Deprogramming from Authoritarian cults (general or Trump)
“SO MANY GREAT, EDUCATED, FUNCTIONAL PEOPLE WERE BRAINWASHED”: CAN TRUMP’S CULT OF FOLLOWERS BE DEPROGRAMMED?
As the president’s conspiracy theories start to unspool with his departure from office, cult expert Steven Hassan, a former Moonie and the author of The Cult of Trump, believes there’s hope—if the way Americans consume information undergoes a radical change.
BY JOE HAGAN
JANUARY 21, 2021
So Many Great Educated Functional People Were Brainwashed Can Trumps Cult of Followers Be Deprogrammed
BY MARK PETERSON/REDUX.
The term “cult” gets thrown around a lot to describe the intense passion of Donald Trump’s followers—but is it accurate? For Steven Hassan, a former Moonie turned cult expert and author of The Cult of Trump, the answer is decidedly yes. Trump, he holds, has all the characteristics of a cult leader, and his followers the qualities of a cult, from the all-consuming devotion to a single malignant narcissist to the daily consumption of “alternative facts” to immunize them against cognitive dissonance (a.k.a. reality).
It’s a frightening prospect to consider millions of Americans being brainwashed by a reality-TV celebrity with a now defunct Twitter feed. Though his departure from office has certainly shaken some of his most conspiracy-addled devotees, others are doubling down, insistent that Joe Biden’s inauguration is all part of Trump’s plan, or determined to follow him as he promises to “be back in some form.” And certainly not all of them will appreciate the somewhat condescending designation of “cult member.” The question is whether Trump’s followers can be “deprogrammed” the same way that, say, followers of Sun Myung Moon or L. Ron Hubbard have been.
Hassan says they can be, but the process will require not only empathy and individual family involvement but a wholesale change in how social media and information systems separate fact from dangerous fictions. “I would put undue influence or mind control as the number-two most important thing that we address for the planet,” he says. “Because otherwise authoritarianism, using social media, is a threat.” What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Vanity Fair: You’ve written a book that makes the case that, if we define a cult correctly, this is in fact a cult—that some of Trump’s supporters who we saw at this attempted coup last week have the hallmarks of that. Tell me about how you define a cult and how it is that you see Trump’s devotees as a cult.
Steven Hassan: My thoughts about cults is that you can have a cult that’s benign or even positive, or you can have a destructive authoritarian cult. When I talk about the cult of Trump, I’m talking about a destructive authoritarian cult. This is defined by four overlapping components that I referred to as the BITE model of authoritarian control. The b of BITE stands for behavior control. Then the i is information control. Thought control is the t, and e is emotional control. My definition of an authoritarian cult is these four components are used to change the person into a mirror or a clone of the cult, that is dependent and obedient. As a mental health professional, we think of that as a dissociative disorder. Where the person’s real self is still there, it’s just suppressed. This new identity has taken over, and thought-stopping mechanisms and phobias are installed in the cult identity to keep it in control.
What would be considered a positive cult?
Quick funny story. Many years ago I was interviewed by a writer of a book who said his editor told him to interview me. I said, “What’s the book on?’ He said computers. I said, “That’s weird, what’s the title?” He said, The Cult of Mac. And I laughed. I said, “Well, I will do the interview, but I need to disclose I’ve only been using Apple since 1982, and I have five iMacs and four iPhones, etcetera.” I’m in a book called The Cult of Mac. But I’m also an avid scuba diver. There are people who are really passionate followers of actors, actresses, rock music. I do believe people can be in all kinds of cultish types of groups where there’s high passion, but the key is there’s informed consent. They know what they’re getting into. They’re allowed to question, they’re allowed to talk to critics and former members, and they’re allowed to leave without the fear that if they exit terrible things are going to happen to them.
The difference between a hobbyist or a passion, what we might simply call a nerd, gets a little squishy. I’m really into collecting records, but I don’t consider myself a record cultist per se. Were the Nazis a cult?
