“I promised them law and order, and I’m going to give it to them.”
That sounds like a quote from Donald Trump. In fact, if you type that phrase into Google, the first result is a Politico story about a 2016 Trump campaign speech in which he declared himself “the law-and-order candidate.”
But that remark actually comes from someone else: Kai Anderson, the political candidate–cult leader played by Evan Peters in American Horror Story: Cult, one of the first scripted pop-cultural attempts to capture the psychological and sociological impact of the Trump presidency. Debuting on FX in September 2017, less than a year after the former Apprentice host had taken office, the seventh season of the Ryan Murphy–Brad Falchuk–created anthology series was a lot like other American Horror Story seasons: It started in a compelling place but eventually spun its narrative wheels with such ferocity that it derailed. At the time, its attempt to speak to the politics of the moment seemed too exaggerated, too outrageous, and not substantive enough to say anything meaningful.
But with the Trump presidency now over, it’s fascinating to take another look at American Horror Story: Cult to see what it got right and what it got wrong about an era that had only begun to unfold when its 11 episodes were first broadcast. In the wake of the January 6 attack on the Capitol, one thing has become abundantly clear: Even though Trump’s time as commander-in-chief has ended, the cult of Trumpism is still very much alive.
The first episode of American Horror Story: Cult opens with a flashback to Election Night 2016, toggling between the basement where Kai celebrates news of Trump’s win by chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” and then painting his face with Cheeto dust and the home of Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson), where she responds to the same event by collapsing in anguished sobs. Kai and Ally become the two extreme poles of the AHS: Cult axis, with Kai as the stand-in for Trumpism — he attempts to gain political power while building an army of anti-liberal followers — and Ally, initially, as the feminist lesbian “snowflake” whose many preexisting anxieties spike off the charts after Hillary Clinton’s loss.
As messy as American Horror Story: Cult eventually gets — and it does get messy, sometimes literally, since unnecessary gore is a series hallmark — it’s remarkable how many details both large and small take on more meaning now that Trump’s presidency is in the rearview mirror. The show is set in Michigan, a state where the kind of extremist beliefs Trump inspired, and that Kai attempts to cultivate, has made itself quite at home in recent years. The degree to which one horrifying thing after another smacks Ally in the face fits right into the horror genre while also mirroring the way the news cycle worked under Trump. The laundry list of phobias that resurface for Ally includes a fear of enclosed spaces and, in her words, “particles in the air,” a combination of concerns that, in 2021, sounds like a case of COVID anxiety. Even the fact that Cult could be nonsensical and confusing is sort of appropriate for a period during which every headline and Trump tweet seemed to prompt the question “Wait, what is happening again?”
More significantly, the actions Kai takes to cement the allegiance of his followers are very much in line with the tactics used by Trump and some pro-Trump groups, like the conspiracy theory–perpetuating QAnon, which, coincidentally, was beginning to establish its online presence in late 2017 as AHS: Cult was rolling out on FX. As part of a plot to instill fear in the public, a feeling that Kai will then rise to address as a political candidate, he and several of his acolytes don masks and commit a series of murders. In episode five, he suggests they need to “make the murders scarier” and that maybe they should “throw in some satanic stuff.” A central idea in QAnon rhetoric: that members of the Democratic Party and the Hollywood elite are child-abducting Satan worshippers.
Earlier in the season, when Kai begins the process of brainwashing Meadow (Leslie Grossman) — Ally and her wife Ivy’s (Alison Pill) neighbor — he advises her to adopt the following worldview: “Everything is somebody else’s fault from now on. You want to be somebody? You want to matter? Then you make the world wrong.” By fueling distrust in mainstream media and pushing baseless conspiracy theories, Trump and his most extreme supporters also created a dynamic wherein the world is wrong and only they are the ones who truly get it. That kind of us-versus-them paradigm is one that has been conveyed by cult leaders throughout history.
To that point, near the end of the AHS: Cult season, Kai lectures his followers — pretty much all young white men, including one who happens to be a cop — about the genius behind the allure of other cult leaders, including Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Charles Manson. The show’s emphasis on these figures not only connects the dots between Trump and cultish behavior — it also serves as a reminder of just how much pop culture focused on cults during the Trump era. The list of examples is long — Waco, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Midsommar, Wild Wild Country, Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults, The Vow, Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult — and that’s only some of them. But only American Horror Story: Cult directly and consistently compared cults or cultlike organizations to what was playing out in the conservative political sphere, both in the White House and in various corners of the internet.
