Author of “The Cult of Trump” Steven Hassan on our president’s similarities to famous cult leaders — and how to break the grip
A new Gallup poll finds that at least 50 percent of the American people want Donald Trump to be impeached and removed from office. That’s three times higher than the percentage of Americans who supported impeaching Richard Nixon during the early stages of the impeachment process. Trump could become the first American president to run for re-election after being impeached in the House of Representatives.
This article first appeared in Salon.
On the surface, at least, it would seem that Donald Trump’s continual torrent of lawbreaking, his disrespect for the Constitution and democracy, his corruption, racism, nativism, misogyny and overall debasement of human morality and human decency have finally reached a point where he will be held accountable by the Democrats in Congress and then at the polls in 2020.
But what of the 39 percent (or so) of Americans who continue to support Donald Trump? His popularity among Republican voters continues to be remarkably high and stable (87 percent per Gallup’s most recent poll) given his many failures of policy, including policy decisions that directly hurt his most enthusiastic “white working class” supporters. Indeed, Trump’s base of stable support remains the highest among American presidents in the history of modern polling.
Despite — or because of — Trump’s apparent criminal behavior and obvious inclinations toward fascism he has a cement-like hold on his supporters. Trumpism can be understood as right-wing political extremism transformed into a cult. This is not just a metaphor. Trump’s lies, his assault on reality, his threats of violence, his cruelty, his demand of absolute loyalty, his manipulation of willing subjects who choose to escape empirical reality, and his shared state of collective narcissism with his followers all fit the definition of a cult. From that realization follows another: Trump’s removal from the White House, by electoral defeat or any other means, remains unlikely — unless his opponents can fully mobilize to overwhelm and defeat Trump’s zealots.
Is it possible to deprogram Trump’s political cult members and return them to normal society? Should good Americans isolate Trump supporters and refuse to interact with them? In what ways does Trump fit the profile of a cult leader? How is his apparent and lengthy history of sexually predatory behavior typical of a cult leader? If Trump is removed from office, will his supporters respond with violence?
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Donald Trump has been public and obvious in his threats to democracy and the rule of law. He also has not hidden his racism, bigotry, sexism, overall belligerence, and lack of good character, morals, or principles. You and others were warning people years ago that if Trump became president it would be a national and global disaster. Why didn’t more Americans listen to the warnings? The level of surprise at Trump’s behavior is almost humorous.
People do not want to hear the truth because many of them are tuned into media sources which are essentially disinformation channels. They are trusting victims of deception and manipulation.
As I’ve traveled around the country helping to deprogram people who have been in cults and similar groups, it appears that many Americans feel helpless and overwhelmed by Trump’s presidency and all that it has wrought. They have tuned out and simply do not know who to trust or what to believe is true or not.
How do you explain the deep and unflappable devotion of Trump’s supporters? Trump’s policies are literally hurting most of his own supporters. Yet, instead of turning on him, they double down and appear to love him even more.
There are multiple overlapping constituencies of people who are following Trump. But the most devoted Trump supporters are people involved with religious cult groups or following leaders who they believe are apostles or prophets. These people are so programmed to fear Satan and evil spirits that they are disconnected from their own critical thinking and from their own consciences. This involves not just New Apostolic Reformation groups and Christian megachurches, but also Opus Dei and members of the Family. The latter was profiled in a recent Netflix series.
These Trump supporters practice apocalyptic thinking. They see the world in all-or-nothing terms, good versus evil. They think Trump is a sinner — but so are we all. And like God used King Cyrus in the Bible, these people believe that God is using Trump. So while they may not like or respect Trump personally, these Trump supporters are part of a belief system which tells them that Donald Trump is doing God’s will. Therefore, they are going to do whatever Trump says to do.
Are Trump’s supporters damaged people? The social psychology literature suggests that authoritarianism is tied to some type of emotional harm that occurs during childhood. These authoritarians then seek out a father figure for protection, or as a substitute for how their caregivers hurt or abused them when they were children.
I’m very familiar with that theory. I don’t think it holds up universally. It’s a version of blaming the victim. That theory suggests that people are defective and therefore they can be manipulated, as opposed to understanding that our minds are a type of learning machine and therefore we as human beings can learn the wrong things. Our reality-testing strategies can be subverted, especially with sleep deprivation and information control.
One of the most universal techniques of subverting our ability to correctly assess reality is through phobia indoctrination. This is the implantation of irrational fears against questioning the leader, the doctrine, or the organization or cult’s policies.
People who were raised in strict fundamentalist-type religious groups, where they’re not encouraged to make mistakes, think for themselves or use their conscience but rather to obediently follow doctrine and the authority figure, are going to be more susceptible to following someone like Donald Trump. There is also the aspect of physical corporal punishment if they disobey the authority figure or other leader, which plays into their behavior and following a Trump-like leader as well.
How does Trump’s movement meet the definition and criteria for a cult?
Destructive cults are authoritarian, pyramid-structured groups where there is often a charismatic or authoritarian leader at the top who commands total power and loyalty. Destructive cults also use deceptive recruitment and specific control of techniques. These techniques include behavior control, information control, thought control and emotional control to keep people dependent and obedient within that group’s structure.
The group really demands a pseudo-identity. It is not your real conscience or your real self. You become someone who is a tool of the leader, an instrument to be used or to be thrown away. Much of the manipulation, aside from telling the members, “You’re the chosen ones,” is about guilt and fear. It is actually a very unpleasant experience to be in one of these cult groups long-term.
In what specific ways does Trumpism fit that model?
Trump tells his followers not to listen to his critics or former members of the group — meaning people who have left his administration or otherwise no longer support this presidency and movement. Trump also tells his followers not to listen to other information if it is critical of him. Outside information is essential for reality-testing and how we as human beings make our own decisions and practice free will. Donald Trump also tells his followers that if you don’t follow him, terrible things are going to happen to you, the country and the world.
Trump tells his followers that the world will be overrun by evil people if they don’t support him. Donald Trump is a stereotypical cult leader like Lyndon LaRouche, who’s a political cult leader, or Sun Myung-moon, my former cult leader. Donald Trump is also like Jim Jones or David Koresh. It is clear when you consider Trump’s malignant narcissism and examine his speeches and writing.
If Trumpism is a type of cult, how does one go about deprogramming millions of people?
That is the main reason why I wrote my new book “The Cult of Trump.” I knew that the people who need the book the most are not going to read it. People in cults don’t think they’re in a cult. I felt like I needed to first start with those people who will listen and then learn that mind control is real. Brainwashing can take place. People are witnessing that very directly in America right now. Unfortunately, what is happening in America right now is that people who have family members or friends who have become Trumpists are now calling them names and cutting off contact from them.
This happens when someone’s loved one gets into Scientology or the Moonies or any number of other such groups. The family tries to convince them to leave the cult and when that doesn’t work, they cut off contact from their loved one.
To get your loved ones or friends out of Trump’s cult, you need to reach out to them strategically. Don’t start with saying how stupid you think the Trump cultists are. And I would also appeal to people who are Trumpists to stop being so hostile to people who do not support Donald Trump. To try to get people out of Trump’s cult we should first try to engage them in an intelligent conversation about the psychology of influence. We should also talk to Trumpists about how to better discern facts from opinions and beliefs.
One of the universal techniques that I teach my clients is that you want to focus on another group initially, and not the group in which the person you are trying to help is a member. Focus on China, for example, or some other country that is engaging in brainwashing of its population.
To extricate someone from a cult such as Trump’s, you should also ask the person to think about people who have lied to them or people who took advantage of them. Ask them to reflect on an experience where someone hired them and then refused to pay them. Would they want to work for someone like that again? Would they trust someone like that again?
In this moment with Donald Trump and his movement, we also need to have conversations based on love and respect to take control of the fact that we are on one planet together and our mutual survival or destruction depends on us ending this massive social and political polarization.
As a cult leader, how sophisticated is Donald Trump? How would you evaluate him?
Donald Trump has learned a great deal from “pickup artists” — the so-called PUAs — who understand how to hypnotically manipulate women in order to take advantage of them. Trump’s comments about grabbing a woman’s crotch regard what is known in hypnosis as a “pattern interruption.” Most women would be so shocked that anyone would dare to do such a thing that they then go into instant freeze mode. This then allows Trump or another pickup artist to hypnotically say, “I think you’re beautiful and you love me,” or something like that. This then allows the pickup artist to take sexual advantage of the woman they have targeted.
I do not believe that Donald Trump is very smart. I do not think that Donald Trump has an ability to focus on things in a very sustained way. Trump does not read. He is not committed to learning. What Trump is centered on is pleasure and personal enjoyment. He has a narcissistic need to have people around him telling him how great he is. I am also a firm believer that for many years Vladimir Putin, a former senior KGB officer, has been running a program to use and influence Donald Trump.
Trump is also being heavily influenced by billionaires in the fossil fuel industry and others who have a vested interest in establishing a right-wing Christian theocracy and/or a right-wing libertarian government, for example, who know that to get what they want from Donald Trump all they have to do is stroke his ego.
What is the role of sexual predation in terms of a cult leader like Donald Trump?
When people ask me to tell them about cult leaders, I say “Power, money and sex.” Not necessarily in that order. But power, money and sex are almost always all involved. I doubt someone like Donald Trump actually enjoys sex. For Trump, sex is more of an extension of power. It is all a game and another conquest for someone like him.
Cult leaders like Donald Trump do not have a clue about empathy, which is the basis for genuine love. Trump is not able to imagine himself as another person and to think about their feelings. This allows Trump to validate the worst parts of human nature among his supporters.
They see Trump and his behavior and then say to themselves, “Oh, I wish I could have said something like that.” Donald Trump is validating a very dark side of selfishness and greed. This is very unhealthy for human beings. It most certainly is unhealthy for a society to encourage such values.
Trump continues to threaten violence. He has publicly said that leading Democrats such as Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Adam Schiff and others are “traitors” or have committed treason. The punishment for treason is death. Trump keeps talking about a “civil war” and saying that he is a victim of a “coup”. He encourages violence by his followers — and they have followed through on his commands. This seems like so much projection. Trump is blaming other people for those things he knows he is guilty of.
I agree. It is a form of psychological projection. Who knows if Trump will ever be put on trial and found guilty for treason? The facts overwhelmingly show that Donald Trump is not honoring his oath to the Constitution and to the American people.
Trump’s violent threats are an example of fear indoctrination and phobia indoctrination for his supporters.
So the question then becomes, when Donald Trump is making these violent threats, what is going on in the minds of the people who are around him? Are Trump’s inner circle, his followers and other supporters really willing to commit murder for Donald Trump? Will his followers go that far for him?
I was once in an impromptu meeting with Sun Myung-moon when he said the following, “When we take power in America, we will amend the Constitution and make it a capital offense for people to have sex with people other than those assigned to them by the church. We’ll be doing them a favor by taking their physical bodies away from them, sending them to the spiritual world where they can be restored later.” And my immediate reaction was, “Yes, father. Makes sense, father.”
That moment plagued me for years after getting out of the group. I had been indoctrinated that far against my own values. I was a pacifist. I protested against the Vietnam War and against the military-industrial complex. And yet there I was saying, “Yep, mass genocide so we can take over the world for God. Great idea.” All I can say is that people who are indoctrinated that far can in fact be brought back to reality. They can become citizens who are ethical. I’m a model of that.
Let’s assume that Trump either resigns or is somehow forced out of office. What will that do to his supporters? Will they lash out? Or will Trump’s supporters turn that rage inward against themselves?
Unfortunately, my experience is that people often stay on automatic pilot for years after being in a cult. Trump’s supporters are an easy target for another country, whether it’s Russia or Iran or China or some other hostile country that wants to sow division in the United States. Unfortunately, I think that Trump’s supporters are going to be a great danger to the rest of us in this country for some time.