I recently read a paper by University of Waterloo professor Lorne Dawson called “Psychopathologies and the Attribution of Charisma.” In it, Dawson tries to explain why certain new religious movements (NRMs), defined partly by their charismatic leadership, tend toward violence -- in other words, what turns a cult into a murder cult.
What struck me about the article was a number of overlaps between Dawson’s definition of these NRMs -- violent and otherwise -- and the fanatical devotees of Donald Trump.
I will stress here at the outset, I’m not talking here about the ordinary voter who supported Trump. Rather, I mean the particular breed of Trump supporter that gathers on sites like 4chan or Reddit’s r/TheDonald and organizes on his behalf to amplify his message and attack his critics, often employing the threat of violence. This is the subgroup of Trump supporters which significantly overlaps with white supremacist, misogynist, and Alt-Right ideologies.
Though these communities are diffuse and, in many cases, disorganized, they nonetheless often meet Dawson’s defining attributes for new religious movements -- “apocalyptic belief systems” (i.e., race war is coming, women seek to enslave men, Muslims will destroy the West), a “tendency to become socially encapsulated” (i.e., the creation of online echo chambers), and “strong dependence on charismatic leadership.”
Charismatic leadership, it turns out, is the trickiest of these three to define, but Dawson does a good job of drawing out, from a number of systems of analysis, specific mannerisms and techniques employed by charismatic leaders.
First, Dawson analyses the effect of the leader on the devotee:
In a clash of epistemic principles a charismatic relationship is marked by the followers’ choice to abide by what the leader claims, even if it is at odds with the evidence of their senses, logic, or the authority of others. This prioritization of the leader’s conceptions of the truth, even if seemingly strange, is a hallmark of the charismatic bond.
Which is to say, whatever the leader has said is true by virtue of the fact that he said it. The leader would not lie, falsify, or make mistakes, and the follower must engage in epistemic backflips to keep this view coherent in the light of uncharismatic moments from the leader -- just as some Trump supporters worked overboard to interpret a harmless typo as a coded message to the Arab world.
According to a Freudian analysis, the leader's power depends on a process of projection and transference. Though Dawson dismisses much of this as overly speculative, its appeal is widespread, as demonstrated by the preponderance of post-election profiles of the archetypical Trump voter that attribute their political loyalty to exactly this process. Dawson summarizes:
(1) Many people are living in a profound state of psychological tension because they are unable to live up to… what society fully expects of [them].
(2) By finding a leader they can project their ego ideal onto, the followers can vicariously satisfy the demands of the ego ideal and relieve themselves of the pangs of conscience generated by their own failure.
(3) This act of projection brings about a state of euphoria that is easily misattributed to the leaders and the systems of beliefs they have created…
(4) Once bound in this manner to the leader, followers feel a deep affinity with others undergoing the same experience…
(5) The psychological well-being of the individual devotee is now inextricably associated with the status of the leader and the success of their beliefs and practices. Denigration of the leader is interpreted as an attack on the follower’s sense of self worth.
The “despair of poor white Americans”, Trump’s apparent fulfilment of the prosperity gospel, and the conspiratorial worldviews of Trump’s most diehard supporters all appear to fit nicely within this theory, speculative though it might be. Dawson summarizes this as “rid[ing] the coat-tails of the leader’s vibrant sense of self-efficacy” in a world that has disempowered them (or “cucked” them, perhaps).
This may explain the followers, but what of the leader? Dawson says the charismatic leader must appear “at the right time in ways that are extremely hard to predict.” They must be “more emotionally expressive,... display a greater sensitivity to the deficiencies in the status quo… [and possess] a marked willingness to incur risk and to be unconventional.” They need not be a politician, but must be a showman:
...[C]harismatic leaders stand out because of their ability to create the impression that they have performed extraordinary and heroic feats… This impression stems in large measure from their being identified with some cultural myths of their societies… the power of the charismatic leader stems from the leader’s ability to “facilitate the transformation of a historical or mythical ideal from a remote abstraction into an immediate psychological reality.”
Indeed, the entire #MAGA cult could be seen as an identification of Trump with the mythic and idealized America of the past -- a vague enough concept that it can as easily be economic opportunity for one and racial or gendered hierarchy for another.
The prosperity gospel is a more specific association -- the idea that, more than “good things accrue to the meritorious” (something immediately disproven by any narcissist’s experience), people are proven meritorious because they have accrued things. Trump’s electoral success was a self-fulfilment of a prophecy made by his ostentatious affluence.
Dawson adds, “In the process these leaders indulge in a kind of continuous self-promotion, a promotion that often borders on being transparent and hence counter-productive.” You might recall the time Trump wheeled out Trump-brand steaks at a press conference. But though they may seem counter-productive, Dawson says they hold a particular efficacy for the devoted follower, who views them as an extension of their power and their dedication to "the cause". In Trump's case, this may be off the mark, as his displays tend to benefit no particular cause besides self-enrichment (besides perhaps pseudo-"Made In America" posturing). Or, alternatively, Trump's intimate association with the prosperity gospel makes his self-enrichment a fulfilment of that cause -- plus, those loyal to a brand like to see it everywhere.
If Trump does fit the mould of a charismatic leader and his most devout supporters that of a new religious movement, what does that mean for the rest of us? You’ll recall the subject of Dawson’s article is charismatic leadership and violence -- and it’s Dawson’s explanation of how some leaders turn violent that got me thinking about this article’s prescience.
Dawson is quick to point out that not all charismatic leaders nor all new religious movements become violent, though they may possess the requisite parts. But he believes NRMs turn violent when the leader’s charisma is fundamentally challenged.
While Trump is obviously concerned with maintaining his charisma through, to borrow Dawson’s phrase, “erratic behavior and intrusive actions,” Trump’s supporters have bought into a cultic vision of America -- an apocalyptic future, conspiring adversaries, and a highly mythologized version of reality.
Trump may not lose his charm for his followers, but he will face repeated external threats to his legitimacy. Dawson says, when mishandled, these challenges can “set off a cycle of deviance amplification that destabilizes groups, greatly increasing the likelihood of violent behavior.”
Trump’s tirades against the press, his constitutional oversteps, and his pardon of Joe Arpaio all resemble attempts to reassert legitimacy to a base in an increasing “cycle of deviance” from the norm. For now, Trump’s followers are content to follow -- but should these threats rise the level of complete delegitimization -- impeachment, for example -- they may not be able to hold back any more.
Lorne L. Dawson, “Psychopathologies and the Attribution of Charisma: A Critical Introduction to the Psychology of Charisma and the Explanation of Violence in New Religious Movements” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, Vol. 10, No. 2 (November 2006), pp. 3-28