This post is the third in The Cult of Trump series and they should be read in order. It is here to address what a thought reform program is and if Donald Trump's group fits the criteria to be a thought reform program.
I will start with a brief description of a thought reform program.
Here's a brief description from the website Changing Minds:
Robert Jay Lifton was one of the early psychologists to study brainwashing and mind control. He called the method used thought reform, and offered the following eight methods that are used to change people's minds.
All communication with outside world is limited, either being strictly filtered or completely cut off. Whether it is a monastery or a behind-closed-doors cult, isolation from the ideas, examples and distractions of the outside world turns the individuals attention to the only remaining form of stimulation, which is the ideology that is being inculcated in them.
This even works at the intrapersonal level, and individuals are discouraged from thinking incorrect thoughts, which may be termed evil, selfish, immoral and so on.
A part of the teaching is that the group has a higher purpose than others outside the group. This may be altruistic, such as saving the world or helping people in need. It may also be selfish, for example that group members will be saved when others outside the group will perish.
All things are then attributed and linked to this higher purpose. Coincidences (which actually may be deliberately engineered) are portrayed as symbolic events. Attention is given to the problems of out-group people and attributed to their not being in the group. Revelations are attributed to spiritual causes.
Individuals are encouraged to confess past 'sins' (as defined by the group). This creates a tension between the person's actions and their stated belief that the action is bad, particularly if the statement is made publicly. The consistency principle thus leads the person to fully adopt the belief that the sin is bad and to distance themselves from repeating it.
Discussion of inner fears and anxieties, as well as confessing sins is exposing vulnerabilities and requires the person to place trust in the group and hence bond with them. When we bond with others, they become our friends, and we will tend to adopt their beliefs more easily.
This effect may be exaggerated with intense sessions where deep thoughts and feelings are regularly surfaced. This also has the effect of exhausting people, making them more open to suggestion.
Individuals are encouraged to constantly push towards an ultimate and unattainable perfection. This may be rewarded with promotion within the group to higher levels, for example by giving them a new status name (acolyte, traveller, master, etc.) or by giving them new authority within the group.
The unattainability of the ultimate perfection is used to induce guilt and show the person to be sinful and hence sustain the requirement for confession and obedience to those higher than them in the groups order of perfection.
Not being perfect may be seen as deserving of punishment, which may be meted out by the higher members of the group or even by the person themselves, who are taught that such atonement and self-flagellation is a valuable method of reaching higher levels of perfection.
The beliefs and regulations of the group are framed as perfect, absolute and non-negotiable. The dogma of the group is presented as scientifically correct or otherwise unquestionable.
Rules and processes are therefore to be followed without question, and any transgression is a sin and hence requires atonement or other forms of punishment, as does consideration of any alternative viewpoints.
New words and language are created to explain the new and profound meanings that have been discovered. Existing words are also hijacked and given new and different meaning.
This is particularly effective due to the way we think a lot though language. The consequence of this is that the person who controls the meaning of words also controls how people think. In this way, black-and-white thinking is embedded in the language, such that wrong-doers are framed as terrible and evil, whilst those who do right (as defined by the group) are perfect and marvellous.
The meaning of words are kept hidden both from the outside world, giving a sense of exclusivity. The meaning of special words may also be revealed in careful illuminatory rituals, where people who are being elevated within the order are given the power of understanding this new language.
The importance of the group is elevated over the importance of the individual in all ways. Along with this comes the importance of the the group's ideas and rules over personal beliefs and values.
Past experiences, beliefs and values can all thus be cast as being invalid if they conflict with group rules. In fact this conflict can be used as a reason for confession of sins. Likewise, the beliefs, values and words of those outside the group are equally invalid.
There is a very sharp line between the group and the outside world. Insiders are to be saved and elevated, whilst outsiders are doomed to failure and loss (which may be eternal).
Who is an outsider or insider is chosen by the group. Thus, any person within the group may be damned at any time. There are no rights of membership except, perhaps, for the leader.
People who leave the group are singled out as particularly evil, weak, lost or otherwise to be despised or pitied. Rather than being ignored or hidden, they are used as examples of how anyone who leaves will be looked down upon and publicly denigrated.
People thus have a constant fear of being cast out, and consequently work hard to be accepted and not be ejected from the group. Outsiders who try to persuade the person to leave are doubly feared.
Dispensation also goes into all aspects of living within the group. Any and all aspects of existence within the group is subject to scrutiny and control. There is no privacy and, ultimately, no free will.
Robert Jay Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1963.
