, but it will be forever known as “Jonestown,” named after San Francisco cult leader Jim Jones.

The story of the “Jonestown Massacre” is a complicated one that requires more space to tell than this page can offer, but at the heart of the tragedy is the relationship some of us have with cults and what cults do to the brains of people who, mostly, just wanted to belong.

Many of us ask the question, “Why did these people join a cult? Didn’t they see what was happening?” The reasons someone drifts into a cult vary widely but, at the core, they are all seeking answers to problems in their lives and desire love and acceptance. That’s true with just about anybody.

Photo illustration by Ben Olson.

Cults don’t always lead to mass deaths and tragedy. Many are still thriving today, albeit under the guise of overly-enthusiastic self-help groups or multi-level marketing companies that eventually lead adherents to driving away their friends and loved ones. Others are firebrand political movements feeding off of anger, anxiety and any number of conspiracy theories. 

Does that mean anyone who is passionate about politics is a cult member? Of course not. But politics in the 21st century have embraced cult-like behavior to help galvanize the support of followers in a variety of ways. It’s up to each individual to recognize the line that exists between political chatter and the moment when the Kool-Aid is passed around.

In an interview with attn:, Cult Education Institute Director Rick Ross proposes a few critical warning signs to look for if you suspect someone is involved with a cult:

Extreme obsession with a group or leader. If someone you know is becoming increasingly overwhelmed by a group or leader, it might be time to intervene. Especially, Ross warned, if that obsession is “to the exclusion of friends or family, and to the detriment of their employment, education” or other facets of their life.

Any criticism or questioning is characterized as persecution. Ross said that people who have trouble finding fault with their group, or take any outside questioning or criticism as persecution, might be in a little too deep. “We all know that if you belong to a gym, a club, a church — you can think of negative things about it,” Ross said. “Not this constant singsong of total positivity.”

Reliance on the group or leader for value judgments and thoughts. Watch for increasing dependency on or hyperactivity within the group. “They don’t think outside of the box, and the group determines the parameters of the box,” Ross said.

Former followers or critics are always wrong, negative and even evil. People in cults are often shunned for leaving or referred to in pejorative terms because they dared to express criticism.

Some of you may know where I’m going with this, so I’ll just say the quiet part out loud: Trumpism is a cult. Full stop. A diverse set of political beliefs is healthy for a functioning democracy, but what has become of the faction of the Republican Party aligned with former president Donald Trump resembles a cult more and more every day. 

Let’s take this point by point.

Extreme obsession with a group or leader: Never in my life have I glorified any one person to the degree that I’ve seen Trumpists worship the man. I have had many heroes in my life, but rarely do I feel the need to fly a flag with their name behind my truck or wear clothing head to toe declaring my undying devotion to them. Or, for that matter, to storm the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overthrow a free and fair election because they lost.

In watching clips from some of his rallies past and present, Trump’s supporters seem to largely believe that he and he alone can “save” them from (insert your fear-mongering cause here). Trump said as much himself at the 2016 Republican National Convention when he stated that, “I alone can fix it,” when talking about the “broken system” of government. 

Any criticism or questioning is characterized as persecution: Of those heroes in my life, never have I been unable to speak critically of some of their actions. I believe Barack Obama embodied nearly every trait one could ask for in a president, yet I can’t help but point out some of his shortcomings, like how he failed to move aggressively on filling judicial nominations during his tenure, which culminated in Republicans’ refusal to seat Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court after they blocked his nomination 10 months prior to the 2016 election. Or Obama’s disastrous handling of the bank bailouts after the Great Recession in 2008-2009. Also, I loathed the fact that Obama condemned the Patriot Act while a senator but signed its renewal as president in 2011, specifically allowing roaming wiretaps and government searches of business records.

These criticisms don’t diminish the credit Obama deserves for the many good things he accomplished while in office. It is a healthy and good thing to question those in power. To fall on your knees and worship any man or woman is a step too far.

