The end of cult figures

From an autobiography of Buckminster Fuller:

His last book was a group biography of three science-fiction authors (Robert Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and Isaac Asimov) and the writer-editor John W. Campbell. These men, like Fuller, interpreted advances in specialized fields for the public, making forceful arguments about the future, which they said would be science-driven, tech-enabled, (mostly) better in every way. This worked, in part, because these guys had something: preternatural confidence, and personal charisma.

Cranks, eccentrics, and cultists like L. Ron Hubbard, Buckminster Fuller, and Howard Hughes died off because of increased skepticism and increased transparency. After the Second World War there was this huge credulous population-the silent generation, and to a lesser extent, the boomers–with considerable purchasing power due the post-war prosperity and economic boom. The internet, as well as scandals and crisis such as Watergate and the assassination of JFK, and perceived hypocrisy of religious and political leaders and institutions (such as the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts of America abuse scandals), made people more skeptical of authority figures overall, and technology also made it easier for people to verify claims.

The post-war prosperity and credulity created a huge army, to put it bluntly, of suckers willing to believe anything spoken by an authority figure. And it worked for about 50-60 years. Scientology, ‘new age’, astrology…it’s all the same.

We take fact checking for granted. Before the internet, there was no way to easily verify anything. TV and radio was equally useless. Anyone who does a Google search for ‘scientology’ will see a bunch of anti-scientology results, but obviously this was not possible in the ’60s. Anyone can easily verify claims or dig up dirt on any organization with just a few keystrokes.

Nowadays there is huge outrage when schools try to teach creationism or are not adhering to strict science guidelines, but back in the 50’s and ’60s hardly anyone was regulating this stuff or cared. Sure, tarot cards will always have an audience of believers, and horoscopes are popular. But now this stuff at least has much more competition.

Increased partisanship and political division in the US has the hidden benefit of regulating the media. Both sides spend considerable effort trying to fact check the opposing side, because the stakes are so high that nothing is left unturned. It’s like an iterative process in which the news passes through multiple opposing partisan filters, so even as the media is biased, the truth still has the highest likelihood of prevailing by the final iteration of this process.

This is why for-profit media, unlike non-profit media, may be more accurate. Without the profit and competition factor, there is no incentive for the media to investigate. A for-profit media company that deliberately omits stories that portray powerful people in a negative light, like the Lewinsky scandal, stand to lose to those to do not withhold such information. This is how Drudge became an overnight sensation, by breaking the Lewinsky scandal when other sources declined.

Someone Elon Musk will never be able to transcend beyond the level of only being an ‘internet person’ or an entrepreneur. He cannot make that next leap to a cult figure. Cults thrive on some degree of mysticism or secrecy and the public’s suspension of disbelief. It doesn’t work when your whole life is like a reality TV show, compared to Howard Hughes, who was a recluse. Even the public intellectuals of the post-war era were mostly exaggerated in their accomplishments, with an aura intellectual impenetrability or credibility that was greatly exaggerated and manufactured by the media and personal branding.


  1. Well, here’s someone who believes a cult figure or two is happening right now:

    “He is a pathological narcissist, and by going to the QAnon people he is getting attention and his need for narcissistic fuel is being somewhat satisfied. That also explains why Trump would never criticize the QAnon conspiracy cult before. He likes people who like him. That is what really matters to him.”

  2. “As for Trump’s voters and followers, many of them are not that educated or choose to insulate themselves in the right-wing echo chamber, where they are fed lies and disinformation and rage. They choose to seal themselves off from reality. That’s a type of collective narcissism.”

    Sounds like a cult to me! Same article from Salon.

  3. “As a society, what do we do about the Trump cult?

    I honestly don’t know. I’m just hoping that at some point it will exhaust itself and fade away.”

  4. Cult figures also need enough power to intimidate the mainstream media not to look too closely at them, like L. Ron Hubbard did. The next cult figure will probably be a far-lefter who can’t be criticized.

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