Originally published on the San Francisco Chronicle.
The person on the phone was desperate. Her father believed the election was stolen, the U.S. Capitol siege was staged and the COVID-19 vaccine was dangerous, possibly implanting a chip in his body or giving him the virus. Either way, he wasn’t getting one.
“Can you help?” the family member asked.
Colleen Russell said yes.
The Marin County psychotherapist, an expert in cult recovery, was accustomed to receiving calls describing someone who had spurned loved ones to follow a fringe idea or movement. Those callers often explained how the follower idolized a grandiose or fear-sowing figure promoting conspiracy theories or pseudoscience parroted by devotees.
But in several phone calls Russell has received in recent months, the referenced hypnotic leader was the president of the United States.
“They recognize it as a cult, and they look me up and call me,” Russell said.
No one is saying that the nearly 75 million people who voted for Donald Trump in November are part of a cult. But the deadly attack on the Capitol, which prompted Trump’s second impeachment, for “incitement of insurrection,” was carried out by people exhibiting cultlike behavior, local experts say, especially those subscribing to the bizarre and baseless QAnon conspiracy theory, which holds that Trump is battling a deep state of Satan-worshiping pedophiles.
Seeing these lies and mass delusions play out violently has raised concerns among some cult experts about a portion of Trump’s hard-core base, which includes people who were willing to storm the Capitol to keep him in power, a few even vowing to die or kill if necessary.
These beliefs may linger, perhaps for years, and breaking through would require Trump’s most ardent followers to realize what happened to them, said Janja Lalich, a cult and extremist group researcher. That means abandoning an identity and worldview and acknowledging they were wrong.
“The hardest thing anybody can do is leave a cult,” Lalich said. “It means accepting on some level that you’ve been duped.”
In the meantime, the prospect of violence and insurrection remains. On Saturday, law enforcement officers across the country were gearing up for potential Sunday attacks by Trump loyalists on each of the 50 state capitols, while planning extraordinary security for Joe Biden’s inauguration.
Lalich said she saw it coming for years, watching President Trump use tactics that have proved effective for cult leaders: Fearmongering. Chants. Promotion of a godlike ability to fix problems that may or may not exist. An “us versus them” dichotomy. Repetition of lies. A demand of loyalty.
She said the signs were clear early on, such as when Trump claimed his inauguration crowd was the largest in history despite photo evidence to the contrary.
The Capitol assault was all too familiar for Steve Hassan, who knew what the mob was feeling, how they got to the point of storming the seat of democracy. He remembers the day in 1974 he was at the U.S. Capitol in protest, ready for violence if necessary to protect a president he believed had been sent by God.
Hassan was a “Moonie,” a member of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, and the God-sanctioned president at the time was Richard Nixon, then embroiled in the Watergate scandal.
“I was groomed to die on command or kill on command,” he said. “I remember how crazy I was and how I got that way.”
Hassan said he saw similarities between Trump and Moon: the narcissism, the desire for absolute loyalty, the mocking or disparaging anyone who questioned or defied him. The need for attention, the exaggeration of achievements. The subversion of the opposition party and the media.
It’s a well-defined pattern, said Hassan, who wrote about it in his book, “The Cult of Trump.” In the book, he looked at the notorious San Francisco movement from the 1960s and ’70s, the Peoples Temple, which ended with the cyanide poisoning of more than 900 people in Guyana in 1978.
“Jim Jones, who, as he was taking his last breaths, told his followers at Jonestown that it was all ‘the media’s fault — don’t believe them,’” Hassan wrote.
Not all Republicans or Trump voters followed the president into an alternate reality.
Aniruth Kasthuri, president of the UC Berkeley College Republicans, voted for Trump in 2016. “I always vote party lines,” he said. In 2020, however, he checked the mark next to every Republican on his ballot except Trump.
Kasthuri, an electrical engineering major, said that over the past four years he watched as other conservatives fell under the president’s spell. “These people look at Trump like a god,” he said. “It truly is a bit of a cult-type system.”
Now, he fears for the future of his party, that Trump will not disappear but retain a stranglehold on the base. “He’s going to be active. He’s going to be out rallying,” he said. “There is no one to put his supporters in check.”
Hassan believes that after Biden’s inauguration and in the wake of the Capitol attack, some supporters will move away from Trump. “A lot of people are going to start thinking again and go, ‘What was I thinking?’” he said.
Other Trump supporters have sought to draw sharp lines differentiating types of support for the president. Kasthuri’s counterpart at Stanford University, Stephen Sills, said his club continues to support Trump, but condemns the Capitol attack and threats to Vice President Mike Pence.
He does not see a continuing respect for Trump as blind loyalty or cultlike devotion, but rather an acknowledgment of a president who is a “hero for the conservative movement.”
“As hesitant supporters of the president from the beginning, we’ve come to honor and respect a president who has governed the most conservatively of any president since Ronald Reagan,” Sills said. “The enthusiasm among Republicans and his base are emblematic of that fact.”
But Hassan fears a good number of more radical Trump and QAnon followers will remain committed to conspiracy theories about the coronavirus, the violence at the Capitol, Biden and the Democratic Party.
He has advice for family members and friends of those who hold fast to unfounded theories. Don’t cut them off. “The average person says, ‘Stop this B.S.,’ and gets angry,” he said. “What everyone needs to understand is they are indoctrinated.” Hassan added, “I’m smart. But I was in a cult.”
Yet helping those who can’t discern lies from truth is not an easy process, or a quick one, experts say. Most people who lose themselves to cultish beliefs hit bottom at some point, their doubts piling up until something happens that goes too far — and they decide to leave.
“Until then, they need to know they have something and someone to come back to,” Hassan said.
It might seem counterintuitive, but he recommends having Zoom dance parties with such friends, laughing about old times, talking about music and art. “It activates the good part of the brain,” he said. The message: “I know you’re intelligent. I know you have integrity. I know you love America.”
It reminds them of who they used to be. It also helps, experts said, if they know they’re not alone.
Documentary filmmaker Melissa Jo Peltier wanted fanatical Trump supporters to know they could leave because others had. Her film, “The Game Is Up,” profiles “disillusioned Trump voters” who share their journey.
“One of the things that works in 12-step programs is talking to the people who have been through it,” Peltier said. “Same thing with people in cults.”
Batya Goldberg, former president of the Brooklyn Teen Republican Club, was one of those who believed it all — that CNN was trying to brainwash her, that Trump would save the country. She attended rallies, where she stood for hours, chanting “Lock her up!” and “Build the wall!”
Like others profiled in the film, Goldberg eventually had enough. After Trump failed in 2017 to repudiate the white supremacist mob in Charlottesville, Va., and cozied up to Russian President Vladimir Putin rather than siding with traditional allies at the 2018 Helsinki summit, she knew it was over, but she didn’t know how to leave.
“I was at this kind of crossing point where I was like, ‘Well, what do I do now?’” she says in the film. “I was afraid of coming out and saying I don’t support this guy anymore.”
She eventually walked away, turning her back on a rambling Trump at one of his rallies.
It’s unclear what the spotlight on the Capitol siege will yield. Russell, the Marin County psychotherapist, said it will be important in the coming days, weeks and months for public officials to speak out and contradict Trump’s lies, starting with a declaration that Biden won fair and square. That will help open the door a crack, she said.
“Trump has inflamed the worst, most violent extremist tendencies in people,” she said. “It really does come down to each person realizing this is crazy.”