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Cults and the Conservative Base

Has the right-wing fringe become a cult?

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

It was something Sean Penn said recent that got me ask this question. Referring to climate change skeptics, Mr. Penn said, “I think there are people who indulge in a culture of what can be reduced to Fox network thinking… It’s like talking to a member of a cult.”

This observation seemed so descriptive when applied to the most ardent conservative followers that it is worth exploring. To be clear, the description and this analysis doesn’t apply to the majority of conservative voters, but only to those who exclusively rely on ultra-conservative media for their public information.

The word “cult” is most commonly used to describe religious groups or devoted groups of fanatics following a charismatic social leader, such as Charles Manson for example. The question is, can the behaviors and characteristics associated with cults apply when membership connections are virtual through media platforms and leadership is diffuse but highly organized?

To answer this question we have to start by examining and comparing cult leaders and cult members with the leaders and followers of ultra conservative media outlets.

Characteristics of cult leaders[i];

In their book, Captive Hearts, Captive Minds: Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Abusive Relationships, Madeleine Landau Tobias and Janja Lalich tell us that cult leaders have authoritarian personalities. They may be compensating for deep, intense feelings of inferiority, insecurity, and hostility. They form cultic groups primarily to attract those whom they can psychologically coerce into and keep in a passive-submissive state, and secondarily to use them to increase their power. They go on to say:

“The single most important word here is power. The dynamic around which cults are formed is similar to that of other power relationships and is essentially ultra- authoritarian, based on a power imbalance. The cult leader by definition must have an authoritarian personality in order to fulfill his half of the power dynamic. Traditional elements of authoritarian personalities include the following:

-the tendency to hierarchy

-the drive for power (and wealth)

-hostility, hatred, prejudice

– superficial judgments of people and events

-a one-sided scale of values favoring the one in power

-interpreting kindness as weakness

-the tendency to use people and see others as inferior

-a sadistic-masochistic tendency

-incapability of being ultimately satisfied

-paranoia ”

These are the characteristics of individual cult leaders. How this might apply to network media leadership is subject to interpretation. While a cult leaders feelings of inferiority and insecurityinsecurity, or a need to keep followers in a passive-submissive state, might be hard to apply to a leadership group, using cult members to increase their power clearly applies.

Furthermore, it isn’t much of a stretch to believe that many of the specific traits above seem to apply in a general way to conservative media personalities and their messages. The problem is we know very little about the forces behind the obvious coordination of conservative media messaging.

What we do know is that message wording is carefully chosen. We know there are robust focus groups operations to identify which word choices evoke the exact emotional associations necessary to sell the messages, and that sophisticated marketing techniques are used to produce what amount to greater market share for these conservative ideas. This is an expensive operation, so when new language to frame an issues is chosen, it is rapidly disseminated across all conservative media outlets on the same day, usually within hours. These messages are then endlessly and slavishly broadcast to the public until it can’t be ignored. They are forced into the national dialogue where there convey rhetorical advantages to conservative positions.

The high degree of message coordination in the conservative media suggests a very tight, closely held and very disciplined core leadership. Conservative messaging is disseminated very rapidly and uniformly. The exact wording and approach is unquestioningly adopted by conservative talk show hosts, pundits and commentators on every conservative media platform, television, radio, newspapers and the Internet, regardless of corporate ownership or boundaries. There is no competition among conservative networks for more attractive or alternative messaging. There is no original thinking. This lack of messaging competition suggests that the core leadership behind the conservative media is monolithic, but not centralized in any one network. In other words, the Fox News and Rush Limbaugh are not the message leaders. They serves as organs for the coordinating forces behind conservative messaging. The leadership behind the coordinating forces are hidden from public view. We don’t know who they are or exactly how they operate.

So, can you have a true cult when the leader or leaders are clandestine and only identifiable by their messages to followers?

I think so. I also suspect that once the size of their ultra-conservative following reaches a certain tipping point the media messaging leaders will step out from behind the curtain and reveal themselves.

I don’t think Donald Trump is that leader. He is more likely an interloper taking premature advantage of the pool of conservative media followers to satisfy his own lust for power.

That brings us to the next question. Who are these ultra-conservative media followers and do their characteristics align with those of typical cult members?

What follows are some of the characteristics of cult followers that might apply. These are taken from various sources.

Characteristics of Cult Followers:

– The group’s coherence is maintained by the observance to policies handed down from those in authority.

– Avoidance of critical thinking and/or maintaining logically impossible beliefs and/or beliefs that are inconsistent with other beliefs held by the group.

-Avoidance of and/or denial of any facts that might contradict the group’s belief system.

– Control of gender roles and definitions.

– The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and regards the belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.

– Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

– The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel.

– The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members.

– The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.

– The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

– The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group.

– Some cultic groups discourage members from thinking independently. The “thinking,” as it were, has already been done for them by the cult leadership; the proper response is merely to submit.

– Cults often believe that they alone have the truth.

– It is not uncommon in cults that people are urged to remain faithful to avoid being “disfellowshiped,” [sic] or disbarred, from the group.

– Us against them mentality. Therefore, when someone (inside or outside of the group) corrects the group in doctrine and/or behavior, it is interpreted as persecution, which then is interpreted as validation.

– The group’s coherence is maintained by the observance to policies handed down from those in authority.

– Avoidance of critical thinking and/or maintaining logically impossible beliefs and/or beliefs that are inconsistent with other beliefs held by the group.

– Avoidance of and/or denial of any facts that might contradict the group’s belief system.

– Control of gender roles and definitions.

These are among the characteristics of cult members that anyone can confirm by searching the topic on the internet. They also seem to apply to the many of the most ardent conservatives in the base of the Republican Party base, conservatives who rely almost exclusively rely on conservative media. Anyone who has ever tried to hold a conversation with these individuals should decide for themselves if these characteristics fit. It confirms, for me at least, that Sean Penn may on to something. The dimensions and dynamics of the most conservative elements of the GOP base do seem cult-like. This would explain why the presentation of entirely verifiable facts has no purchase with those who strongly identify with the conservative media.

Clarification:  A correction on 12/4/2015 makes it explicit that the cult description does not apply to most conservative voters, but only to those who rely exclusively on ultra-conservative media outlets.

[i] Captive Hearts, Captive Minds: Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Abusive Relationships

Madeleine Landau Tobias and Janja Lalich. Hunter House, Alameda, CA, 1994, pg 304

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1 Comment

  1. avwalters says:

    Generally it was thought that narcissistic personality tendencies had roots in underlying insecurity. More recent research suggests that the core of these personality disorders may actually be an (unfounded) belief in personal superiority.

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