After the fact, people often wonder how dictators like Stalin or Hitler come to power, or how cult leaders like Jim Jones manage to gain influence over so many people. We want to believe most people are reasonable and think logically and critically, but both of these things can easily be overridden by a clever, charismatic individual. The tricks that allow people to create a cult of personality can be used by almost anyone, especially in our modern age, and many of the most despicable leaders and bloodthirsty warlords in history had rather humble beginnings–they just consciously, or unconsciously, used a lot of these tactics to gain a cult following.
10. They Go Out Of Their Way To Attack The People Or Source Who Criticize Them
Not so long ago, YouTube star PewDiePie came under fire for making an anti-Semitic joke, and then some time later, for letting slip the “N” word during a gaming stream. Now, considering his high profile and his effect as a role model to children, many people were actually quite bothered and a number of news outlets ran stories about PewDiePie’s actions–he even lost some of his deals with Disney, although he still makes millions of dollars a year. Instead of doing what many celebrities do, which would be to apologize and let the whole thing blow over, PewDiePie made light of his actions. He essentially excused himself and went to work attacking the news outlets that went after him–namely the Wall Street Journal, which had been the most critical.
In a rambling, nonsensical video, he goes on and on about the integrity of the author and the paper itself, and hardly any time actually trying to defend himself against the charges. This is a classic tactic of cult leaders and those seeking to create a cult of personality: Whenever they are fairly criticized, and have no real good comeback, they choose to attack whoever criticized them instead of apologizing for their actions.
9. They Get Attention In Shocking Ways, Knowing It Will Only Help Them
Logan Paul was in the news not long ago because he made a video in the suicide forest in Japan, and laughed and made fun of a dead body that he and his crew came across hanging in the trees. There was outrage in both the United States and Japan; Disney pulled some deals with him, as did YouTube, and he even came on some of the daytime talk shows and said how sorry he was. For a time, many thought Paul’s social media empire would actually crumble, but things took a very different turn. As soon as the media’s back was turned, Paul was up to his old antics, this time shocking and torturing a rat while laughing at it and mocking the situation. However, Paul seemed to have the measure of how the media cycle worked.
They had already gone through dealing with him recently, and the media doesn’t care nearly as much about a dead rat as they do a dead body. Before long, everyone had moved on. His loyal viewer base was still watching him, and his videos were re-monetized. Paul is still making millions of dollars a year, and if nothing else, it just made him cooler in the eyes of his predominantly young fanbase, while giving him worldwide name recognition. He may be detestable, but he gamed the system perfectly.
8. Everyone Becomes Part Of The “Fan”mily
Long before the internet, the concept of creating a cult family already existed. There was the Manson family–a small, but close knit group of people who lived in a house together–and many other cult-like families who lived on compounds, or various communes. These cults couldn’t spread as quickly and easily, as they were limited by location and financial means. However, with the dawn of the internet, pretty much anyone can create their own cult of personality and their own fanbase that’s always ready at the press of a button. Nowadays, nearly every single YouTuber, Twitter star, or Instagram influencer has some kind of name for their fans (the Beyhive, for example) so that they can all feel like they are part of the same group.
These fans become part of a dangerous echo chamber where they continually get more and more of their news and opinions only from the fan group, and it starts to take up more and more of their lives. Before long, people in many of these little cliques can become so attached to the group’s viewpoint that they forget their ability to think critically, and will go to great feats of cognitive dissonance in order to continue feeling that they are part of that group. In this situation, the leader can step in and be the guide who tells everyone how and what to think.
7. They Will Teach Their Followers To Do Their Dirty Work For Them
This first time a budding charismatic utilizes his reach is when he gets annoyed by someone who bothers him or gives him a hard time, but he doesn’t want to take the time–or reputation hit–to actually go after the critic on his own. In order to be sneaky, so it doesn’t look like he’s inciting his followers to go after someone, he’ll just make his argument with the person public. He knows his followers will often be stirred into a frenzy and take action without even being asked.
Then, as the coup de grace, the cult personality can go ahead and block the person he was arguing with on any social media so he can both look like the bigger man who won’t get dragged into an argument, and claim even more plausible deniability for anything awful his followers do or say to that person. While he may block the person, he knows making the argument public to his followers will rid him of that troublesome criticizer.
6. Every Cult Leader’s Followers Are The Very Best People Who Have Ever Walked The Earth
One of the favorite rhetorical crutches of charismatics–who you will find in politics, or on YouTube or television, and everywhere in between–is where they try to make you feel like you are part of the most special group that has ever been. This is one of the most important crutches of every big YouTuber today. Many of them, whether at the beginning of their videos, the end, or sometimes both, go out of their way to thank all of their loyal, subscribed viewers. They also take a moment at this point to tell them that they are the best viewers ever, and how they couldn’t do anything without them. Some YouTubers will lay it on even thicker, and tell viewers that they are also the smartest and best looking as well.
