IT WAS TIME FOR another pep talk to the troops of Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr. His followers were preoccupied with a series of frightening crises worldwide that they believed were all somehow related: the AIDS epidemic, Latin American bank debts, the indictment of LaRouche's followers, the group's telephone lines being cut for not paying the bill.

"Clearly, we are in a period of extremely intense crisis," top LaRouche aide Nancy Spannaus told his 700 or so worldwide followers in a confidential telex message several months ago. "Lyn could be indicted, he could be in jail, he could be in Timbuktu -- but if. . .people KNOW WHERE THE PERSON WITH THE ANSWERS ON THIS PROBLEM IS -- then they will know that they have to find LaRouche . . . . They will turn to Lyn at a point of extreme crisis, as long as Lyn is ALIVE."

It was vintage LaRouche stuff: The world is on the verge of destruction and only Lyndon LaRouche can save it, but only if the Justice Department doesn't ASSASSINATE him first.

The tension level in the LaRouche camp is understandably high lately because LaRouche and 13 associates are scheduled to go on trial in Boston on charges of credit card fraud and obstruction of justice this week -- charges they vehemently deny. The jury will reach its own conclusion in this trial, the first criminal case against the LaRouche group in its 20-year history.

Law enforcement officials and experts on the group say the key to understanding the charges in the trial -- from the bilking of the elderly to the burning of subpoenaedLaRouche group documents -- is not something that can be summed up in an indictment. The key, they say, is in the members' arrogance about themselves and their position in world history, the attitude of these-fools-better-turn-to-Lyn-before-it's-too-late.

Looking at non-members as lightweights or philistines -- and at perceived adversaries as potential agents bent on murdering them and their leader, LaRouche associates feel they are constrained not by the regular rules of society, but only by what former LaRouche associate Charles Tate calls "higher law."

"The organization believed itself not to be subject to ordinary laws that bind you and me," said Tate, who quit the organization in 1984 after 13 years and who is scheduled to testify for prosecutors in the Boston trial. "They feel that the continued existence of the human race is totally dependent on what they do in the organization, that nobody would be here without LaRouche. They feel justified in a peculiar way doing anything whatsoever."

LaRouche and his followers strenuously contest the criminal charges, as well as state indictments against 31 LaRouche associates in Leesburg and New York on charges of fraudulent fundraising. The LaRouche group says it's being framed by a conspiracy of enemies, including the Soviets, narcotics pushers and bankers.

LaRouche's associates also deny that their group is a cult, and that it operates outside the law in any way.

In the past the group has thrived on crisis, but it has been profoundly shaken by theupcoming trial. The trial seems to confirm members' worst fears about the outside world's ghastly plans for them, and they have drawn together in a circle-the-wagons response.

With fundraising down because of the bad publicity, members are living even more hand-to-mouth than usual, law enforcement officials said. Although clumps are scattered around the country, most live around Leesburg, their headquarters. Many live in crowded apartments. When they're not raising money or selling newspapers, they're researching articles for a LaRouche publication or singing in a group choir. They spend almost every waking hour together. They rarely relax or have many dealings of any depth with outsiders. In downtown Leesburg, townspeople say that they generally don't talk much to people outside the group except to buy lunch or small household items.

The organization pays for their daily needs -- down to a mattress or pillowcase -- and they have to apply to the group to get those funds. They have little money of their own because they've given it to the group.

LaRouche dazzled his early followers back in the mid-1960s, when he was a Marxist lecturer in Greenwich Village. He wove themes from medieval history, Plato, Lenin and Beethoven, and his devotees thought of him as a brilliant, eccentric uncle. The organization had the feel of a socialist study group, and talked a lot about working-class revolution. Most other student radicals viewed them as prissy armchair types, and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) expelled them.

LaRouche had some oddities about him, like lecturing for 24 hours at a time. But matters became more complicated around 1972. That's when his common-law wife left him to move in with an English follower of LaRouche's. LaRouche soon became more unpredictable and strident in his attacks on critics.

