Politics and Personality Cults
Updated: Jan 30, 2021
The last installment of Death Coach explored the question, to what end are we suffering as a nation? We considered how the extreme polarization of contemporary American politics can be understood as a reflection of a death process within our cultural psyche. Depending on the level of conscious participation in a death process, it can either result in literal death (often suicide), or a metaphoric ego death, the latter being a necessary prerequisite for psycho-spiritual transformation. On a collective level, this transformational process might look like a kind of pivotal phase transition in the evolution of the culture. From chaos theory and from the science of complex systems, we know that phase transitions tend to occur when systems are operating at the edge of order and chaos; As a nation, we are certainly flirting with that line.
Jung’s preferred metaphorical background for understanding the inner psychological workings of this transformational process came from the tradition of alchemy and its axiom of Maria: “One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the One as the Fourth” (from Jung’s Mysterium Coniunctionis, para. 619).
The “One” equates to a unified psyche, which, in order to transform/evolve, must split into pairs of warring opposites. Essentially, this is neurosis—an internal conflict, which is at the same time a process of differentiation which brings more awareness to the individual parts that make up the psyche. Out of this conflict of “two” comes the “three,” which is a new synthesis that arises spontaneously out of the tension of opposites. It is very important to recognize that this is NOT a compromise between the opposites. It is more like a revelation born out of the very tension. A new symbol emerges out of the dialectic which transcends the problem or dilemma on a higher level and has a strong enough emotional appeal to once again unify the opposites (out of the third comes the One as the Fourth—a new and more differentiated unity). This process can be observed in evolutionary dynamics when a system goes through a phase transition and develops new emergent properties which cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts.
To me, in addition to all the other preliminary disarray of last summer, the symbolic potency of the events on January 6th indicates that the American psyche and its political system are teetering at the edge of chaos. This presents us all with a profound opportunity to consciously participate in our collective death process, to hold the tension of opposites without compromising the values of our own side of the political spectrum while also recognizing the value of the opposite viewpoint. This is no trivial task, but if enough of us can hold this tension consciously, new symbols will emerge out of the conflict which will have enough emotional appeal on both sides to unite us as a more evolved nation (Obama’s “hope” and “change” was emotionally appealing to the left but infuriating to the right, Trump’s “MAGA” vice-versa).
The key word here is consciously, which brings up a very good question from a reader of the previous post:
"How does our country die a good death and raise its consciousness when a huge number of people exist in a cult like state? Maybe you could discuss the power of cults and how those outside the cult can help break down the barriers of those inside the cult."
This question assumes an inverse relationship between cult participation and one’s ability to act in the world in a conscious and psychologically autonomous way. In my estimation this is an accurate assumption. If political parties have devolved into personality cults, a conscious tension of opposites seems hopelessly out of reach, which would make the impending phase transition more likely to play out as a calamity than a holistic process of healing. So, what does it mean to exist in a “cult like state,” and why is it that being in such a state interferes with our ability to make conscious decisions for ourselves and act out of our own independent volition?
First, we must define more clearly what cults actually are.
The word cult comes from the Latin cultus, which means devotion and worship but also "to tend upon" and "to care for," traces of which can be seen in modern terms like cultivate and culture. When we think of cults, then, we can think of horror stories like David Koresh, but we can also think of a cult simply as a piece of culture. In ancient Greece there were many different cults for different deities, like the cult of Hecate or the cult of Dionysus. The rites of these cults “tended upon” the forces of nature and human psychology that the Greek imagination personified in the deities of its Olympic pantheon, all of which were perceived as normal and valid; all represented one piece of the overall culture.
In contemporary society, you don’t see too many people openly declaring membership in the cult of Aphrodite, worshippers of the goddess of passion, desire, and eroticism. But if Aphrodite is understood as a metaphor or personification of the erotic instincts, and her cult is understood in the sense of the Latin cultus—pieces of culture whose role is to “attend to” and “care for” those instincts—then it becomes painfully obvious how large a portion of our culture she makes up. Romance novels, rom coms, the porn industry, the sexual innuendo of basically all advertising (think Jessica Simpson all suds-up on a muscle car, provocatively eating a hamburger), the hook-up culture of Tinder and other dating apps, the list could go on ad infinitum. In a poetic sense, our cult-like devotion to Aphrodite is no less profound now than it was in Greek antiquity (although we have lost touch with the vengeful aspects of her nature, which is the subject of another post altogether).
