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Guilty: Is Trumpism a Movement or a Cult?

MAGA is not a movement. A movement is based on ideas. Trumpism is less durable—but it can still do plenty of damage.

Trump supporters outside the Manhattan courthouse
Selcuk Acar/Anadolu/Getty Images
Trump supporters outside the Manhattan courthouse on May 28

Donald Trump is now a felon, busted for and convicted of stealing the 2016 election from Hillary Clinton and the American people. Our criminal justice system has worked, and there will almost certainly be some political fallout to both Trump and the GOP.

Nonetheless, odds are he won’t see a day in jail or even a particularly punishing fine and will probably be long dead before his lawyers finish with his inevitable years, perhaps decades, of appeals.

But what will this mean for America? How will it affect our political system and the Republican Party, which he has so thoroughly corrupted?

A deep concern about Trump taking back the White House is legitimate—particularly given the number of billionaires who’ve thrown in with him recently. But a fear that America will never recover from Trump and Trumpism probably is less so. The reason has to do with the difference between a movement and a cult.

Movements are organized around ideas and have lasting power long after those who initiated them are dead or gone.

Barry Goldwater, for example, once led a movement to enshrine white supremacy in U.S. law and turn control of our politics and economy over to the morbidly rich. It was the 1960s incarnation of a movement that stretched back to the revolutionary era, when some of the richest plantation owners and bankers argued that only the wealthy should be able to vote or hold public office. It was revisited in 1920 by Warren Harding with his massive tax cuts for the rich, ultimately leading to the Great Depression.

The movement survived Goldwater’s defeat in the 1964 election because it was based on an idea: that society should be run with “classes and orders” and the privileged few should have the greatest say in running government. In 1980, Ronald Reagan picked up that mantle, and it’s been the Mitt Romney GOP’s core animating principle ever since.

Even the Confederacy was a movement rather than a cult; that’s why its ideas of white racial superiority and using violence to achieve political power live on in today’s Republican Party. You can argue that there were “heroes of the movement” like Robert E. Lee (recently praised by RFK Jr.), but the movement lived on long past their short lifetimes.

The Trump “movement,” however, is an altogether different thing. Its only core organizing principle is loyalty and fealty to one man: Donald Trump.

He’s been in favor of a national health care system, and against it. Campaigned on raising taxes on the rich “so much my friends will hate me” but then cut their taxes to the tune of $2 trillion. Supportive of labor unions when campaigning and then appointing one of the most anti-labor lawyers in the country to run his Labor Department. In favor of, and then against, masks and vaccines. The list of flip-flops goes on and on.

Like his followers, Trump has been all over the map policy-wise. There’s no coherent organizing principle or philosophy of governance in Trump’s world: He changes positions on a whim and then demands that his devotees follow his new postures.

This is the definition of a cult: a demand for absolute loyalty to one person. And it’s why cults can be so fragile.

When cult leader Jim Jones died in Guyana, what was left of his cult back in the United States died. When Charles Manson was sent to prison, his cult lost its ability to recruit new members and collapsed within a year. Huey Long had created a substantial political cult—probably one of the closest analogies to Trump’s (except Long was on the left rather than the right)—which died when he was assassinated.

The reason for these dynamics are easily explained. A movement—being about ideas—has specific, achievable goals. While they may evolve over time—like the movement for “a more perfect union” and egalitarian democracy in the U.S.—they’re clear and focused.

A cult, on the other hand, is mainly about devotion and faithfulness to one person. Cult followers sublimate their own wants and needs—to the point of surrendering their wealth and giving their lives—to the cult leader.

They find safety, status, and security in the belief that they’re insiders to secret knowledge; are superior to the average plebe; and will always have a family, a community, with fellow cult members. The cult relieves their anxiety, and submission to the cult’s leader gives their lives a sense of purpose. They perceive it as a form of love.

Cult leaders, demanding absolute loyalty, are typically psychopaths, putting their own needs and desires above those of their followers. They drain them of their money and mercilessly exploit them for power, sex, adulation, and status. They don’t give a damn about their followers beyond what the followers will do for or give to them.

This is often deadly to cult members, emotionally, spiritually, and even literally.

Consider how at least 400,000 American followers of Trump’s cult eschewed masks and later vaccines in the face of a deadly pandemic and paid for their loyalty with their lives. Or how many have drained their bank accounts in response to Trump’s daily insistent demands for more and more of their money.

Even cult insiders are rarely spared from the psychopathic demands of their cult leader. Herman Cain, elderly and in poor health, went to a packed rally during Covid to show his loyalty to Trump; he died of the disease, and Trump didn’t even bother to attend his funeral. Both Michael Cohen and Allen Weisselberg went to prison for Trump, as did hundreds of January 6 rioters; dozens of “fake electors” around the nation may soon follow.

A final, classic defining characteristic of a cult is intolerance for even the faintest dissent. Cults typically punish disloyalty by banishment; just ask Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, or any of the other Republicans who’ve dared speak out against Trump.

The good news is that cults are typically self-limiting and usually disintegrate when the cult leader collapses. The bad news, as noted, is that cults are usually extraordinarily destructive to the lives of their followers, and sometimes to the larger society within which they operate.

Trump is now a convicted felon. For his cult followers, this probably won’t matter much: Hitler went to prison too, and that just made him a martyr in his cult followers’ eyes. But for those who haven’t yet fully committed to Trump’s cult, this may well be the cautionary moment that limits its growth.

As a result, this conviction may well help—along the margins—to tip the election to President Biden.

As far as I can tell, there aren’t any other Trump types queuing up in the GOP. Ron DeSantis, J.D. Vance, and Vivek Ramaswamy have Trump’s psychopathy but lack his salesmanship. Nikki Haley has Trump’s charm but lacks his psychopathy. Chris Christie has neither. The other usual suspects lack Trump’s charm and salesmanship, even if many share his psychopathy.

The right-wing billionaires and Project 2025 neofascists will lose much of their power when the spell of Trump’s cult is torn asunder. Normal Republican politicians will find it much more difficult to run on platforms of gutting Social Security, more tax cuts for billionaires, and increasing pollution without Trump essentially blotting out the sun and blinding people to their real agenda.

This isn’t to minimize their ongoing danger to our republic—particularly the ones who own social media—but without the accelerant of Trump’s leadership and his credulous followers, their path to destroying our democracy will become significantly more difficult.

That doesn’t mean we can relax. If Trump is elected this fall, America will go through a hell that will seem familiar to elderly Germans, Chileans, and today’s Russians. It’ll take decades, at least, to recover from it. But we most likely will, just as did Germany, Italy, Spain, Chile, etc.

When that time passes, or when Trump loses in 2024—or dies in office or is incapacitated by ill health or old age like Pinochet and Franco—his cult will almost certainly come to an end and the GOP will revert to simply being a vehicle for billionaires and big business to feather their nests, as it was before Trump took the stage.

And America will have learned a hell of a lesson.