Trump Is Pretty Much a Cult Leader, Says Religious Studies Scholar and Author Reza Aslan

President Donald Trump’s critics have compared him to many a thing, both in jest and in utter seriousness. Late-night host Samantha Bee did this so frequently in the months leading up to the election that she made a compilation video of the terms, like “demagoguing bag of candy corn” and “rich asshole who wants to be king of America." Comedians, scholars and journalists have drawn parallels between the president and brutal dictators such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. The comparisons have themselves inspired scathing criticism, and the latest one—an op-ed arguing that Trump is pretty much a cult leader—is sure to provoke ire as well.

“As we approach the one-year anniversary of Trump’s election victory, the zeal of some of his followers seems increasingly akin to a full-fledged cult,” religious studies scholar and author Reza Aslan wrote in a piece published in the Los Angeles Times Monday. And just in case anyone thought it was a compliment, he made sure to add that “I use the word ‘cult’ in its pejorative sense, meaning a deeply insular social group bound together by extreme devotion to a charismatic leader.”

11_06_Trump_Rally Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally on April 6, 2016, in Bethpage, New York. The rally came ahead of the April 15 New York primary. Reza Aslan has penned an op-ed comparing Trump to a cult leader. Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

Aslan, a creative writing professor at the University of California, Riverside, is the author of several books, including Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (2013). His latest, God: A Human History, is due out Tuesday.

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He has also become a figure and face familiar to the general public in recent years. While promoting Zealot in 2013, Aslan gave an interview to religion correspondent Lauren Green on Fox News’s webcast "Spirited Debate." It went viral after Green spent most of the 10-minute segment inexplicably stuck on the fact that Aslan himself is Muslim. BuzzFeed published a post, "Is This The Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done?" and the book saw a 35 percent boost in sales as a result of the controversy.

Alsan's documentary series Believer with Reza Aslan premiered on CNN in March. Though a second season had already been announced, CNN cut ties with him in June after he called Trump a “piece of shit” and “an embarrassment to humankind” on Twitter. The particularly harsh denunciation from an already outspoken critic was prompted by Trump insulting London mayor Sadiq Khan and promoting his travel ban immediately after a terror attack at London Bridge.

Aslan apologized, but made it clear he preferred to preserve his ability to critique the president than to restore his ties to CNN. "I lost my cool and responded to him in a derogatory fashion. That's not like me," Aslan said in a statement at the time. "I should have used better language to express my shock and frustration at the president's lack of decorum and sympathy for the victims of London. I apologize for my choice of words." Still, he continued, "I need to honor my voice. I am not a journalist. I am a social commentator and scholar."

11_06_Reza_Aslan Reza Aslan, host of "Believer with Reza Aslan," speaks onstage during the CNN Original Series portion of the TCA Turner Winter Press Tour 2017 Presentation at The Langham Resort on January 14. Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Turner

It’s not surprising, then, that Aslan has continued his severe analysis of Trump unabated. In this case, he has contended that Trump is like a cult leader and that a certain segment of his voters is like a group of cult followers. "Trump has harnessed the kind of emotional intensity from his base that is more typical of a religious revival meeting than a political rally," he wrote, "complete with ritualized communal chants ('Lock her up!')"

Cults "are usually formed around an individual whom they’ve elevated to prophetic and near divine status," and Aslan said Trump has been treated as such a figure by supporters including evangelical Christian Franklin Graham, Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress and Ohio pastor Frank Amedia.

"The authority that a cult leader exercises comes from his self-ascribed role as the one true information source for his followers. Competing ideas and facts are not just wrong; they are demonic,” Aslan explained. "The cult leader is generally believed to possess special knowledge. No matter how demonstrably false his pronouncements, they become, by definition, truth for his followers."

Finally, he warned that "if Trump’s presidency deteriorates further, expect the religious fervor of many of his followers to reach a fever pitch. That poses a risk for the country. Because the only thing more dangerous than a cult leader is a cult leader facing martyrdom."

Aslan's op-ed comes just days after he appeared in a Mic video outlining some of the tenets of his new book, which are sure to anger some of the same people he’s just compared to cult followers.

"God doesn’t hate gay people, you hate gay people," he said in the video, which has racked up more than 2.7 million views and more than 55,000 shares in four days. "Throughout human history, religion has been a force both for boundless good and for unspeakable evil. Everything that’s good or bad about our religions is merely a reflection of everything that’s good or bad about us."

"Look around the world and you’ll see that most of our religious conflicts come from our innate, unconscious desire to make ourselves the mirror of what God is and what God wants, who God loves and who God hates,” he added. But “God isn’t rooting for your team. God doesn’t care who you marry." Rather, it’s people who care. "So stop foisting your human compulsions on God."

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