I take this etymological digression to illustrate the fact that cults have been around since the dawn of Western civilization, which is to say they emerged more or less simultaneously with the evolutionary development of humankind’s capacity for culture. It would then follow that, in themselves, cults are inherently neither beneficial nor problematic. They are natural. It is only in recent history that cults have been differentiated from religions, with the former deemed pathological and the latter granted normalcy. Much of the pathological connotation rests on the notion that members of the cult have been duped by a charismatic leader, manipulated for that leader’s own self-aggrandizement.
I imagine at this point a few readers might be connecting some dots and balking at the suggestion that there was nothing inherently problematic about the cult at Jonestown and the 900 followers of Jim Jones that commit mass suicide at his beckoning.
Well, that’s a fair rebuttal.
The story of Jim Jones brings up some interesting points that lead us back to the problem of personality cults and politics. The first point is that no one would have joined The People’s Temple if they knew up front that they would end up slaving in a labor camp and dying in a mass suicide. Jones started The Peoples Temple in the mid 1950’s, almost in anticipation of the liberation movements of the 1960’s. The cult was appealing because it “attended upon” an emerging movement within the collective—the desire for a racially integrated spiritual community—when the larger culture provided few if any other expressions to mirror that nascent aspiration. There was something quite noble in the cult, something noble in the desires of those drawn to it.
People who get swept up in cults aren’t stupid. They generally have admirable intentions and sincere longings that aren’t reflected elsewhere in the culture, and that leaves them vulnerable to manipulation.
Jim Jones had some serious personality issues, but he also had charisma. Unfortunately, these two things often go hand-in-hand, and as the story of Jonestown tragically portrays, it can be a deadly combination.
To have charisma is to be in possession of some trait or quality that is inspirational and compelling to others. A sense of the magical is conjured in its relation to words like “charm” or the “spirit” in inspire, perhaps traceable to the Greek kharisma, or “divine gift,” which links charisma to the supernatural. According to Hillman, the power of charisma is the power of being “in touch with an archetype.” Herein lies the strange relationship of characterological deficits (put more harshly, personality disorders) and charisma. A personality disorder is essentially a neurosis that is so stable and persistent that it has become a fundamental part of the structure of the personality. For Jung, a primary characteristic of a neurosis is its proclivity to interfere with definite and directed conscious functioning, because the threshold between consciousness and the unconscious becomes more permeable under a neurosis.
From a Jungian perspective, a personality disorder is then in part defined by an exceptional and longstanding permeability in the partition between the conscious mind and the unconscious. It is as if archetypal material from the unconscious continually leaks into the personality, leading to significantly maladaptive behaviors, as raw archetypal material is always amoral, archaic, and uncivilized on account of its unconsciousness.
One would think it would be quite easy to avoid and dismiss such people who behave amorally, like uncivilized animals. On the contrary, libraries of books have been written in order to help people understand what could’ve possibly come over them when they fell madly in love with a narcissist, or why they tolerated the continual emotional castigations of a partner or family member with borderline personality disorder. Once the spell is broken, they look back and wonder, “what on earth possessed me to rationalize the abuse for so long?” The answer, in part, is that archetypes captivate and bedazzle consciousness, making one blind to the reality that is right in front of them. Because archetypes are the same structures which give rise to religious symbols, even crass archetypal material exuding from a narcissist can invoke a kind of irrational religious devotion from others. In his Psychology and Religion, Jung wrote, “We should never forget that [religious ideas] are based on numinous archetypes, i.e., on an emotional foundation which is unassailable by reason” (para. 556).
On the note of devotion based on emotion unassailable by reason, we arrive at the personality cult of Donald Trump. Now I truly want Death Coach to foster a conversation that helps individuals and groups learn to die well, and I truly believe that in the political sphere, dying with dignity and being reborn the better for it will require many people to stretch their imagination and accept the validity and worth of opposite political perspectives. So it is here that I must admit my own liberal disposition and consequent bias. I find Trump to be a loathsome individual, bereft of any of the virtues I would personally aspire to or want modeled for my nieces, nephews, or future children. I am in agreement with Sam Harris’ assertion that the comparison of Trump to Hitler is a specious one, if only because Trump lacks the few virtues Hitler possessed (i.e., belief in a cause larger than himself, albeit one of the most horrific causes in history). He displays all the classical traits of a pathological narcissist, though I will not spell out that argument here, partially because it’s absurdly obvious, but more so because many other qualified people have already done it and done it quite well.