Some media coverage did, though. In 2018, the New York Times editorial board published a piece about how Trump had transformed the Republican Party into a cult of personality and gave it the headline “The Cult of Trump.” Folks at this magazine were dropping the C-word back in 2016, and other outlets did too. But on January 6 of this year, it became very clear just how far members of that cult were willing to go. They were willing to storm the U.S. Capitol, assault and kill police officers, call for the hanging of Vice-President Mike Pence, and threaten to kill members of Congress because Trump as well as other Republicans had encouraged them to reclaim an election based on absolutely bogus claims of fraud. The scenes from that insurrection, captured on iPhones as hordes broke windows and doors and forced their way in, honestly would not look that out of place in American Horror Story.
In fact, in Cult, Kai’s worshippers are willing to commit crimes at his behest, including murders. They even offer up their own lives for the sake of the cause, the cause being whatever will garner more attention and power for Kai. To bolster his standing within the angry white male community, there’s a moment in episode ten when Kai decides to kill one of his supporters, played by Chaz Bono, so he can place the guy’s body in front of a Planned Parenthood and blame his death on “the violent fascists known as the Woke Warriors.” Bono’s character is more than happy to oblige. In 2017, scenes like that played like a mix of satire and Grand Guignol, something so out there it could never become close to reality. Years later, it’s easy to hear echoes of the Capitol rioters saying “Antifa did it” in that bit of scripted gaslighting.
But there are some crucial things that American Horror Story: Cult got wrong about the Trump era, particularly in its closing episodes. (Some major spoilers lie ahead.) In the final act of the season, Ally reveals that, during her stint in a mental hospital, she was recruited to be an FBI informant and infiltrate Kai’s cult, which she successfully does. We also learn that Kai’s entire effort to develop a cult following was something he was pushed into by his anger-management therapist, Bebe Babbitt (Frances Conroy), who hoped Kai’s movement would incite feminine rage. (Yes, this is super-convoluted. Again: so were a lot of the decisions made under the Trump administration.)
In the final moments of Cult, Bebe’s plan works. Ally successfully runs for Senate and Kai, who escapes from prison, is ultimately taken down by a trio of women, including a Black journalist, Beverly Hope (Adina Porter), who shoots him. This is a bit of revenge fantasy structured back then to provide satisfaction to women demoralized by Trump’s victory. That revenge even came complete with the equivalent of a Schwarzenegger one-liner: “There is something more dangerous in this world than a humiliated man,” Ally tells Kai. “A nasty woman.” If AHS: Cult had been executed with more discipline, that moment — broadcast just as Harvey Weinstein’s abuse of women and the Me Too movement had become major stories — would have really resonated. Instead, it just felt like a relief that the exhausting season was over.
But in retrospect, knowing what we know now about how the rest of the Trump era played out, that conclusion does something even more egregious: It plays into the contemporary extreme, conservative worldview. The idea that a bunch of scheming liberals are really pulling the strings behind what’s playing out publicly is exactly the kind of thing that QAnoners and other hard-right factions genuinely believe. Someone who actually possesses a mind-set similar to Kai’s could watch AHS: Cult and see it as a coded message that says the world really is designed to silence their voice. What was designed to provide some escapist thrills to those who related to Ally’s post-2016-election fears and grief can now, based on its ending, be viewed as confirmation that the lie is the truth. The Woke Warriors are the bad guys. Antifa did it.
Certainly no one has ever looked to American Horror Story to provide any genuine, grounded clarity about our political climate, let alone solutions to societal problems. But as the only season so far that dared to comment so directly on a contemporary moment, Cult had the opportunity to engage in some potentially insightful commentary amid all of its carnage and betrayals. This odd time capsule of a season clearly conveyed some of the underlying dynamics of Trumpism and how out of control they could get in a way that more levelheaded political pundits couldn’t grasp at the time. But in the end, the show reverts to both sides–ism, the timeworn idea that, as Brian Moylan put it in his Vulture recap of the finale, “in the game of politics, no one comes out clean, and … plenty of people are willing to trade their moral centers in order to win.”
It’s true that politics can get dirty and that figures in both the Republican and Democratic Parties sometimes resort to less than ideal tactics to get what they want. But by now it should — emphasis on should — be obvious that one side is a lot further from reasonable behavior than the other. American Horror Story: Cult starts out by clearly depicting Kai and his disciples, and thereby Trump and his cronies, as morally bankrupt. But it concludes by declaring that, actually, the whole system is out of order, the liberals are as bad as the conservatives, and they’re doing dark things behind the scenes that most people don’t see. Ironically, that’s exactly the sort of message that keeps the cult of Trumpism, in all its forms, alive in this country.