Cult expert Steven Hassan: Trump's "mind control cult" now faces an existential crisis

Author of "The Cult of Trump" explains how the president has trained his followers to believe no one but him

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published April 7, 2020 7:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Donald Trump (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

During the 1970s, Steven Hassan was a senior member of the Unification Church, an offshoot Christian sect led by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Hassan was so loyal to the Unification Church that he pledged to die or kill at Moon's command.

After escaping the Unification Church, Hassan dedicated his life's work to freeing other people from mind control organizations and destructive cults. He is now one of the world's leading experts on mind control and cults.

Hassan is a direct personal witness to the way cult leaders are defined by their use of money, power, greed, sex, lies, charisma and violence to control their followers and empower themselves. In 2016 Hassan saw those traits personified in the form of Republican nominee Donald Trump. He then tried to alert the public to the danger that a cult leader would become president and that ruin and despair for the United States would be the inevitable result. Hassan's new book "The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control" attempts to explain how this all came to be.

While many pundits and others have remained in denial about the existential threat posed by Donald Trump and his movement, Hassan warned early on that Trump's followers were effectively cult members and would not be swayed from supporting their leader for any reason. With the coronavirus pandemic, Trump's power over his followers is on full display, as he and his spokespeople are now suggesting that older and other vulnerable Americans should be willing to risk their lives in order to "save the economy" — and of course to aid Trump's victory in the 2020 presidential election.

I recently spoke with Steven Hassan about Trump's death cult and the power the president has over his followers. Hassan also explains how Trump resembles notorious cult leader Jim Jones and why Trump's followers remain in love with him even as his decisions are literally making them sick. Hassan also explains how Fox News and other parts of the right-wing disinformation machine are key elements of Trump's mind control powers over his political cult.

Hassan also warns that Trump's followers are capable of committing acts of great violence against their fellow Americans, should their leader command it.

You can also listen to my conversation with Steven Hassan on my podcast "The Truth Report" or through the player embedded below.

As usual, this conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Donald Trump continues to make ridiculous statements, such as claiming he was the first person to call the coronavirus a "pandemic," or that there will be a magical flash of light and all will be well. It is clear he is mentally unwell. How do you make sense of his behavior?

Trump grew up in the church of Norman Vincent Peale. Peale taught magical thinking and that if a person just believed something 100%, God will magically make it come true. Trump was trained to be a magical thinker as a child. It's been described as a type of solipsistic reality where Trump defines his own world and what is real or not. That is a type of thinking which is very common to cults.

In this way of thinking, if Trump says the coronavirus pandemic is just going to somehow get better then it is going to happen. And when that does not happen, then Trump can deny ever saying such a thing, blame the Chinese, the Democrats or anyone else, instead of just saying he was wrong.

How does Donald Trump fit the profile of a cult leader?

Donald Trump fits the stereotypical profile of all destructive cults. These traits include malignant narcissism. Trump can easily be compared to Jim Jones, Sun Myung Moon, and other cult leaders. Trump always had a cult of personality around him in terms of his businesses and his social interactions with people. But once Trump attained the presidency, he took over the Republican Party and instituted a fiefdom where he rewards loyalty and punishes anyone who displeases him.

As for definitions, a "destructive cult" is an authoritarian pyramid-structured group with someone at the top who claims to know all things and says God is working through him or her. Trump does that as well. Donald Trump is also trying to control people's behavior, the information they have access to, and their thoughts and emotions, to make them dependent and obedient and under his control. Consider the novel coronavirus pandemic and how Trump has all these followers who do not trust real experts and only take what Trump says to be true. Trump's followers also don't believe in science and medicine.  

Do members of cults know that the leader is lying but convince themselves it does not matter? Or have the cult members totally lost the ability to think rationally?

Unfortunately, when a person is in a mind control group, critical thinking does not take place. Thinking in a cult does not depend on independent verifiable data. Information about the world — empirical reality — goes through a filtering system where the default is to support the cult identity and the cult leader and what they tell you to believe. The way to escape a mind control cult's power and influence is for a person to find a way to access who they were before they got involved in the cult. A person in that situation needs to separate themselves from the ongoing indoctrination.

In the case of Trump and his movement, that can be through Fox News, right-wing religious TV or radio shows, the internet, smartphones, etc. Phones are a key part of how these Christian and other religious cults work where they send the members emails and texts. The brain needs a respite from all that communication. To escape Trump's cult, the members need to regain perspective on reality and develop the cognitive tools to say, "Yes, Trump lied to me." They need to say that to themselves and realize that Trump is not for the average person. He's not making America great. He's making things worse. He's dividing us. He's enriching himself. He's undermining the separation of church and state. He's undermining the rule of law.

What is the role of Fox News in Trump's power over his followers, especially during this pandemic?

Fox News is the main propaganda arm of Donald Trump and his true believers. Fox News is continually disseminating and reinforcing Trump's messages. Fox News is a dangerous entity.

