Tuesday was not the first time that Hillary Clinton suggested Donald Trump was the leader of a cult; she did so during a conversation in Chicago last month. Nor is she the first person to do so, of course. For example, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), then the House speaker, compared the Trump-supporting opposition to a cult in May 2022.

Probably in part because the well-worn defense mechanisms the right has developed for Trump are working in overdrive this week, Clinton’s comments to this same effect during a podcast taping triggered a range of responses. Often, it was to deny that Trump’s base of support was a cult — despite bearing the requisite hallmarks of one.

“The response that we’ve seen in polling from Republicans suggests that they’re gonna stick with him,” Clinton said to the hosts of “Pod Save America, “that it’s more of a cult than a political party at this point and they’re going to stick with their leader.”

There isn’t a lot of polling to this effect, so Clinton was probably pointing to a survey from CBS News, conducted by YouGov, that only 7 percent of Republican primary voters said the indictment changed their opinion of Trump for the worse. But, of course, there is a surfeit of other evidence that Trump may not pay a robust political cost — as with every other scandal Trump has faced in the past eight years.

That is beside the point, however. Clinton’s formulation of the GOP as “more of a cult” spurred a similarly familiar burbling of disapproval.

Newsmax, for example, welcomed former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (R) to discuss the subject.

The host mentioned traveling with Trump after his arraignment Tuesday and asked Palin whether she would describe the fans with whom he interacted as a cult.

“No,” she replied emphatically. “The definition of a cult is a group of people who are excessively supporting one another and a cause, all about conformity and compliance, and intolerance of anyone who doesn’t agree with what their mission is.”

If this seems like an odd defense of Trump’s base, she was actually taking things in a different direction.

“That’s the definition of what the left is engaged in right now,” she continued, “speaking of cults.”

Ah, the old whatabout move. Well played.

Palin’s definition of a cult isn’t itself incorrect, just incomplete. Janja Lalich, a sociologist and educator recognized for her work on cults, defines a cult as:

“ … either a sharply-bounded social group or a diffusely-bounded social movement held together through shared commitment to a charismatic leader. It upholds a transcendent belief system (often but not always religious in nature) that includes a call for a personal transformation. It also requires a high level of personal commitment from its members in words and deeds.”

She also identifies four tendencies displayed by members of cults: espousing an “all-encompassing belief system,” avoiding criticism of the group and its leader, disdaining nonmembers and exhibiting “excessive devotion to and dependency on their ‘perfect’ leader.”

You can see the central way in which this differs from Palin’s presentation: Lalich centers a charismatic leader, someone missing from the Alaska governor’s attack on the left — but obviously very much present in Trumpism.

One can debate the extent to which Trump supporters are devoted to “personal transformation” and not all have a high level of personal commitment to the cause. But those elements are certainly present at times — and the four tendencies Lalich lists are much more obvious.

Fox News contributor Jessica Tarlov, generally the sole liberal on the network’s show “The Five,” was asked Tuesday whether she agreed with Clinton’s depiction of Trump’s base.

“I don’t think it’s a cult,” she said … before following it with a pretty robust “but”: “I think that Donald Trump holds an almost mystical level of power and control over a large swath of the Republican base. And they are immune to taking in new information — new negative information, new dangerous information, new potentially criminal information — about him. To that extent, I understand what she was trying to say.”

Tarlov’s distinction is the important one, of course. To refer to something as a “cult” is understood to be a pejorative, and Clinton (and Pelosi) certainly intended it that way to some extent. But the underlying sentiment — that many Republican voters are unwilling to question Trump’s leadership, view the left with disdain and refuse to accept obviously valid criticism of him — is fair to elevate as a point of concern.

This framework also explains one of the more bizarre political divides that has widened over the past eight years. There are two common views of the criticism Trump has faced and the investigations into his actions: Either he is a uniquely dishonest actor who has probably violated the law, or he is the subject of a breathtakingly expansive campaign aimed at unfairly tearing him down.

Republicans often treat him as little more than an aggressive politician who is facing an unusual backlash, as though there is nothing exceptional about his actions. The indictment unveiled last week is accordingly understood (or cynically presented) not as a response to potential criminal acts but, instead, as yet another attack on the ever-embattled Trump.

Criticism of the leader is avoided. Nonmembers are disdained. The all-encompassing belief system of left-wing venality is preserved.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) was asked in a Fox News interview whether he considered himself a member of a cult. No, he replied, since he’d challenged Trump in the past. Which is true, though such challenges were often short-lived. “Count me out,” he said after the Capitol riot, for example — before counting himself back in.

“What they’re doing to President Trump is a game changer for the presidency,” Graham continued. “They’ve taken the law and turned it upside down on numerous occasions to get him. … You don’t have to be in a cult to find this offensive. They’re destroying the country in the name of trying to keep one man off the ballot and that’s why I’m so upset.”

“They” — the nonmembers — were trying to “destroy his life.” Graham, he assured the audience, shared their commitment to the charismatic leader.

Maybe this isn’t technically a cult. But any such technicality doesn’t change the pattern of behavior that has shielded Trump so well for so long.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

Comments are closed.