Donald Trump Has More in Common with a Cult Leader Than You Might Think

Let's review: Donald Trump is a petit-fascist and aspiring demagogue who has threatened violence against his political enemies and shows no respect for the rule of law. He lies persistently and repeatedly, about matters small and large, in an effort to create a malignant new reality. Trump's policies, and those of the Republican Party that overwhelmingly backs him, have hurt the American people, particularly those in the "white working class" who support him most enthusiastically.

Despite his many character deficits and failures of leadership, Donald Trump appears to control the opinions of about 35 percent of the American people. There seems to be almost nothing he could do to weaken their support of him (including, as he has himself observed, committing murder in broad daylight). These are all the attributes of a political cult leader.

Is it possible to free Trump's supporters from his Rasputin-like control over them? What is the source of his charismatic power? Is he really akin to a cult leader, or merely an old-fashioned American con artist? How does the Trump cult (if that's what it is) threaten American democracy? Did Trump glean any insights into human psychology from growing up in a church whose leaders and members practiced mind control techniques such as "thought stopping"?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Steven Hassan, an expert on mind control and cults. Hassan is the author of several books, including "Combating Cult Mind Control" and "Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults, and Beliefs."

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. A longer version of this conversation can also be heard on my podcast, which is available on Salon’s Featured Audio page.

Chauncey DeVega: Much has been written about Donald Trump's mental health. But the mental health of his followers has not been discussed in as much detail. What is your take on this political moment?

Steven Hassan: Donald Trump fits the stereotypical profile of a cult leader. His followers fit the model as well. Many of them, especially the ones that say, “He could do anything and we would still believe him, we would still follow him,” sound like people who have been indoctrinated into a totalistic mindset.

Trump's strategies of fear programming, redefining reality and defining independent journalism as "fake news" mirrors a country on the verge of a totalitarian takeover.

CD: Why do you think there has been so much resistance from many people in the political or media classes to engaging in direct discussion of Trump's cult-like control over his public?

SH: People think, It can never happen to me—only the weak or the stupid and the uneducated could fall for that. In fact, everybody is vulnerable. Once a person engages in a set of behaviors—even something as simple as voting for someone— the tendency is to want to have confirmation bias. You want to believe that you made the right decision. To maintain that belief a given person will systematically ignore information which challenges the bias.

CD: How do we separate enthusiastic support for a leader from the attributes of a cult or cult leader?

SH: There are definite characteristics which define the difference between an ethical leader versus someone who is unethical.

One of the things is lying, for example. When a leader says, “The weather was great during the inauguration,” but everybody who was there got wet and the National Weather Service said it rained, the leader is wrong and therefore is lying. When there’s a big, loud, repeated lie, the average person tends to defer and say, “Well, maybe I got it wrong" or "Maybe where he was, it wasn’t rainy at all.”

There are other aspects such as narcissism, where people are not operating out of real relationships, but more in a compensatory relationship of wanting to look good in their own mind. Thus, when they’re accused of being abusive to women they make claims such as, “Nobody respects women more than me,” or “I never said that I was grabbing a woman’s genitals,” even though he was recorded and the person that recorded him was there.

The characteristics of a cult leader are that they want people to be loyal. They want people to be obedient. They want people to do whatever they’re told and they often will fire anybody who questions their judgment or authority. There is also a very low toleration for dissent. When somebody can’t admit that they were wrong or that they lied and then apologize, that’s another characteristic of cult leaders. They think they’re above the law, they think they’re God on earth, and they expect everyone to just merge into what their definition of reality is.

CD: How would Trump fit into that model? Is he a con artist or a cult leader? He clearly has attributes of both. 

SH: There is a real difference between con artists and cult leaders. Con artists want the money and they want to get out. They get a lot of it, but they don’t want to stick around. Whereas cult leaders, they are addicted to power. They want fame. They want money. They want sex. If you study some of the biggest cult leaders, they were once members of cults themselves. The prototypical cult leader is male -- although there are a number of women.  They also have a feeling of insecure attachment to their mother and father. For their entire lives they are compensating for that lack of sense of self by getting praise and kudos from the outside world.

In Trump’s case, he was raised in the church of Norman Vincent Peale, where doubting was considered evil. If you believe 100 percent, then God will grant your blessings. This was also a very prosperity-oriented church where "thought stopping" was practiced. This is a type of mind control technique.

Now in the case of the "power of positive thinking," Peale and his church taught that God is going to give you a blessing.  If you doubt it, that’s sin. That’s Satan. You have to block that negative thought.

When you are in a mind-control cult that says negative thoughts are not permissible, you only allow positive thoughts. What happens then is you lose the ability to do any reality testing. You’re stuck with only conscious positive thoughts about the leader, the doctrine and the group. All doubts and questions are buried into the unconscious.

CD: How do loneliness and despair figure into the rise of Trumpism? Those are powerful factors in both cult formation and organized religion. 

SH: People that do not have a strong network of friends and family who can watch their back and say, “Hey, you’re getting emotionally involved with a person who has been lying and cheating and harming every other person they’ve been in a relationship with -- do your homework and find out more about their past,” are very vulnerable. Good friends will watch out for each other and say, “Hey, there’s danger.”

Information overload will make people more vulnerable to undue influence as well. If you want to mind-control someone, confuse them, and if you want to confuse them quickly, say an untruth as if it was the truth, or vice versa.

CD: During the presidential campaign, Trump said that he could shoot somebody in the street in broad daylight and his people would still support him. He was absolutely right—there is a cult of personality around Trump. How would you try to convince Trump's supporters to leave him? Is it possible to deprogram them?

SH: I wrote a book called “Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults, and Beliefs.” There I offered a model for how to help someone get out of a destructive cult or away from a controlling person. These methods would apply to people who are Trump believers as well. What you don’t want to do is call them names or say they’re stupid or they’re closed-minded. You also do not want to cut off contact and no longer be their friend.

If you want to influence someone who’s been unduly influenced, you need contact with them. You also want to build rapport and trust. Focus on areas that you can agree on. You want to open yourself up by saying, “Teach me. Share with me why I should change my beliefs to be more like yours.” Once the person starts telling you their point of view, then you say, “May I try something on you? I want to get your feedback and share another point of view.”

You want to get to the point where you say, “Look, if someone’s legitimate, they’ll stand up to scrutiny if something is true. Would you want to follow someone that you can’t trust, and who will betray you?" People will say, “Oh, no. I would never be with someone that’s going to betray me.”

You basically are walking people through a psycho-educational set of experiences based on your respecting them, being thoughtful and kind, listening with them, sharing things that you have in common and letting them tell you what else needs to happen for them to wake up or to consider talking to ex-believers -- a group, by the way, who are always demonized by mind-control cults.

CD: What gives you hope for the future? What are you afraid of?

SH: What gives me hope is that there are journalists, activists and others who still have the courage to stand up against bullies and totalitarians. What frightens me is that the most powerful person on earth, Donald Trump, the president of the United States, could unilaterally declare a war and then impose martial law.

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