Lifton was noted for saying if a group has six of the eight criteria then it has a full fledged thought reform program.
Many groups have varying degrees of the eight criteria. Trump has no concentration camp or reeducation program. He doesn't have an isolated compound.
But he has many resources nonetheless.
I will briefly examine the eight criteria against several aspects of the resources Trump does have and utilize.
1)Milieu Control. Trump has a great resource in this regard: Fox news and right wing radio.
Fox news practices propaganda on a nearly continuous basis. They have many cultic qualities that are epitomized by their acting like ALL other TV news and media are constantly lying. They use the thought stopping cliche of "liberal media" with disgust and disdain constantly.
In fact they lie and if other people or groups or the government contradict Fox news on anything they usually merely act like anyone else is biased and incorrect and that is all there is to it.
Many Americans only get information from a closed echo chamber of information that reinforces confirmation bias regarding their own beliefs. On Facebook you can select a Red or Blue type feed by just liking posts that are either pro democrats or pro republicans. And joining Facebook groups that only reinforce your beliefs is also routine.
Here's a link to the post Fox News that has a detailed description of the propaganda techniques used at Fox News.
Trump effectively used Fox News as Milieu Control on some Americans that were already open to the biases Fox encourages and relies on.
2)Mystical Manipulation. Trump generally speaking doesn't in my opinion himself practice this. He has some followers that do practice this in either white supremacist groups or Christian groups. Particularly Evangelicals have seen Trump as a messianic figure and interpreted the scriptures and events that are happening as proof Trump is a savior of America.
I think the number of groups that do this is a tiny minority of Americans. Even a tiny minority among Trump supporters and he to my knowledge hasn't openly promoted this. He doesn't discourage it, but I feel it's not the case with most Trump supporters that Mystical Manipulation has occurred.
3)Confession. I feel this is not something Trump encourages or requires. I think this component of thought reform is definitely not a normal part of Trump's actions or something he takes advantage of from other sources.
4)Self Sanctification Through Purity. There are several types of purity that Trump requires. One is racial purity. Through embracing many racists like Jeff Sessions, Rudy Giuliani, Ted Nugent, Andrew Jackson and John Wayne among many, many others and overt racism and very thinly veiled racism and tacit approval of many racists doing acts including violence and harassment in his name Trump has embraced white supremacy and promotes white supremacist racial ideas as correct and that includes an identity with racial purity and white supremacist values.
A tiny number of minorities get acceptance by Trump in his group if and only if they practice extreme submission to and denial of white supremacy in America and Trump himself. They must be blind to it, particularly in Trump. They serve as a false equivalence to tolerance and acceptance by Trump. Just accepting a handful of completely obedient token minorities is not an end to or neutralization of racism and white supremacy. Not even remotely.
Another type of purity Trump strongly requires is purity of thought and behavior. Trump demands obedience by his followers and if he denies something, even if direct video evidence shows him saying something he later denies, he demands immediate agreement and obedient submission regarding his followers lying to others and denying easily provable reality. He demands his surrogates gaslight people and they must comply.
If a fact paints Trump or his statements in a negative light and he refuses to acknowledge or talk about it then his followers may be required to also disregard the inconvenient truth. No critical analysis of information that is critical of Trump is allowed, just denial and ad hominem attacks against any critics of him.
I feel between the two types of purity required this component of thought reform is easily fulfilled for many people even possibly the majority of Trump supporters.
5) Aura of Sacred Science. Trump is anti science. He openly disregards any and all conventional science if it fits economic, religious, or propaganda goals. He refutes climate change as a hoax from the Chinese to hurt America, he is anti vaccine, he embraces people that want to promote creationism is public schools and teach that gays are insane.
He acts as though through his sheer genius his statements must be accepted as both irrefutable science and true and that his confident insight alone grants them unquestionable accuracy.
He absolutely fulfills the aura of sacred science. It's a cornerstone of his campaign.
6)Loaded Language. Trump uses phrases and words as weapons to influence people. He uses already existing loaded language from Fox news and some tied to white nationalism and antisemitism that is targeted to those populations. He also uses his own emotionally loaded brief phrases over and over hundreds of times to establish his frame of thinking in people's minds. He called Hillary Clinton crooked Hillary thousands of times and Jeb Bush low energy and used this tactic many, many times.
He definitely relies on loaded language nearly constantly.
7)Doctrine Over Person. It's absolutely essential for Trump supporters to deny his faults, or minimize them to being absolutely inconsequential. They must ignore much of reality ti be accepted by the group and in particular Trump himself.