Donald Trump and his Republicans, right-wing media and various churches have been saying that older people should be willing to get sick and die for the sake of the "economy." Moreover, they suggest that to die from this disease is an act of "patriotism" and "piety" and "love." This sounds like human sacrifice to an ancient mythological being. Specifics are critical here: is Donald Trump leading a death cult? And how are death cults different from other types of cults?

A death cult is a type of cult where the leader is telling the followers to kill themselves. A death cult also does not cherish the sanctity of life. It is very simple in terms of how it views the world in binary black and white terms. If the "last days" are here and God is going to return to somehow magically renew the world and send true believers to heaven, then it does not matter if those people who are not in the death cult die.

I would say right now it is premature to say that Donald Trump leads a death cult. But at the point where the coronavirus pandemic overwhelms the health care system, Donald Trump would then be the leader of a death cult.

For people outside Trump's cult and the Republican Party, it seems ridiculous and evil to suggest that people should go out and die from the novel coronavirus to save the economy. But Trump's followers seem willing to do so. What is going on in their minds?

If you are in a cult where the leader is claiming to be some type of apostle or prophet who gets revelations directly from God, and who says "just believe in me" and tells you to reject reality or outside information, then you believe that you will be fine. You will be "saved" and go to "paradise." Therefore, if Trump or his other spokespeople tell people to go out, get sick and then die, it is fine because the cult members believe they are going to heaven.

Unfortunately, there are millions of Americans who believe that Donald Trump is doing a good job with the coronavirus pandemic because they are not looking at any other source of news or reality testing. These people are doing a lot of praying and they have put their faith in an authoritarian leader who continually tells them, "I know better than everyone else, the experts, the doctors, etc." Trump says that all the time. He always tells his followers that he knows better than the scientists, generals and other experts. Trump is telling his followers that he is omnipotent.  

What happens to a person's mind when it becomes subsumed by the cult leader?

As someone who was in a cult, the way I try to explain it is that mind control is a type of dissociative disorder where there is a split between who you really are and the cult identity. Cult members do have moments where their real authentic self re-emerges. For example, they miss their families. But then the cult part of the mind reasserts itself through fear or thought stopping or any number of other techniques to suppress the authentic self again.

As long as a person stays in the cult, they are receiving constant reinforcement of the cult identity. What is happening at present is very different from my experience in the 1970s. Then, you had to be taken to an isolated place to have your brain conditioned and programmed by the cult. Now the Internet, YouTube, Facebook and other types of media can program a person into a cult identity. Fox News and right-wing talk radio are obvious ways that Trump's followers are indoctrinated into his cult. Sleep deprivation by having people constantly tuned into the cult programming is another form of programming.

Trump's policies are actually causing real, measurable physical and economic harm to his "white working class" followers, as well as others. Yet those people remain among Trump's most devoted supporters. The coronavirus pandemic is a literal life and death example of the harm that Trump is causing his cult members. Yet they still love him. How does a person's mind reconcile such an outcome?

Donald Trump constantly tells his followers that he loves them. His people need and want to believe that Donald Trump loves them. Trump's followers have a deep investment in him emotionally and personally. I would tell Trump's true believers the same thing I would tell people in other mind control cults: Think back to what you thought you were getting involved with, and now think about where you are now. If you knew then where you would be three and a half years later, would you have ever gotten involved with Donald Trump in the first place?

I would also tell Trump's cult members to think about his lies. They need to realize that they made decisions based on things proven to not be true. Now Trump's followers know better. It is time for them to leave his cult. I would tell his cult members that it is time for a new chapter in their lives. They need to reboot their minds and behavior. Trump's followers need to think about the future, how they want to live and how they want to raise their children.    

How will the coronavirus impact how Trump's cult members think about reality? How do they reconcile their love of Donald Trump with seeing people die all around them?

The cult part of their psyche is going to say it was their time. If Trump's followers are religious, they will simply rationalize it as the dead are going to a better place in heaven. These people will believe that the deaths are good because it is the end times or something of the sort. As they see their loved ones die, the authentic self may reassert itself. If it does, those people are going to get very angry and upset at Donald Trump. 

Trump and his mouthpieces are now trying to blame Barack Obama and the Democrats for the coronavirus disaster. Trump and his media are also blaming Asians and Asian-Americans. There has been a rise in hate crimes as a result. What comes next as the pandemic continues?

One of the main things that cult leaders do is to project outward on to false enemies, to deflect their own irresponsible behavior and blame others. I can imagine scenarios where Trump's cult members, his followers go out and hurt other Americans. They would even go so far as to hurt their neighbors if Donald Trump and his spokespeople told them to.

I'm an idealist at heart. I want to have hope. I want people to rise up to their higher self and not descend down to barbarism and tribalism. Unfortunately, it really takes a great deal of energy to think critically, to look at data and not allow emotions to sway you to doing things that you will regret later.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVega

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Coronavirus Donald Trump Editor's Picks Interview Pandemic Steven Hassan The Cult Of Trump