I spent thirteen years of my life, including all of my thirties, as a fervent devotee of an Indian guru. I lived communally and worked full-time in the guru’s organization, until one day, after a long process I now know was me slowly coming out of dissociation, it dawned on me like a thunderbolt: I was in a cult, a community that was led by an authoritarian dictator-like figure who presented herself as a living saint. I had experienced her charismatic power on first meeting her through a series of intense, mystical meditation experiences, and I got hooked. Clinging to the magic of those early, uncanny experiences, I submitted to years of abusive control, all in the name of loyalty, devotion, and striving for purification and enlightenment. The spell broke just as I was beginning my graduate degree in social work, with the aim of becoming a psychotherapist.
I emerged out of this cult into the world of Reaganomics, the Moral Majority, neoliberalism, Kenneth Starr and Monica Lewinsky. I heard ideologues like Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist manipulating policy language so as to mask the underlying cruelty, racism, misogyny, greed and self-dealing that was hiding behind the rhetoric. This was precisely what I had recognized in the religious cult I had just left — an agenda of domination with a demand for submission, disguised, like a honey trap, as a ladder toward self-improvement and empowerment. The moral superiority these religious and political leaders cloaked themselves in thinly concealed their brutal, racist contempt for the underprivileged. For example, the so-called “welfare reform” movement was really a punish the poor movement. Then there was the rebranding of programs like Medicare and social security as undeserved “entitlements,” and contempt for and fear of women was recast as the “pro-life movement.” In his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (1961), psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton identified a universally present aspect of cultic communities with his phrase “loading the language.” “This jargon consists of thought-terminating clichés, which serve to alter members’ thought processes to conform to the group’s way of thinking.” An excellent example of “loading the language,” fostered for decades by think-tanks funded by oligarchs like the Koch Brothers, is use of the term “entitlements.” Linguist George Lakoff (2011) pointed out that these New Deal and Great Society programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, are in fact protections not entitlements, against the scourges of old-age poverty and medical bankruptcy. The majority of the public and the media, however, and not just on the right, are now used to the term entitlements, because they have been brainwashed by a very efficient right-wing propaganda machine into accepting it. It frightened me then, fresh out of a cult, and it frightens me now more than ever, that so many Americans are so successfully being manipulated and deceived by their media idols, their religious leaders, and by the people for whom they are voting. And behind all this ideology that has stoked working-class resentment of so-called elites, is a group of billionaire oligarchs funding think tanks, meticulously dictating talking points, and buying every academic and politician they can get into their pockets.
I have watched with dread as these ideologues moved their paranoid agendas, full of disavowed fear and hatred, right into the center of public discourse. Instead of all this being rejected by the larger public, the way Joe McCarthy or Nixon were eventually, and in spite of, and in many ways in reaction to the intelligence and dignity Barack Obama represented, we now have Donald Trump. We have a Republican Party in power that is fully complicit in allowing him to systematically chip away at and undermine all the safeguarding functions of our democracy. We have a corporate-owned media, and not just Fox, that has been increasingly forced by market pressure to give voice to the right-wing agenda, with all its Orwellian doublespeak and pseudo-intellectual rationalizations.
One of the particular horrors for me has been the re-emergence in power circles of “objectivism,” the philosophical system created by the potboiler novelist Ayn Rand. “My philosophy,” she wrote, “is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” According to the website for The Atlas Society, an organization which promotes the thinking of Rand, Objectivism is her philosophy of rational individualism. In novels such as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, “Rand dramatized her ideal man, the producer who lives by his own effort and does not give or receive the undeserved, who honors achievement and rejects envy” (The Atlas Society website).