Reliance on the group or leader for value judgments and thoughts: During the Trump administration, there was a circular relationship between right-wing media — namely Fox News — and the former president. Fox News would gin up the next culture war — the “War on Christmas” or NFL players kneeling during the national anthem or any number of other equally hollow controversies — and Trump would express outrage to his loyal supporters so they, too, thought like he thought. Then he would call into any one of the “news” shows on Fox to react to the issue wholly invented by the network itself, completing the circle. The result was that millions of people were played like a cheap fiddle into structuring their beliefs to match that of their leader. 

While some Trumpists have turned their backs on Fox News, hunting for more sycophantic outlets like OANN or Newsmax to bolster their own beliefs, the battle still continues. Fox News and other right-wing media outlets regularly throw slabs of red meat to their followers to help keep the populace angry and afraid, which helps foster a deeper need for a “strong man” to “protect” them. The fact that millions of honest, hard-working Americans were duped into believing he was somehow a champion for their cause is one of the biggest grifts in U.S. history.

Former followers or critics are always wrong, negative and even evil: We saw dozens of examples of this during Trump’s presidency. One day a trusted adviser is the best person ever to hold down the job, according to Trump. The next day, that same person is labeled a “RINO,” or an “evil person” who “hates America” because they dared defy the Trumpian groupthink, which itself could change day by day.

Take former-Vice President Mike Pence, who has always been one of Trump’s most loyal lieutenants. It took the insurrection on Jan. 6 for Trump to turn on Pence after the latter refused to violate the Constitution by declaring the election null and void. Even if he wanted to, there was no legal framework for Pence to do so, but that didn’t stop Trump from egging on his followers to dogpile Pence for not backing his ploy.

The result was an angry mob storming the U.S. Capitol, beating police officers over the head with flags, chairs, hockey sticks and anything else they could get their hands on. A functional gallows was constructed outside the building while those in the crowd chanted “Hang Mike Pence” because he dared to defy Trump’s wishes.

But “What about the other side? Why always pick on the Republicans?” Let’s talk about that.

There is a widespread belief that there must be both sides presented for an argument to be valid. Yet, not every argument has two valid sides. Sometimes the mere fact of including an opposing view when there is no need for one ends up giving gravitas to a viewpoint that should remain in the caves and fever swamps where our most lizard-brained countrymen dwell.

We saw this play out recently in Texas as a school administrator attempted to advise teachers that if they taught about the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews were murdered, they also needed to include books with “opposing” views of the Holocaust. The reason the guidelines were introduced was to align with a controversial new law that took effect in Texas in September restricting discussion of race and history in schools — or “critical race theory,” to use a term oft-repeated but seldom understood.

There is no legitimate opposing view of the Holocaust. Millions of Jews were hunted down, enslaved and systematically murdered by the Nazis under Adolf Hitler — because they were Jewish. To suggest it didn’t happen, or anything otherwise, is a profound act of intellectual and moral malpractice.

This is what happens when we let the government dictate what we can or cannot learn. History is ugly. It’s filled with terrible incidents just as it is with moments of triumph and heroism. We must accept our history — for good or ill — or it will repeat itself.

We are heading down a dangerous path, where the very people who proclaim to honor the Constitution will defy it to achieve their own ends. We are all looking for love, acceptance and a better world, but some are misguided in their efforts. The only thing we can do to push back against this growing cult mentality in politics is to keep honoring the truth and keep speaking that truth to power.

Lingchi was an ancient Chinese torture in which a knife was used to methodically remove portions of the body over an extended period of time, resulting in a slow, lingering death. It’s also known more popularly as “death by a thousand cuts.” 

Trumpism is a cult unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. It is the lingchi to our representative democracy, with every false equivalence and lie cutting another slice into our body politic, weakening us until, one day, we can’t take any more and succumb to the torture. I’m not ready to watch our country go down like this. Are you?

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