Yeah, ****** and the Nazis absolutely were a political cult. In my definition of a destructive cult, the stereotypical profile of cult leaders is malignant narcissism. This is different from leaders of healthier groups, where they believe in respecting people’s free will and their conscience. With malignant narcissists, it’s all about them, there’s no empathy. The malignant part is they think they’re above the law. They think nothing of making threats or committing violence. They’re also often paranoid, they don’t trust anybody. In my book, in chapter three, I compare Donald Trump with Jim Jones and L. Ron Hubbard of Scientology, as well as Sun Myung Moon, the leader of a cult that I was in for two and a half years.
You’ve said in the past that Trump is “mentally ill.” Cult leaders themselves may be deluded or suffering from some mental pathology of some kind.
I would argue that cult leaders typically did not have a healthy childhood. They have what’s called an insecure attachment disorder. In Trump’s case, we know his father was an authoritarian who used to tell him and his brother things like, “you are a killer, you are a king, you are a killer, you are a king,” over and over again. He was raised in a Norman Vincent Peale’s church, where you’re told to believe something 100% and it will magically be delivered by God, and any doubts are viewed as bad. He was trained to do thought-stopping from his childhood, about any doubts, any negative thoughts. I will generalize and say most cult leaders that I’ve studied were in a cult themselves previously. It isn’t just that the average citizen looks at cult leaders and they go “con man” or “con artist,” as if they were just criminals and knew exactly what they were doing. Cult leaders are much more dangerous because they have a delusion. They have incorrect wiring operating in their brain for conscience and empathy and reality testing and respect for others, as well as respect for the rule of law.
Have people objected to this concept of you calling him mentally ill or assessing him that way? You’re not a psychiatrist. How do you come to that conclusion scientifically for yourself?
I am a licensed mental health counselor. I’ve had extensive training over the decades by some of the top professionals in the field. I’m not doing a clinical diagnosis. In fact, in the DSM-5 of the American Psychiatric Association, they don’t even have a category for malignant narcissism. They just have narcissistic personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder, and such. I’m making an assessment based on his behavior, what he has said and what he has done, very systematically over a very long period of time.
It is interesting that there are psychiatrists, some forensic psychiatrists like Bandy X. Lee who edited The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, who have stepped into that zone of saying, well, she hasn’t seen him in person to evaluate him. But her job as a forensic psychiatrist with an expertise on dangerousness is usually based on not seeing the person in-person, but based on what they say and what they do. When somebody says I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and kill someone and my followers will still believe in me or follow me, that is a classic statement of someone who is dangerous.
When Trump was on Air Force One on his way to Texas, he reportedly was repeatedly saying to the people traveling with him, “I won [the election], I won.” It made me think he’s unaware of his own pathology.
I agree, and he’s surrounded by enablers who validate him or are fired. That’s another feature of a cult persona: They’re surrounded by true believers. Again, if anybody says, “Oops, nope, you lost,” they’re gone. I want to point out this chanting in his head of “I won, I won”—this is, I believe, from his childhood, where he was trained to not allow negative thoughts and to keep focusing on the magical thought, which is that he won.
Another analysis of Trump is that he’s a great marketer, a great brander, a celebrity. The definition of a cult is difficult to nail down in some ways. He’s not a religious figure, although there are members of his base who see him in a messianic light. He’s almost like a sports team or a pop star. There’s almost a level at which celebrity itself has a cult-like devotional quality to it.
I think celebrities do have cult followings. The question is, are these people deceived and are they being exploited? Is their fundamental personality and belief system being changed, and are they being alienated from family and friends? I really want to emphasize that, in my 44-year career, I’ve seen that a lot of people think only of religious cults; they don’t think of political cults, or they don’t think of commercial cults. For example, I believe pimps and traffickers are leaders of commercial cults, and that multilevel marketing groups are commercial cults. There are also psychotherapists, even licensed ones, that can act in an authoritarian, cultish manner by making their clients completely dependent on them and isolating them from family and friends.
