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Nevada Today

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Hindsight 2020: NXIVM and “Cult 45”

For the last three years Americans have learned about NXIVM, a terrifying cult that managed to mostly fly under the radar and recruit people who had no idea of the horrors they would eventually encounter inside this seemingly innocuous, if a bit “eccentric”, “personal development” organization.

How might the NXIVM story and the history of other American cults help us understand what happened in this year’s presidential election? 

WARNING: Today’s story includes some frank discussion of physical and sexual violence, and of coercive control psychological abuse. Reader discretion is advised.

Now that California and New York are almost finished counting their respective ballots, we have an even clearer picture of what happened in this election. President-elect Joe Biden won just over 51% of the popular vote, and his national margin of victory over outgoing President Donald Trump may finally settle around 4.5%, or just over 7,000,000 raw votes. 

With this said, this presidential election still feels like a bit of a letdown to anti-fascist/anti-authoritarian activists across the political spectrum who were hoping for a stronger nationwide repudiation of Trump and Trumpism. 

We’ve already been noticing some disturbing details in the election results, from the awkward nature of Biden’s and Trump’s respective coalitions to the alarming effect of disinformation cyberwarfare on our elections and government. So how did Donald Trump nearly succeed in pulling off two consecutive “death blow life hacks” to American governance? Fasten your seatbelts, because we’re in for a terrifyingly wild ride.

WTF is NXIVM, and why are so many people talking about this cult?

While we were busy tracking the early voting numbers, then as we were tracking the first days of election results, most of the rest of America were busy watching something very different. In recent years HBO has really upped its true crime content, and HBO scored another viral hit with The Vow. Then just as The Vow was wrapping up its first season, Starz unveiled Seduced

Both docuseries go into gruesome detail on the horrors of the NXIVM “personal development” cult and multi-layered multi-level marketing (MLM) company, albeit from different perspectives. The Vow largely centers on the story of two married couples – Mark Vicente and Bonnie Piesse, and Sarah Edmondson and Anthony “Nippy” Ames – ascending to the higher levels of NXIVM’s hierarchy, then descending to experience firsthand the dehumanizing brutality that was always hiding behind NXIVM’s glossy veneer, then finally escaping the cult right in the nick of time.

Meanwhile, Seduced takes a different path into the darkest depth of NXIVM through India Oxenberg’s journey into the cult: the DOS slave network where Oxenberg and other women were forced into starvation diets, sleep deprivation, constant berating, gross “experiments”, threats and executions of physical “punishment”, the now infamous “branding” ceremonies, and ultimately crimes of sexual abuse against adults and children that were primarily designed for the pleasure of NXIVM’s “Vanguard” – Keith Raniere.

It’s easy for so many of us to look at these people and ask, “Why the hell were they so stupid to join such a sleazy ‘sex cult’?” But as we discussed during our examination of Dirty John nearly two years ago, it’s much harder for us to admit that pretty much all of us are vulnerable to gaslighting, to coercive control abuse, and to the kinds of promises of “enlightenment”, “personal development”, “abundance”, and “success” that Keith Raniere and “Prefect” Nancy Salzman used to lure people into NXIVM.

How did NXIVM actually work, and what does this say about America’s strange addiction to cults?

As we’ve been explaining since 2019, people typically don’t enter into abusive relationships with the goal of becoming trapped in the cycle of abuse. Most often, they initially don’t even notice the abuse. Like John Meehan did to Debra Newell in the Dirty John story, Raniere, Salzman, and their lieutenants told new recruits everything they wanted to hear: in this case, everything about healing from past trauma, building stronger relationships, and unlocking the potential for immense financial success.

Once the recruits began to fall deep into NXIVM’s intricate network of “accountability groups” and “community empowerment” organizations, they gradually became exposed to the actual reality of a pyramid scheme where a few fortunate individuals at the very top made out like bandits while nearly everyone else got drained. Even worse, NXIVM members were continually told that their financial losses and/or their relationship woes were all their own fault. When they weren’t succeeding, they were told that all their failures were due to their own failure to properly apply NXIVM’s “technology” throughout their daily lives.

Fortunately for famed actor Catherine Oxenberg, she realized early on that NXIVM’s “tech” wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be, and she left before NXIVM executives could draw on her bank account like they did with Clare and Sara Bronfman (who tapped into their Seagram’s funded fortune to bankroll NXIVM). However, they nonetheless succeeded in convincing Catherine’s daughter India to stay. They made India believe that all this torture was necessary for her “enlightenment”, and it ultimately took a box of flash drives for her to realize that DOS was never really a “women’s empowerment group”, but rather Raniere’s own personal collection of slaves. 

In an October interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Catherine Oxenberg deftly noted, “What I realized through all this is just how fragile and how susceptible to being manipulated the human mind is, and how easy it is to be changed in your thinking without you even knowing.” Indeed, the most effective propaganda tends to be the more subtle “art of persuasion” that gradually warps your sense of reality. It seems reasonable at first, but eventually it leads you to such disorientation where you can no longer tell what is real and what is fake.

I was never in NXIVM myself, but I know what it’s like to be trapped in an abusive relationship.

While I was never in a cult as brutal as NXIVM, I have experienced coercive control abuse firsthand. I know how it feels to not know what is real. I know how it feels to be pressured into accepting redefinitions of certain words. I know how it feels to blindly accept any and all commands as “moral”. I know it feels to accept abuse as “love”.

I also know the internalized shame of surviving this kind of abuse. “How could you be so stupid?” “Why did you allow this to happen?” “Why are you so weak?” “Who are you, really?”

