QAnon and the Trump cult: Expert Steven Hassan on whether they can be saved

Cult expert — and cult survivor — says QAnon believers can be redeemed: "Love is stronger than mind control"

By Chauncey DeVega
March 25, 2021 10:02AM (UTC)
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QAnon supporters attend a Trump rally hosted by Long Island and New York City police unions in support of the police on October 4, 2020 in Suffolk County, New York. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

QAnon, the anti-Semitic and white supremacist conspiracy-theory cult and live action roleplaying game, may actually be a new type of American religion, as Adrienne LaFrance argued in a recent article at the Atlantic. In an interview with CBC radio, sociologist Edwin Hodge offered this complementary insight:

QAnon develops like a lot of conspiratorial movements do: It develops this kind of internal logic that governs the behavior of people, that governs how people view the world, how they interact with authorities, with social elites, that sort of thing. But it's also beginning to construct a moral framework. It's also beginning to construct ... almost a cosmology, that draws in government agents, celebrities, economic systems, and has been drawing in scripture. We're starting to see QAnon begin to ... become infused with religious iconography, particularly of the sort of evangelical Christian variety. We see pastors, folks of religious persuasions, beginning to use biblical scripture to justify or support the predictions that are made by the conspiracy.

QAnon may endure. But it is more likely to become yet another bizarre and obscure cult lost to history, described in future historical footnotes but forgotten by most people. In our present moment, however, QAnon and its power are very real.

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QAnon commands the loyalty of millions of mostly white, right-wing Americans. It wields increasing power over the Republican Party up to the highest levels of government, including a former president, others in his circle and Republican-elected officials on the national, state and local level.

QAnon provides a sense of meaning and community for its followers. In a country struggling through a pandemic with more than 500,000 dead, a ruined economy, a growing distrust of elites and the existing social and political order, spiraling rates of loneliness and other forms of social alienation, QAnon attracts the vulnerable and despondent. In total, the emergence and popularity of QAnon, like other cults, is a sign of a sick society experiencing a deep crisis of meaning.

QAnon is a national security threat: It was integral to the Jan 6 coup attempt and attack on the Capitol by Trump's supporters. National security and law enforcement experts are warning of its influence in the military, and it is playing a role in radicalizing members of the white right and other Trumpists into political violence and terrorism.

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In keeping with its "religious" dimensions, QAnon has now become a powerful influence in right-wing evangelical churches, where it is radicalizing congregants towards ever more extreme views and actions.

Steven Hassan is one of the world's foremost experts on mind control, cults and similar destructive organizations. He was once a senior member of the Unification Church, aka the "Moonies." He is now founder and director of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center Inc. and has written several bestselling books, including "Freedom of Mind," "Combating Cult Mind Control" and, most recently, "The Cult of Trump."

In this conversation, Hassan details how the coronavirus pandemic has amplified the ability of QAnon and other cults to recruit new members. He draws upon his personal experiences to explain why Trump's followers would attack the Capitol and be willing to kill and die for their leader. In addition, he shares the insight that QAnon is much more than a mere "kooky conspiracy theory," but is part of a sophisticated "undue influence" campaign and authoritarian movement designed to cause chaos in American society.

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At the end of this conversation, Hassan shares his experiences in trying to help QAnon followers leave the cult and explores how family members and friends are integral to that process.

This conversation has been edited, as usual, for clarity and length.

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You are one of the world's leading experts on cults and mind control. What are some of the biggest misconceptions about QAnon?

Two things. One is minimizing the QAnon threat by calling it a "kooky conspiracy theory." The second is this language about a "post-truth world." We are not living in a post-truth world. We are living in an age of undue influence. QAnon is better understood as an authoritarian cult.  

There is a myth of invulnerability: The average person believes that they could never be manipulated into joining a cult. Nobody is invulnerable. And I want people who are exiting a cult to not be humiliated and shamed. I want them to join the rest of us who were in a cult. We need to de-stigmatize the experience: We all can be deceived and manipulated. The important thing is getting out of the cult and reclaiming your power in your life.

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How has the coronavirus pandemic amplified the power of QAnon and other cults and conspiracy theories?

The pandemic situation has made people more suggestible and susceptible. Social isolation is very important here: Human beings are not meant to be without touch and being in front of a screen or on a smart phone for all these hours each day. Social isolation and the pandemic are definitely influencing people's ability to function.

The Trump-inspired attack on the Capitol was an example of groupthink. Yes, of course there was the white supremacy and the Christian fascism and violence. But when I saw the coup attackers, I saw Trumpists, the vast majority of them white men, who looked as if they were almost possessed by some otherworldly force. They were maniacal. It was collective narcissism and groupthink. What did you see when you watched the events of Jan. 6?

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When I was in the Moon cult in 1974, Sun Myung Moon gave a lecture to us about how God wanted Richard Nixon to be president despite Watergate. We were bussed down to D.C. We fasted for three days on the Capitol stairs because God wanted Nixon to be president. I was watching the attacks on the U.S. Capitol and I was thinking that I would have done that. If Moon told me we had to attack the Capitol for God I would have done it. I was already indoctrinated that democracy was Satanic and we needed a theocracy to rule America and the world.

Watching the attack on the Capitol, I actually expected far worse. I thought there would be way more violence and death. I'm grateful that I was wrong, but I am absolutely not surprised that there was a violent coup attempt.

