Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” (St. Martin’s Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Some of the juiciest bits from Omarosa Manigault Newman’s “Unhinged: An Insider’s Account from the Trump White House” include allegations that the President is a bigoted, emotionally abusive man in mental decline.
Trump and his surrogates are already challenging the accounts offered by the former White House aide who, fittingly, first met him when he was a reality TV show host and she was a contestant. However, they won’t be able to refute her conclusion about the relationship between Trump and his most avid allies, because it’s a judgment based on the sum of her experiences and not one lone anecdote.
In describing the events that made it possible for her to write her tell-all, Manigault Newman notes that she had “escaped from the cult of Trumpworld.” If a cult of Trump exists, the woman he helped become a household name – say “Omarosa” and everyone knows who you’re talking about – is a prime example of the rapt and dependent believer who becomes an outspoken apostate.
Turn to the video of Omarosa speaking to PBS’s Frontline in 2016 and you hear a woman who sounds like Ma Anand Sheela, the spokesperson for the 1980s cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Sheela was a highly visible Rajneeshi, speaking often on his behalf, until she fled to Europe after law enforcement broke up the cult. Similarly, Omarosa was a very public figure in the Trump campaign and White House and, prior to politics, boosted him over many years as a veteran of Trump’s TV show, “The Apprentice.”
In all seriousness, Omarosa declared on PBS, “Every critic, every detractor, will have to bow down to President Trump. It’s everyone who’s ever doubted Donald, whoever disagreed, whoever challenged him. It is the ultimate revenge to become the most powerful man in the universe.”
Omarosa spoke as if Trump’s very being justified his will to power, in a contest where his victory would apply across the vast and unknowable universe. Only after she was cast out of the White House, and from Trump’s orbit, did Omarosa began to air her criticisms and frame her expulsion as an “escape.”
Many experts have warned that the President and his devotees exhibit the hallmarks of a cult movement. The similarities begin with a man who has built a following based on personality and little else. In business, he focused on selling the Trump name. On TV, he pitched a character whose success far exceeded reality. In politics, Trump promoted himself over policies. It was “I alone can fix it.” Now, as President he says things like, “I’m the only one that matters.”
Trump isn’t necessarily deliberate in using cult leader methods, but he does seem to tick many of the boxes. He draws others in by emphasizing that they have been treated unfairly and need to be protected from a world full of dangers. And those dangers range from immigrants to Muslims to terrorists to our very own government agencies. He promises that he will reward their loyalty. Then he demonstrates that he will punish dissenters in a cruel and ruthless way.
The big campaign rallies that Trump has continued to conduct offer grand displays of the cult leader at work. When he ridicules protesting NFL players as “sons of bitches” or mocks the likes of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, or Rep. Maxine Waters, D-California, he’s serving up enemies the crowd can regard with contempt. By stirring this hatred, he revs up believers and rewards their commitment. He also reminds everyone that enemies – and presumably this would include defectors – can be treated roughly.
Of course, there is no cult without top apostles who use their skills to help keep the system humming. Before he became Trump’s legal apologist, Rudy Giuliani was a respected former mayor of New York. Now he is a human pretzel, contorting himself to protect the President from a special counsel who has shown that some of the individuals who worked on the Trump campaign have questionable ethics at best – and have committed criminal acts at worst.
Inside the administration, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions endures Trump’s mockery, he exhibits the resignation of a weary believer who fears being excommunicated. Vice President Mike Pence looks every bit the sycophant as he praises Trump at every turn, and Press Secretary Sarah Sanders displays a classic us-against-the-world cult attitude as she insults reporters.
For a time, Manigault Newman was a top member of the Trump cult, too. Although many had criticized the President for his handling of the Charlottesville tragedy, she came to his defense – telling ABC’s Nightline, “he is not a racist.” Now she is reversing her position and alleging that she was offered a $15,000 per month job to work on the President’s re-election campaign in exchange for her silence. She chose instead to speak out and, as an apostate, threatens to do serious damage to the cult leader.
Other apostates, including former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, alleged former sex partners Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels, and campaign operatives such as Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos threaten to do even more damage. This is generally how cults are brought down – from the inside.
If the pattern holds, the revelations will be ever more shocking, and the response will be ever more intense, until the truth overwhelms the leader’s spell. The time can’t come too soon for a nation in Trump’s thrall.