It has been almost a year and a half since Jan. 6, 2021, when Donald Trump and his cabal attempted to nullify the results of the presidential election, and by doing so effectively bring an end American democracy. By any reasonable standard, this was the greatest crime committed by an American president in the country's history.
Last Thursday night, the House committee tasked with investigating Jan. 6 and the larger threat to American democracy held the first in a series of televised hearings. Its preliminary findings are that Trump and numerous allies, including Republican members of Congress, orchestrated a sophisticated, well-funded, nationwide effort that included the Big Lie and other propaganda about "election fraud," dozens of spurious legal challenges designed to subvert the electoral outcome and undermine public faith in democracy, and other attempts to rig the outcome in Trump's favor.
The coup plot also involved premeditated political violence and terrorism as seen in the attack on the Capitol by right-wing paramilitaries and thousands of other Trump followers. Trump's coup plot also involved proposals to invoke martial law and use the military and other security forces to "confiscate" voting machines and presumably engage in other nefarious tasks as ordered.
The ultimate goal of this elaborate plot was for Trump to remain in power indefinitely as an political strongman who rules by declaring a perpetual "national emergency" or finding some other quasi-legal justification to end democratic government.
Trump and his cabal's plan came much closer to succeeding than most people recognized at the time. In that sense, the events of Jan. 6 were practice for a future coup attempt — one far more likely to succeed, given that America's pro-democracy forces are being defeated at almost every turn.
Many people would like to erase the fact that Vladimir Putin wanted Trump elected in order to undermine American democracy. His plan was remarkably successful.
There are many people who would prefer to erase this fact from memory and history: Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his intelligence services to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, with the goal of putting Donald Trump in power and thereby undermining and destabilizing American democracy. As confirmed again by the House Jan. 6 committee's presentation, Putin's plan was remarkably successful.
In fact, none of this is a revelation; with the exception of a few new details, all this information has been public knowledge for some time. The real power of the House committee's first hearing lay in efficiently connecting the dots, navigating a mountain of evidence, and ultimately framing a devastating case that Donald Trump and his co-conspirators should be prosecuted and convicted on numerous criminal charges.
In just over two hours, the committee provided new information that confirmed some of the rumors and rumblings around Trump's coup plot and the events of Jan. 6. Some of Trump's Cabinet members, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from power following the attack on the Capitol. Vice President Mike Pence reportedly refused to consider this despite ample justifications given Trump's erratic and dangerous behavior.
Trump was reportedly elated that his followers wanted to kill Mike Pence for refusing to cooperate with the coup plot. But Trump cannot plausibly claim that he didn't know he had lost the election: He was repeatedly told by political advisers and legal experts, including Attorney General Bill Barr, that Joe Biden had won the election and that voter fraud had not played a role.
At least one Republican member of Congress sought a pardon from Trump for his role in the coup plot, a de facto admission of criminal culpability. As for the violence on Jan. 6, to a significant degree it was premeditated and planned well before Jan. 6 and Trump's speech urging his followers to march on the Capitol. Members of the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys have now been indicted by the Justice Department on charges of seditious conspiracy.
In total, as outlined by the House select committee during their first public hearing on Thursday, the unifying theme so far is that Donald Trump is a criminal mastermind, with a remarkable ability to corrupt the people around him by ensnaring them in a web of antisocial and pathological values and behavior. Donald Trump is a political cult leader, an apparent sociopath and an incipient fascist strongman who commands the loyalty of tens of millions of Americans.
Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
To discuss the current state of the Trump cult I recently spoke with Steven Hassan, one of the world's leading experts on cults and other dangerous organizations, as well as how to deprogram people who have succumbed to "mind control." Hassan was once a senior member of the Unification Church, better known as the "Moonies." He is now founder and director of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center 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 discusses Trump's enduring power over his followers and why it has outlasted his presidency. He argues that right-wing Christian churches, Fox News, conspiracy theorists, right-wing social media and other propaganda machines are keeping Trump's cultists loyal and further radicalizing them. He warns that the cult is actually bigger than Donald Trump and may outlast him, because "today's Republican Party is part of an authoritarian cult movement that hates democracy and freedom."
Hassan also reflects on his own experience as a cult member who was conditioned to be willing to kill on command. He warns that Trump's most loyal followers would likely obey such orders targeting Democrats, liberals, progressives, Muslims, black and brown people, or other designated enemies.
Donald Trump is a political cult leader, but he is no longer president. How does that influence his power over the cult members? What happens next?
My thesis was completely confirmed after Jan. 6 and all the efforts by the GOP to avoid being held accountable for their role in Trump's coup attempt.
Trump would never have been elected if not for the thousands of right-wing Christian ministers who told their followers he was doing the work of God. As a cult leader, he was a perfect fit for their beliefs.
I agreed to write "The Cult of Trump" with the knowledge that Trump was a malignant narcissist. He fits the stereotypical profile of a cult leader. I viewed him as the leader of a cult of personality. His business is also part of his cult. As I began to do the research for my book, it became very clear to me that he would not have been elected president if not for the thousands of new apostolic reformation ministers supporting him and then telling their millions of followers to believe in Trump as someone doing the work of God. They represent a right-wing Christian religious movement that does not believe in equality under the law, or in civil rights for women and those not of their faith. These right-wing Christian leaders want to destroy any type of organized effort to advance liberty and freedom and knowledge. Trump as a cult leader and authoritarian is a perfect fit for their beliefs.
What is the role of the Big Lie in Trump's cult and the larger movement?
The Big Lie operates on the assumption that the more extreme the lie, the average person cannot even imagine making up such a lie. The average person then rationalizes the Big Lie as being true because the opposite somehow cannot be true. The Big Lie is ultimately bigger than most people's ability to contemplate it. It is just too much of a lie to not be true. What solidifies it is constant repetition, and it also works because the leader projects the Big Lie onto some type of enemy. Mind control cults always need an enemy — a devil to focus people's anger and negative emotions on.
