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“So Many Great, Educated, Functional People Were Brainwashed”: Can Trump’s Cult of Followers Be Deprogrammed?

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, Hitler 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.

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