In April 1973, LaRouche ordered associates to learn street-fighting techniques and start "Operation Mop-up" to destroy the Communist Party, which he viewed as counter-revolutionary. There followed more than 40 brawls at communist meetings around the country, with many injuries. Some LaRouche associates were arrested, but there were no convictions.

In December of that year, LaRouche dramatically announced to his followers at a New York hotel that the English man who had married his ex-wife was out to kill him on orders of CIA brainwashers. LaRouche also said that many other followers had been brainwashed without their knowledge into trying to kill him.

His speech set off a chain reaction of hysteria. There were shrieks in the ballroom. Weeping people begged LaRouche to "de-program" them. Members of LaRouche's newly formed security squad shuttled members off to apartments to confess their doubts about their leader.

Soon the group went on a kind of war footing. Members ended ties to their families and quit their jobs to work for the group full-time.

It was around then that LaRouche began his practice of intensely grilling followers about their political deviations, their most private thoughts, their sex lives. He might turn on any one of them anytime, proclaiming that one's clothes or make-up or accent is a sign of some sexual or political inadequacy, or an attempt to undercut him.

Law-enforcement officials say the psychological browbeating continues to this day. So does LaRouche's practice of appearing only with an armed entourage -- because he's convinced he can be killed anytime.

The group became "a seven-day-a-week, 24-hour-a-day total immersion," said one former member. "It's a situation where people wouldn't have any private lives anymore . . . . Everyone's got to march to the same tune."

By the mid-1970s LaRouche was talking less about revolution and more about the conspiracies arrayed against him, from the Rockefellers to the Queen of England to Jewish bankers. Soon the group entered into alliances with far-right groups that shared his conspiratorial view of the world, including some anti-Semites and neo-Nazis.

By the 1980s, he steered the group into support for President Reagan, and some of their publications echo the conservatives' patriotic, pro-military rhetoric. But their ideology is truly undefinable, veering daily according to the leader's whims.

Ex-members say the main controlling emotions in the group are a desire to please LaRouche and the top leaders, and fear of crossing them. LaRouche or one of his aides might denounce this or that follower anytime, and for any perceived misstep. Lengthy hollering at the member would follow, all in front of the other members. People who work in Leesburg office buildings where the group has rented space said they've heard frequent shouting from LaRouche offices, day and night.

One ex-member recalls an instance a few years ago when a male member was caught making unauthorized passes at a woman member. LaRouche's assistant mocked him in front of everyone for his supposedly loathsome sexual depravity. Every member was instructed to ask him every day about his sexual fantasies. The ex-member said associates avoided the man's gaze for weeks. The man is still a loyal LaRouche associate, and he faces trial this week with the others.

Former LaRouche followers say group members practice a complex self-deception and submerging of self. Humiliated by LaRouche for something, members almost invariably convinced themselves that of course LaRouche was right, in fact he had brilliantly pointed out their zombie behavior, or their psycho-sexual deviance, or their KGB wretchedness.

The arbitrariness of the assaults would keep them all on edge.

For months at a time a member might quietly go about his group work -- researching, or selling papers, say -- and even get married to another group member. But eventually the humiliation would return.

Maybe it would be over a pregnancy -- group leaders discouraged having babies, because they believed children interfered with political work. Despite the group's anti-abortion line, some group leaders coerced some women into having abortions, ex-associates have said. (A few members do have children, but the family relationships tend to be rocky, ex-members said.) Maybe trouble would come in a marriage, and the group's security squad would visit.

"The relationship between two people is used to police each other within the organization, like you keep your spouse in line, he keeps you in line," one ex-member said. "You're encouraged to inform on your spouse."

These tensions keep group members in a constant state of rage against one another and against the outside world, ex-associates said.

That may explain the group's penchant for nastiness. LaRouche's followers denounce every critic -- prosecutors, politicians, people at the airport who disagree with them -- as cretins, communists, traitors or homosexuals. They believe the world is in danger of imminent collapse for any number of reasons, which vary -- nuclear war, global starvation, and lately AIDS. They think LaRouche is the planet's only chance for survival -- and people must be crazed not to accept him.

