Authoritarian Cults: Disengagement, Denial, and Saving Face

“Freedom – of thought and the press – is a meaningless word," the University of Padua student Maria wrote bitterly in her diary. "Mussolini himself, whom I once admired as the most complete genius, seems to have lost his equilibrium.” It was 1938, and the Fascist regime had just enacted anti-Semitic laws. Maria's favorite physics professor, who was Jewish, had been removed from his job.

Everything changed two weeks later when she went to hear the Duce speak at a rally. Mussolini "is an exceptional man who emanates an immense force, capable of shackling endless multitudes," she gushed afterwards. "To behold [his face] is to feel ready for any sacrifice, for any struggle. I shouted and shouted so much that I lost my voice and was hoarse the next day, but I will never forget the enthusiasm I felt.”

Maria had come of age during the Fascist dictatorship, which had started 13 years earlier. Like many of her generation, she knew no other head of state. Her journey out of Fascism and the Duce cult took the shape of one step forward, two steps back.

Context matters when we assess the durability of cults and how and why people disengage with them. It is one thing to join, and leave, a cult that functions in a pluralistic, democratic society, where alternative worldviews exist, or a movement that is based partly or largely on the Internet. It's another thing to withdraw from a cult that has the status of state doctrine and puts non-believers in prison.   

Yet the powerful leader-follower dynamics that sustain authoritarian cults, as detailed here, also transcend context to some extent, as do the dynamics of cults' dissolution. Like radicalization, disengagement is a process. Whether in a Fascist state, or another setting, it often resembles a "slow deflation," as historian of Nazism Ian Kershaw terms it in The Hitler Myth, rather than a "swift puncture."


This reflects the realities of living with authoritarian leaders, who usually don't name successors and never tolerate rivals. Any charismatic opponents are forced into exile or removed from public view, so that no other leader of the country is even conceivable.

It also reflects the nature and needs of authoritarians' followers, who may remain in denial or stay in the cult in the hope that their creeping doubts will be vanquished. The behavior of many cult members is dictated by aversion to loss. The more an individual has invested in the cult world, the more they are reluctant to admit to others, and to themselves, that they have misjudged the situation and have misplaced their trust and love.

Among elites tied closely to the leader, wavering faith can bring fears of plummeting into an emotional and psychological abyss. This was the case with the Fascist official Giuseppe Bottai, who served Mussolini for more than 20 years. In 1941, when he was minister of national education, Bottai received a brusque phone call from the Duce ordering him to the Greek front, as though he were a new recruit.

This humiliation, which made him fear that he was expendable, started his disengagement process. “A Leader is everything in the life of a man: his beginning and his end, his aim and his purpose, his point of departure and his finish line,” he wrote in his diary days after the phone call. “I would like to rediscover my Leader, restore him to the center of my world, rearrange my world around him. I’m afraid, so afraid that I won’t be able to do that any longer.” Two years later, Bottai joined other disaffected officials and voted Mussolini out of office for incompetent management of the war.

Giuseppe Bottai, to the right of Mussolini, was always watching for his Leader’s approval. In Rome, with visiting German officials, late 1930s. Ullstein Bild, via Getty Images.

Just as cultivation and conversion leverage strong positive emotions (belonging, inclusion, safety, rapture), so does disengagement evoke strong negative emotions (shame, humiliation, abjection) that many wish to avoid.

Shame and fears of punishment, ridicule, and loss of status can motivate individuals who have been victims of con men to stay silent. They can also lead people who start to realize that they have been misled by authoritarian propaganda to double down on their convictions out of pride.

Saving face can seem like a psychic necessity as it becomes increasingly difficult to deny the leader's untruths and destruction, and individuals may feel betrayed as well as humiliated. In such situations, saving face can even trump saving lives, as sociologist Brooke Harrington writes of pandemic and vaccine deniers who continue to uphold their views while in the ICU with Covid-19.

This is why experts emphasize the importance of avoiding judgmental attitudes when dealing with people disengaging from cults. We should also resist the temptation to present individuals with evidence of the failure, corruption, or nonsensical nature of the cause they embrace. Such evidence will come from sources that are still tainted for them, and likely makes use of  language and reasoning they have been taught to distrust.

Former extremist Christian Picciolini gets around this issue by using Google search ads that mimic extremist recruitment sites to attract people to his organization, Free Radicals. It offers assistance with disengagement, and his "counter-narrative" approach offers the veneer of familiarity for extremists who may approach his site with skepticism and hesitation.

One thing remains true across a century of authoritarian cults: it can be lonely to be a doubter in a sea of believers. "I made every effort to feel that love, but in vain. And I regarded this failure as a shortcoming of my moral being,” recalled Alberto Carracciolo, who grew up alienated from the Duce's personality cult. An expert mountain climber, Carracciolo aired his frustrations by going to isolated peaks and yelling "Down with Mussolini!"  - precious moments of freedom and soul recovery in an airless police state.

We can be guided by these testimonies as we undertake an effort at the community and family levels to bring millions of Trump cult followers out of a social world that requires them to reject the evidence of their own eyes and ears. While these individuals will make their journeys out of Trumpland on their own terms and time-frame -- and it won't be soon enough, for most of us-- we can let them know we are available to help when they are ready to emerge.

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Maria, Pietro Ambrosini, Alberto Carracciolo, in Christopher Duggan, Fascist Voices (London, 2013), 207-208, 169, 201.

Ian Kershaw, The Hitler Myth (Oxford, 1987), 172-173.

Giuseppe Bottai, Diario, 1935-1944 (Milan, 1982), entries of January 17 and 21, 1941, 246-247.

Steven Hassan, The Cult of Trump (New York, 2020).