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In my experience, after a certain age, people can only do what they know how to do. In Trump’s case, his biggest success, before being president, was as the host of The Apprentice, a reality show in which he insulted, derided, and fired people. As president, we tune in daily to see who he has insulted, derided, or fired.
His reality TV episodes have included: anti-immigrant programming, with Latino children caged at the southern border; racist episodes, featuring “good people on both sides” at Charlottesville; and the obligatory segment deriding, insulting, and firing those who have criticized or disagreed with him. Episodes have also told his audience that the Virus is “dying out,” despite the overwhelming evidence that it is far from over.
After watching the failed rally in Tulsa, however, and reading and listening to the comments made by his supporters, I’ve come to believe that cultism is the most accurate way to understand Trump’s presidency. A cult is a social group defined by its particular religious or philosophical beliefs with devotion to a particular personality. The characteristics of a cult include: a leader, who has no meaningful accountability and becomes the cult’s single source of power; a process of indoctrination; and cult members doing things that are not in their own best interest but in the best interest of the leader. Things like attending a political rally during a spike in the worst and most contagious pandemic we’ve lived through in a 100 years.
Oklahoma, during the Trump rally, was (and is) experiencing the largest surge in its cases since the pandemic began. Because of this, the Tulsa Health Department, and health experts throughout the country, repeatedly put out statements asking the Trump campaign to postpone the rally to a future, safer date. The medical experts’ concerns included the rally creating a “super spreader” event. Nevertheless, with thousands of mostly unmasked people sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, we all heard Trump say: “Here’s the bad part … when you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find … more cases. So I said to my people, slow the testing down please.” This in the context of his knowing that six of his advance team (now eight) had tested positive and that the country he leads has suffered more than 120,000 COVID-19 deaths; the most in the world.
The kinds of comments made by his supporters at the rally go beyond normal political partisanship. They bleed into the realm of cultism: “We feel like President Trump and his family have dedicated their lives to helping our country. Sacrificing a week of our lives is nothing for what Trump has done for us”; “I’m not concerned about contracting the virus [inside the stadium],” said a woman in a wheelchair; “[If we get the virus] it will not be a death sentence,” from a couple in their thirties who got up at 3 a.m. and brought a life-sized cutout of the president to the rally; “Stop the spread,” from a man wearing a diaper in protest of the disproved theory that flatulence spreads COVID-19; “I’m here because I love my president, and I feel that he’s misrepresented by the mainstream media.”
While I understand that these are “cherry picked” comments, they are representative of the themes Donald Trump has been pushing out to his supporters; the most frightening, given the pandemic, is that the Virus is on the wane and not to be feared.
Cults, as we have learned (Branch Davidians, Jonestown) can lead to deadly situations. While it’s too soon to know if people will die as a result of the rally, it is clear that President Trump knowingly, for his benefit, exposed his followers to a deadly virus, which they most certainly took home with them.
One characteristic virtually all cult leaders share is their ability to deny reality and have their followers deny reality. So, on the day Arizona suffered its single largest daily spike of COVID cases, including young people, Donald Trump went there for an indoor rally with his followers for a group denial that the Virus is still among us and killing people.
The United States does not need a cult leader. We need a president who cares about our health and well-being and will protect rather than jeopardize us.
Correction: It is Jonestown that was a cult settlement, not Jamestown.