Anatomy of a Death Cult

Many times in the past, America has asked its soldiers to risk their own death and to kill others. It has always purported to have a purpose: to defend America and its values. Our men and women in uniform have sacrificed to protect their loved ones and to serve the greater good.

Jeffrey Goldberg recently reported in The Atlantic that Donald Trump has characterized those who have sacrificed and served in uniform for America as losers and suckers. It is tempting to infer from this that Trump fundamentally doesn’t understand the idea of sacrifice. But there is substantial evidence to the contrary. Trump understands very well the idea of having individuals sacrifice on his behalf. Again and again, he has encouraged many to sacrifice their credibility, their reputation, and even their lives, all on his behalf.

What Trump actually seems to fail to be unable to understand is the idea of sacrifice for the greater good… or for any other purpose than benefiting oneself personally. As George Conway has noted, Trump’s mental health disorders make him fundamentally unable to understand the idea of acting for the benefit of anyone or anything other than himself.

The list of those who have sacrificed their integrity and reputations on Trump’s behalf is quite lengthy, and includes the likes of notable US politicians such as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Nikki Haley, and Lindsey Graham, all of whom have repeatedly debased themselves as sycophants in fully embracing the indecency, incompetence, corruption and rank dishonesty that they once decried.

But perhaps the most egregious examples of sacrifice on Trump’s behalf come not from the career politicians but the common citizens who Trump is deliberately encouraging to kill and to die, ostensibly in support of his cause.

This recent Twitter thread from Senator Chris Murphy explains it very well:

“Can we take the gloves off and tell the truth?
Trump is deliberately killing people.
He holds rallies where people get infected. On Thursday, no social distancing or masks, sending a clear message that the CDC should be ignored.
His plan is to kill people. Let’s just say it.
I know what I wrote [above] sounds harsh. But I stand by it and I want to explain why.
1/ From the start of the epidemic, Trump has mostly refused to wear a mask and engage in social distancing. He often does this very publicly and brazenly (like in Oklahoma City).
2/ His RNC speech was his biggest stage. 23m watched.The question is – WHY did Trump choose not to socially distance guests or require them to wear masks, as his own CDC guidelines below recommend?
There seems to be no good reason. He easily could have.
3/ He and his advisors KNEW the consequences of brazenly thumbing their nose at their own CDC.
They know viewers follow his example, and thus it will now be impossible to convince many people social distancing/masks are important. Bc Trump has made it crystal clear they AREN’T.
4/ And they KNOW that masks/social distancing have proven to save lives (see the NIH Director below).
So for no good reason, they chose a path that will make it harder to beat COVID, and would lead to more people dying. They made this choice, consciously.
5/ Think of it this way – say you told your wife you’re going to drive to the grocery store, and on the way ignore all the stoplights.
You don’t have a good reason – you just want to get to the store faster. She tells you before you leave that you’re going to get people killed.
6/ But you do it anyway, and you run over people.
You had no good reason to be reckless. You knew the consequences beforehand and did it anyway.
You’d be rightly called a killer.
The difference btwn you and Trump is that you killed 3 or 4. Trump’s actions killed thousands.”

Close to 200,000 people have now died from COVID-19 in the United States, and that number will assuredly increase substantially — credible forecasts indicate a likelihood that with many schools reopening it may more than double by the end of 2020. The number who will suffer from chronic illness and disability from COVID-19 will likely be even larger. On the surface, it seems rather senseless, and it is hard to see how anyone benefits from it. But let’s look deeper.

When a cult-leader takes glory in requiring his followers to risk perishing senselessly on his behalf, and when cult members are quite vocal in defending their “freedom” to infect and kill others, it is a death cult.

It is tempting to make a joke about it as Darwinism in action. Some of them, like Herman Cain, a former US presidential candidate who died from COVID-19 after masklessly attending a Trump rally, will be gone, and the pandemic will likely impact Trump’s base harder than others.

But the willingness to potentially sacrifice themselves, and the willingness to inflict senseless death upon others, becomes a bond that actually brings Trump’s followers closer together. It proves their loyalty to the cult (most specifically, the cult leader) is greater than their sense of right or wrong or even of reason. It is how a cult leader gets people to drink poisoned Kool-Aid. (If using the term “cult” makes you uncomfortable, you might find the mafia syndicate analogy more apt. He is putting them through a rite of passage that binds them as soldatos in his Cosa Nostra, with Trump, of course, as The Don.)

Al Kurtzman, circa 1943, entering the US Army.

As unsettling as it is to make a comparison between WW II Germany and America today, the scale of this killing and self-sacrifice on Trump’s behalf beckons such an analogy. 75 years ago, my father, Al Kurtzman, was at sea, a technical sergeant in the Army, headed to occupy Japan after the Japanese surrender. He was neither a loser or a sucker. His children and grandchildren are/were extraordinarily proud of his service to our country in WW II to join the fight against fascism and imperialism. It seems right out of the Twilight Zone that once America’s men (and women) in uniform, like my father, served in the armed services (and in some cases died) to oppose fascism during World War II, while Trump’s supporters today appear to be willing to sacrifice their lives in support of bringing fascism to America. It feels, prima facie, treasonous.

Fascist Germany was a death cult too, and Trump is using the pandemic as an opportunity to apply the same general template to America. Think about the Nazis who participated in the mass murder of millions in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. The people who committed those horrific acts in most cases started out as decent and moral members of German society, just like our Trump-supporting neighbors once were decent and moral members of American society. But under the culture of fascist Germany, led by a genocidal authoritarian, the normal societal safeguards that prevent such atrocities were removed. Behaviors that had once been considered unacceptable or even insane for a single individual to engage in became “accepted” when conducted en masse by many thousands of people who were bound together by their willingness to commit horrific acts, and by their allegiance to their cult leader. During the final weeks of the Third Reich and the war in Europe, many civilians, government officials and military personnel throughout Germany also committed suicide. In addition to high-ranking Nazi officials like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, Philipp Bouhler and Martin Bormann, many others chose Selbstmord (German for “suicide”, literally “Self-murder”).

