Was this simply a case of political allies joining hands in the age-old practice of hewing to the party line? Or is there something almost involuntary about the spell Trump has cast on the Republican Party? Is there something downright cultlike about Trumpism?
Steven Hassan, a former member of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church who escaped from mind control and built a career as a cult deprogrammer, argues in his new book that Trump is a cult leader whose followers are captive to his wily influences. But is this president a leader whose manipulative skills allow him to control the behavior of seemingly independent thinkers?
The first wave of reaction to revelations about Trump’s Ukraine gambit seems to run counter to Hassan’s theory about Trump’s control over his base: Several prominent Republicans have already stepped gently away from the president’s effort to defend himself by accusing his accusers. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), for example, declared Trump’s warning that the Democrats are fomenting a second American civil war to be “beyond repugnant.”
More important, as former senator Jeff Flake pointed out, Trump “thrives on chaos. Disunion is the oxygen of this presidency.” Cult leaders strive above all to bring more people in, to capture lost or damaged souls and expand their operations. Trump, by contrast, relishes division; he seeks only to win for himself. Yes, he craves the adulation of his followers, but unlike real cult leaders, he has made strikingly little effort to expand that base, let alone to govern for all Americans.
“Cult” is the kind of word Trump loves. It’s instantly alarming, inherently sensational. It can mean so many things, and it can mean nothing. Hassan defines the word broadly, to include the Unification Church, of course, but also Hare Krishna, political extremists and religious groups that view themselves as very much mainstream.
On the surface, Trump’s extraordinary and enduring appeal does have similarities to what makes cult leaders alluring. Back in the ’70s, when Hassan worshiped Moon as the messiah, Trump entered adulthood in a peak period for cults. L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology was winning converts, Jim Jones was preparing to change our concept of Kool-Aid forever, and Lyndon LaRouche was recruiting people to man tables in airports hawking the kind of elaborate conspiracy tales that today flourish in the backwaters of the interwebs.
Hassan looks at that golden age of cult leaders and draws good lessons about what to watch out for: supreme confidence, a grandiose nature, demands for absolute loyalty, a complex web of simplistic “alternative” facts and a penchant for sowing fear.
That does describe pretty much anyone who might fit your personal definition of a cult leader. It also happens to describe any number of narcissistic populist politicians — Huey Long, George Wallace, Fidel Castro, Mao, Hitler. Were they cult leaders, too?
It’s not just Trump’s personality that convinces Hassan about the cult thing, though. It’s also his tactics: “insulting opponents . . . deflecting, distracting . . . to confuse, disorient and ultimately coerce his followers.” Does that make Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy cult leaders as well?
The C-word turns out not to be a very useful guide to the nature of charismatic leaders who get people to embrace unorthodox or irrational explanations of the world around them. Indeed, concluding that someone is under the control of a cult can seem to absolve them of responsibility for their beliefs and actions: “Don’t mind Uncle Jerry, he’s just into that crazy cult thing.”
Hassan seems torn between his desire to prove that Trump has brainwashed millions of Americans and his understanding that you do not change people’s minds by attacking their beliefs. That leaves him alternating between writing a brief for the kind of intervention that his parents arranged in 1976 — five days of intensive counseling about the manipulative methods of the Moon organization — and warning that “belittling Trump’s followers” might actually help the president maintain his influence.
The Trump moment is inextricably tied to the tech revolution and the fast-changing definition of work, to 9/11 and the spread of Islamist extremism — to all the forces that have atomized, isolated, polarized and frightened millions of Americans. Cults flourish, Hassan says, when people feel uprooted and disenchanted, when families and communities break down.
A focus on Trump as cult leader distracts from those larger explanations. And the search for evidence that the president has some unnatural hold on his supporters can feel too much like an effort to bash them, especially now, when, if early polls turn out to reflect a real shift in public opinion, we may be seeing his base’s first significant questioning of the president’s actions.
Hassan harks back to the Trump Cabinet meeting in 2017 when his appointees competed to bestow fawning accolades upon their boss. But was the meeting really an example of cultic control? I’ve been in plenty of meetings where employees sought to curry favor with the boss by parroting back ideas they’d heard him utter. Does that make my workplace — or any other — cultic?
Hassan hungers for an explanation of the hold Trump has over people who should know better, whether they be Cabinet members, erstwhile deficit hawks or Michael Cohen. The president’s convicted lawyer and fixer this year concluded that he’d been under some sort of spell — “so mesmerized by Donald Trump that I was willing to do things for him that I knew were absolutely wrong.”
Trump creates this effect by bullying, insulting, joking, threatening and rewarding. He creates an in-crowd people want to join. Ultimately, the Trump story is the story of that crowd.
If there’s a purpose to viewing Trump through the lens of cult leader — for my money, the better analogy is to Lonesome Rhodes, the Arkansas drifter in the 1950s film “A Face in the Crowd,” who soars to the pinnacle of American politics with a fresh truth-telling that turns out to be a big con — it must be to explain how that crowd turns away, how Trump ends.
To Hassan, Trump followers are deluded zealots with a soft spot for authoritarian figures. He casts Trump supporters as an Other, fixating on a Fox News poll that found “nearly half of Republicans believe Trump was chosen by God to be president.” Yet he warns against attacking them.
So, “how CAN anyone wake up from the Cult of Trump?” he asks.
In the manner of self-help books, Hassan offers a “customized, step-by-step ethical counter-influence method” for turning Trump followers around. Hassan says this reversal can be accomplished in a matter of weeks.
Quickly, here’s the drill: (1) Take a timeout from the sources that reinforce your point of view. (2) Read about how social influence works on people. (3) Consider Trump’s critics; read the Mueller report. (4) “Go back in time to before you came to adopt your current belief system.” (5) Ask yourself if your fears are rational.
Hassan wants to believe that candid, empathetic conversations between friends (or ex-friends) can nudge Trump supporters back to who they were before the fateful ride down the Trump Tower escalator. Curiously, Hassan never says that he’s tried this method on anyone or that it has worked.
But most Trump voters were never hardcore believers. Even at Trump rallies, I’ve always found that many people have serious misgivings about the man — they don’t believe much of what he says, they think he’s a loose cannon, they worry he sometimes goes too far. Their support is situational; in many cases, they are sending a message to the elites rather than buying the whole package.
They seem far more like classic populist voters than like Jim Jones acolytes. Sure, whole-hog Trumpers are there, as are white nationalists and QAnon conspiracy captives. But most made a calculated decision: Reject Hillary Clinton and use Trump to send up a flare about the collapse of the basic American compact of social and economic mobility.
Hassan is eager to diagnose the president (and his opponents, who he says often suffer from Trump Anxiety Disorder). He frets that Trump’s condition is getting worse, that the president might not accept the result if he loses next year. He warns melodramatically that “cult leaders do not relinquish power.”
But what if the most helpful analogy to explain Trumpism isn’t medical but rather political? Counseling their supporters didn’t bring about the end of McCarthyism or Nazism. Some spasms of populism end ugly — war or depression are effective if horribly destructive ways to push a society back toward balance. And sometimes, the flame of populism just flickers, then vanishes. The system adjusts. Elections have consequences. Inequalities grow less severe.
It can take years, but in a society like ours, powerful forces still push toward the center. One day you look around and it’s 1975 and Nixon’s “silent majority” has vanished, or it’s 1955 and the bottom has dropped out of Joe McCarthy’s support.
Nobody got deprogrammed. They just moved on.
A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control
By Steven Hassan
296 pp. $27