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 consciences, they’re cut off from other forms of information that question their indoctrination. In fact, they’re explicitly punished if they listen to the other side.
What is it about Trump in particular that makes him a cult leader and his supporters cult followers?
So, under behavior control, people need to wear certain clothes. They need to spend major time online or elsewhere, going to rallies and doing things. The pyramid structure has many different layers and levels: obviously, the immediate family and the White House staff; then, going outward to the Republican Party; then to other, as I write in the book, actual cult groups that are adherent to the belief that God is using Trump right now to exercise his will.
What explains this “cultish” behavior? Are Trump supporters craving a totalitarian leader and thus are falling into a cultish mindset?
This is part of what I’ve been fighting against for 40 years, this kind of blame-the-victim mentality that people who get mind-controlled are weak, are stupid, that people need a leader. All of these are basically stereotypes, which I have not found to be true in my work.
I can tell you, as a young Jewish man who grew up one mile from Donald Trump, raised conservative Jewish, educated about the Holocaust, I never imagined when my girlfriend dumped me and three Moonie recruiters approached me at Queens College that within a few months I would be believing the Holocaust was necessary to kill the Jews because they didn’t accept Jesus. Or even later, [that] I would be fasting for Richard Nixon during Watergate because God wanted him to be president when, before I’d met the Moonies, I knew he was a very dangerous, destructive person. I used to argue with my father about that.
I had a radical personality change and belief change. A lot of people are going to wake up one day from what they were supporting with Trump and realize how they have been taken. At that point, there’s going to be a lot of upset, angry, ashamed, and embarrassed people.
I’m not sure I fully see the logic in comparing yourself as a young man — indoctrinated as a Moonie to the extent that, even as a Jew, you thought the Holocaust was “necessary” — to the average person supporting the Republican President?
So, first of all, I want to stay away from binaries and make it sound like people who are believing in Trump are homogenous because they’re not. Honestly, if you’re in a group where you’re speaking in tongues and casting out demons and doing faith healing, and your Apostle tells you that God is using Trump and you have to be in a prayer group all night long for him to succeed, you maybe have a very different experience than a Midwest farmer who thought that Trump cared about him and was actually going to help the country get strong again.
Right. But are all Trump supporters exhibiting cult-like symptoms? Because I think you could argue that their support comes out of racism or climate denial or some specific set of policy rather than mind control.
There are people on the left who are anti-Trumpers, who are as cultic in their black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking and their incapacity for taking a middle perspective to listen to the other side. So my point is not just pointing fingers in one direction but trying to educate all human beings about how the mind works, how disinformation works, how propaganda works, how we can know the difference between an intense group involvement that’s healthy and an intense group involvement that’s destructive.
You write too that Trump supporters can come to their senses. They can escape the cult.
Correct. Everybody in a mind-controlled relationship or cult doesn’t think they’re in a cult. They’re sure other people are in cults, but they aren’t. So my approach is not to attack their group first — their leader, their doctrine, or their policy. I teach them about other groups that they would agree are cults, whether it’s the sarin gas cult of Shoko Asahara or Jim Jones or David Koresh or Warren Jeffs. I try to find someone that they would agree is really bad.
A Trump supporter would see him or herself reflected in some way in, say, Jim Jones’ cult?
Not at first, but yes, once you bring out the parallels. Jim Jones blamed the media, and he blamed the government, and the CIA coming after him. I can go on and on about his being on the loudspeaker 24/7 in the isolated cult town, where he turned people against each other and made people afraid to share any doubts publicly for fear of criticism or punishment and such.
What I say to anybody on the left or the right is if you don’t believe you’re under mind control, great, take a step back from your belief system and study what mind control is. Go back in your mind to before you ever heard of Trump, one way or the other, and remember, remind yourself of what you believed and what were your values, who were your important relationships. Go slowly once you have that education about brainwashing and mind control and cults and start thinking, How did I come to start changing my beliefs?
It still seems to me that there are other considerations for supporting Trump that aren’t explained by mind control. Like a wealthy, greedy businessman might want lower taxes. He’s not being mind-controlled by Trump.
Well, one could argue that they were in a cultish mindset if they were not paying attention to their conscience and not paying attention to people’s needs and feelings.
So is subscribing to capitalism the same as being in a cult? “Cult” just seems like a very tenuous term at this point.
I know that I’ve written a book called The Cult of Trump so it sounds disingenuous to say, Don’t get hung up on the word “cult,” but what I’m talking about is a psychological and systematic social influence process that can be used on people to change them, to mold them, to turn them into warriors, suicide bombers, trafficking victims. For me, the reason I wrote this book is to educate everyone about the age of influence that we’re living in.
It’s a book about the persuasiveness, not cultishness, of Trump, written by a cult expert?