We want to believe that this kind of mass psychosis and perversion of values can’t happen in the United States of America, but the fact is, it has happened, at the scale of millions of people. As John Pavlovitz elucidates:

“it’s been sobering and sad to see just how many of them and people like them are similarly afflicted with this viral, collective mental illness; otherwise normal human beings who’ve fully taken leave of their senses and amplified the kinds of baseless, fantastical fiction they’d have laughed at a few short years ago—all to ironically justify their political affiliation with a predator by substituting the disturbing reality in front of them that is true—for the greater conspiracy they need to be true.

And it would all be a laughable farce if these people weren’t so dangerous: if their fringe conspiracies hadn’t gone mainstream in political races and churches; if their self-righteous autobiographies weren’t making them so willing to ratify violence and to place so many innocent people in danger; if their vile, irresponsible myths weren’t driving people to behavior that can only be described as unstable and criminal.

That’s the thing about self-delusion: it’s a gateway drug to full-blown psychosis. When you’ve convinced yourself that you’re saving trafficked children, you’ll excuse and justify just about anything and you’ll believe just about everything. Combine this fear-fueled brainwashing with gun-loving bravado, Bible-thumping fervor, and a president who understands the power of weaponized lies—and we’re at the precipice of an irreparable collective break from reality. These people are becoming untethered from the world as it is.”

Trump doesn’t seem to care one way or another if his followers live or die as individuals. To him, they are all marks. But he thrives on their willingness to die for him and to kill for him. The loss of support he might incur because of some thinning of the herd is far less important to him than the value and cohesiveness he gets from bonding the group together to support him in a manner that goes beyond rationality to become something more akin to idolization or worship.

Watching these individuals self-sacrifice would be bad enough, if it would only end there. There is a price to be paid for an exceptional degree of stupidity and gullibility. But when these cult warriors get infected, they in turn risk the lives of health care workers and many others who provide essential services to them. And they infect their children and their children will then infect the children of others, along with their teachers. Consider a 60+ year-old school teacher with asthma, who is told (by her governor and her school district, following direction from Trump) that she has no choice but to either go to work in a classroom and then incur a high likelihood of COVID-19 infection, and then a subsequent high likelihood of an adverse outcome (death) from the infection… or she can resign her job, and lose her income and her ability to pay her bills. It isn’t the kind of choice that any human being should ever have to make.

Trying to make sense of Trump’s bizarre behaviors that have caused the needless deaths of tens of thousands in terms of political strategy is a mistake. It is painful to say it and difficult to admit it, but the evidence at this point seems overwhelming: Trump, the man with access to our nuclear codes, the man who engages in adulation of Kim Jong Un and other brutal dictators, the man who motivated a 17 year-old boy to travel to Kenosha and murder two people with a semi-automatic weapon, engages in behaviors that only make sense from the perspective of him being a malignant narcissist leading a cult movement who derives considerable self-value from having the power to incite people to die and kill on his behalf or due to his actions.

Robert Woodward recently released audio tapes of conversations with Trump going back to February of 2020 that conclusively prove that Trump’s actions to mislead the American public regarding the severity and deadliness of the COVID-19 pandemic was not the result of either ignorance or incompetence but rather the consequence of deliberate intention. The consequences of Trump’s lies and malfeasance in dealing with the novel coronavirus have led to many tens of thousands of needless American deaths.

In response to Woodward’s tapes, Trump tweeted that he lied to the American people because his objective was to facilitate “Calm, no panic,” Then seventy-two minutes later, Trump tweeted: “If I don’t win, America’s suburbs will be OVERRUN with Low Income Projects, Anarchists, Agitators, Looters and, of course, ‘Friendly Protesters.'” In actuality, Trump lies to prey upon unfounded fears and incite panic virtually every single day. Trump’s decision to deliberately deceive the American people about the deadliness of COVID-19 was made because he gains personal value in influencing the life and death of others in a truly perverse way.

Crime analyst Jeff Asher looked at US crime trends in 2020 and found murders are up 26 percent, trending up in 19 of 25 cities included in his analysis. Under Trump’s watch, hate crimes in the US reached a 16 year high in 2018 (the last year in which comprehensive statistics have been released), according to the US Department of Justice. The apparent increased volume of hate crime reports in the recent news implies a strong likelihood they have continued to escalate further since then. Once individuals cross a line into a willingness to senselessly kill others for the cult leader, they won’t hesitate to do other dreadful things, like destroy ballots, take to the streets to incite violence with peaceful protesters, and engage in a wide variety of other wrongful acts designed to create chaos that “only he can fix.”

Trump will not be content with simply facilitating the senseless deaths of individuals. His objective is to effectively kill American democracy, and replace it with illiberal authoritarianism (fascism).  The Republicans in the Senate have refused to take action to put an end to his madness… in fact, their acquittal of Trump in the impeachment trial substantially encouraged and emboldened Trump’s malignant behavior.

The reality is that the only ones who can fix it, the only ones who can stop Trump from ringing a final death knell for American democracy during a second term, are you and I and the rest of the citizens of America, this November.

The alternative is simply too dreadful to abide.


An earlier draft of this column was published on Facebook and on Twitter on September 2, 2020.

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