Philippine politics

[Free to disagree] How to be a cult leader or a demagogue president

Sylvia Estrada Claudio

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[Free to disagree] How to be a cult leader or a demagogue president
Commit this to your heart: polarize, polarize, polarize. Black and white. Always black and white!

Times are hard. What with a burgeoning inflation rate that is hitting basic commodities disproportionately, an economy that doesn’t generate enough good-paying jobs, a feudal culture that reserves money and glamor to incompetents with connections, what is a narcissist from ordinary beginnings to do?

As recent events have shown us, the way is open for the daring entrepreneur who wants to be a demagogue politician or cult leader.

So here, aspiring big men, is a playbook that will allow you to gain tremendous power by lying, manipulation and spin.

Polarize people

I know, I know. Those fool academics will say I take on very complicated and separate phenomena in one article. But those are the same fool academics who scoff at the wild claims that are the basis for the rise of the demagogue and cult leader. So why should we care about these effete, elite, eggheads who merely prattle?

See what I did there? Take anyone opposing you, even in the mildest, evidence-based ways and demonize them! Commit this to your heart: polarize, polarize, polarize. Black and white. Always black and white!

There are bad people and then there is you. Sinners and savior (you)! Drug addicts and savior (you). The devil worshipers like those academics and savior (you). Black (anyone who opposes) and white (anyone who follows).

Anyone who joins you is good, anyone who disagrees with you is the enemy.

And, dear future demagogue or cult leader, you know you are gaining in your power when whole families, organizations or communities  come over to you. Or, even better, you know you’re powerful when you begin to tear families, organizations and communities  apart over you.

Be delusional

Next, be ready to say the most delusional, outrageous things with utmost confidence and conviction.
For the cult leader it is essential that you make the claim that you are God, or god-like, or that God is your bestie. You have to invest your persona with power. 

It’s a little less straightforward for the demagogue because you have to make the case that you are powerful and exceptional and necessary in a less straightforward way. For the demagogue, you can say things like there is a drug menace, even if data shows there is not, and that you, ONLY you, know the WAY it can be solved. Many demagogues claim they are current day heroes and protectors of the nation. The country comes closely after God after all. For example, never forget to kiss the Philippine flag during rallies. Paint those devil drug dealers you’re out to kill as threats to the nation. Make the delusional claim that the Pasig river will be filled with dead bodies in a holy war against devil drug dealers.

The “utmost confidence” part should be easy for the aspiring big man because people who are not narcissistic or prone to delusions of grandeur need not apply. The successful big man has always thought highly of himself. Has always believed he is  worthy of worship.

Indeed, you know you’re gaining success in this area if people are beginning to worship you.

How do you know they worship you? Apart from outward expressions of adoration, they must agree with everything you say, to the letter. Even and especially your most delusional rantings. This ties in nicely with making sure the world is polarized. They are either with you, unquestioningly with you, or against you.

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Put women (and everyone else) in their place

Sensitive readers may have noticed that I have been referring to men and not women. Can women be demagogues and cult leaders? Yes, of course. But these are less common. In the same way that the perpetrators of sexual violence are mostly men.

Because, for the cultish authoritarian leader or the authoritarian cult leader, it is a matter of dominance. And in this world of ours there are axes of oppression and domination. If one believes in the radical feminists, the oldest, most universal and most enduring of these is the domination that men as a class exercise over women.

So give your misogyny free rein. Remember that the need to make delusional or outrageous statements can be dovetailed with making misogynistic remarks. Tell your military to shoot female enemies in their genital area. Make rape jokes.

Here the cult leader has a disadvantage because most religions have a very perverse relationship to the sexual. So you cannot be overtly sexual. But you can interpret the religious text in the most patriarchal way and cherry pick your Bible for those passages that state that women must obey their husbands or their patriarchs (meaning you of course). Also be sure to run a hierarchical organization where women do the grunt work and sexual access is granted to you and to other men only through you.

Additionally for the demagogue politician and prophet, play other axes of oppression against minorities sexual or ethnic, the disabled, the poor.

Introduce new words, new meanings

Say, for example, you actually want people to accept extrajudicial killings of drug addicts, make them call it “tokhang.” Tokhang is a portmanteau for words that means the exact opposite. It means politely asking to enter a home in order to have a conversation to persuade against drug addiction. So when people are killed without due process in the most inhumane way, it is called, politely now, “tokhang.”

Say, for example, you use the term “appointed son of God” as opposed to the term “anointed son of God”. Anointed. Christ. The Messiah. Anointing with sacred oil is a ritual that goes back in the mists of time. It evokes  ancient sacred practices. In Christendom it is a heavy word replete with meanings. Now you, cult leader, demand that all these meanings, including that which means the ONLY son of God be transferred to “appointed” and hence, to you. It is a direct contradiction. I am a faithful follower of Jesus who is the only Son of God, except I am also the son of God. Appointed not anointed.

