Update: Since June, Trump has continued to hold rallies across the nation, particularly in states where coronavirus infections are surging. These maskless, crowded rallies have, as predicted, driven huge spikes in infections. And on two separate occasions, White House events (the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett and the Election Day party) were ground zero for coronavirus outbreaks within the White House and Trump’s closest supporters.
On Saturday, June 20, Pres. Donald Trump will hold his first campaign rally since March in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Leaving aside the troublesome history associated with Tulsa — and the originally scheduled date of Juneteenth — many are questioning why the president would go ahead with a large, crowded indoor event in the midst of the most virulent pandemic since the Spanish Flu.
Oklahoma, like many Republican-led states, is seeing a surge of coronavirus cases since “reopening” in late April — one of the earliest states to do so. As of June 19, the state had a total of 9,354 cases and 366 deaths, with Tulsa County specifically leading in both infections and deaths. Yet there are little to no legal restrictions in place to enforce social distancing or wearing masks in public. While White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told CNN that the attendees should “probably” wear a face mask during the event, few, if any, will do so. The president himself notably refuses to wear one, and his supporters across the country are vocal — and, at times, violent — in their opposition to wearing masks in public.
And with 19,000 unmasked people expected to pack into the BOK Center Saturday, health experts are worried it will become a “super-spreader” event.
The question that seems to be vexing so many is, “why?” Why would people congregate in large crowds during a pandemic, and refuse to do such a simple thing as wear a mask to prevent spreading infection? Many point to the Republican — and Trump’s, specifically — opposition to science. Others think it comes from the president’s (and his loyal media’s) continued downplaying of the dangers of the virus.
Those concepts are certainly foundational to this situation. But as someone who researches some of the darkest reaches of human behavior, I believe there is something else, far more troubling, at play.
What we are witnessing is a slow-motion, mass cult suicide.
I’m not the first person to discern that Trump has nearly all the characteristics of a cult leader: his grandiose sense of self, demands of blind obedience, excessive need for admiration, hypersensitivity to criticism, belief that only he has the answers to all problems, and more. Steven Hassan, a former cult member himself who now studies cults and helps members escape them, wrote an entire book on The Cult of Trump (affiliate link). In it, he details just how Trump uses the same mind-control techniques that cult leaders like Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Sun Myung Moon used on their followers.
Most cult leaders isolate their members so that they are easier to control and manipulate. In the past, this had to be done by physically moving the members far away from their families and friends. However, today, with the help of social media algorithms and a vast network of right-wing propaganda outlets, cult members can self-isolate quite effectively. Jen Senko’s groundbreaking documentary, The Brainwashing of My Dad (affiliate link), illuminates just how much these media outlets can affect a person’s beliefs and personality.
One way cults enforce obedience to their leader is by scapegoating and attacking anything or anyone who contradicts them — scientists, doctors, even reality itself. President Trump and his followers repeatedly attack and denigrate the news media, the World Health Organization, and anyone else who treats the pandemic as what it actually is: a highly contagious, deadly pandemic.
Instead, his followers believe in a kind of apocalyptic Darwinism, that only the old and sick are at risk for catching the disease — reality be damned — and that their supposed “health” or “fitness” renders them immune. Such “health” and “fitness” isn’t based on any scientific measure of health — you only have to look at images of his supporters to see they are not in good health, generally — but from their belief in Trump’s message, their racial identity, or some combination of the two.
The clincher is that many of Trump’s followers believe (or at least say they believe) that he was “chosen by God.” In fact, in 2018, a film titled The Trump Prophecy was released; it presents the story of retired firefighter Mark Taylor’s “vision” that Trump was ordained by God to become president. No reasons were given why such a patently un-Christian man would be chosen; apparently Taylor’s “vision” was enough for his true believers.
Which brings them to the next predictable belief: that as someone “chosen by God,” there is no authority higher than his word. Cult members must constantly prove their faith in and obedience to their leader, especially when the leader’s proclamations conflict with reality. This is the ultimate test of faith. Witness the president’s seemingly inexplicable push for people to take hydroxychloroquine to treat (or prevent) Covid-19. He even strong-armed the FDA to “fast-track” the drug and sent out millions of doses to be used on Covid-19 patients before it was proven safe. Despite health experts warning the public about the dire risk of taking it, some took it anyway, and at least one man died from it. Even after multiple studies showed it had no effect on treating Covid-19, and in fact was linked to higher deaths, the president continued touting it.
Later, at a nationally televised briefing, Trump mused about possibly “injecting” disinfectants into the body to cure Covid-19. Poison control centers across the country reported a spike in people calling to ask if drinking various cleaning fluids was safe, and there was a rise in poisoning cases involving consumption of disinfectants (though not all the cases were from willful ingestion, to be clear).
Former members of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple report that Jones would, from time to time, have them drink Kool-Aid or punch, then tell them it had been poisoned. This wasn’t some sick prank; it was a trial run, designed both to desensitize them to the act of drinking poison and to weed out anyone who might resist. The “suggestions” to take hydroxychloroquine and ingest disinfectants look a lot like these kinds of trial runs, in retrospect.
Cult leaders give different reasons for having their followers take their own lives: Jim Jones told his followers it was a form of protest; Marshall Applewhite told his that their spirits would be taken aboard a spacecraft. But really, mass suicides are about one thing and one thing only: for followers to prove their complete obedience and faith in their leader.
So now Trump has set up the ultimate test of faith for his followers. In the middle of a pandemic, in a place where infections are surging, he will call them together under one roof, ignoring all safety precautions, to prove their obedience to him. While they might not line up to drink poison Kool-Aid, they will most certainly be inhaling a dangerous virus.
Afterwards, the BOK Center won’t be filled with the bodies of the Trump faithful. But in a couple weeks’ time, the hospital wards and funeral homes will be — along with their families, their co-workers, and the service workers who had to come into contact with them. Because this is different than other mass cult suicides in one alarming way: they are trying to take as many of us with them as possible.