My experience as a former cult member and researcher in the field of Social Sciences earned me the ability to identify narcissism and cultish tendencies. Furthermore, as a former New York City resident who kept abreast of interviews with the city’s apparent “movers and shakers,” I often questioned Trump’s qualifications as a leader, let alone as national presidential leader.
Cults have commonly been led by narcissists; harmful cults have been led by abusive narcissists. These are individuals who suffer extreme pain as children, and soon learn to create their own realities through lies and manipulation as a coping mechanism. There are different degrees of narcissism; extreme cases are leaders such as Hitler; milder cases can be found everywhere. According to psychoanalyst and researcher Marie Francis Hirigoyen, the following are some common tendencies abusive narcissists share to different extents:
- They believe they are always victims and are treated unfairly.
- They consider their victims to be aggressors, and their opponents to be evil.
- In their mind they are never wrong and never apologize; they will only rectify what they said if it will earn them power.
- They consider themselves above the law.
- They manipulate the hearts and minds of their enablers and create a group of unconditional fans or codependents.
- They lie and believe their lies; whoever contradicts the lies will pay the consequences.
- They lead their loyal and strong followers to commit crimes or unethical acts; they will not get their hands dirty publicly.
- They produce codependents who will not question them or their character, since to do so would be a sign of weakness.
- They are jealous if they are not at the top of the game, and until they convince themselves and others that they are at the top.
- They are incapable of experiencing true empathy, and those at the bottom are in their mind losers; a win-win scenario is out of the picture.
Could Trump, then, be an abusive narcissist? If the answer is yes, the next questions to ask are: Is he leading a harmful cult? And are those following him aggressors or victims?
To answer these second set of questions, we would need to look at each individual’s circumstances. Cult members will defend and excuse the leader blindly, will condemn and – if possible – cut communication with those who oppose them, and will lose sight of what is ethical and legal, since they will borrow from the leader’s entitlement to do harm or commit crimes.
When I was in Regnum Christi, which was considered a cult led by abusive narcissist Marcial Maciel LC, a Catholic priest who managed to gain the favors of John Paul II and establish a religious order, I often asked the question: why did some of us became enablers and codependents within the group, while others were simply victims of the founder’s lies? I came to the conclusion that it depended on the person’s degree of involvement and their level of leadership in the group. While cult lower-ranking leaders do not always commit crimes, their guilt relies on the dissemination of lies, even when they believed them to be true – in which case is the result of ignorance by omission; cult to personality blinded them and led others blindly.
Trump followers idealize Trump in virtue of the faith and codependency they have developed toward the local or social-media leaders who have convinced them that mainstream media, and mainstream everything, are attacking them and slandering their ideals. As a consequence, they have become more determined to stand by, and defend, the principles that they believe are superior and in danger, and defend the leader who is supposed to guarantee those principles.
While there is no treatment for abusive narcissists since they never recognize or admit their pathology, there is treatment for those who follow them and/or have developed a codependency; however, the process is complex and painful for everyone. Here is what I propose it will take:
- Everyone, even those who are sure to be right, should consider they might be wrong. For some, this will entail asking if there could be goodness in some of the narcissists’ followers; and for others, it entails opening their minds to the possibility that their leader might be wrong, and not the person they think he is.
- As Brene Brown encourages, we should try to reply to those who express an opposing opinion (or those who speak with no evidence to prove what they are saying), tell me more about it, since it is through the act of reflective or empathetic listening that speakers can listen to themselves and realize where the intellectual gaps of their thinking process are. Those who are wrong need to see it for themselves; someone else cannot do the recognition for them.
Anyone who has been in a cult knows that extremism and fanaticism come partly from the feeling of being persecuted; thus, not confrontation but the two recommendations included above could be crucial during these times. Let us accompany both groups: those who have fallen trapped of Trump’s lies and the lies of conspiracy theories, and those angered by the rhetoric and actions of Trump and his followers. Now more than ever, we need to apply reflective listening.
Elena Sada is a Professor of Education, Bilingual, Social & Multicultural Studies at Eastern Connecticut State University.