But don’t worry about the contradictions. Just do it. Don’t worry. At a certain point in the indoctrination of YOUR people, they must suspend their disbelief, and negate their core values in order to obey you. The fallacy of sunk cost, “I have gambled so much on him, I cannot back out now”, is your best friend. It works for women who stay with their abusive partners. It will work for you. Your followers will take forever to break free even as they begin to witness your depravity as you reward yourself with sex, money, drugs and all those hedonistic pleasures narcissists cannot resist. Some individuals will be so enamored they will become your footstools until the very end, your acolytes. You may even have a chief acolyte like a senator to your roman emperor. These people are the closest thing to love for you. Because they are so useful.

Know yourself and hone gaslighting skills

Sex, drugs, money, abuse of power are irresistible to you. It is what you believe is rightfully yours from the beginning. You cannot understand why the world has to be convinced to give it to you. The fact that you accept that some work must be done to get this is your only real motivation to deal with others.

Since this is an inevitable aspect of you being you, hypocrisy is a given in your life. The sooner you accept this, the better you will be at covering your tracks including gaslighting others when evidence of your behaviors surface.

Deny almost irrefutable evidence coming out of well-conducted investigations by the Senate or the International Criminal Court (ICC). Call these people liars. Demonize them as only you can. Use all your influence and power to keep them away. They cannot demand accountability from saviors.

Should people be bothered by the fact that you have committed all the sins you have proselytized against? Should it not be a revelation that you who brought death to drug addicts are yourself addicted and possibly the biggest drug lord? Of course not. It is all a lie. You, the worshiped, say it is a lie.

Display compassion that you really don’t have

Studies of cult followers or those who prefer authoritarian leadership point to a tendency of these people towards a social dominance orientation. That is, they wish to see their leaders as warm and protective providers. Cult leaders and demagogues on the other hand, succeed best when they treat their subjects, excuse me constituents, like child-like innocents that must be governed. So turn that charm on for your brethren and children. This should be no problem for you because you have no qualms about hypocrisy. Saying what people want to hear regardless of the truth and seeing them smile, is narcissistic fuel. But don’t forget, fear of  repercussions is also part of how children are controlled. So use the carrot and the stick. Adoration and control are what make you feel like you’re a person, make you feel less empty.

Remember, it is this patriarchal conception of the father provider who must be revered, obeyed and feared that is a core element of the patriarchal family, so necessary to our playbook. 

Certainly it would be more compassionate not to lie to people, not to demand unquestioning allegiance to your word and whim. It would be better to educate everyone to think for themselves. It would be better for democracy if we could disagree in polite and respectful ways. But know yourself. On a deep emotional level, these do not make sense to you because in no way does accepting equality soothe your craving for ego fuel. So you really do not have the capacity for anything but feigned empathy or compassion.

Weaponize victimhood, go down fighting

Sadly dear beloved leader, the world will try to bring you down. You know this in your core. It is your enemy because it is not you.

Someday the ICC or the Federal Bureau of Investigation or Senator Hontiveros may bring you to accountability.

Remember that the narrative for  heroes  and messiahs always can be twisted towards martyrdom.

So when the warrants of arrests are issued you have only one card left, given that the concept of remorse is alien to you. And that is, to remain the hero or messiah who is now being persecuted. Play on the theme of being the sacrificial lamb for your people. The demons have come in force and you will sacrifice for what is true, good and beautiful. Sacrifice for God and country.

I am sorry but psychological studies show that many will wake up from their being enraptured by you as they move on to another more powerful, socially-dominant figure. Also,  many people can learn from their mistakes when they realize they gave their trust and admiration for the wrong reasons.

But here is your comfort, not everyone will leave you. True acolytes will accompany you into your martyrdom. 

Because until people are wiser, more critical, better fed, house and educated; until we all find deeper meaning in our lives in a more equitable and nurturing world, there will always be cult leaders and demagogues. –

Sylvia Estrada Claudio is a doctor of medicine who also has a PhD in psychology. She is Professor Emerita of the University of the Philippines-Diliman.


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  1. RS

    I think your point about polarize, isn’t that the old DIVIDE and CONQUER tactic? Julius Caesar used it with the different tribes in the Gallic Wars in 58 BC. The British used it with the different religions and ethnicities in India from 1858 to 1947.

  2. ET

    Thanks to Dr. Sylvia Estrada Claudio for her inspiring article (for both anti-demagogues and those aspiring to be one). I strongly agree: “… until people are wiser, more critical, better fed, housed, and educated; until we all find deeper meaning in our lives in a more equitable and nurturing world, there will always be cult leaders and demagogues.” The problem is, when will that time be?

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