The purity of thought requires that followers ignore contradictions in Trump's statements, beliefs and behavior for the idea that he is the only one that can make America great again. It's a simple thought stopping cliche that many followers cannot clearly define, but must submit to.
Usually they can't openly describe a great time and do a critical analysis of many relevant details like actual tax rates at the time or racial policies and laws etc. because the past is idealized and not accurate. In the nineteen fifties fir example taxes on corporations and the wealthy were much, much higher and racism was terrible and reinforced openly by a white supremacist government. It still exists institutionally but progress has been significant.
This example of detailed contrast is not permitted in Trump's supporters. And certainly not his inner circle. Doctrine over person is the norm.
8)Dispensing of Existence. Finally Trump supporters and Trump have shown disdain and disregard for anyone that openly criticizes Trump. He has encouraged beatings of protesters, jailing of political opponents and journalists, murder of innocent people and torture, revoking freedom of speech and suing into oblivion critics and journalists alike.
He has encouraged racial profiling and mass incarceration of black Americans and Latinos face mass deportation. He has encouraged banning Muslims from entering the country and deportation of Muslims legally here now.
He has given coded encouragement and associated knowingly with others that promote extremely racist and bigoted views and the loss of rights of gay people and many other groups. He wants to destroy unions and revoke regulations that protect people.
He has given tactic approval to hundreds of acts of harassment, bullying and violence against minorities of all types that his followers commit in his name. The Southern Poverty Law Center has reported over two hundred such acts within the first five days of his election win. Hundreds more may come out and thousands more are almost certain to follow. White supremacists are emboldened and galvanized by Trump's words and recruitment is off the charts as his statements have made white supremacy normal to millions of Americans, overt extreme violent personal expression of white supremacy to be specific.
Trump definitely practices dispensing of existence and has his followers practice it too. Intentionally or callously through stirring them up then never discouraging them from their cruel and violent acts.
So Trump practices or uses preexisting milieu control, requires purity, has his sacred science (anti science with conspiracy theories), uses loaded language, demands doctrine over person and finally and most troubling practices dispensing of existence. That may escalate to horrifying and genocidal levels if unchecked. The first tendency of many people is to reject this warning out of hand. That's the absolute worst thing to do. If it has any possibility it's worth very serious consideration.
By fulfilling six of the eight criteria for thought reform quite well in my opinion Trump has a genuine cultic group. But it's not an isolated group of fanatics practicing human sacrifice and completely rejecting normal society. It's a spectrum that each follower falls somewhere on. The majority probably aren't absolute fanatics. A significant number may be persuaded or influenced by Trump propaganda just enough to overlook his flaws and vote for him and no more. Some others may be voting for him and have become more racist openly by a small margin. Some may be swayed on some issues but not others.
That's one degree of influence. It's likely affected tens of millions of Americans. It's unfortunate but if Trump were to betray his promises and absolutely fail as president many if not most at that level of commitment would to a significant degree withdraw support from Trump.
He also has the alt right that calls him God Emperor Trump and considers him the best man since Hitler. That's horrifying on several levels and they have a truly deep cultic relationship to him. Some Christians particularly Evangelicals, see him as a messianic figure and also have a cultic relationship with him. Some people who are not yet in white supremacists' groups also have a cultic relationship with him and are inspired by him enough that they will join white supremacist groups like the KKK.
He has a bona fide cultic relationship with possibly a million to five million people as a rough estimate. That could be off by fifty percent or so either way but I highly doubt it's less than a million people and hope it is less than twenty million people. I hope it's in the one to two million category and the true believers and most extreme fanatics are perhaps a half million or so.
The estimate of his followers may be off. But the existence of a cult and his fulfillment of the eight criteria for thought reform is beyond doubt in my mind.
I hope this post has been helpful and sparks examination of literature on cults and independent critical analysis of Trump by others to see if he is a cult leader and what his relationship is to his followers and America.
To understand cults in addition to the Excellent work of Robert Jay Lifton I also highly recommend Freedom of Mind by Steven Hassan, Cults In Our Midst by the brilliant Margaret Singer, Take Back Your Life by Janja Lalich and the truly comprehensive text for serious deep analysis Cults Inside Out by Rick Alan Ross, this book has a huge collection of references that are described on cults and could be used to construct a great curriculum by merely accessing all the references it describes. True Believer by Eric Hoffer offers a lot of insight into mass movements and is essential too.
I plan to explore many other issues in this series like how Trump persuades people and his own experiences with a charismatic leader that may have strongly influenced his authoritarian tendencies.