The solution, in my opinion, to this incredibly intense polarization that we’re experiencing, is a massive education about [the difference between] ethical influence and unethical influence. What’s ethical hypnosis and what’s unethical hypnosis? This education will help people be able to assess and discriminate and discern what’s true and what’s evidence-based, and what is disinformation or propaganda or just the hypnotic belief that was installed in their minds at 2 a.m. while they were watching a YouTube video.
That gets into something else relating to brands and sports teams: There’s money involved. There’s a whole arm of the media committed to the deceptions of the authoritarian. In this particular case, we’re talking about Fox News. Even this morning there are people on Fox continuing to propagate the election fraud lie.
I would like to just comment and say that all destructive cult leaders are after basically three things, and this is stereotype, but power, money, and sex. I would put it in that order. Not every single cult leader that I’ve studied wants sex, and some do not care about money, but they’re all addicted to power. But they all have their own propaganda mechanisms or machines. My former cult owns the Washington Times newspaper and has many other media outlets around the world. In the case of Donald Trump, his co-opting of the Republican Party and winning Rupert Murdoch and his empire over—it was a financial thing, I believe, for Murdoch. I know that he didn’t like or trust Donald Trump beforehand. But it was, I think, a very cynical use of him at the detriment of the public. Part of what I discuss in The Cult of Trump book is the laws that were passed that took away the checks and balances, to make sure that media companies were operating for the public good, that they were just entertainment, it’s okay to lie as long as we have our advertisers—that needs to change in my opinion.
I had forgotten that the Moonies owned The Washington Times; it’s ironic that one cult-based organization is supporting another.
I was an expert witness for a House subcommittee investigation into Korean CIA activities in the U.S. The Moonies [had ties to] the Korean CIA. What I later learned was the founder of the KCIA said that he organized and utilized the Moonies as political tools. What’s interesting to me is so many Trump believers are critical of the Deep State and can cite MK-Ultra and Operation Mockingbird and Paperclip, which are all valid. I believe that I was involved with MK-Ultra 2.0, which was basically some people in the CIA saying, Well, North Korea is brainwashing people, South Korea has had two coups, they’re very unstable, we need to find a proxy group to brainwash people in South Korea to keep it stable.
After Americans were withdrawing from the Vietnam War, somebody said, Let’s bring the Moonies to the U.S. and fight Communists on campuses, which is where I got recruited. It’s not happenstance. I could also add that Moon was brought from the National Prayer Breakfast, which is operated by a group called the Family, that Jeff Sharlet has written brilliantly about. Moon was brought to meet Nixon during Watergate. I, along with several hundred Moonies, were sent to fast on the Capitol steps in 1974 because God wanted Nixon to be president, or so said Moon.
Moon was disappointed that Nixon resigned a couple of days later. The whole mindset of taking over the government, that the government was Satanic, that God needs to run the government, that we need to infiltrate Congress and the Senate—that was openly talked [about] in the leadership meetings when I was in the cult in the 1970s. What we’re seeing today is more of this infiltration through a number of different authoritarian cults into world events.
That’s remarkable. In your analysis of cults, there’s something called the “authentic self” versus the “false self.” The false self is the adopted cult identity. In this case, we talk about the Deep State and the Trumpian alternate reality, a whole mythology built around QAnon. Tell me a little bit about that—about what happens when you become a devotee.
In chapter seven of The Cult of Trump, I talk about who I think are the main influencers manipulating and controlling Trump and directing policy. In chapter eight I talk about what I see as the main following groups. This was before I understood the depths of the targeting [of Facebook groups] by intelligence operatives of Russia and the Christian right, who I believe are—we will find out there are connections between those two. Targeting specific interests groups, whether the person is antiabortion or progun or white identity, Jewish right. Not everyone was like Steve Hassan in the Moonies, where I had a complete radical personality change.
