Originally published on North Jersey.
Steven Hassan marched to the United States Capitol prepared to kill. He believed the president was an archangel sent by God. But now, with the president facing impeachment and removal from office, Hassan and 350 of his fellow cult members tried something desperate. They arrived at the white granite steps of the Capitol to pray and fast for 72 hours.
Two days after Hassan’s protest ended, on July 27, 1974, the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach President Richard Nixon. Forty-six years later, Hassan watched another group of angry partisans invade the Capitol. Some in the mob believed President Donald Trump to be an agent of God.
“I was literally thinking, ‘I would have done this,’ ” said Hassan, formerly a leader of the Unification Church, a movement founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and known popularly as “the Moonies.”
“I mean, they just ordered us to fast and hold signs,” Hassan, now an expert on cults and author of “The Cult of Trump,” said of his former Moonie leaders. “But we were trained to kill or die on command. And we believed the enemy was Satan and Communism. So the mindset was very personally familiar to me.”
A radical response to radicals
The mob that attacked the Capitol last week to overturn the 2020 election was part of a cult-like movement that has taken control of the Republican Party and much of the American conservative apparatus, said Hassan and other cult experts. Many people who take part in this movement subscribe to false QAnon conspiracy theories, attend MAGA rallies and are beholden to Fox News and right-wing social media platforms. Many say they believe that Trump is an agent of God.
Many say they believe that Democrats, celebrities and even some Republicans belong to a nonexistent cult that kidnaps children and worship Satan.
And many members of the movement are fervent followers of Trump, Fox News entertainers Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, and conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, all of whom pretend to be sole possessors of wisdom required to fight an evolving cast of invented boogeymen — be they Muslims, Mexican immigrants or the nation’s first Black president.
“We’re seeing a cult on a national scale with Trump as the new messiah,” said Janja Lalich, professor emerita of sociology at California State University, Chico, and a former member of a cult called the Democratic Workers Party.
Others say the Trump movement falls just shy of being a cult. Followers of Trump and QAnon believe overlapping but divergent myths about the world, and they share no consistent codes of dress or devotional practices.
“It’s not a cult,” said Maria Power, a religion professor at Oxford University. “I actually see this as a cry for help.”
Whether the movement is a cult or not, Power and other experts agree that the best way to defuse it is to treat Trump’s followers as if they were members of a cult.
That means treating them like friends.
It means asking questions, showing empathy, listening carefully and responding humanely, Power said. It means learning all we can about each individual’s wall of beliefs, and looking for cracks in the wall — moments when the cult member doesn’t entirely believe one of Trump’s lies.
These small moments can lead to a broader realization that the entire movement is a lie: The COVID-19 pandemic is real, the “Deep State” does not exist, and nobody stole the 2020 election.
“All of us who have ever been in a cult know that every cult member has doubts. You have things that don’t seem right,” Lalich said. “So you’re trying to very gently shake them, shake their belief system in very gentle ways.”
What’s essential, Lalich said, is to let the process happen inside the mind of the follower. To leave the cult of Trump, each member must decide on her own to leave.
“I like the word ‘humble.’ That’s a word I use a lot,” Power said. “Those of us who want to dilute and disperse the movement actually have to do the hard work. It’s a nonviolent dialogue. You frame your questions in such a way to draw them out and make them think.”
It also means that tactics used by some anti-fascist activists, editorial writers and cable news pundits are precisely wrong. Calling Trump supporters nasty names only cements their connection to the cult, Hassan said.
And meeting fascists like the Proud Boys with violence in the streets only pushes members deeper into the web of racist lies.
“We can’t call people morons or crazy for following Trump. Intelligent, educated people can be indoctrinated, too,” said Hassan, who was a college student when he was recruited by the Moonies at age 19. “The first step is always developing an alliance with the person. Talking to them as a friend, and finding common ground.”
Friends in the Klan
A few years ago, Daryl Davis received a phone call from an exalted cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klansman needed some help. He was about to take a test on “Klankraft” — the organization’s policies and beliefs — to become a great titan, which in the Klan is like a promotion from city alderman to the county council.
