VIEWPOINT / CULTS AND SOCIAL UPHEAVAL

By Timothy Weaver, Ph.D.

How do we explain the Trumpian cult effect? Several scholars report that cults in American life tend to be larger and more frequent than elsewhere, with the exception of China. One of the most often cited reasons is the pace of social change in the US. With the exception of the Cultural Revolution and rapid industrialization in China, the U.S. is the world leader in economic disruption and change over the last seven decades. The primary difference is that the Chinese government has ruthlessly cracked down on its cults as they are a perceived threat to the regime. Ours have flourished.

Let’s examine the pace of change In the United States. In rapid succession we had a massive shift from rural and urban neighborhoods to the suburbs–driven in part by the interstate highway system, pent up consumer demand and savings from the war, the baby boom and availability of vacant land. The baby boom years following the war drove demand for more physical space in households. Demographic changes played a huge role. The movement to the suburbs ran in parallel to the changing racial and ethnic makeup of the American population. Rapid economic expansion accompanied with a progression toward a service economy drew in millions of migrants, immigrants, legal and illegal, and those seeking escape from repressive regimes. The net result is that neighborhoods once known in small towns and cities like Boston have given way to a vast sprawl of scattered homes and families. The vacuum created in the urban centers was filled by migrating rural, mostly black families, from the Southern United States and families fleeing from Central America.

This rapid fire change was followed by the counter culture movement as boomers came of age. Immediately following the counter culture came the disruption of whole Industries caused first by the completion of post war recovery in Japan and Europe. That change caused  worldwide competition for lower cost labor. The US, its industries not as modern and efficient, led the way in searching for lower cost workers. We moved from primarily an industrialized society to a service driven economy in a single generation. This last upheaval has taken a big toll on American families following, as it did, right on the heels of the social and demographic changes in the post war period. The area most severely impacted, the old industrial heartland, shows the scars of sudden and rapid change followed by a downward spiral of negative social effects—drug abuse, family separations, absentee fathers, dysfunctional families, crime, school dropouts, shortened life expectancy, and despair.

Seemingly overnight we’ve moved from an economy that demanded many skilled workers and laborers, and paid accordingly, to an economy that slowly and then more rapidly placed a premium on intellectual skills and higher levels of education at one end, and at the other, an abundance of low-paid unskilled service jobs. Today, the driving force behind productivity gains is not an abundance of skilled labor but technology and advanced intellectual skills. No matter how much harder blue collar Americans work, the gains in productivity come largely from investments in technology and minds, not everyday workers.

The hidden factor in the equation is Baumol’s Disease. This condition plagues economies that transition to mostly service jobs. Simply put Baumol’s Disease predicts that wages in one sector of the economy put pressure on other sectors to increase wages even though the other sectors experience less productivity improvement. This causes inflationary pressure and stagnation. The social and economic upheaval in America, combined over the past 40 years with one party determined to end the role of government as the great equalizer, have led to a heightened anxiety among a large sector of the population who’ve been harmed by these changes. This population is vulnerable to charismatic leaders with easy if false remedies. For example, Trump has been more responsible than any President since Reagan to alter the historic role of government to leaven the maldistributive nature of capitalism. Yet, he has also been responsible for an acceleration of the trend toward blue collar workers embracing the Republican Party. He attracted the very people who would ordinarily benefit from various transfers of wealth through government actions.

In plain English, the Trumpian tax cuts and shrinking of social programs (aid to schools and colleges, fighting any increase in the minimum wage, restrictions on eligibility for coverage under the Affordable Care Act, fierce attacks on labor unionizing) have pushed more deeply the conditions causing wage stagnation for middle and lower income Americans while further enriching the already rich.

Findings from social psychology help to explain why people follow leaders who work against their interests. In an experiment years ago Sherif found that when presented with a stationary beam of light in a darken room subjects tended to abandon their initial perceptions of movement and adopt those of the group as a whole. This normative behavior helps to explain why there is such widespread conformity to the Big Lie that Trump won the election but it was stolen from him. He, as other charlatans, repeats the lie dozens of times a day for months. His followers want to conform with their leader. Even today nearly half of all Republicans believe that Trump was cheated out of the election.

In true charlatan mode, Trump has been able to convince the harmed that he was helping them in much the way the Gordian tapeworm takes over the brain of a cricket and compels it to jump into a body of water and drown. The tapeworm requires water to emerge and lay its eggs. Take the cuts to higher education. Since Reagan the proportion of cost borne by the family has surged while that of colleges and universities has not. Add Baumol to the equation driving up the cost of college to families, as professors, staff and administrators demand more money while creating few productivity gains. Yet, the very class of people for whom sending their kids to college is a way, maybe the only way, to increase wealth and move up the social status ladder. The rich are not impacted by college costs, but the poor and working classes increasingly are being cut off from this avenue to success.

In conclusion it is little wonder that large numbers of people are turning to charlatans to solve their problems, and conforming to the lies of those charlatans. All of the factors I’ve cited contribute to a sense of anomie, a feeling of hopelessness, a perception that no matter how hard I work I can’t get ahead. Until major disruptions of these current trends occur, the continuance of cult appeal will be a factor in American life. The only entity left to bring about the disruption needed is government. Only government can undertake big solutions to big problems. Only government can fix the broken role government now plays in creating a more equitable distribution of wealth through taxation and fiscal policies.

In a book I wrote years ago called, The Contest for Educational Resources, I predicted that if the underlying dynamics that normally bring about a redistribution of income once incomes are significantly out of balance, we would have no choice but to become a Garrison State. Sadly, that is the look we now see in Washington, DC. The mob that attacked the Capitol was marshaled and egged on by Trump to attack exactly the wrong the target. Like the Gordian tapeworm directs the cricket to water, the crowd responded and moved as one to try to stop the very transition of power needed to bring about relief to their problems.