A key tactic cults use to keep members in line is to normalize abuse, and to normalize it to the point where some of the abused gradually become abusers themselves. I still sometimes feel guilt over things my biological mother told me to do, such as lying about our neighbor to the point where he just had to sell his home and leave the neighborhood, so I can still feel sympathy for India Oxenberg after learning about what she had to do to remain in good standing with NXIVM and DOS.  

As many wise people have been warning for years, this is a crisis.

During his November 20 episode, HBO Real Time host Bill Maher made yet another shocking statement. But unlike many of his past shocking statements that were much more “shock jock”/“edgelord” flavored, this one might actually make sense. Maher praised Catherine Oxenberg’s work to save her daughter India from NXIVM, and he called to take her approach and apply it on a much larger scale to defeat the cult of QAnon and Trumpism: “Hate the cult, love the cultist.”

As we examined ourselves last month, Donald Trump almost succeeded in securing a second term by gaslighting Americans himself, and by relying on allies like those in QAnon to convince millions of Americans to deny reality and “trust the plan”. With Trump and his QAnon believers continuing to hurl lies about the election, and with Trump allies like the freshly pardoned Michael Flynn openly calling for Trump to escalate his coup attempt to the point of declaring martial law, we can no longer afford to pretend that “everything is fine” with American democracy.

Election officials in Georgia, Michigan, Arizona, right here in Nevada, and elsewhere have come under attack for simply doing their jobs and following the letter of the law. For a disturbingly large share of Americans (39%, according to The Economist’s and YouGov’s most recent poll), it simply does not matter that all the evidence proves that Joe Biden won this election, and it no longer even matters that Republicans like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger (R) and Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske (R) have repeatedly confirmed the evidence and debunked the false rumors. 

For them, what matters is that Donald Trump refuses to admit that he lost. Perhaps you’ve already seen Trump’s epic 46 minute Facebook rant that feels more like your drunk uncle screaming about some crazy rumor he and his friends talk about on Facebook than any kind of “presidential address”. It’s awfully fitting that Trump would take to one of the epicenters of online disinformation to spread even more of his own propaganda. While Facebook did post an advisory label next to Trump’s video, that label does not fix the algorithm that amplifies this very disinformation while burying the truth in an ocean of lies.

NXIVM is not the only cult seeking to normalize brutality.

As we’ve been noticing since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump and extremist networks like QAnon have taken full advantage of these “Big Tech” monetized algorithms to spread propaganda. What does it say about the state of our union when Governor Steve Sisolak (D) had to devote a few minutes of his vaccine briefing last night to debunk a false rumor about Renown Medical Center’s COVID-19 annex unit that Trump made viral?

We’ve already seen Trump and his allies work to normalize the abuse of refugee families in prison camps and inside the federal bureaucracy. We’ve already seen them normalize the deaths of at least 270,000 Americans by arguing over the definition of “COVID-19 death”. We’ve already seen them normalize our governments’ attacks on our own people by rebranding this violence as “law and order”. And now, we’re seeing them normalizing their attempt to weaponize our American “small d democratic” system to destroy American democracy itself.

We’ve become accustomed to “sensible” national media pundits shuddering over anyone’s use of words like “coup”, “cult”, “fascism”, and “racism” to describe the danger of Trumpism. Yet when Trumpist operatives like infamous “dirty trickster” Roger Stone openly call for the toppling of Nevada’s election system, encourage Trump to declare martial law, and spread false rumors about Biden promising a pardon for Keith Raniere, we hear crickets. Roger Stone once lobbied for NXIVM himself, so it’s rather rich for him to spread baseless rumors about Biden’s (nonexistent) ties to NXIVM.

Finally, the TL/DR version: Stop normalizing this s–t.

One of the most common misconceptions about the NXIVM case is that The New York Times October 2017 expose on the cult was the first time anyone reported on the cult. In reality, the Albany Times-Union had been blowing the whistle on Keith Raniere and his army of enablers since 2012, and ex-members like Barbara Bouchey had been trying to get (New York) state and federal law enforcement to take action against the cult long before Raniere was finally arrested in Mexico in 2018. Because far too many in law enforcement, in the national media, and elsewhere ignored the warning signs earlier, Raniere took NXIVM to further extremes by establishing DOS and subjecting more members to even more horrifying abuses.

For years, experts on authoritarianism and cult development have been warning us about the danger of an aspiring autocrat like Donald Trump building a political cult and deploying his cult against our (“small d”) democratic institutions. For the past four years, we’ve seen Trump and his apparatchiks dismantle the “norms and institutions” that were allegedly assured to act as “guardrails for our democracy”. Yet now, just as Trump continues to pursue a coup that thankfully appears to be falling apart due to his sloppy execution, we see media pundits and Democratic Party establishment leaders stress the importance of… cancelling the “Defund the Police” slogan?

It really doesn’t matter what former President Barack Obama, Rep. James Clyburn (D-South Carolina), allegedly “pure progressiveThe Intercept writer Lee Fang, and other pundits have to say about Black Lives Matter activists’ work on the ground. What truly matters is that they’re doing the work to save our democracy, and sadly what also matters is that far too many people with power and privilege remain far too oblivious to the real danger facing our democracy.

For far too long, too many people in positions of power ignored, dismissed, or even enabled the rise of Trumpism. They allowed “Big Tech” conglomerates to amass this much control over the flow of information. They allowed Trump to commit crimes against the American people. They allowed Trump to rebrand such crimes as “anti-establishment acts of defiance”. And now, they prefer to debate activists’ language rather than take their own meaningful action. Instead of blaming the victims of Trumpism, both those who’ve fallen under the coercive control and those who’ve had to overcome violent attacks, why can’t we actually take action to stop this cult from ruining any more people’s lives?

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