How the GOP Turned Into a Cult

Just a few years ago, name-brand conservative thinkers were worrying about America’s shortage of righteous lunatics

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The storming of the Capitol, which we just rewatched as part of the evidence in the impeachment trial, was carried out by members of the cult led by Donald Trump — that is, the confederacy of cults (MAGA, QAnon, Proud Boys, Christian sects, etc.) that he assembled and leads. But cultish craziness on the right was enabled and encouraged for years by the respectable rational suit-and-tie elite fronting the Republican Party, who last week acquitted him and thus fundamentally excused the attack.

“If more and more of a political party’s members hold more and more extravagantly supernatural beliefs,” I wrote five years ago in my book Fantasyland, about the religious and crypto-religious madness coursing through American culture, “doesn’t it make sense that the party will be more and more open to make-believe in its politics and policy?” As a “far-right counterculture empowered its millions of followers and took over the American right,” I wrote, the Republicans, already America’s explicitly Christian party, “during the first fifteen years of the twenty-first century, the GOP turned into the Fantasy Party.”

A member of the GOP establishment said to me a couple of years earlier that it was “delusional” of his fellow elite Republicans “to think that we’ll keep the wing nuts on the reservation.” Right around then, before Trump won the nomination in 2016, was the last moment Republican leaders could still plausibly believe that their tens of millions of cultists-awaiting-a-leader were just another rowdy faction that the grown-ups could manage.

But at that same time, it wasn’t only GOP elected officials and professional Republicans in denial, continuing to give a pass to the barbarians (figuratively) storming their gates. It was also conservative intellectuals––three of whom in 2014 actually declared that America’s problem was having too few crazy true believers.

“The absence of cult activity and gross superstition in American life is really starting to worry me,” wrote Philip Jenkins, a prominent Baylor University religious historian and social commentator, “and that’s not a joke.” The “golden age of cults and outrageous superstition of all kinds” during the 1960s and ’70s helped drive the “mighty religious awakening that characterized national life,” which he welcomed. Now that he wasn’t seeing as many “authentic cults” — fewer Hare Krishnas at airports and Jonestowns in the news — he concluded there was an “epochal decline … of controversial fringe sects.” Which he worried was “the first symptom” of an unfortunate and “genuine American secularization,” the U.S. “changed in an unprecedented way,” with less “taste for supernatural manifestations of any kind whatever.”

Then there was Stanford-educated Silicon Valley multibillionaire Peter Thiel, who at the same time, just before Trump announced his candidacy, published a book called Zero to One. “Today,” he wrote, “you can’t start a cult. Forty years ago, people were more open to the idea that not all knowledge was widely known.” That “there are fewer crazy cults now,” he said, was a change that “has come at great cost: we have given up our sense of wonder at secrets left to be discovered. How must you see the world if you don’t believe in secrets?” For him, the supposed decline in magical thinking was connected to a decline in technological innovation.

And conservative New York Times columnist and evangelical-turned-devout-Catholic Ross Douthat wrote a column in late 2014 called “The Cult Deficit.” Groups believing and passionately propagating fantasies should be encouraged in America, he insisted, because “the quest for secrets — material or metaphysical, undiscovered or too-long forgotten — is worth a little extra risk.”

At the time I thought, “In what America are they living?” Not the one in which Pentecostal and other charismatic churches and sects are booming, major candidates believe they’re instructed by God to run for president, all Republican presidential candidates refuse to say they believe in evolution, untrue conspiracy theories promoted on a national news channel, and a huge supernatural alternative medical industry is respectable and government-subsidized. What had happened, I realized, was that the craziness and the “taste for supernatural manifestations” had become so prevalent and people had become so inured to it that even thoughtful people no longer noticed how fucking weird America and Americans had become.

Even after the Republicans nominated Trump, thus revealing and energizing the cult at their core, all three of these prominent observers and thinkers remained in denial, at least for a while. As the 2016 election approached, Jenkins wrote that “nothing could induce me to vote for Mr. Trump, but the violent opposition to him is becoming alarming.” Likewise, after Trump won, Jenkins’ complaint was that American liberals’ “potent tradition of false accusations of paranoia” meant we now had “Trumpism presented as the latest manifestation of the American Paranoid Style.” LOL.

After reading an excerpt from Fantasyland, Douthat in 2017 dismissed my case for America being undone by metasticized lunacy, tweeting that “Americans reject authority, not reason” and that I’d mistaken the “collapse of trust in institutions” for “some sort of mass rejection of reason.” Finally, after the Capitol storming, I noticed he’s come around, writing in the Times that the GOP was indeed a “party made insane by conspiracy theories,” “split between reality and fantasy.”

But Thiel, true to his professed enthusiasm for cults — disruption! — stuck with Trump, donating $1.25 million to his 2016 campaign, speaking at the convention, serving his administration. When an interviewer asked him in late 2019 if he would endorse Trump for reelection, he got right to his billionaire bottom line: “Yes,” he replied, not to nurture a sense of wonder in America but because “the socialists are not to be underestimated.”

By the way, in the first draft of Fantasyland, I included a 2015 quote from a senior Republican congressman. He’d expressed alarm about the new craziness in politics that confirmed my theory of the case. “I used to spend 90% of constituent response time on people who call [and] e-mail” about “actual legislation. Ten percent were about chemtrails [and] every other conspiracy theory out there. That‘s flipped on its head. It’s dramatically changed politics and politicians.” A conservative Republican leader saying that made me hopeful. But a year later, the cult took over his party and he showed his true colors. It was Devin Nunes.

Award-winning, bestselling author (Evil Geniuses, Fantasyland, True Believers, Heyday, Turn of the Century) and creator of media (Studio 360, Inside, SPY).

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