What is the relationship between the Republican Party and Trump's cult? So many journalists and other professional politics-watchers still do not understand that Trumpism is much bigger than one man, or that it's a mistake to say that the Republican Party was "taken over" by Trump and his cult.
Today's Republican Party is part of an authoritarian cult movement that hates democracy and freedom. They want blind obedience. They want people to distrust science and reason and critical thinking. Another example of how cults work is the belief that a person can create their own reality, where if a person truly believes something then it must be true. Of course that is ridiculous.
That is why it is important for the Department of Justice to prosecute Donald Trump and the other top Republicans who were involved in the coup attempt. A message needs to be sent to the cult members that reality exists and that there are consequences for criminal behavior. Right now, these Trump Republican cult members believe that manmade laws do not apply to them, because they exist on some higher plane or alternate reality.
The Trumpists and other fascists are now burning books they deem to be "dangerous" or "un-American," and targeting books by Black and brown authors or by and about the LGBTQ community. What is the role of book-burning and book-banning, in terms of cults and mind control?
Book burnings are an example of information control. That is a key part of the authoritarian cult. Book burnings are part of an escalating pattern that ends with arresting and killing journalists and other truth-tellers.
Republicans have wanted to destroy public education for decades. To have a theocracy or an authoritarian regime, you need uneducated citizens.
Republicans and other right-wing authoritarians have wanted to destroy public education for decades. Why? Because an educated citizen is what a democracy needs. To have a theocracy, for example, or some other type of authoritarian regime, you need uneducated citizens, especially young people. That is one of the main reasons why the right wing pushes for homeschooling and charter schools. The dumbing down of Americans is a hugely important part of their anti-democracy project.
Donald Trump has suggested that his followers must be ready to kill and die for his cause. He praises the Jan. 6 terrorists as patriots, victims and political prisoners. Michael Flynn has told people at his events that they should be prepared to "charge machine-gun nests" to defend their children against "critical race theory." How does this fit into the relationship between the cult leader and his followers?
I was taught such things when I was in the Moonies. I was told to be prepared, if North Korea invaded South Korea, to go to the front lines and die. I was later trained to die or kill on command without hesitation. Michael Flynn is an expert on military intelligence. He knows exactly what he is going to do. Flynn is creating an army of people to engage in a civil war.
Who do you think is likely to follow such orders?
We need to start with the military vets who feel betrayed by the U.S. government. Some of them may also have emotional or psychological issues as well. There are many veterans in the cult of Trump, and they're trained killers. If you make moral appeals and claim that you are acting in the name of God and country, then it is easy to get people to sacrifice their comfort and even their money, their marriage and their families for the cause. Once you make it into a matter of good and evil, and then psychologically condition a person that the other side are not really human, it is easy to get people to engage in lethal violence.
How do you explain Trump's enduring power over his followers, and over Republican voters as a whole?
The biggest single bloc of true believers are the members of right-wing Christian fundamentalist churches and other groups. These are authoritarian religions where the members believe that their pastor is an apostle who is directly connected to God and getting direct revelations.
If the pastor says, "God wants Trump," you're going to believe in Trump. If the pastor says, "God gave me a revelation where we are now following Ron DeSantis. God's taken the blessing away from Donald Trump," then those people are going to blindly follow DeSantis. Why? Because they're already in a mind-control cult.
How have Trump, the Republican Party and other right-wing leaders been able to successfully create an alternate reality for their followers?
If the pastor tells you God wants Trump, you'll believe in Trump. If the pastor says God has taken the blessing away from Trump and we're now following Ron DeSantis, those people will blindly follow DeSantis.
It started with an increasingly extreme Republican Party and right-wing movement. They have their own media, churches and so forth. The members are just voting for the party now, without doing much critical thinking. It was incremental at first, but now the Trumpists are the hardcore base of the authoritarian political movement. These diehard Republicans and other conservatives are in Christian religious cults, or they've been sucked into QAnon and other apocalyptic, "end of days," great-reset conspiracy theories. It is all related.
Outsiders often say that Trump is dumb or stupid and make fun of his rallies. They say his speeches are incoherent. When I listen to Trump and observe his rallies, I see a dangerous and sophisticated propaganda machine and brainwashing operation. The use of repetition and the manipulation of emotions and violent imagery is highly intentional.
If they are already indoctrinated, these rallies and other repeated messaging are just more confirmation, reinforcement and community-building. It makes these Trump cultists feel like they are not alone, that they are part of a big powerful movement. Fox News is an integral part of this as well. When Fox News keeps claiming that it is the most powerful cable news network, that makes the viewers feel like they are part of a powerful community and movement. It is very strategic.
Many experts on national security, terrorism and related topics are warning that the United States is on the verge of a second civil war or a sustained right-wing insurgency, and that Jan. 6 was just the beginning. What is your estimate of the likelihood of Trump's cult members engaging in widespread violence?
Ninety-five percent. I am certain there will be a civil war or other type of massive violence. I say this as a former cult leader who wanted to take over America and thought that democracy was Satanic, and that we must take over the world for God. Part of that mission was getting rid of Satan's army. The likelihood of a second civil war in America, because of Trumpism and these other authoritarian cults, is very high.
Will the average Trump supporter participate in this violence?
I'm going to apply the rule of thirds: One-third will double down and engage in acts of violence. Another third will not follow the commands. The middle third will make their decision based on what their peers are doing. I wish the news media would understand the danger we're in. The people who believe that Donald Trump is an agent of God are going to be the ones committing most of these violent acts.
Read more on our 45th president and his long-term effects: