When I was about 17 years old, I joined a cult. I joined because the nation in the late 1960s was in a period of flux and change; the Vietnam War, the draft, protests, changing moral standards brought about by the “pill,” racial unrest.
I was looking for security in a world turned upside down. I was looking for certainty where there was none to be found. I wanted to avoid making mistakes. The cult seemed to be the solution.
There are many who have developed a cult mentality today.
When I joined the cult, something snapped in my brain. No longer would I listen to reason because I felt the power of knowing for certain that I was right and all the rest of the nation was bathed in lies and self-deception. The world for me was black-and-white, good and evil, right vs. wrong. I felt like I was special and that others were beneath me.
Some on the political left have become as dogmatic as I was in my late teens, demanding that we “defund the police” or that we allow takeovers of a section of Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis and other cities by rioters and anarchists. Many more on the political right have been willing to throw off our democratic traditions and rule of law to find certainty in an authoritarian president who seems to delight in breaking norms and standards long accepted.
We watch as the president of the United States files at least 50 lawsuits over a “rigged election.” We hear the president claiming fraud and watch as he criticizes and pressures secretaries of state to not certify the vote. Trump has tried to twist the arms of at least two state governors to call special sessions of the legislature to have them appoint their own electors, overturning the vote of the people.
Yet, Republicans in Congress have stood by, silent in the face of this onslaught on our institutions. Either they are terrified of the power of Trump and/or they are cynically using his influence with 73 million supporters to retain their power in the Senate in the runoff elections in Georgia. The desire for power has trumped both morality and logic.
There is very little certainty in this world and I wasn’t as special as I believed I was when I swallowed the pronouncements of my “dear leader.” Today, for millions of Americans, Donald Trump has become a god.
Just like my time in the cult, many if not most of Trump’s followers will not listen to reason. They don’t trust the media; they will only trust what the president states, no matter how crazy and no matter how much he lies. Some of the more extremist factions send death threats to government officials. Others plotted to kidnap the governor of Michigan and take over the state.
The frustration that I feel is that millions of Americans are now making the same mistakes I made when I was in my teens and early 20s. How can anyone break out of black-and-white thinking? How can I or anyone tamp down the fear that causes so many supporters of radical perspectives to believe lies and fabrications?
I began to wake up to what my cult leader was doing to me as I got my master’s degree in history at Pepperdine University in the 1970s. I came to realize that there are multiple perspectives to any historic event. The world is not divided into two either/or spheres.
At Pepperdine, I was given a contrast between what the cult taught and what I was learning from history. There have been many dictators throughout the centuries who have told big lies over and over again. This perspective gave me the strength to break free from the mental chains of the cult.
My hope is that the end of Trump’s authoritarian rule will allow millions of Americans to break free of their delusions. The presidency of Joe Biden stands to offer them a contrast between authoritarianism on one side and freedom through moderation on the other. There is no such thing as absolute certainty.
My hope is that if I could break away from a cult, so can millions of Americans who are currently caught in its grip. For the sake of the nation, I certainly hope so.