Last Saturday night I was flipping channels when I saw a Trump rally in Iowa. Almost a full year after the election and giving new meaning to the expression “sore loser,” Trump was repeating his baseless voter fraud routine. Question: If the election was rigged how did the GOP do so well down ballot? And why, after the record recounts, including the Cyber Ninja absurdity in Arizona, does Biden win by even more votes? Given the cult-like crowd eating it up, I was nauseous. It felt like the crazies were “getting the band back together” preparing for 2024.
I’m not an expert on cults but my friend since high school, Paul Morantz, a lawyer who spent nearly 40 years battling cults, is an authority on the subject. In 2012, Paul wrote an outstanding book, “Escape, My Lifelong War Against Cults.” It documented his battles with the Manson family, the Symbionese Liberation Army, Jim Jones’ People’s Temple and Scientology. In 1978 he became famous stemming from one of his earliest cases that almost ended his life.
It was just weeks after Morantz had won a $300,000 judgment against Synanon, a shady drug rehab facility that opened in Santa Monica in 1958. The founder, Charles Dederich, a recovering alcoholic turned cult leader wanted revenge. He assigned his violent Synanon “Imperial Marines” to stuff a 4-foot rattlesnake in Paul’s mailbox.
Diabolically, they removed the snake’s rattles. Thus, as Paul retrieved his mail he was bitten viciously. (He would have likely died if his neighbor hadn’t just completed a Red Cross training program on how to treat rattlesnake bites.)
The rattlesnake story lit up TV’s nationwide and internationally as they even featured hospital news conferences on Paul’s tenuous condition. After intensive care, however, Paul slowly recovered. Unfortunately, decades later, complications from the rattlesnake venom reappeared. Suddenly Paul’s life depended on getting exhaustive blood transfusions every two weeks. (Paul jokes that he has developed empathy for Dracula and, while getting transfusions, never wears a black cape.)
Meanwhile, Dederich built Synanon into a $30-million, nonprofit, tax-exempt business owning vast California real estate, 450 vehicles, planes and boats. Chapters sprang up in San Francisco, Detroit, Tulare and Marin counties, and even in Germany and Malaysia.
Following years in court, Morantz was finally able to rid Santa Monica of Synanon whose cult members had violently threatened neighbors and businesses. In 1984, when the IRS removed Dederich’s tax-exempt status, Synanon went bankrupt. When a feeble and wheel-chair-bound Dederich arrived in court for the last time, Morantz actually felt forgiveness.
For decades, a sadistically angry Dederich intimidated his followers, “You were crazy when you got here, I can make you crazy again.” In 1987 Dederich, 83 and penniless, died in a run down trailer park in Visalia.
Speaking of sadistically angry, while Trump is still remarkably popular with his “base” he was recently booed by a Maga crowd when he recommended the Covid vaccine. Shocked, he quickly back pedaled, “But you’ve got your freedoms.”
Yes, he desperately needs their donations, sweetened by the fact that until he officially declares his 2024 candidacy he can just stuff the dough into his pockets. But he also considers his Magats to be losers and lowlifes.
When he infamously said, “I could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and I wouldn’t lose any votes” he was also saying “See what morons my followers are?” During the January 6 insurrection Trump wasn’t bothered by the violence but rather how sloppy-looking his followers looked. Actually it’s quite common for cult leaders to hate their followers because they have to pretend that they care about them.
In almost every case, Morantz views cult leaders as essentially the same person, a narcissistic sociopath. Often they’ve been failures until discovering a cause they transform into a cult. Hitler longed to be an artist but was rejected when he applied to college. L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, was a failed science fiction writer so he created a religion based on science fiction. Despite his father’s $400 million (today’s dollars) Trump, with six bankruptcies, was a failed businessman until he created the Maga cult.
Another similarity among cult leaders is that they’re often extremely suspicious of the second in command. This would explain why when Trump was watching the insurrection and heard shouts, “Hang Mike Pence!” he didn’t lift a finger to help him.
In the epilogue of his 2012 book, Morantz presciently warned of a constitutional crisis whereby America might become an anti-democracy authoritarian government. When readers ask if he had Trump in mind. Paul jokes, “I never imagined he would be that bad.”
Reflecting back to Dederich’s downfall, if Trump somehow wound up penniless would I be happy or would I need him to end up in prison? My answer is both. A guy can dream, can’t he.