Neuroscientist and moral philosopher Sam Harris has made the argument multiple times on his podcast. The view is also shared by mental health counselor and cult expert Steven Hassan and his recent book, The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains how the President uses Mind Control. Released shortly after Trump’s inauguration, A Clear and Present Danger: Narcissism in the Era of Donald Trump is composed of a collection of essays from clinicians and academics concerned about the prospects of having a personality disordered president. The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President came to the same conclusion in its 2017 release after the authors abandoned their professional neutrality and violated the Goldwater rule out of a sense of duty to warn the body politic that it was wading in dangerous waters. There are many other similar assessments from people on various points of the political spectrum, but to my knowledge these are a few of the most robust and reputable.
To be clear, those concerned about Trump’s narcissism are not grousing about his being egotistical or full of himself; any number of political figures could fall into that category. Narcissism is distinguished from egotism in that it refers to an ego structure that is so fundamentally wounded that essentially all motivation is directed toward holding the personality together at all costs. In healthy politics, losing is part of the game. It is axiomatic to a free and fair democracy. When you place someone at the highest political position for whom at every turn the prospect of losing is an existential threat to their ego which could tear their personality asunder, well that’s really bad news.
My own animosity toward Trump is not an expression of contempt for conservatives or conservative principles. And none of the aforementioned experts are attacking republican policy or conservative ideology per se. They are not fragile snowflakes who are offended by Trump’s mean words on Twitter. Such casual dismissal of expert opinion is case in point of the damage done by Trump. It was not his policies but his rhetoric and behavior, driven by his own narcissistic compulsions, that have eroded our political norms and undermined our most sacred institutions, faith in the electoral process itself perhaps being the most significant. Of course he claimed election fraud. For a narcissist, inadequacy equates to the complete dissolution of that which holds oneself together, so they will instinctively construct every possible psychological defense, thought blocking mechanism, conspiracy theory, or paranoid delusion to prevent the reality of failure from sinking in. It is an autonomous process that happens unconsciously, so they are not aware of it. It is for this reason that I’m quite confident that Trump genuinely believes he won the election. He is psychologically incapable of accepting defeat.
Because the dynamics of his narcissism are occurring within the context of some very real failings in many of our institutions, he has managed to convince those in the sway of his cult that he is the honest one and every single other American institution is dishonest—a notion that is certifiably insane, given his verifiable track record as the sin qua non of bullshitters. I use this term specifically in the sense that Harry G. Frankfurt used it in his essay On Bullshit—as someone who does not simply misrepresent truth but is so altogether unconcerned with truth that they don’t even attempt to lie with any consistency. They simply blow hot air in whatever way suits them in a given moment. For Frankfurt, a bullshitter is a far more serious threat to truth than a liar. The fact that people think Trump is honest is surely a case of consciousness being blind to its own stance, reason being swept away under the emotional power an archetypal presence bleeding through the permeable membrane of Trump’s narcissistically wounded ego structures.
If the emotional power of an archetype is unassailable by reason, then any attempt to talk someone out of the cult of Trump through reason alone is doomed from the outset. It won’t matter if the evidence against widespread voter fraud comes from the department of homeland security, the cybersecurity and infrastructure security agency, the FBI, the department of justice, a plethora of independent investigative journalists and election security experts, 61out of 62 failed cases in the courts, or all of the above (which is the reality of it). Those that are emotionally invested in the cult will engage in whatever mental gymnastics are necessary to maintain belief in their leader. If red flags weren’t raised when Trump said he could murder someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and his followers would still follow him, well…
If we truly want unity, not just the unity of enforcing our own terms when our party happens to have the majority, we have to pay special attention to the way in which the personality cult of Trump usurped the republican party. The Trump phenomenon suggests that something deep in the American psyche did not have adequate voice in the culture prior to his emergence. No one was attending to the archetypal force that he unleashed. To have a true dialectic between the opposites, we need that voice to be present and we need to be aware of that underlying emotional force. We can view it like the Jones cult, which, by “attending to” a burgeoning longing for integrated spiritual community, enticed good people into a slowly unfolding catastrophe from which they could not escape. Good people got enticed by Trump. They’re not all deplorable racists whom we must delete from our friend list.
