Steven Hassan has had remarkably interesting experiences with cults. In the early-1970s, as a 19-year-old student at Queens College in New York, he was indoctrinated into the Unification Church, whose members were known as Moonies. They convinced him to leave his family and to fundamentally alter his worldview so that he believed, for instance, that a divine being had made the movie The Exorcist as a form of prophecy and that the Holocaust was “necessary.” After a few years in the cult in which he brainwashed and recruited others, he broke free. Now an esteemed mental health counselor, he has been helping others do the same ever since.
Hassan has written a few books on mind control and cult tactics, but his latest, The Cult of Trump, is his clearest foray into the mainstream. In it, he tries to pin down Trump as a cult leader, citing, among much else, his “cultish” rallies and calculated admonishment of the “Lamestream Media.” But in putting so much emphasis on Trump-as-cult-leader and Trump-supporters-as-cult-members, he risks eliding the other reasons — outside of mind control — that 87% of Republicans support the president.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
GEN: Why do you consider Trump supporters to be more akin to cult adherents than political supporters?
Hassan: My definition of a destructive cult is an authoritarian pyramid-structured group, with a section in recruitment and mind control on the people it recruits and indoctrinates to be dependent and obedient. So, for me, the designation of “cult” includes Trump being a malignant narcissist, which is the stereotypical profile of cult leaders. I parallel his behaviors with people like Jim Jones, L. Ron Hubbard, and other cult leaders.
The overall formula of a cult is that the members are indoctrinated into a black-and-white, all-or-nothing, good-versus-evil version of reality, where they are not thinking for themselves, they’re not thinking with their…