I would say that a lot of Trump’s supporters are very much looking at media from that biased sphere: Fox News, Breitbart News, etcetera. But I think that once that changes, only a small percentage will be going to the dark web or to other media outlets to absorb disinformation. I’m predicting that of the 74 million, in terms of the real hard-core mind-control cultist, I think we’re probably looking at 10 to 30 million. I do believe that people don’t like to be lied to and they don’t like to be exploited, that if we do a massive effort to reach out, connect, and educate folks, we can get the majority of people out of this, and hopefully inoculated from any other authoritarian cults that may come along.
What you’re proposing is a tall order. How do we deprogram that many people? Plenty of politicians out there will try to prevent that from happening. You don’t have everybody on board. You don’t have Fox News on your side, or OANN or Newsmax. My question is, does the deprogramming have to be done via their own media networks, or is it up to us to reprogram these people one at a time on the ground?
It’s going to take more than me, but I have a lot of knowledge about what works and what doesn’t. The most important thing is activating and educating people who don’t like Trump to understand that they need to start building bridges back to their family and friends who are into Trump and apologize if they called them nasty names. Just say, “I miss you, you’re my brother,” or “I miss you, you’re my uncle. Can’t we just be in each other’s lives?” At least at the beginning to restore the memories of the good times before they even knew of Trump. I have a whole book called Freedom of Mind, which I wrote to guide family and friends to help loved ones involved with authoritarian cults.
The bottom line in my experience is that mind control is not 100%, but getting the person to take a time out from the constant influence that’s coming through smartphones and digital media is going to be critical. When people have asked me if it’s good that Trump was thrown off of Twitter and Facebook and YouTube, I answer emphatically yes. Because we need to do what’s within our control to protect people from this constant reinforcement and indoctrination. But the bottom line has to be what’s factual. There’s been an assault for years on truth, on science, on experts, and even on institutions—something called fourth-generation warfare, which is psychological warfare aimed at confusing, disorienting, numbing, delegitimizing leaders and institutions. This has been practiced from without by our enemies, as well as from within by the Christian right, neo-Nazis, and other people with authoritarian goals. The cure to fourth-generation warfare is outing it, and explaining to everybody this is an intentional psychological warfare technique.
You talk about building bridges back to loved ones—a bridge back to people who may be “too far gone” into this. Obviously you don’t want to use the word cult with them. How do people react when they’re told they’re in a cult? As a former Moonie, probably the first line of communication shouldn’t be, “Yes, you’re in a cult and we want to get you out.”
One hundred percent, and what I’ve received systematically is attacks that I am actually the one in the cult. That I’m in the cult of George Soros and the liberals and etcetera. To which I say, “How interesting, really? Educate me. What definition are you using?” The idea is to create alliances, to be respectful, to not be condescending, arrogant, judgmental, and join with them to say, “Look, I’m a good person, I love America, I want to help. If I’m missing something that you know about, please inform me.” When you have that frame, it disarms the black and white, all or nothing indoctrination that I’m the enemy. It also means being a good listener and being able to repeat back to them what their beliefs are, not that you agree with their beliefs. Then asking them if they can verbalize your beliefs.
Again, it’s a matter of, on a very human basis, joining together in a pursuit of what’s real and what’s going to help. Family and friends are the most powerful agents if they understand what works and what doesn’t work, what to do and what not to do. But we need to do other massive things like preventive education in schools. My son is in high school now, and he has a class where they’re teaching young people how to discern healthy websites and unhealthy websites. We need to have a much more formalized education in schools. We need to train mental health professionals. We need to train law enforcement. We need to teach media. We need to teach politicians.
The internet itself is changing the human species. Because we’re spending so much time on the web, our brains are getting influenced by the platforms, by the methodology. The truth is, people need seven to nine hours of sleep to function properly. One of the universal mind-control techniques of authoritarian cults is sleep deprivation. I believe the average sleep for Americans is six hours or six-point something instead of seven to nine hours, which means that they need more sleep. People need to be in nature and not just sitting inside.
About 100 yards from my house is a family with a Trump sign in their yard. They’ve kept it there even after the election. Every time I pass it, I feel their antagonism. So my question is, how could I possibly approach such people, who I don’t know that well, about this sign? How do you go about deprogramming people you barely know?
The people who are in the best position to influence, in a good way, are family and friends who have a longer history with the person. They have an [personal] arc, depending on how estranged they’ve become. The frame is critical—not to buy into the cult frame, How can you believe the election was stolen? You take the frame of, Tell me more about why you believe the election was stolen. Because if all the information I’m seeing is wrong, I’d want to correct it. What is it that you’ve seen that has convinced you? Aside from seeing it on TV, what actual evidence do you have access to that would be persuasive? You’re putting the verdict on them to convince you of their position versus you trying to argue them out of their position. But stay in the truth frame. We just want to know what’s really going on. If I’ve been deceived by the left-wing media, I want to know about it.
If they’re not a family member, should I not engage directly?
You can. I would start with a smile and an offer to buy them a coffee. It comes down to, who was this person before they were a Trumper? I’ve encountered so many great, educated, functional people who were brainwashed, so the issue is how to get them back to who they were before they got sucked into this rabbit hole.
With Trumpers, what I’ve had the most success with is talking about Chinese Communist brainwashing, and about traffickers and pimps and how they use brainwashing on victims. By giving them the BITE model, you’re giving them a frame to step back and look at what they’re into. And the assumption is that deep down inside, people want to know the truth.
Have you personally deprogrammed a Trump follower?
I work with family and friends. I’ve only been hired once by a man whose wife got into QAnon, and she met with me, she likes me, we covered a lot of ground. I focused on building their relationship as a couple because they have young kids. She got recruited by the same people who do the Epoch Times. She agreed to stop going to all the sites and she said, I will know whether or not QAnon is BS when Trump is in his second term. I’m waiting until Wednesday to contact her.
I wonder what vacuum this stuff has filled. What made these people so susceptible to these messages? Is it that Trump came along and offered an alternate reality that created order where there had evidently not been order for people? A sense of like, you’re bored at home, you’ve lost your job, you’re feeling empty, and here’s an entire fulfillment system. It’s got a leader and you can just follow all the precepts and you’re set.
I would argue, as I did in The Cult of Trump book, that ever since Edward Bernays wrote his 1928 book, Propaganda—he was the nephew of Freud; he was the first to connect psychology with business and politics—there has been an increasing attention with advertisers, with corporations, with governments in understanding how to manipulate human consciousness. It’s one thing to say, How do we get people to buy something that they don’t even need? What are the principles of influence that will work? We’ll have the sexy woman or the handsome sexy guy, or we’ll have the celebrity person. There are so many, there are hundreds of influence techniques that are now known.
Trump is the symptom of decades of the systematic breakdown of laws and checks and balances, and the increasing sophistication of how to manipulate people in large groups. One thing that needs to happen, and I don’t know if it will, but the intelligence agencies need to make some type of public statement that yes, people can be radicalized. Good people can be made into killers and we know how to do it and here it is, this is the system. Because it’s not magical. If we don’t educate everybody about these techniques, the people who know the techniques are going to have an unfair advantage over all the people who don’t know the techniques.
I’m sure you’ve seen it, this BBC documentarian made an entire movie about Bernays—
Adam Curtis? Century of the Self?
Excellent film. What I want to emphasize is we’re in a desperate situation as a planet and as a species. We need to think of survival as mutual survival. Because we now understand if a nuclear reactor floods as it did during the tsunami in Japan, all of that contamination goes into the ocean and comes to the U.S. When the pandemic appears in one location, it’s going to go everywhere. This idea that we need to be isolated and care only about us is detrimental to the survival of our species and the planet because the global climate crisis is real. We can’t allow the fossil fuel countries and individuals to perpetuate disinformation that climate change is a hoax, because it’s not a hoax, it’s science. This is a grave existential danger to the planet. I would put undue influence or mind control as the number two most important thing that we address for the planet. Because otherwise authoritarianism using A.I., using social media, is a threat.
