Illustration by Sibel Ergener

Trump Fits the Profile of a Classic Cult Leader. Can His Followers Be Saved?

We talked to Steven Hassan, an expert in helping people escape cults, about how to best dissuade Trump supporters

Donald Trump’s campaign warns that America is on the precipice of destruction that he alone can save us from — not with specific policies, but with magical thinking and a supreme confidence in his own ability to get things done. Those who oppose him are liars deserving of imprisonment and violence. Those who support him maintain an unshakeable belief in his righteousness and potential, despite an ever-growing body of evidence to the contrary.

So, does that make Trump a cult leader? At the very least, he has mental health counselor Steven Hassan feeling concerned. As the founder of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center and the author of several books about mind control and cult recovery, Hassan has helped many people escape the clutches of charismatic leaders, using openness and informed consent as both the means and end of cult recovery (as opposed to an intervention).

Aided by their loved ones as well as other former cult members, those escaping the influence of a cult leader engage in information-gathering sessions guided by Hassan, during which they examine the pasts of their leaders — often to find out that their would-be saviors are documented criminals and con artists who exploit others using well-known psychological mechanisms. Hassan believes that it’s not too late for America, or for Trump’s followers. We just need to gather a bit more information.

Trump shares important characteristics with your average cult leader. Is there a real danger of his campaign becoming a full-blown political cult?
I would agree so. There are some psychological personality profiles that are considered to be pathological that are characteristic of most cult leaders. Narcissism, psychopathology or sociopathology, and, in particular, a lack of empathy — the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, which is one of the most important features of a conscience.

As a health professional I’m held to professional standards never to diagnose somebody from afar, but I can, as an expert for 40 years in helping people get away from narcissists and people who are pathological, say that he fits the criteria of Sun Myung Moon, L. Ron Hubbard, and the like. How he’s vague about policy is very much from a cult leader’s playbook. It invites people to project their own wishes. Certitude is another important quality of cult leaders.

Framing sources of information as illegitimate just because they disagree with Trump. Claiming to be supernatural because of his predictive powers — 
Exactly. The documentary The Brainwashing of My Dad does a very good job of interviewing Roger Ailes and Fox news, propagandists and strategists of the rightwing point of view, explaining their methodology. It has nothing to do with fact. It’s about keeping people afraid and the painting a black-and-white, good-versus-evil worldview.

Trump needs you to maintain that fearful emotional state so that you think fast and end up with him as your conclusion. And we’re social animals, so he’s especially effective when you’re in a large group, it’s hot, maybe you’re a little tired, and you see other people agreeing. That makes it easier for Trump to close the deal.
Yes. There’s a very famous experiment called the Asch Conformity Study. Solomon Asch did a very simple experiment where he had three lines that were all of different lengths. Everyone in the room was in on the experiment but one person. They all start giving correct answers to establish what’s called the “yes set of consensus,” and then everybody very confidently starts giving the wrong answer. The experiment was: How many people will continue to give the correct answer and how many people will cave to the group pressure and conform? The study has been replicated all over the world, and somewhere around two-thirds of people start giving the wrong answer.

The Asch Study is something I use when I explain mind control to show that it is indeed part of our human nature to adapt and survive to adapt, and to often doubt our own inner thoughts and our own inner experiences, and to defer to what the group defines as real and true. It’s quite unconscious, so once you explain that to people they’re less likely to give into a group because they can remember the Asch Conformity study.

Another famous experiment worth mentioning is the Milgram Obedience Study in the early ’60s. Pscychologist Stanley Milgram, who was the son of Holocaust survivors, created a phony shock machine and brought people in. Two-thirds of everyone doing that experiment believed that they electrocuted another human being because they were ordered to do so by a person in a lab coat and they believed they had made a commitment to science, even though they were hearing what they believed were someone screaming in agony and pain (it was a tape). Two-thirds kept flipping the switches, and that shows how we’re hardwired to follow who we perceive to be legitimate authority figures.

And I’m specifically talking about Milgram because the Republican Party has said [Trump] is their candidate; a lot of people are trusting him and following him because of that validation.

The behavior of Trump and his surrogates is also normalized whenever they’re on television. Given the urgency of the situation, how would a Trump supporter’s close friends and family intervene?
What we want to do is help people step back and understand how the mind works and how social psychology works. What will not work is trying to rationally persuade them. It drives the person deeper into the belief system in the cult. What we don’t want is and what I’m seeing on social media: People saying they’re losing friends because they like Trump or Hillary. If you want to influence people you need to develop trust. Learn how to ask curious and concerned questions, and you need to frame things in ways that are nonthreatening.

A lot of people shy away from conflict, but changing minds actually calls for connecting emotionally and reasoning together.
It’s not an intervention as much as it’s information-gathering. It’s about empowering family and friends to talk constructively with people in a way that stimulates their conscience and critical faculties.

I often ask people, “How would anyone know if they were under mind control?” There’s usually a long silence because they don’t have an answer. And what’s necessary is being able to answer that question for oneself—stepping away from the group or the person for at least a week to study models of mind control. If the question is how would anyone know if they were under mind control, then we need to know what mind control actually is.

I ask people to think back to before they got involved in their group — in this case before they decided who they were going to vote for. They may have been Republicans; maybe they were thinking of Cruz or somebody else. Then talk to critics or former supporters, maybe Republicans who are not voting for Trump.

A week seems like a lot to ask for.
I always ask for a week, but really it’s three days. And if it’s three days with me and former members that I brought, a lot gets done. Really, the point is they need to answer the questions for themselves.

I think part of why we’ve gotten to this point with Trump is that people weren’t having these conversations earlier.
Yeah. People are not being taught how to critically think. They’re not being taught to be heroic resisters, but 13-year-olds are being told to step up to and report bullies. So, there is some hope.

It sounds like a lot of work; some people may think it’s not worth it.
People get frustrated, and there’s alienation that happens and a lot of anger. But my whole approach is love and respect based.

But not all Trump supporters are supporters because of undue influence. Some see it as an opportunity.
Yeah, I was kind of shocked to learn that there are companies that provide people for rallies. And they’ll hold signs, and they’ll say anything you want them to say. That helps you have control, and that’s part of how cults operate. They’ll have people scattered throughout the crowd.

I was thinking of people who were already waiting for someone like Trump to come along so they too can have power. Fascists, Nazis, white supremacists, etc.
I would describe those people as already being in a cultic mindset. Again, that’s the fringe that is now becoming normalized and mainstream.

So even if Trump loses the election that’s not a reason to avoid these conversations.
Absolutely. I’m for relationships. I’m for, “Let’s agree to disagree, and let’s have a respectful conversation. I’ll try to step into your shoes you try to step in my shoes.” There’s even a powerful social psychology technique, counter-attitudinal argumentation. It’s an exercise where you say, “I’ll be the Trump supporter and you be the Hillary supporter,” and do it articulately and believably for 15 minutes. What the research has said is that people’s attitudes shift toward having a better understanding of the other person.

Ben Kharakh’s writing has appeared in Fortune, Time, and McSweeneys. He performs weekly at the People’s Improv Theater.