Thursday December 07, 2023

Demystifying the cult leader

August 11, 2022

The political echo chamber is abuzz with the word ‘cult’. A cult leader is a person of tremendous charisma who can make inroads into the hearts and minds of his followers. Cult leaders generate unquestionable loyalty and respect from their followers. Obedience is portrayed as a divine decree.

History informs that cult leaders use brainwashing tactics to attract and keep followers and need degrees of conformity among members.

Cult leaders often claim to have a special connection to spirituality etc. History is replete with examples of cult leadership. Here are just a few: first is Benito Mussolini, the Italian leader considered the archetype of cultism. In many respects, he was considered the unifying force of the fascist regime, acting as a common denominator for various political groups and social classes in Italian society. Endless publicity revolved around him. He was generally portrayed in a macho manner. The light was always left on in his office long after he was asleep, as part of propaganda to present him as an insomniac workaholic. In addition to depicting Mussolini as having been chosen by God, the regime presented him as having omnipotent, superhuman powers.

The cult of Mussolini was succeeded in Italy by media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi” in the 2000s. Berlusconi was prime minister of Italy for three terms, governing the country for a total of almost ten years. He often described himself as the ‘Jesus Christ’ of Italian politics.

Hitler is widely considered the father of today’s cultism. With the myth of ‘Fuhrerprinzip’ – that the “leader is always right” – he eventually became a Demigod figure for the German people. Following the end of World War I, the German people suffered greatly under the Weimar Republic and Hitler was projected as a Messiah who could save and restore Germany's greatness, which in turn gave rise to the myth of the ‘Fuhrer-cult’.

In November 1923 after Hitler's imprisonment, he came up with a mix of nationalistic and religious overtones, something that appealed to all Germans, and prompted him to boast: “I have awakened the masses”.

Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels' newspaper, ‘Der Angriff’ (‘The Attack’), played a key role in the creation of the Fuhrer myth. During five election campaigns in 1932, the Nazi newspaper ‘Volkischer Beobachter’ (‘People's Observer’) portrayed Hitler as a man who had a mass movement united behind him, a man whose sole mission was to save Germany. Goebbels wrote in ‘Der Angriff’ that Hitler was “the Greater German, the Führer, the Prophet, the Fighter, the last hope of the masses, the shining symbol of the German’s will to freedom”.

Such was his aura that when the German people were dissatisfied with the country’s governance, they blamed it on Nazi bigwigs but provided a clean chit to Hitler himself. Owing to the intense propaganda mechanism available at that time, the Nazis were able to control both public and private behaviour of the youth.

Nazi propaganda indoctrinated Hitler’s youth to denounce anyone who showed any form of criticism about the Nazi regime. The youth remained loyal to Hitler even when their parents were becoming critical of him during the war.

The Fuhrer myth began to become exposed after Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. For the first time, Hitler was personally blamed for starting the war. Following multiple military defeats, Hitler's popularity began to wane.

Then there’s Jim Jones. An American self-proclaimed spiritual deity, Jones founded a group called the ‘People's Temple’. In 1978 he orchestrated the mass suicide of over 900 people in Jonestown, Guyana. Most members died from cyanide poisoning, but Jim Jones was found with a gunshot wound to the head.

An analysis of cult leaders depicts some common traits that underpin their majestic aura, influence and unlimited power.

Narcissism: a cult originates and thrives on malignant narcissism. They believe they are born to be better than others. Often cult leaders are arrogant and driven and motivated by a spirit of illusionary pride. Eventually, they claim to have power, position and authority that is exclusively God-like.

Charm and charisma: Cult leaders are mostly actors and pretenders. Projecting superficial charm and charisma is a method of disarming people from seeing the true deceptive and controlling nature of the leader.

Lack of guilt or remorse: The cult leader exhibits psychopathic tendencies and is therefore incapable of showing genuine empathy, guilt or remorse for any behaviour. They are known to be incapable of showing genuine love or empathy.

Spiritual abuse: The cult leader not only teaches false doctrines but also seeks to intimately control the lives of his/her followers. The cult leader is obsessed with manipulating and controlling his/her followers through an authoritative leadership style and even uses coercive techniques. This ultimately turns the group into a state of spiritual bondage.

Twisting facts for personal gain: Cult leaders will constantly twist and misinterpret religion/facts to justify their doctrines or even their decadent lifestyle.

Pathological liars: Cult leaders are very skilful speakers and are never at a loss for words. However, they are also pathological liars. Deception is integral to achieving their objective of power and control over others.

Authoritarian leadership: Cult leaders are always authoritarian in the way they lead their members. Cult followers are taught to obey the leader even if s/he is wrong. The cult leader, therefore, creates the false perception that he is infallible and cannot be challenged even when wrong.

Undue advantage of their followers: The issues of money, power and sex are intertwined within a cult. Cult leaders often have a history of extramarital affairs; adultery etc is very common among cult leaders due to their grandiose sense of self.

Lack of boundaries: Cult leaders do not respect individual or relationship boundaries. They feel entitled to impose their way without any respect for the person or relationship boundaries of others. Cult leaders lure followers who are gullible, easily exploited and weak-minded.

Use of media and sycophancy: Cults survive and thrive on media hypes, sycophancy and blind following, traits that can present them as larger-than-life messiahs. The cult leader grooms and boosts sycophants and uses them to ensure that followers comply with the cult’s traditions.

Dissenters as enemies: Cults generally have an ‘Us versus Them’ mentality, where anybody who is outside the cult is seen as the enemy. This mentality also forms the basis of why cults generally tend to promote themselves under the deceptive guise of ‘divinely enlightened’.

People as assets and objects: Cults do not view people as friends. To them, people are assets and fools who can be conned for their gains.

Dr Janja Lalich, professor of sociology at the California State University, USA is considered an authority on cult leadership. She explains that narcissism is the root of several other behaviours commonly associated with cult leaders. “They demand extreme loyalty,” Dr Lalich says. “Because they're driven by their ego, they believe that they deserve to make these demands”.

"They have that aura of being special or people attribute that to them," Dr Lalich says. Dr Lalich explains, “Even if they claim to be working or speaking for a higher power, it's far more likely that they're acting to serve their ego, the lengths they'll go to satisfy their desires are far beyond the average person’s imagination flight”.

History informs that, however fascinating their aura may seem, at the heart of it lies fallacy, power lust and unlimited ambition. They may have short-lived glory, but the end has always been disastrous both for the individual and the socio-political ecosystem.

The writer is a health and development expert, who has worked with UN, USAID, World Bank, Gates Foundation, and various governments.