CANNONFIRE





Friday, September 11, 2020

The Age of the Cult

Warning: This essay will be a bit of a ramble, as I hunt for the right words to express ideas which resist verbalization.

There's a lot to say about the recent spate of important anti-Trump books: Abramson's Proof of Corruption, Strzok's Compromised, Cohen's Disloyal, Woodward's Rage, and more. Although all of these authors deserve our gratitude, I'm also annoyed by the prospect of spending another two thousand pages in the company of Donald Fucking Trump.

I want my intellectual life back. I want to read about other things. A year ago, I became engrossed in Scott Eyman's biography of John Ford. Every turn of the page brought pangs of guilt: "How will this book help defeat Trump?"

Looks like I'll have to bookmark Disloyal at the halfway point, even though it's a fascinating memoir. Rachel Maddow has convinced me that Peter Strzok is even more pertinent. But before I put the book aside, I'd like to offer a word or two about Michael Cohen.

What has always bugged me about the guy, both before and after his change of heart, is his obsequiousness. Always, always, he refers to the Papaya Pinochet as The Boss or MISTAH Trump. Well after love turned to hate, Cohen still cannot shake the reverential tone.

Cohen was quite well-off before he met MISTAH Trump. A millionaire. Granted, that word doesn't mean what it used to. (Are you old enough to recall when Bruce Wayne was a mere millionaire? I am.) Nevertheless, a $700-an-hour lawyer need be no man's lackey.

Cohen had reached the stage in life when he should have gone shopping for a lackey of his own -- an unctuous young brownnoser who lived to serve MISTAH Cohen. But then Cohen fell under Trump's sway.

After Cohen provided him with free legal services on two separate occasions, Trump called Cohen into his office and asked: "Michael, what do you know about bankruptcy and Chapter 11 procedures?" That should have been a clue right there. What further business would you have with a prostitute who begins the session by asking: "What do you know about HIV"?

But Michael Cohen didn't ask for upfront money, as he damn well should have done. He provided another 100 hours of legal work which (rather creatively) got Trump out of a horrible jam. When Cohen finally mentioned payment, Trump offered him a job as a way to avoid paying the bill.

The salary Trump gave him hardly matched Cohen's previous yearly income, yet Cohen joyously became Trump's lickspittle, forever fearful of being fired on a whim.

Why? What did he gain from servility?

The answer to that question has, in part, something to do with the fact that Trump acted like a mob boss. Cohen had always admired wiseguys, having met quite a few in his youth.

In larger part, the answer has to do with Trump's status as a cult leader. He wasn't just a Vito Corleone; he was also an L. Ron Hubbard.
Trump saved the crappiest jobs for me, a fact that I took pride in; I was given the dirty work because I was willing to get dirt on my hands—and blood if necessary.

If that seems bizarre to you, think about it like being under the spell of a cult leader. I don’t mean that as a cliché or an accusation: I mean literally. How did Jim Jones get his followers in Guyana to drink the poisoned Kool-Aid (actually, it was a cheap knockoff called Flavor Aid) and commit mass suicide? The answer was that Jones took control of the minds of those drawn to him, not all at once but gradually, over time, by luring them into his mind.

“Stop drinking the Kool-Aid,” we would say to each other at the Trump Organization all the time.

The joke wasn’t really a joke, even as we joshed around. Trump would say so many things that were illogical or just plain bullshit, as we consciously would know, but we would stay on his message, even though we knew it was nonsense. We would repeat what he said, as if it were true, and then we’d repeat the message to one another so often that we would actually begin to believe the distortions ourselves.
...Trump is a master at getting otherwise seemingly sensible people to enter into his fantasyland because of the fear that failure to do so means banishment. This explains the behavior of many members of Congress and the Cabinet, as displayed daily in the news, terrified of facing a primary or a tweet or a tantrum. It was a huge part of a process that I fell victim to and know intimately. Once the small lies and delusions pass, then it became easier and easier to swallow bigger and bigger lies and delusions.
We live in the Age of the Cult. I previously thought of the 1970s, especially the early '70s, as the Age of the Cult. Wrong decade. The time is now.

Trumpism is a cult. QAnon is a cult.

Racism, I would argue, has become a kind of cult, thanks to the Dark Enlightenment and Boogaloo movements. Libertarianism began as an economic philosophy, but, like Marxism, it morphed into a cult. Fundamentalist Christianity, like fundamentalist Islam, is a cult. The so-called "Prosperity Gospel" is one of the slimiest sects in the history of hogwash.

