The scholar, psychiatrist, and National Book Award–winning author draws on his previous work to put the America of Donald Trump into perspective.
Lifton (The Climate Swerve: Reflections on Mind, Hope, and Survival, 2017, etc.), who has decades of his own research from which to draw, shows how his thinking on cults and “ideological totalism” has changed. He previously made a sharp distinction between the communal isolationism of the former, which protected its own version of reality as hermetically sealed, and the mass movements of the latter, spurred by demagoguery. Now, he believes that “ideological totalism and cultlike behavior not only blend with each other but tend to be part of a single entity….That is, totalistic movements are cultlike and cults are totalistic.” From this fresh perspective, the author revisits and excerpts his work, originally published in 1961, on “Chinese Communist Thought Reform,” which showed the strong psychological pull of being part of something bigger than oneself amid the radical reimagining of a return to a purer state, one in which contaminants have been excised—“an apocalyptic cleansing of all the past—a psychological apocalypticism in which all prior products of the human mind had to give way to a new collective mindset that was pure, perfect, and eternal.” Examining the “psychology of genocide,” he connects the dots between such totalitarian thought reform and the Nazi idea of racial purification. Past scholarship provides the prologue to contemporary analysis as Lifton describes Donald Trump as “a special kind of cultist” who projects “an apocalyptic aura” amid “something close to a worldwide epidemic of fundamentalism.” The author insists that we must “bear witness to malignant normality and expose it” and nurture “our capacity for openness and truth-telling as alternatives to the closed world of cultism.”
A lifetime of scholarship provides a cautionary perspective on the
current state of politics.