After January 6, 2021, public rhetoric about Donald Trump as cult leader has escalated, but such discussions aren’t new. Trump’s obvious narcissism, his penchant for repetitive and slogan-ridden language, and his political rallies that play more like tent revival meetings certainly meet criteria for defining a charismatic leader. I’m using the term “charismatic leader” in the sense of a leader who draws many followers. I’m not likely to invite Trump, Keith Raniere, or David Miscavige out for steaks, and I suspect neither are you. Nonetheless, many have plugged into their messages deeply.
Much has been written about Trump’s state of mind and his supporters’ dispositions. Bandy X. Lee M.D., for example, joined with 36 other mental-health professionals to step beyond the Goldwater Rule – an ethical standard that dictates against psychiatrists, therapists, and social workers offering opinions about public figures they haven’t examined – because the duty to warn outweighs this proscription. You can explore their thoughts by reading The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President (2019). Two years later, Lee and company’s worries have been validated.
Another book appeared that same year, Steven Hassan’s The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control. Hassan’s been helping “deprogram” individuals from cults for decades now, his motivation stemming from his own two-year stint with Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. In an interview with Sean Illing of Vox, Hassan clarifies why he wrote this book:
I began this book with the assumption that Trump is a malignant narcissist. Actually, watching him and listening to him reminded me of Sun Myung Moon, the leader of the cult I joined in college, in that both have a kind of God complex where they’re the only one with the answers, the only one who can fix things. Moon was going to create a theocracy and Trump was going to “drain the swamp.” But the way they carry themselves is similar.
But what really made me think of Trump as a cult was the way the groups who supported him were behaving, especially religious groups who believed that God had chosen Trump or was using Trump. There are actual pro-Trump religious groups, like the New Apostolic Reformation, whose leaders were saying, “We’re of God. The rest of the world is of Satan, and we need to follow our chosen leaders who are connected to God.”
Hassan frames his analyses within findings from others who have influenced how we define cults – Robert Jay Lifton, Janja Lalich, Margaret Singer, and Robert Cialdini – along with his BITE model (Behavior, Information, Thought, and Emotion). He also explores how Trump employs hypnotic techniques such as repetition to sway audiences. Media outlets including Fox News, the One American News Network, and Newsmax have given Trump a broad voice, and Twitter was a legendary platform for his messaging.
Hassan wants us to understand these techniques, because he wants us to consider our own well-beings. What makes us susceptible to thought reform? Have we cornered ourselves into limited sources of information that hinder freethinking? I once spent a summer reading books by Ann Coulter, Ralph Reed, David Horowitz, and, yes, Rush Limbaugh. I went into it heavily biased toward leftist progressivism, but with a need to understand the other side. I came away understanding what I’ll loosely term their “points of view” and how they manipulate the emotions and perceptions of their audiences. I mean, Ann Coulter really can write well even if she’s full of crap. After all that, I’m still leftist but more hip to demagogic, mind-screw games. Additionally, I see how individuals and groups from outside the rightwing play these games too. Broad reading enhances critical thinking . . . who could have imagined?
All cults have one central feature in common. They strip away freedom of thought and realign ideas with those of the leader. Hassan applies his BITE model, but even more revelatory is his discussion of how hypnotic techniques such as repetition, subliminal messages, programming amnesia, and even guided meditation can be highly effective in swaying followers.
Do we have a Trump cult, or has Trump merely provided a means to an end for those with authoritarian agendas? Both. I’ve observed where grifters – far-right politicians, evangelical leaders, and white supremacists — have taken advantage of trends set loose before and after Trump’s election without sacrificing any self-autonomy. MAGA members also have criticized their leader when he’s seemed to step away from the movement’s message. After telling insurrectionists to “go home” on January 6, one supporter local to the San Francisco Bay Area who wasn’t in Washington tweeted, “Trump cucked,” even if Trump did go out of his way to tell his crowd that he loved them and that they were special people. He’s a useful tool for some, but I’ve also witnessed those awash with blind faith and cognitive dissonance regarding Trump, whose selves have been completely subsumed by his message. Our leader says election results have been falsified, so let’s invade the Capitol with no thought about consequences, because Trump, Trump, Trump!!!!
But . . . if the Trump Movement is a cult, then how much culpability do red-cap and Confederate-flag-waving insurrectionists have for January 6, 2021? Hassan spends the final portion of his book outlining how to help those who have been trapped into cults. He believes that honest, loving conversations with friends or families can bring them back to freethinking. Also, exposing them to various points of view through film and books to enhance questioning will further the process from cemented adherence. These are the techniques Hassan suggests individuals practice while fostering open minds.
I imagine many raising their brows while reading Hassan’s suggestions for extracting others from thought reform. I’m not feeling magnanimous toward MAGA followers myself. And, again, we have the question of culpability. Hassan never brings up, say, the Manson Family murders, or other crimes committed by cultic groups. These, to be fair, are beyond the scope of Cult of Trump, but if we do define Trumpism as a cult, does that open the door for leniency in the courts for the storming of the Capitol? It didn’t for the Mansons, and it shouldn’t here.
The Cult of Trump is a good starting point for those wanting to learn more about cults from an interventionist’s angle. I’d also suggest Cults Inside Out: How People Get in and Can Get Out by Rick Alan Ross, and for theoretical underpinnings there’s Robert Jay Lifton’s magisterial Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China. “New religious movements” is another term for the subject and many worthy volumes exist using this less-weighted phrasing. It’s all worth your time, learning how to dodge hustlers and narcissists.