The Republican Party isn’t a cult yet, but there are a lot of people trying very, very hard to make it one.
One of the most stunning outcomes of the 2018 election was watching Republican leaders, both in and outside of Nevada, complain that the reason they lost was due to “voter fraud.” This was especially comical here since we have a Republican secretary of state. She showed why she enjoyed bipartisan electoral support (and re-won her seat) when she bravely defied the ideologues in her own party and stood up for the integrity of Nevada’s elections.
Republican accusations of voter fraud are nothing new, especially not in Nevada. Sharron Angle famously beat the same drum when she lost her election to Harry Reid in 2010.
What is new, however, is one President Trump, who apparently has yet to experience an election that isn’t rife with fraud, at least in his own mind. Win or lose, it doesn’t matter. He sees nefarious shadows wearing hats, buying cereal without identification, and stealing elections from honest-to-goodness real red-blooded Americans everywhere.
With that sort of messaging coming from the top, it’s no surprise others within the Republican Party are openly parroting his messaging. And why not? It works, for some definition of the word. Sure, Kris Kobach lost Kansas’ gubernatorial election, but surely it’s not his fault he lost in a state where Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly two to one? Clearly it was the fault of the illegals (who apparently twice voted for Republican(?) and former Gov. Sam Brownback), and also the fault of the ACLU, and also the fault of the mean federal judge who told Kobach to go back to law school.
Similarly, Republicans didn’t watch Nevada tip from “purple” to “blue” because of misanthropic messaging muttered by unlikeable, serially unapproachable candidates. No. Rather, as they say, and as Principal Skinner might say, it’s the votes that are wrong. The voter fraud claim “works” because it deflects attention from the people responsible for running, profiting from, and hijacking the Republican Party.
Political groups, like most affiliation groups in general, are not that profitable to belong to, individually speaking. If the group is operating according to plan, everyone’s trying to contribute according to their ability and, with any luck, only drawing from the group’s resources according to their needs. By doing so, the profits and benefits of the group as a whole can be shared by the whole. This is simple mutual aid, nothing more — and political parties, like any other group, are ostensibly designed to support and advance the goals of the people that belong to them. By subordinating each individual’s political needs and desires into an aggregate whole, each individual in the group can advance some of their goals at the same time while supporting other, hopefully non-competing goals.
Cult groups, on the other hand, are mutual aid groups that have gone bad. A cult’s real goal is to serve the needs and desires of the leader or leadership group at the expense of the rest of the cult’s membership. If a cult is operating according to plan, the members of the group are encouraged to contribute well beyond their ability to safely do so, while the only people allowed to draw from the group’s resources are those in positions of power and influence.
The recipe to turn a mutual aid group, membership group, or political group into a cult isn’t complicated. Vihart’s video on the subject provides an easy-to-follow recipe. Go watch it right now, then come back. I’ll wait.
Based on her instructions, let’s see if we can turn The Indy readership into a cult:
- First, establish a group identity around a shared belief. Every group does that. You, Indy readers, have a group identity – you’re Indy readers! You’re supporters of reliable, nonpartisan, deeply reported non-profit ad-free journalism! Right?
- Next, create a body of rhetoric that the group can repeat to defend their belief. These are the group’s talking points, and every group has them. They can be memes, slogans, or thoughtful opinion columns written by kind, gentle-mannered Libertarians. As the group evolves, we can expand our talking points with multiple layers of rhetoric so we can switch whenever one isn’t working. For example, The Indy was never really about non-profit journalism; it’s about stripping exploitative profits from the delivery of journalism! Or maybe it’s about how only truly smart news readers are reasonable and open-minded enough to accept new sources of journalism like The Indy. Whatever gets you to come back, read more columns, and become monthly members.
- Next, spread the word (and, hopefully, make new enemies)! In order for this step to succeed, we have to encourage readers to like, share, subscribe, and comment independently. Recruiting more Indy readers builds credibility — the more readers we have, the bigger our group and the more legitimate we seem. Sooner or later, we’ll also attract enemies that we can define ourselves against. For example, it’s a good thing we’re more open-minded or intellectually honest than those blind fools who call The Nevada Independent a “liberal” or “far-left” news outlet merely because we don’t parrot conservative talking points. That makes us better.
- Make your group members feel like everyone hates them. No, you’re not actually the scum of the Earth — but (the story goes) you’re surrounded by people who think you are because you read The Nevada Independent. Some people think you’re snooty. Snobby. Too good to consume for-profit news! Others say you’re rubes, guzzling propaganda written by and for The Indy’s largest donors. The Indy knows better, though, and so do you! That’s why you became a monthly member, because you know The Indy is the leading source for transparent, nonpartisan journalism in Nevada. Don’t listen to or read what the naysayers say — read The Indy, the only news source that respects you, the smart, independent reader.
- Escalate. Righteous retaliation is fun! Do you see somebody borrowing The Indy’s journalistic copy without crediting The Indy? You should do something about that! Arguing with the plagiarizer on Twitter would be a great start, and it’d mean a lot to our editors! See someone criticizing us unfairly? Set them straight! Of course, if you go too far in your indignation, that’s not our fault — we don’t have any control or responsibility over your actions, after all.