What do we know about the members of Trump's mob who were willing to kill and die for him during the coup attack on the Capitol?

Many of them are likely members of religious cults such as the New Apostolic Reformation groups. Such groups have millions of American members. The leaders of these NAR groups claim to be an apostle or a prophet of God who gets direct revelation and has the power to cast out devils and to do faith healing and even speak in tongues. These leaders also practice the BITE model of authoritarian control — which involves behavior, information, thought and emotional control — to create a new dependent and obedient identity where your thoughts, feelings and conscience are suppressed. This also involves such things as "thought stopping." People subjected to these techniques live in a world they understand to be one of "us versus them" and "good versus evil," 

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The members of these NAR groups are programmed, as I was, not to believe the news media because it is "fake news" and "the enemy of the people" and the like.

They are engaging in thought-stopping against any doubts or criticisms. They are also in an information silo, where their trusted sources may be religious talk radio or Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson, Alex Jones, Breitbart, Daily Caller or some other far right-wing site. The mindset is war. The people who attacked the Capitol thought that they were actually going to save America from the evil "communists" and "socialists" who somehow put Biden in power.

QAnon is also a type of live action video game for the cult members and other followers. It gives them the illusion that they are being heroes. It also gives them meaning in their lives.

I did a TEDx talk about dismantling QAnon. One of the participants was a former developer of alternate reality gaming named Jim Stewartson. He explained to me how in that alternate gaming world, there were rules and an end point for the game.

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As he sees it, QAnon is using the same principles to get people excited to solve the puzzle with these "Q drops" and trying to make sense of the secrets. The participants get into QAnon so deeply that it is not a game to them anymore. They are out in the streets. They infiltrate the anti-vaccine movement. They get the soccer moms, people involved in yoga and the New Age movement. QAnon could also be a type of psy-op being run by a hostile foreign power.

Do the leaders of QAnon actually believe in it? What of the Republican elected officials and others on the right who claim QAnon membership and support?

We would have to do a case by case evaluation. Is this person doing this because they took money from Russia? Or because they are being blackmailed? I do not know if they are true believers or not, but my guess is that there is a group of them that basically want to keep the votes and are willing to fall in line with the desires of their funder. I believe that there are probably a good number of Republican officials and other right-wingers who actually believe in QAnon.

You have been trying to help many of these QAnon people. How are they different or similar from those people who do not join cults?

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The pandemic has created, in a sense, an ideal set of conditions for people to engage in mind control over others. This is because of fear and social isolation, and being online so much more. Many people are being recruited deceptively. They do not start out wanting to join a cult. But someone on Facebook or other social media is saying to them, "Would you watch this and tell me what you think of it?" If someone is not politically sophisticated and does not know how to discern credible sources versus very uncredible ones, they can be very vulnerable to QAnon.

What are members of QAnon — and those who join other cults — looking for? What is the crisis of personal meaning that they are trying to solve?

There is a tendency to blame the victim and say they were weak and that is why they were sucked into the cult. But I would argue that in my experience, all people want to better themselves, learn, improve, make more money, have healthy relationships and the like. People who find themselves in QAnon and other cults want to be involved with a community that is greater than themselves. They want to feel like their life has some greater purpose. Ultimately, in my experience they have just been co-opted through deceptive recruitment and indoctrination.

What advice would you give to families and friends who have someone they care about who is in QAnon? How can they extricate them?

Here is what you should not do. Do not argue with your friend or relative who has been manipulated into joining QAnon or another cult. Do not call them names and try to argue facts with them, because you'll just propel them deeper into the cult reality.

So what should be done? Brainwashing is not 100% effective and permanent, and people do wake up and get out of the cult. Understand that love is stronger than mind control. Maintain a regular relationship with the person you are trying to help. Agree to create boundaries. Agree to not talk about politics for example. Talk about areas where you have common ground. Empower the person to think for themselves.

The most powerful technique is asking a good question in a respectful way and waiting for an answer, and then following up. For example, the single most powerful frame to use when engaging somebody in a cult is as follows.

Say something such as, "Look, you're an intelligent, educated person. I respect you very much. It's clear that you believe sincerely that QAnon is real. I would like to think that I am an intelligent, educated person too. If what you are following with QAnon is real, and I'm not understanding it, then I need to know what you know. Let's agree to pursue truth together. If it is legitimate, it will stand up to scrutiny. And if it's not, why would either of us want to spend time believing and acting on things that aren't real?"

Then typically the Q person will send you 60 links and they'll say, "Do the research I did." Which is code and loaded language for, "I got indoctrinated. You get indoctrinated." And you should say, "You know what? I'm interested in pursuing this based on my faith and my relationship with you. So what I'd like to propose is you pick one thing that was very influential and important to you. Let's watch it together and agree to discuss it. After we do that, I get my turn and I will present something. We'll watch it together and we'll discuss it. And we'll take turns back and forth. Are you game?" If done properly, with love and respect — and the frame isn't, "I'm right, you're wrong. I'm smart, you're stupid for believing" but instead, "Let's find out together what's really true" — this can be the most effective approach that family members and friends can take to helping someone in QAnon.

The other thing I have learned in trying to help people extricate themselves from cults is that it is important to have a team or network of other family members and friends involved. It is a group that got them into QAnon, and it is more effective to have a group working to empower a person trying to leave the cult to start questioning things and doing effective reality-testing.


Chauncey DeVega

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

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