Let’s talk about Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, who are about to be inaugurated. Trump, we assume, we hope, will be marginalized, his voice will be diminished in the public sphere. How much do you think that change that will diminish and possibly disinter some people from this cultish devotion to Trump?
I think it’s going to be huge. I think there’s a lot of Americans who believe in supporting the office of the president. The fact that Joe Biden has been around and worked in a bipartisan way, I think will be a positive. But the attacks on them are going to escalate. The enemies of democracy will keep going as much as we’ll allow them to. We need people of integrity, people who love America, people who are willing to put country first and not party to be speaking up.
I was part of a documentary that is still not completed, put together by Melissa Jo Peltier. She has interviewed Joe Walsh and David Weissman and so many former Trumpers who are bright and so articulate. We need to amplify the voices of former Trumpers. We need to get Christian ministers who actually believe in the Bible and actually believe in Jesus and Jesus’s message. We need to amplify their voices. Because in my opinion, the media has really done a disservice by continuing to call Trump’s base Christian Evangelicals. The Christian Evangelicals I know say that those folks are dominionists or Christian nationalists or prosperity ministers or con artists, and not following the Bible and not following Jesus.
I really think we have to get back to some basics like “don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you”—basic morality. I believe people who are former cult members like myself, our voices, former neo-Nazis, former people who are in these New Apostolic Reformation churches that are authoritarian, their voices need to be amplified and normalized. A group of my friends and colleagues are attempting a hashtag movement called #IGotOut, to attempt to copy the #MeToo success. Where if we can destigmatize the fact that we were in an authoritarian cult and life goes on after leaving, it can create a bigger exit ramp for people who’ve been caught up in the cult of Trump.
I follow David Weissman on Twitter, and he’s talked a lot about his escape from the Trump cult.
We need more people courageously speaking up in a coherent message. But again, what’s missing is the bigger frame. People don’t understand how to discern authoritarian cults from not-authoritarian cults, which I’m hoping my models and all of my hard work over 44 years will help [with].
It seems like the next year or two will be spent doing the hard work of creating guardrails in our information systems for distinguishing fact from fiction.
I would just add that part of the problem, in my opinion, in the United States is the inequities between the über-rich and the average citizen. The breaking down of the checks and balances put on politics when the Supreme Court affirmed Citizens United, which also opened the doors to all kinds of Americans being fronts for foreign governments to pour money into certain politicians to do their bidding. I think we need to get rid of [Citizens United]. I think we should have a set amount of money for every politician running for an office. Clean up in a very big way.
Money is the great enabler of a political cult leader in this particular environment.
Yeah, and on both sides. I want to be clear—I hear from Trumpers saying, “What about the left? Don’t they have cults too?” I’m like, “Yes, they do.” I’m against authoritarianism on the left or the right. I’m a human rights guy. I’m a mental health professional who wants people to live fulfilling lives.
The reason trump won fair and square in '16 was the same reason he lost fair and square in '20: Swing voters. It was not "trump cultists" who earned him his first victory; what some call "trump cultists" were in fact basic-bitch republican loyalists who would've endorsed any candidate their party led with.
He presented himself as enough of a genuine outsider in 2016 that the skeptical swing-voting population was willing to take a risk with him, even despite all the wedge-issues linked to him at the time; and by '20, he'd proven them wrong, and they didn't get fooled a second time. The swing-voters are those whose voice is most valuable and decisive in a democracy; if you're still fighting for trump this late in the battle no matter what, it just means you're something that's been with us all along: a generic republican.
I don't really care about the Q cult, though. It's a dumb piece of esoteric counterculture.