By Lance Chilton
“They drink the Kool Aid.”
“There were…people that were very fine people on both sides.”
“These people remain here because I have thoroughly opened to them the Seven Seals.”
Most people will recognize the second quote as coming from Donald Trump after the Charlottesville massacre in 2017, seeming to equate neo-Nazi cult members with counter-protesters. Many may remember the reference to the cyanide-laced Kool Aid that members of California-based Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple cult were forced to consume in 1978, leading to 900 deaths in Jonestown, Guyana. The third quote comes from Branch Davidian cult leader David Koresh, preceding the deaths of 76 cult members in a Waco, Texas siege conducted by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
Cults have a long history in the US; many current religious and non-religious groups had their origins in small groups of fanatical adherents. Janja Lalich is an emerita professor at Chico State University in California who has long studied cults and is herself a self-confessed former cult member. Dr. Lalich lists the following among characteristics of cults:
- The group displays an excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader, and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.
- Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
- Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, or debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
- The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (e.g., members must get permission to date, change jobs, or marry—or leaders prescribe what to wear, where to live, whether to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).
- The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and its members (e.g., the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).
- The group has a polarized, us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
- The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders, or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).
- The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (e.g., lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).
- The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and control members. Often this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
- Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.
- The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
- The group is preoccupied with making money.
- Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
- Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
- The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave—or even consider leaving—the group.
Do QAnon members drink the Kool Aid? QAnon appears to have begun with posts by an otherwise-unidentified “Q” stating without proof that a Satan-loving group of Hollywood actors, Democratic politicians, and government officials were running a child-sex-trafficking ring and were poised to steal the 2020 election from Donald Trump. Members of QAnon were asked to #TaketheOath. One who probably did is Jake Angeli, the much-photographed January 6 rioter dressed in a fur headdress with horns, who regularly carried a sign reading “‘Q’ Sent Me,” and who pled guilty to felony obstruction of justice for his role in the assault on Congress.
#Taking the Oath seems to identify QAnon members as having an unquestioning commitment to group ideology and unproven “facts.” QAnon, by its actions (not just on January 6, 2021) clearly shows it believes its ends justify the means and that those ends outweigh any directives from non-members, especially government workers. Members recruit other members, raise money, and often become alienated from non-fanatical family members.
In short, QAnon seems to satisfy many of the criteria for labeling as a “cult.” For anyone who has friends or family members who have fallen under the dangerous spell of QAnon or any other cult, help is available at Dr. Lalich’s website, http://cultresearch.org/, and in books she has written about her own previous membership in a cult and how a cult can be escaped.