"Your parents are fundamentally immoral," LaRouche told members in an internal bulletin several years ago. "You are moral despite them . . . . The people of the United States are not morally fit to survive . . . . Everything your parents say is evil -- they are like lepers, morally and intellectually insane."

"We represent the only efficient moral, intellectual and political force capable of saving human civilization."

LaRouche echoes this notion in his 1979 autobiography, in which he describes his followers as the world's "golden souls," and the rest of humanity as "the poor donkeys, the poor sheep, whose consciousness is dominated by the infantile world-outlook of individual sensuous life." LaRouche continually describes the world as oozing with lasciviousness and sexual depravity.

This contemptuous view of non-members, and grandiose thinking about their own historical mission, is at the root of the criminal charges facing them, former members and law enforcement officials say.

Dennis King, a journalist and LaRouche expert who is critical of the group, said that the group's "topsy-turvy logic" leads some members to conclude that, "for an old lady who they take money from, they're giving her the opportunity to rise {from degradation} while she's still alive."

"Outsiders are considered morally inferior to people inside the group," ex-member Tate said. "It's {seen as} practically a favor {to outsiders} if they're made instrumentalities of the organization. If you have $20,000 in your bank account, you're better off if you give it to the group to use for an important purpose. You'd probably just do something self-degrading with it anyway, like go off to Hawaii."

That's the kind of attitude, investigators and ex-members charge, that led the group to stall interminably people who complained about not getting their money. Ex-members and the FBI say it was the group's policy not to repay some loans. Dozens of merchants and former financial contributors have filed lawsuits against it.

Former LaRouche associates say that because the organization got away with so much for so long, group members believed they would never be held responsible. The indictment suggests that the group's first reflex at being investigated was to evade authorities.

The federal indictment alleges that, soon after the FBI started investigating the group in 1984, members discussed ways to scuttle the probe, sent witnesses to Europe to keep them from investigators, hid and burned subpoenaed documents, investigated the friends and family of the prosecutor, even put out leaflets saying he was a homosexual and a dope pusher. Their failure to respond to the grand jury prompted contempt of court judgments of $21 million, and the forced bankruptcy of three LaRouche companies.

Even if the group was guilty, "They'll never catch us," Michelle Steinberg, one of the defendants and a close aide to LaRouche, once told an informant, the FBI said.

One reason his followers were so confident is that they believed the group had well-placed contacts in the U.S. government, especially in the CIA, that would protect them. They had that impression in part because some of their consultants, like former Klan leader Roy Frankhouser, told wild tales about his relations with the CIA, and play-acted as an intermediary between LaRouche and the CIA. So one of the first things the group did when the FBI started investigating was to call Frankhouser and tell him to get the CIA to quash the probe, prosecutors said.

Former LaRouche associates say the group believed that was the way the world worked. Their cynicism about how power is exercised in society convinced them that the way to stop criticism is to hit back hard. In another context, LaRouche said he wants his associates to practice "ruthless" politics.

Ex-LaRouche supporters who know the LaRouche assistants who allegedly tried to stifle the investigation say that it was like a game to LaRouche's entourage, that they were taken with the fantasy of themselves as tough guys, covert agents, fix-it men.

One former member who spent 12 years inside said it is "poetic justice" that his former colleagues finally are being held accountable for their actions. "This is the first time they've ever suffered from the court system." Their sense of impunity made them feel like "a superior species," he said.

This ex-LaRouche devotee recalled his excrutiating break with the group several years ago, fearful he had no life away from LaRouche. But he says he had a revelation as he walked the streets of Manhattan and realized that, besides lecturing people about LaRouche's policies, he hadn't had a normal conversation of more than a few words with an outsider for at least 10 years.

"For the first time in years I began to see people as neighbors, not as disembodied things walking around," he said. "I could talk with them."

John Mintz has been covering the LaRouche group for The Washington Post for three years.