Prior to Trump’s victory many mainstream Republicans were extremely critical of him. His victory not only silenced almost all his conservative critics it seems to have transformed most of them into Trump loyalists. Lindsey Graham provides an excellent example of Trump’s transformative power: he was polymorphed from a savage attacker to Trump’s attack dog. Few dared oppose him, such as John McCain and, most recently, Mitt Romney. This has caused some hand wringing and soul searching among the few surviving conservative critics of Trump, but it must be said that Trump is the logical result of decades of GOP strategies and efforts. If the Republican party were a Pokemon, Trump would be the final evolution of the party.
The surrender and assimilation of the Republican leadership is thus not surprising; the party has focused on winning and holding power rather than developing and advancing a specific set of policy goals. Whatever ideology once defined it has become simply an ideology of power for the sake of power and profit. Under Trump, all talk of a balanced budget, all worries about deficits and so on have ceased. What is more interesting is the impact Trump has had on his followers.
Conservative Joe Walsh recently tried to challenge Trump for the Republican nomination; it is hard to imagine a more futile effort. But the experience seems to have been a very educational one. During his effort, he asked Trump supporters if Trump has every lied. They said that he had not. Walsh brought up Trump’s criticism of Obama playing golf and Trump’s claim that he would be too busy as president to play golf. While most people did not care about Trump this matter, some insisted Trump had never played golf as president. His supporters also believed that hundreds of miles of the wall had been built and paid for by Mexico and that the Democrats in congress are treasonous liars. Walsh closed by noting that he “…realized once and for all that nobody can beat Trump in a Republican primary. Not just because it’s become his party, but because it has become a cult, and he’s a cult leader. He doesn’t have supporters; he has followers. And in their eyes, he can do no wrong.” This certainly raises some interesting philosophical concerns.
Some might respond by saying “what about the Democrats?” and accusing them of also being a cult. While one could certainly debate the matter of political cults, this “what about” would (as always) be irrelevant to the matter at hand. Even if the Democrats were a cult, this would prove or disprove nothing about Republicans. My concern is with looking at the belief formation and claim making of the voters Walsh encountered.
One possible explanation is that these voters have normal epistemic abilities and hold to true beliefs but are lying in support of the president. That is, they actually believe that Trump lies, that the wall is not being paid for by Mexico and so on. People do, after all, lie in support of people they like—especially when they think those people are being attacked. For example, think of a friend being asked about the misdeeds of their friend: they can be aware of the misdeeds but decide to defend their friend. This would be a matter of ethics: believing that it is right to lie in defense of someone you support especially when speaking to an opponent of the person you support. This is certainly subject to moral assessment but need not be cultish.
A second explanation is that these voters’ epistemic abilities and critical thinking skills have always been defective in ways that go beyond normal weaknesses in belief formation and reasoning. That is, they are unusually bad at forming true beliefs and critically assessing claims. This could be due to various biases and, of course, the usual suspects of falling victim to fallacies and rhetoric. But this need not be cultish—everyone has defects to a certain degree and believing false things because of epistemic defects or failures in critical thinking is certainly a common occurrence. On this explanation, Trump supporters who make these false claims just happen to be wrong about these claims, but they are not wrong because of being cult followers of Trump. Rather, they are following Trump because they are wrong.
A third explanation is that these voters’ epistemic abilities and critical thinking skills have been corrupted by Trump’s influence. That is, they reject the rational methods of forming beliefs and reject the methods of critical thinking in favor of believing in Trump because Trump tells them to believe in him. They are wrong because they are following Trump. In this case, they might be cultists. They would be accepting a “Trump command theory” in what Trump says is true is true because Trump says so and what Trump says is false because Trump says so. If this explanation is correct, Trump is shaping the perceived reality of his followers—they are not lying to defend him or themselves, they are true believers in Trump’s false description of the world. That is, they are a cult with a charismatic leader.