The disavowal of envy means that envy is projected onto those the supermen deem undeserving and worthy of contempt. Disavowing envy in themselves, they attribute it to and elicit it in those upon whom they look down on and seek to keep down. Certainly, during my time spent in a religious cult, while slaving for a guru whose corruption I denied and dissociated, my innate idealism was grossly misplaced, and complicated by much about myself I did not yet understand. But now, it is not as a starry-eyed idealist that I abhor the idolization of pure selfishness, and the contempt for vulnerability, enshrined as sacred by the followers of Rand. One such follower is House Speaker Paul Ryan, the leader of what is currently the most anti-Democratic government branch in the USA other than the Executive. This kind of selfishness is cruelty; it is the definition of what we mean by inhumane. The superiority and entitlement of those adopting this kind of ideology is nihilism — Thanatos (death), not Eros (love); narcissism, not intersubjectivity. Narcissus, you will remember, died of self-adoration. And the one who adored him, Echo, ceased to be anything but that — not a whole human being, just a disembodied echo. And that right there is the story of every cult in a nutshell. A leader believes themselves to be superior, perfect and infinitely entitled; they become more and more paranoid, more and more manic, until they bring about their own destruction; those who follow lose their innate moral compass, they lose contact with truth, they live in a world of “alternative facts.” In the case of today’s G.O.P. and this president, multiple paths to hellbent destruction are being pursued: economically, ecologically, socially, morally.
There are a variety of ways that those who reject Trumpism are reacting. By Trumpism I mean to identify the main enablers of Trump, including the Ayn Randers, the neo-Nazis, white supremacists, the religious right, the oil lobby, the gun lobby, the billionaire oligarch community, the Goebbels-inspired media, and of course Putin’s Russia. Less obvious sources of support are the corporate and financial players, who gladly accept whatever temporary benefits come their way, like the G.O.P. tax bill, even if they don’t adore Trump in the same way his followers do. For me, and for many in my practice who have previously known the unfreedom of being in a subjugating relational system with a traumatizing narcissist, there is a feeling of helplessness. We may have achieved a degree of liberation from the original traumatizing significant other(s) of our histories but is there going to be an escape from Trump? Or from billionaire Murdoch and the de facto state news outlet, Fox News? Or the billions of dollars the Kochs and the Mercers and Adelson are ready to spend on their purely self-serving, oligarchical agendas (Mayer, 2016)?
My impetus to develop a theory about the relational system of the traumatizing narcissist (Shaw, 2014) stemmed initially from my own need to make sense of the guru I had idolized, and why she sought to seduce and then sadistically control people. My interest developed further as I encountered in my practice more and more people who had not been in a cultic group, but who had nevertheless been or were in relationships that very closely reflected the dynamics of cults. Working for more than twenty years now with survivors of narcissistic abuse, most of whom were abused in relationships, personal and/or professional, and not in cults, I have seen how healing it is to help a patient pull aside the curtain that their personal Wizard of Oz hid behind, and expose how dissociated and disconnected from reality their traumatizer really was. This aspect of working with patients who have been relationally traumatized and the restoration of their faith in themselves through the unpacking of the traumatizer’s psychology to reveal that the Emperor is naked, is not a replacement for the work of self-understanding that we all aspire to facilitate. Rather, it can be a component of relational trauma work that helps makes sense of what happened by making sense of what the traumatizer was doing, how they did it and why they did it. Many of those whom I have worked with had seen many other therapists before anyone explained to them to try to think about and understand their abuser’s behavior. All too often, they had been led to “forgiveness,” which results in more, not less, dissociation.
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Daniel Shaw is a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City and in Nyack, NY. He serves as Faculty and Clinical Supervisor for The National Institute for the Psychotherapies, NYC.
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Fromm, E. (1964). The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil. American Mental Health Foundation Books.
Lakoff, G. (2011). “What Conservatives really want.”
Lee, B. (2017). The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump. Thomas Dunne Books.
Lifton, R. J. (1961). Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. New York: Norton.
Lifton, R. J. (2000). Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism . MacMillan.
Mayer, J. (2016). Dark Money. New York: Doubleday
Rand, A. (1957) Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House.
Shaw, D. (2014). Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation. New York: Routledge.