Column

What Trump Supporters and NXIVM Followers Have in Common

They both follow misogynist liars whose ‘movements’ are just thinly veiled cults

Image: Starz

As I was watching Starz’ Seduced, the second documentary series to come out in recent months about Keith Raniere and NXIVM, I started to understand why pop culture is so engrossed by the story of the the Albany-based “sex cult” that branded women. It’s not just because of the salacious details, or because of Raniere’s wealthy and high-profile followers. Americans are riveted because NXIVM is a cult whose members call it a movement, led by a shockingly misogynist man who lies about being the smartest person in the world.

Sound familiar?

The parallels between Raniere and Donald Trump aren’t always clear-cut, of course. Trump is a consummate boaster and carnival barker; Raniere quietly lets his deputies repeat fabrications and exaggerations about his “genius.” (Both men claim to have the highest IQs in the world.) The president’s sexism is of the coarse, name-calling variety, while Raniere’s is shrouded in his philosophy about gender roles and women’s illogicality. And while both Trump and Raniere’s followers are mostly white, NXIVM members look like upper-middle-class hippies — the kind of women who wear dream catcher earrings and men who whip out guitars over campfires.

But both Raniere and Trump have been accused of sexual wrongdoing multiple times over, both have zealous followers taught that anyone opposing their leader are enemies (some are even called satanic), and though NXIVM members don’t wear Raniere’s name emblazoned across hats or T-shirts as Trump supporters might, they’re known for donning silk scarves whose color represents their rank within the organization.

The most important overlap between the men, however, is ultimately the central question in the two documentaries made about NXIVM, Seduced and HBO’s The Vow: How is it possible that so many people could be taken in by such a terrible person and obvious huckster?

Should the United States experience a reckoning over the last four years of violence, disease, racism, and fear — and I believe we will — Trump voters will have to answer for themselves. They will have to explain to their family and friends at some point why they continued to support someone who lied and made racist comments as easily as he breathed — a president who forcibly separated children from their parents’ parents and put them in cages, a man who looked at the thousands of people dying of Covid-19 and said, “It is what it is.”

And that’s where the comparison gives some frustrating insight: If the now-ousted and escaped NXIVM members are any indication, we’ll be told by Trump supporters that they didn’t really realize how bad things had gotten, that they were tricked. (Some are already saying as much.)

As Mark Vicente, one of Raniere’s top deputies who left NXIVM, put it in The Vow, “We’re not fucked-up, strange monsters that made bad choices our whole life. We didn’t join a cult. Nobody joins a cult… They join a good thing and then they realize they were fucked.”

How is it possible that so many people could be taken in by such a terrible person and obvious huckster?

There’s some truth to that. It’s clear from both The Vow and Seduced that the people who were brought into Raniere’s orbit were manipulated. This is especially true for the female followers, who were taught that women enjoyed being raped and who were pressured into taking “classes” that consisted of being screamed at and sexually harassed by male teachers. The women were also expected to ask men’s permission before eating or using the bathroom — all part of a curriculum, amazingly, about healing the relationship between the sexes.

But here’s the thing, in much the same way that Trump voters knew exactly what they were getting into — the president has never hidden his virulent misogyny and racism — NXIVM followers, the men especially, also had a clear vision of who their leader was. Raniere’s outdated views on women were not something that came up years after people got involved with the cult; they were part of the core curriculum.

Perhaps NXIVM members didn’t have to face that overt misogyny explicitly until women were being branded and blackmailed with the nude pictures they were forced to provide as collateral — obvious abuses that were being outed to the media and authorities. But until it had gotten to that very extreme point, many didn’t seem to mind.

For example, in the same episode of The Vow where Vicente makes his emotional plea about being manipulated into joining a cult, it’s revealed he kept a dog bed at the foot of his mattress that his wife slept on as “penance” for disrespecting him. Maybe the sexism was what a lot of people liked about NXIVM. Maybe not just “anyone” could fall for Raniere’s gross misogyny because not just anyone would agree to that kind of bigoted philosophy to begin with.

The same is true for Trump supporters. As politicians and supporters scurry away from the sinking ship, there will be a lot of noise made about not really understanding how bad the president actually was. It’s important Americans remember that’s not actually possible; we all knew who the president was, and who he will always be. In fact, that was part of his appeal; Trump’s racism and sexism, his xenophobia, and penchant for punishment, is what people love about him.

That’s why no matter happens on Election Day, there will still be hardcore Trump supporters till the bitter end — just as there are still NXIVM acolytes singing Raniere’s praises even after he was convicted of sex trafficking, some literally dancing in front of the federal prison where he’s being held. Both men are demagogues whose appeal rests on their bigotry — it’s just that only one of them was voted into power.

Feminist author & columnist. Native NYer, pasta enthusiast.

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