Lefties are hardly exempt. The cult phenomenon straddles political boundaries.

During the primary season, two cult leaders -- Tulsi Gabbard and Marianne Williamson -- vied to lead the Democratic ticket. Postmodernism has become an explicitly anti-Enlightenment religion. Anti-racism, like racism, has become a kind of cult.

As longtime readers know, I view Antifa as a rather obnoxious cult. But anti-Antifa vigilantes are every bit as Jim-Jonesian, and rather more dangerous. For example.  

Richard Dawkins even managed the formidable feat of turning atheism into a cult. The acolytes of this sect include both lefties and righties. In my eyes, they're all culties.

Cult culture is the new normal. When you meet a new person, the question is not "Does he belong to a cult?" but "Which cult does he belong to?" Gays are no longer merely gay; they are soldiers in the Cult of Gay. Feminists are no longer advocates of equality; they are soldiers in the Cult of Female Victimhood. Incels and Jordan Petersonites are soldiers in the Cult of Male Victimhood. The current election has devolved into a battle between the Cult of White Victimhood and the Cult of Black Victimhood.

How did this situation come to pass? Did we enter the Age of the Cult because technology threatens our job security? Because pollution threatens extinction? Or does the answer have something to do with the internet? Life certainly seems more ferociously tribal now than it did in the pre-digital age.

My personal attempt at an answer derives from something I said to a racist conspiracy theorist back in the early '90s: Only those with no personal accomplishments brag about accidents of birth.

If you take pride in your genes, you must have a pathetically empty resume. The followers of Guy Lincoln Rockwell and Willis Carto and Richard Spencer -- and Louis Farrakhan and Meir Kahane -- have never included any notable novelists or film-makers or musicians or painters or inventors or entrepreneurs. They're all nobodies.

Failures.

That's why they joined various branches of the Cult of Race. Membership in this cult allows one to blame all personal failures on some hideous, insidious Other. The only alternative would be to blame that person in the mirror. Unthinkable. Can't have that.

In gleeful defiance of political correctness, I would apply the same "Failure Principle" to both left and right -- to the BLM protesters, to the SJWs, to the Andrea Dworkinites, to the LGBT-whatever obsessives, to  the intersectionalists, to the postmodernists, to the cancel-crazies, to the Ayn Randroids, to the tiki-torchers, to the Boogalooers, to the QAnon Qrackpots, to the Jesusmaniacs. To any cult you choose.

The same principle is even at work in the realm of pop culture, where millions of American failures have become have become way too emotionally involved in Geek Sectarianism. If I hear one more Star Wars fanboy bitch about Star Wars, I'm gonna shoot first.

Marx once said: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people." Something similar could be said about the Age of the Cult.

A cult provides a home to every failure who isn't honest enough to loathe himself or herself. Admit it: As you grew up, you visualized yourself as Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star, or as Jeanne d'Arc capturing Les Tourelles. But you never had what it takes to be a hero. Now you work the graveyard shift at 7-11 and your spouse belittles you.

Failure.

But a cult can give you a sense of identity.

Any cult will do. If you happen to have red hair, join the Cult of Ginger and your life will suddenly gain meaning. Now you know why your life went wrong: You were fucked over by the Anti-Ginger Conspiracy.

Being a failure, you lack confidence. Hence, the appeal of the narcissistic cult leader: He or she radiates an absolutely insane level of self-confidence.

Example: Donald Trump.

I seem to have traveled far from Michael Cohen's book, haven't I? Not as far as you might think.

I view Cohen as a man who seemed to have everything -- money, family, status, political ambitions. But he nevertheless felt dissatisfied. He had grown up around wiseguys. He secretly yearned for that kind of excitement and power. Michael Cohen wanted to be Mickey Cohen.

But he didn't go there. Maybe he just lacked the balls to be a gangster.

For all his outward success, Cohen felt like a failure -- if you define "failure" as a disconnect between the person you became and the person you once intended to be.

Enter Trump, the businessman-mobster, perpetually brimming with jackass self-assurance even though smart people knew him to be a vulgar, self-destructive, ill-read idiot who has always pretended to be much wealthier than he really was. His one true asset has always been his conviction of his own deity. Confidence gives him charisma.

Donald Trump leads the Cult of Trumpism -- and for a while, Michael Cohen was his High Priest.

Not too many months ago, Trump stupidly deluded himself into thinking that he could transform Bob Woodward into another devotee. But the old Trump magic didn't work. Woodward got what he wanted from Trump by feigning obsequiousness. An ancient strategy, but it often works. Hell, if Woodward had brownnosed just a little more slavishly, Trump might even have disclosed the full details of that nuclear secret.

