What Scientology can teach us about the GOP
This may sound outlandish, but stay with me
Today's Trump-applauding Republicans are a little like Scientologists.
That may sound outlandish, but stay with me.
President Trump has plenty in common with L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. Both, for example, asserted that their often out-there arguments were grounded in authority. Trump invokes his personal wealth and celebrity as proof of his extraordinary talent and "very good brain," and Hubbard, of course, produced an elaborate, pseudoscientific theory, Dianetics, along with gadgets designed to help people implement it, as proof of his belief system's veracity.
Both Trump and Hubbard offered a pitch that appealed most strongly to people who were socially isolated in the first place; It's telling that during the primary, Trump underperformed in red states (where conservatives surely don't feel as isolated as they do in blue states) and lost most of the participatory caucuses to Ted Cruz.
And Trump, like Hubbard, has sought to maximize the isolation of his supporters after securing their support. "The Fake News Media works hard at disparaging & demeaning my use of social media because they don't want America to hear the real story!" the president recently tweeted. It's us against the elites, Trump tells his supporters. And they're lying to you. We're on our own.
Compare that to Scientology, which sequesters many of its "most dedicated supporters" at Gold Base, a compound outside of Los Angeles. Their letters and phone calls are monitored, noted Lawrence Wright, in his 2013 book on the church, Going Clear; they can listen to the radio or subscribe to newspapers, but may not feel motivated to. "News from the outside world begins to lose its relevance when people are outside the wider society for extended periods of time."
Now, most religions include claims that seem implausible, on their face, often because they seem to be in tension with the laws of physics. As a Methodist, for example, I believe in the Holy Ghost. I can't prove his existence, but I have no reason to try to; it's a matter of faith, not an scientific claim. For that matter, I'm not entirely sure which pronoun the Holy Ghost uses; the Holy Ghost can be understood in a metaphorical way.
Scientology is unique in that, as a matter of theology, it embraces the scientific method. The claims Hubbard made about "engrams" — damaging, painful memories — are, perhaps, no more intrinsically strange than the one I just made about the Holy Ghost. But he's talking about literal engrams. His book, Dianetics, is a manual for getting rid of them; they're invisible, so it can be hard to be sure if you did, but that's what the E-Meters are for. The central claims of Scientology are, in other words, supposed to be independently verifiable.
Trump, similarly, told his supporters they could expect results. While campaigning he repeatedly promised to build a wall along America's southern border, for example, and make Mexico pay for it. He has yet to deliver on that promise, of course, and it seems unlikely that he will. Perhaps he can compel Mexico to pony up, directly or indirectly. Even so, the border between Texas and Mexico is literally a river. Trump can't build a wall on the Rio Grande.
The Republican lawmakers and voters still standing shoulder to shoulder with Trump must be able to see some of this, if they look with clear eyes. Indeed, I suspect that they're beginning to feel like Scientologist Jim Dincalci, who spent 10 months holed up with L. Ron Hubbard in New York after the latter received word that the government of France was preparing to indict the Church of Scientology for fraud.
"Dincalci had long since come to the conclusion that Hubbard was not an Operating Thetan," Wright wrote. "He was obese and weird and he failed to exhibit any of the extraordinary powers that are supposed to be a part of the OT arsenal. Moreover, he was under siege by various countries."
Accordingly, Wright continued, Dincalci started to ask himself questions: "Why couldn't [Hubbard] simply set things straight? Wasn't he supposed to be in control of his environment? How could he be so persecuted and powerless? What was he doing hiding out in Queens, wearing a wig and watching television when the planet needed salvation?"
In other words, Dincalci began to doubt — just as so many Republicans are surely beginning to doubt the head of their party. Those who endorsed Trump, or defended him in public, may be reluctant to say so in part because they fear some kind of retaliatory response from Trump himself, or a backlash from the Republican voters. Celebrities once associated with the Church of Scientology have, similarly, spoken about the difficulties they faced in trying to leave the church, and the penalties they incurred after doing so. The thing about such ex-Scientologists, though, is that they're celebrities; their accounts are accurate, but anomalous.
"An ordinary public Scientologist can be inconspicuous," Wright wrote. "No one really needs to know his beliefs. Public members who quit the church seldom make a scene; they just quietly remove themselves and the community closes the circle behind them (although they are likely to be pursued by mail and phone solicitations for the rest of their lives)."
After the book's publication, I heard Wright speak on the subject, and he made reference to "the price of belief," by which he meant, as I recall, that it's painful to be proven wrong, especially about something like Scientology. You can see this same dynamic with Republicans and Trump. The president's chronic fumbling, and high-profile face-plants, may actually have an insulating effect on his approval rating. Americans who supported Trump ignored a lot of warnings to do so, many of them from their own side of the aisle. They may now be now psychologically invested in his success — or, at least, that the warnings they ignored will not be proven correct.
In a recent column, Dennis Prager argued that it's actually the other way around; perhaps, he posits, conservatives who still refuse to support Trump are the ones engaged in motivated reasoning: "If they hang on to their Never Trumpism and the president falls on his face, they can say they were right all along."
And this brings us to a significant difference between Trump's diehard supporters and people who have been sucked into Scientology. Hubbard's claims in Dianetics were never corroborated by anyone in a position to credibly assess them, Wright noted: "The scientific community, stupefied by the book's popularity, reacted with hostility and ridicule." The same is not true in Trump's case. Most Republican leaders eventually endorsed Trump's bid for the presidency. Many on the right are still defending him — even if, by their own account, they supported Trump despite their own serious reservations.
The thing is, though, that Trump already won the election, and put conservative stalwart Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. Republicans who voted for him in the hopes that he would deliver on those promises were not actually wrong to do so. Nor would they be wrong to have concerns about other aspects of the new administration. Trump's supporters, like Prager, can blame the skeptics for that all day long. But they're the ones who vouched for his ability to "make America great again."