But the exalted cyclops was lazy. He hadn’t studied for the test. So he called Davis, who knew all the answers. With Davis’s coaching, the Klansman won the promotion.
Daryl Davis is Black.
“He’s too embarrassed to call his grand dragon or imperial wizard, because he should have learned this stuff weeks ago,” said Davis, a race relations advocate, author and musician who has played with Chuck Berry, B.B. King and Jerry Lee Lewis.
A few months after the phone call, the newly appointed great titan quit the Klan.
“He knew I didn’t believe in what he stood for. But he knew I would give an honest answer, better than the people he knew in the Klan,” Davis said. “We laughed about it later.”
Millions of Americans watched last week’s attack on the Capitol in horror. How could any reasonable person interact with thugs who tried to end democracy by breaking into the Capitol, shoving police officers and threatening to kill members of Congress?
Davis’s hobby of befriending Klansmen shows how.
A son of diplomats who has lived and performed in 57 countries, Davis improvised strategies that seemed to work. The first step, he said, is to research the cult, learning its beliefs and nuances better than its own members.
“If they see that you have done your homework, it gives you credibility,” Davis said. “And your strongest asset is your credibility.”
The next step is to sit down with the cult member and have a talk. Many talks, in fact, over a long period of time, with a few ironclad rules.
Listen more. Talk less. Never yell, and never show anger. A successful cult interventionist doesn’t behave like a political partisan. Rather, he follows the model of Martin Luther King Jr., whose ideology of radical nonviolence led King to treat enemies with respect and love.
“If I show emotions, that’s exactly what he’s expecting. And he’s going to defend his reality,” Davis said. “So once he’s finished his vitriol and he’s exhausted, I’ve allowed him to be heard, I’ve treated him fairly, I’ve respected him. His wall is down. Now he feels compelled to reciprocate. He’s wondering: Why the hell haven’t I pushed back? Now he’s curious.”
Sometimes it takes months for the Klansman to get tired. But sooner or later, the racist cult member will ask the world-traveling Black man what he thinks.
This is the essential moment, Davis said — his first opportunity to find a message that challenges the cult’s ideology in the follower’s own mind.
“You cannot change anyone’s reality,” Davis said. “You can offer different perspectives. And when this person finds a perspective that resonates with them, they change their own reality. They have to come to it themselves.”
Four decades of academic research on cults has confirmed the essential parts of Davis’s strategy, said Hassan, Lalich and Power.
“It starts with empathy,” said Power, who has experienced Protestants in Northern Ireland calling her “Satan” because she’s Roman Catholic. “History has shown this isn’t a short-term process. It requires patience and thought. It also takes a lot of luck.”
Addressing the millions
The problem with this method, Davis and the academics agree, is that it’s slow. After 37 years of work, Davis has convinced about 200 people to leave the Klan.
That’s a tremendous achievement. It’s also a tiny sphere of influence when 40% of Americans believe COVID-19 was manufactured in a lab in China (it wasn’t) and 17% believe the lie that “A group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media,” according to a poll conducted in late December by NPR and Ipsos, a market research company.
Some experts question whether slow, empathetic conversations can change the minds of so many people.
“Can you reason with toddlers?” said Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst College and an expert on the cult of personality created by former Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez.
Others say such assumptions aren’t helpful. Hassan, the former Moonie, said the process must start by educating activists, journalists, police officers and politicians that even if Trump’s lies are dumb, Trump’s followers aren’t stupid.
“Look at the media they’re watching, and the disinformation they’re getting,” Hassan said of Fox News, Breitbart and other outlets that promote conspiracy theories and lies.
The second step, Hassan and Power said, is to help people with influence on the right, including responsible evangelical and Republican leaders, address Trump and QAnon believers about hot-button topics like COVID-19 and the election.
“We need to find creative ways to debunk some of the big lies, QAnon and all that dangerous nonsense,” Lalich said. “It’s targeted, non-confrontational discussions, trying to get the person to think rationally again.”