Only in the Age of the Cult could a brutish boor like Trump accomplish what he has accomplished. I believe the Age of the Cult will prevail as long as the average person refuses to cop to his or her self-loathing. And universal self-loathing will prevail as long as parents teach their children "You are AMAZING! You can do ANYTHING!" instead of teaching them a much more realistic lesson: Failure is normal.

No, I'm not talking about the need to learn from temporary failures, as the writers of pop psychology books are forever advising us to do. I'm talking about the need to accept a much harder truth: At some point in your life, you will probably enter into a permanent state of capital-F FAILURE -- the bone-deep understanding that you never will attain the grand dreams of youth.

You are a failure. As long as our society anathematizes those four words, people will fall for any charismatic cult leader who offers a scapegoat. We can't accept our failures. Thus, we yearn to be told: "Don't blame yourselves. Blame...them."

That's why the fall of Trumpism, if it comes, may give rise to a new cult. And the next one will probably be worse.
Comments:
Slightly off topic, but one of the ironies of blaming the "other" for your failures is that it's those most like you that are your direct competitors.
I'm reminded of a scene from early in the first book of the Dune series, where there's a dinner soon after the Atreidies arrive on Arrakis.

"Do you mean, sir, that these birds are cannibals?"

"That's an odd question, young Master," the banker said. "I merely said the birds drink blood. It doesn't have to be the blood of their own kind, does it?"

"It was not an odd question," Paul said, and Jessica noted the brittle riposte quality of her training exposed in his voice. "Most educated people know that the worst potential competition for any young organism can come from its own kind." He deliberately forked a bite of food from his companion's plate, ate it. "They are eating from the same bowl. They have the same basic requirements."

You are a failure because your fellows beat you at the game, not because somewhere else someone different from you exist.
 
If I may disagree. There is an alternative between becoming a cultie or remaining self-loathing, and that is to be a realist about your own responsibility for your success or failure.

It doesn't matter that you did not have certain opportunities, as long as you made the best of the opportunities you had. Did you make wise choices? Did you learn from your failures and own them? Do not envy those more successful or prosperous, nor scorn those less so.

I did not explicitly preach this philosophy to my children, but they absorbed it from growing up in its presence.
 
"You are a failure because your fellows beat you at the game, not because somewhere else someone different from you exist."

You may not know it, Casbott, but that's the basis of Rene Girard's theory of mimesis. I'm not persuaded by this theory.

Look, before the virus hit, I could walk into any bar in this city and, after about twenty minutes of conversation, manage to get a few teeth punched out of my jaw. Why? Not because any sort of competition exists. Not because I wear a watch that the other guy wants. Not because I'm with a woman the other guy wants. None of my fellows beat me at the game. There IS no game.

No, I'll get punched because I have a tendency to disagree with whatever idea the other guy favors. If I enter a sports bar, I'll announce that sports are dull. If I'm talking to a right-winger, he'll soon understand that I'm one of those detestable lefties. Yet in the left-most part of town, I'll be taken for a reactionary. Religious folk are forever presuming me to be an atheist; atheists always presume that I'm religious.

It's my curse. Unlike St. Paul, I speak as a Jew to the Greeks and as a Greek to the Jews.

Whoever the other guy is, I'm different. And difference makes me hate-worthy.

Then again, I grew up watching "The Prisoner" -- THE classic show about individualism. Patrick McGoohan was one of my idols. He gave us this quote:

"I will not make any deals with you. I've resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own. I resign."

If we define "failure" as the difference between youthful ambition and one's actual status in adulthood, maybe I'm not such a failure after all. My boyhood idol became famous for saying "I resign." And I have, indeed, resigned. I succeeded at THAT.

 
9 PM – 12 AM Central time Friday nights: The legendary program Beaker Street has returned. Iconic host Clyde Clifford has returned from his medical absence. :grin:

The show can be found at http://arkansasrocks.com/ .

If you can’t listen to Beaker Street live, files of the broadcasts show up shortly afterward at https://beakerstreetsetlists.com/ .
 
"Hell, if Woodward had brownnosed just a little more slavishly, Trump might even have disclosed the full details of that nuclear secret."

After reading about that revelation in Woodward's book, I came to the realization that Trump might be assassinated after leaving office. I think "they" have no choice. He's a yapper, and will die a yapper. In office they know everything he says and to whom; not so when he's a private citizen again.
 
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