A definitive account of the psychology of zealotry, from a National Book Award winner and a leading authority on the nature of cults, political absolutism, and mind control
In this unique and timely volume Robert Jay Lifton, the National Book Award–winning psychiatrist, historian, and public intellectual proposes a radical idea: that the psychological relationship between extremist political movements and fanatical religious cults may be much closer than anyone thought. Exploring the most extreme manifestations of human zealotry, Lifton highlights an array of leaders—from Mao to Hitler to the Japanese apocalyptic cult leader Shōkō Asahara to Donald Trump—who have sought the control of human minds and the ownership of reality.
Lifton has spent decades exploring psychological extremism. His pioneering concept of the “Eight Deadly Sins” of ideological totalism—originally devised to identify “brainwashing” (or “thought reform”) in political movements—has been widely quoted in writings about cults, and embraced by members and former members of religious cults seeking to understand their experiences.
In Losing Reality Lifton makes clear that the apocalyptic impulse—that of destroying the world in order to remake it in purified form—is not limited to religious groups but is prominent in extremist political movements such as Nazism and Chinese Communism, and also in groups surrounding Donald Trump. Lifton applies his concept of “malignant normality” to Trump’s efforts to render his destructive falsehoods a routine part of American life. But Lifton sees the human species as capable of “regaining reality” by means of our “protean” psychological capacities and our ethical and political commitments as “witnessing professionals.”
Lifton weaves together some of his finest work with extensive new commentary to provide vital understanding of our struggle with mental predators. Losing Reality is a book not only of stunning scholarship, but also of huge relevance for these troubled times.
In this slim but not especially accessible book, psychiatrist Lifton (The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide) collects excerpts from previous work, interwoven with new commentary and material, to draw parallels between cult leaders' and demagogic politicians' attempts to control their followers' thoughts. The first section samples Lifton's 1960s work on Chinese communist thought reform and adds new descriptions of the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners and how Lifton was drawn into the 1970s American debate between cult members and the loved ones who wanted them "deprogrammed." The second section, on apocalyptic thinking, asserts connections between the Aum Shinrikyo cult that perpetrated the 1995 Tokyo sarin gas attacks, ISIS, Nazi doctors, and Donald Trump's relationship to his political base. The third section claims somewhat facilely that "a quest for authenticity" and truth-telling will protect the self and society against the depredations of would-be reality controllers. The overall mode here is one of authoritatively reporting conclusions, rather than laying out arguments to bring the reader along; knowledge of history is needed to fully comprehend the sections on China; and some less-than-plain language (Trump's "solipsism emanates only from the self and what the self requires") may put some readers off. Even those interested in Lifton's provocative thinking won't find this an easy access point.