- The enemy’s beliefs and feelings can be completely dismissed. Oh, the poor people who have to work for Sheldon Adelson’s newspaper… it’s a shame they have to print their boss’s ideas instead of their own. What are the odds he’d find more than three people to read or work for his newspaper who agree with his opinions, anyway? Zero percent, to a close approximation? That sounds right — after all, who would agree with Adelson unless they were paid to do so?
- Benevolent dictatorship. All glory to the Hypnotoad. He’s the only one who loves us enough to put up with us reading his content and giving him money anyway, right?
Now, why did I use The Nevada Independent in this pretend cult scenario instead of the Nevada Republican Party? It’s not because the present-day NV GOP wouldn’t have served just fine. The people in charge of the Republican Party checked every single box on the list above in the last election. Trump’s “body of rhetoric” began to catch fire during his campaign and was repeated by numerous Nevada candidates and their fans this year (see: various allegations of “Fake news” against news that was clearly true) — and this continues at nearly every rally he headlines. Nationally, instances of escalation have been driving the news, like the Florida Trump supporter who mailed poorly constructed pipe bombs to various Democratic politicians and an actor. Wayne Root, meanwhile, did an excellent job of dismissing his enemy’s beliefs and feelings when he declared that liberals are “the worst foreign group of all.” It’s also pretty hard not to call Trump’s administration of the Republican Party a quasi-dictatorship — just ask lame duck Senator Heller, who had to toe Trump’s every line if he wanted to win his primary.
No, I chose The Nevada Independent as my thought experiment because the Republican Party isn’t uniquely or unprecedentedly terrible.
The Democratic Party, for example, narrowly escaped the clutches of Lyndon LaRouche and his National Democratic Policy Committee in the ‘80s. It took all hands on deck, including notices identifying LaRouche-aligned candidates from state Democratic parties, to prevent his unique blend of conspiracy theory-fueled nonsense from becoming the official platform of one of the major political parties in the United States. Their shared beliefs were nutty — drug dealers were to be prosecuted for treason and killing children, Queen Elizabeth II was the world’s biggest drug runner, everyone needed to be tested for AIDS and quarantined if infected — but they did the job, in a manner of speaking.
LaRouche’s desired policies addressed shared fears over the effect of illicit drugs on society, the spread of AIDS, and foreign meddling in American affairs that were common in certain circles at the time. Their extremism made enemies, it’s true, including several prominent Democratic politicians including former Illinois Senator Adlai E. Stevenson, Illinois, who said they were “adherents to an extremist political philosophy bent on violence and steeped in bigotry.” But their conspiratorial thinking gave them the confidence they needed to be certain that their opponents were simply in cahoots with the bankers (and the queen) and were not reasonable Americans who were just disagreeing vehemently with their beliefs.
I also chose The Nevada Independent because I wanted Republicans to read all the way to the end of this article, and figured they would do so if they didn’t feel unfairly targeted.
I know, am related to, and work with several smart, clever, hard working Republicans who, under any other circumstance, wouldn’t give Trump and his supporters eye contact, much less political support. Indeed, most Republicans used to be consistently skeptical of presidents and assumed they were vanilla, white bread “Republicans In Name Only” who needed other party members, state governments and Congress to keep them honest. Watching a large swath of modern-day Republicans demand loyalty oaths from their local politicians for a crude-mouthed East Coast failson who routinely rejects traditionally Republican positions and who filed for bankruptcy either four or six times, depending on who you listen to (is either answer good…?) is disheartening. It tells me these Republicans are listening to bad advice — advice being peddled by radio talk show hosts and television talking heads who are actively stoking and monetizing the confirmation biases of Republican voters, scaring them with visions of violent migrant caravans and illegal voters helping steal elections, then reaching for their wallets while voters cover their eyes.
I chose The Nevada Independent for my example because the rest of us are not immune from the temptations of the cult. We are not better than the Republicans, we’re just more open-eyed — for the moment.
The Libertarian movement, for example, suffered through a string of men following the same script outlined above until people in the movement got wise and moved on. (Three of the four in the linked article correctly concluded it was more profitable to run that script on sexually frustrated white nationalist teenage boys than to try and keep a Libertarian cult going.)
As for the modern-day Democratic Party, there are warning lights flashing as I type, with a small but growing list of “luminaries” trying to run the same scams on unwitting liberals and hashtag-resisters as the likes of Wayne Root have been running on Republicans for years. For example, Michael Avenatti — the same one just charged with domestic violence — set up a PAC to fundraise for Beto O’Rourke. The catch? Half of the funds he raised went straight to his PAC’s pockets, despite the donation page looking like an O’Rourke donation page. He astutely noted, however, that Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris — both Democratic Party presidential frontrunners — “do the same thing,” as do several other ActBlue clients. Also, remember Step “Make your group members feel like the scum of the Earth and that everyone hates them?” How else do you describe the dire fundraising emails written by the DCCC and others that try to neg Democrats into supporting their causes? Certain corners of Leftbook, meanwhile, are proving it’s never too early to dismiss your enemies.
As the old saying goes, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Whether you’re a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or just a person who reads The Nevada Independent, we must all be on guard against those who seek to turn our support groups into cults for their own profit and gain, whether they’re presidents, chairmen, fundraisers… or perhaps even op-ed columnists.
David Colborne has been active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he has blogged intermittently on his personal blog, as well as on the Libertarian Party of Nevada blog, and ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate. He serves on the Executive Committee for both his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is the father of two sons and an IT professional. Follow him on Twitter @ElectDavidC or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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