The Cult of Donald Trump: What Lies Beneath

Mark Goulston
3 min readJun 3, 2023

As the lineup of GOP candidates builds up, it’s beginning to feel a lot like deja-vu.

Why is that?

Trump appears to have a cult following that won’t budge regardless of what he says or does. In fact, the more outrageous he becomes, the stronger is their tie to him. Even more stunning, the more indicted he becomes and can play the “victim” card, the stronger still that connection becomes.

And why is that?

We are living in a world where vicariosity beats “Do it yourself,” personal responsibility every time.

If you haven’t noticed, more and more people are living vicariously through people they come to idolize. Whether it’s a Marvel superhero, Taylor Swift, LeBron James, Tiger Woods, James Bond, Elon Musk or Donald Trump.

What leads to that?

The smaller, the more powerless and more helpless we feel about changing those feelings, the more we can overcome such feelings by identifying with and living vicariously through other people or figures.

I remember feeling small and helpless as a child and how to overcome such feelings, I over-identified with Mighty Mouse and then in comic books, Superman and Batman. I would even dream about being able to fly before I awoke to find myself small, never in the “popular” crowd and never a starring athlete.

I wouldn’t form an attachment to such figures, I formed an adhesion. An adhesion is not something that can be broken by insight or reason. It is like the adhesion that forms between internal organs after surgery. To a certain extent that has continued in my adult and even older adult life which explains my excitement when a new James Bond, Batman, Spiderman, Indiana Jones or Mission Impossible movie comes out, or when I watch one of the Major tournaments in professional golf or tennis or the NBA playoffs.

In the case of Donald Trump, his cult following has formed a psychological adhesion to him. In fact the more trouble and outrageous situations he gets himself into, the deeper his following connects to him. That is because his following vicariously would love to speak their minds, say or do anything outlandish and outrageous, take delight in ridiculing anyone who disagrees with us and to do it with impunity and near immunity (although guilty verdicts are now beginning to accumulate) and perhaps most powerful, retaliate against people we believe are victimizing us.

Add to that the ease with which he blames, complains, whines, makes excuses and doesn’t even bother with something as subtle as insinuation, and you can see how his followers wish they could do the same. And they get to do the same as long as they vicariously live through him.

Is there an antidote? Is there something to break the hypnotic spell Trump has on his followers and sever the psychological adhesion they have to him?

Yes, there is and it is simple. But in the current climate, divisiveness is too rampant to allow it.

The solution is to simply be part of the solutions instead of part of the problems in our lives. To be proactive instead of reactive. To take full responsibility including facing, accepting and willingly paying the consequences for our actions and inactions instead of evading them in any way we can.

But since we are vicariously living through others, one step political leaders could take is for GOP and DNC leaders — especially Kevin McCormick, Mitch McConnell, Chuck Schumer and Hakeem Jeffries — to model in public conversations that overflow with trust, confidence, respect, appreciation and civil discourse, even as they differ on issues (think of Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg).

It would be amazing if Americans had role models of communication, cooperation, collaboration and mutual respect that we could vicariously live through instead of models of contentious, scathing, finger-pointing, divisiveness.

However, as long as increasingly more Americans eschew thinking before they respond in favor or reacting — or are now outsourcing their thinking to Chat AI — that is unlikely to happen.

Recommended reading: The Cult of Trump by Steven Hassan



Mark Goulston

Dr. Goulston is the world's #1 listening coach and author of "Just Listen" which became the top book on listening in the world