While the hysterical de-friending phenomenon is certainly a bipartisan issue, this impulse to “cancel” speaks to the other archetypal landmine, which lurks beneath the surface of the left—the surge in wokeness that can be equally as impregnable to reason as the delusions unleashed by Trump. However, the left has yet to elect a megaphone cult leader of the woke to actively incite a plague of misinformation in a manner analogous to the right. The other dissimilarity is that wokeness is by and large accepted in the mainstream culture, so the wellspring of emotion underneath it is more difficult to be seized upon and manipulated by a cult leader, though the possibility is always there. To avoid another leader who themselves is led by unconscious forces, I think the left needs to hold its wokeness lightly. Hopefully after these last four years we’ve learned a valuable lesson and can recognize that these dynamics are generalizable and not limited to one party or the other.
2020 has viscerally demonstrated what every psychologist and psychologically attuned individual already knew—Ben Shapiro’s famous catchphrase, “facts don’t care about your feelings,” is at best a half-truth. It is clear that feelings don’t care about facts. Moreover, facts don’t inspire mobs, feelings do. Feelings burned our cities over the summer and feelings put a cult leader in the white house. So, let’s maybe pay a little more attention to feelings.
We need to look at why there was no place in the culture for those who found their place in the cult of Trump. We need to acknowledge the reality of the emotions that he validated for them, leaving out all the paranoid delusions, misinformation, and divisive propaganda he used to fuel those emotions. Like those swept up in the People’s Temple, we have to recognize the nobility in the aspirations that led them there. It is not oxymoronic to condemn Trump and at the same time affirm the discontents that elected him. This is my attempt at doing just that:
It seems to me there was a significant amount of the population that was longing for someone to tell them that it’s ok to have pride in conventional conservative values and American traditions, rites, and celebrations, all of which were perceived as under attack from the woke left. Prior to Trump, the one-sidedness of leftist ideology in academia and media created a sense of persecution amongst conservatives, making Trump’s no-fucks-given for political correctness and catastrophic “fake news” slogan appear refreshing and, god forbid I say it, honest. In recent years, the dominant narrative of public discourse has centered on coming to terms with the shadow of American history, which was perceived by the right as a hatred for America and its founding principles. Trump seized upon this with his America first mentality and proposals such as the 1776 project, restoring a sense of pride for America and its accomplishments in the world. This refreshing sense of pride was further reinforced by the contrast in foreign policy, with the previous administration’s approach colored more by a sense of reconciliation for past American transgressions, and Trump’s approach based more on idea that the world is lucky to have America because everyone’s fortunes have improved in the rising tide of American greatness. Traditional patriarchal and masculine values have also been increasingly scrutinized in dominant public discourse, which has left those on the right longing for a kind of stern father figure. Trump’s unreserved threats of violence as a means of promoting stability, both domestically and abroad, appealed to those who felt America is being purged of its masculinity and the left is “pussifying” everyone. An increasing recognition that the political duopoly was replete with corruption, becoming more transparent on both sides by the day, made Trump’s presentation of himself as an outsider who wasn’t entangled in the debased political status quo an alluring prospect. Perhaps most importantly, the wildfire of cancel culture was making half of the country afraid to speak candidly, fearful of a vicious backlash for anyone non-adherent to leftist narratives.
The fact that Trump responded to most of these very real problems in categorically disastrous ways is apparently secondary to the fact that he responded to them at all. But this is absolutely unacceptable. We can have a competent, qualified, and capable conservative president who embodies traditional American values and is also not delusional. We can recognize the horrors of slavery and the continual damage of the systemic racism left in its wake, while at the same time recognizing that the arc of American history has been one of overcoming and eliminating slavery, and a slow and circuitous process of creating a more egalitarian society, even when it sometimes involves two steps forward and one step back.
Perhaps the extreme splitting that Trump has caused has been a necessary process of differentiation. The hatred that has driven the two parties so far apart, and that Trump has exponentially exacerbated, can be used to bring awareness to each side of the warring opposition, as that which one hates always reflects something in oneself. As Jung said, “knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people” (from Letters, p. 237).
We have a lot of darkness to sort through in the coming years, and that process won’t be possible unless we find a way to keep personality cults out of politics.