This may be something we see in a lot of modern YouTube videos, but it is an old phenomenon and will always be a classic part of any would-be dictator or power player’s playbook. If a budding cult leader can establish himself as an authority figure in people’s lives, giving or withholding compliments can give him incredible power and influence over his flock.
5. They Often Speak As If Talking Directly To You, Instead Of To A Larger Audience
Many cult leader-types have realized that while you do want to absorb people into the collective, it’s also important to address them on a certain level that feels more personal as well. Especially when trying to entrap those who are lonely, it helps draw them in, and charismatics know full well just how much people like to have their ego stroked, as they are the type who are usually extremely egotistical themselves.
Something you will notice if you watch a lot of popular YouTubers is that they spend a lot of time sitting down somewhere, and looking directly into the camera. The way they are set up, it’s like they’re looking straight at you as you watch, and they will use a lot of wording that makes it sound like they are actually just a friend sitting down to have a chat. They will even pause, and ask rhetorical questions, or answer questions they imagine you might have had. This allows them to draw you in and make you feel like you’re just talking to a friend, while completely controlling the narrative and your thought process–you aren’t really having a conversation, it just feels like you are. That effect gives them great influence over you. Some people have noticed that YouTubers also often share a lot of the same linguistic tricks in order to keep you listening and paying attention to their every word.
4. If They Have The Power, Charismatics Will Go To Vicious Lengths To Shut Down Viewpoints
Some budding cult-types, as they start to gain power, realize they can now do something about criticism and start trying to use what little power they’ve amassed to silence it. Now, as we mentioned, the less powerful people will simply block others and let their followers go to town, but when someone trying to create their own little cult base gains true power, they’ll use it to shut down anything that could possibly make anyone think anything negative about them ever again.
Joseph Stalin is a horrifying real life example of this. He was a former military leader, and had lived through and come to power in Russia during very tumultuous times. He was a deeply paranoid man, and wanted to create a cult of personality around himself. As his dominance grew and his cult became strong, he decided he would no longer tolerate anyone forming negative opinions of him, and quickly took control of all media, brutally silencing anyone who tried to publish anything negative about him by either having them executed or sent to the gulags.
3. People Who Are Not Loyal Are Dead To Them And Are Blacklisted And Removed
Some internet personalities will block their enemies to remove their influence and have them or troublesome followers blacklisted by their clique, but when a cult leader gains power, they can take this to a truly terrifying level. When Stalin took power, the Russian people discovered what the true meaning of petty and mean-spirited actually was. Stalin had a habit of literally removing people he did not like entirely from history, and he did so with incredible vindictiveness. Any friend, or underling, or even family member who crossed him enough would find themselves either executed or sent to the gulag, and then they would be literally removed from history.
Stalin would have them removed from any photos they were in that could be found, or just have the photos destroyed. He would have their name and life removed from any official records and any books he could get his hands on, and would then punish anyone who even tried to claim they had once been a person at all. It was a brutally effective way to keep people under control, as no one was safe from complete erasure.
2. The Charismatic Tries To Convince Their Followers They Are Part Of Something Greater
In order to gain more followers and cement standing with those they have, cult leaders will try to convince their people that they are part of some movement, in some cases even of a religious variety, in order to make people feel like they are truly part of something greater than themselves. This makes it easier to get them to do things they wouldn’t normally do and obey orders to please the group, and thus feel validated as part of the collective.
This was used very effectively in terrible ways by leaders like Adolf Hitler and Jim Jones. Both promised their followers something greater, and positioned themselves as a sort of prophetic figure who would lead their people to greatness. Making people think they are part of some special movement in history makes it much easier to override their critical thinking skills.
1. There Is Always Some Kind Of Greater Threat, That Only The Leader Can Protect You From
When a cult leader really starts to gain power and influence, the media and sometimes governmental authorities will try to put a serious stop to them. In countries with a lot of freedoms for religion and such, the government may simply put out a lot of information about the growing cult. It’s at this point that the cult becomes truly threatened, and the leader has to make sure the loyal members don’t start to hemorrhage, knowing threats may no longer work so well now.
It’s at this point that the leader will generally come up with some horrible sounding threat to either the group and those who were once involved in it, or the country or world at large. These threats could be anything from “the media” to immigrants, to a specific political ideology, and anything in between. Of course, the one thing these threats always share is that the only way to protect from the horrible threat is to continue to obey and honor the leader who told you about the threat in the first place. And this, in turn, allows them to continue to hold power over you for the long term.