In the wake of the Capitol Hill insurrection, it probably comes as no surprise that I’ve devoted a lot of time to trying to understand QAnon, cults, and the rise of white supremacist violence. Being a trained seminarian, this isn’t a new topic to me; if you study religion, you’re bound to spend time studying cults and fringe ideologies. That said, it’s stunning to know–and lose–people to a potential cult as opposed to studying it as a far-off phenomenon that happened to someone else or in some other period of history.
All that is to say, I’ve been trying to wrap my head, more specifically, around a cult of personality and what happens when the personality, or leader, no longer wields the power they did at the height of the cult’s success.
In fact, cults of personality often dissolve once the leader loses his platform, be it through death or other means. However, many cults–even those who had a strong leader–are able to transition and can persist under new leadership.
While we don’t often think of early Christianity as a cult of personality, it’s probably the best example of this: a failed prophet who predicted the end times dies and instead of dissolving, the group becomes a worldwide religion where the dead leader becomes a martyr who lives on.
Scientology and the Mormon church are probably more recent examples of this. But since I’m obviously coming at this in the wake of the Capitol attacks, what about Trumpism? First, can we really say Trumpism is even a cult, and if so, what happens next now that he’s about to lose his status and power?
So first, a quick checklist: are science and critical thinking replaced by an authoritative cult leader? Check. Is absolute loyalty expected? Check. Is there an ideology of isolationism? Check. Are outsiders considered a threat or is there a general fear of others? Check.
This is by no means an exhaustive list but I think we can safely admit Trumpism shares the characteristics of a cult.
QAnon has even more blatant markings of a cult. This group involves a mysterious figure called ‘Q’ (implying the security clearance the individual had at the Department of Energy) who–among his many conspiracy theories–puts forth the belief that Trump has spent months working to expose a satanic cabal of Democrats and celebrities for their pedophilia and cannibalism. It’s more of a cult than, say, an everyday Trump supporter but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell the two apart because of the way Trump began to embrace QAnon conspiracy theories several months ago.
An important sidenote is that Q has not been explicitly ‘conservative’ in that vegan and yoga online communities have attracted vulnerable followers who might have otherwise been “liberal” before they were “recruited” to this thinking. I mention this because while it’s probably accurate to label QAnon as right-wing extremism, many people regardless of their political spectrum are susceptible to this movement.
The question that remains now is whether Q implodes post-Trump, or whether it transitions into something different, or into something more sinister.
While I do think Trumpism and/or QAnon is a cult, I don’t think Trump is actually important to whether or not the cult thrives. Why? Because while it’s certainly a cult of personality, first there’s a personality more important than Trump and that’s the elusive “Q,” a mysterious author (that is most certainly not one single person but multiple entities) who claims to be “in the know” offering prophetic messages.
And second, because QAnon is, as best I can tell, a sect of evangelical Christianity which means their allegiance is less to Trump and more to their religious fervor. In this sense, Barr, Pence, Pompeo, and DeVos could all become more important figures in the cult than Trump because they are all Christian nationalists, but they lacked Trump’s charisma so to them he was just their tool to promote their extremist Christian views despite Trump very obviously only being Christian in name.
What’s unclear to me is whether he was a tool Christian extremists couldn’t control or whether the division he’s unleashed is exactly what they wanted because it helps them solidify their attempt at building a theocracy. Since Q is anonymous we can’t know whether they simply benefit from QAnon conspiracies, the way they have used Trump as a tool for a power grab, or whether they’re actually wrapped up in pushing and creating QAnon conspiracies themselves. And frankly, I’m less interested in that question because it’s so speculative. What’s important for now is that they are key figures in the world of QAnon precisely because of their fervor for Christian nationalism and were in Trump’s orbit.
But haven’t they all failed? It’s got to be looking more and more to any QAnon supporter like Q’s predictions are not going to come true, after all, so you would think the movement could die in the coming days as people realize it was all a ruse.
Here’s the problem though: cults often have failed prophecies. Those that predicted the end of the world and kept getting it wrong usually see their followers, shockingly, double down on their faith in the cult after a prophecy fails. This is a function of cognitive dissonance: it’s easier to accept there’s a new date for the end of the world than it is to accept you’ve been swallowing lies and that your whole worldview is corrupted.
So it’s a feature, not a bug, and the leaders often find ways to explain the failed prophecy. This is why Trump’s election loss could so easily get twisted into a deep state conspiracy, referred to as “The Big Lie.” How could he lose if he was working so hard to stop the pedophile Democrats? Because they’ll cheat to stop him from exposing the truth, of course. The content practically writes itself.
Likewise, this is also why we already see some QAnon followers turning on Trump (and before that on other Trump loyalists who resigned or were critical) after he gave his speech calling for an end to the violence. One of the more dangerous things about a cult leader being both anonymous and likely having multiple sources is that your leader really can live forever and always find a way to be right, or explain away your failed prophecies with ease. Trump may have been their savior, but the scribe–not the savior–gets to decide what direction the story goes in.
To draw on the earlier example of Christianity, this is exactly what we see happening in Paul’s epistles in the New Testament. Jesus is less important to the story. The scribes get to shape how to interpret the death of this prophet who promised something (the end times) that didn’t come true (cf. 1 Thess. 4:13 where Paul has to explain why believers have died before Jesus returned because everyone is still waiting for the promise of the end times to come true), and they do such a good job of telling that story, it becomes one of the most lasting, powerful stories in human history, regardless of what you believe about it.
To that end, it’s unclear what comes next with QAnon, whether Trump becomes some kind of deep state martyr who they think will valiantly return in four years (or sooner), or whether he will be replaced with another egocentric leader. But Trump doesn’t matter ultimately. He’s what we might call a “pre-fascist.” He cared much more about himself than about any particular ideology. Yet he did something in laying the groundwork for the truly abominable fascists to rise in his ashes. And that’s precisely what these “scribes” of QAnon are, having even begun their own QAnon churches that quote ‘Q’ like it’s scripture and use militant language in their homily.
With Q conspiracy theories widespread across Facebook, Parler, and other social media, what comes next is really at the mercy of whomever gets to spread the lies. And make no mistake: these people are violent extremists, have a very clear ideology, are smarter than Trump and his closest cronies, and believe themselves ordained by God. They aren’t going away anytime soon.