When I was a dedicated member of Herbert Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God cult I was aware of the existence of “dissident” literature that had led a few fellow members to “fall away” into the clutches of Satan. I had no desire to seek it out and read it because I “knew” it would be full of lies; or if some of it did have nuggets of truth those pieces would be distorted or irrelevant. How could “truth” be irrelevant? Easy: I “knew” Herbert Armstrong was not a perfect saint and that whatever sins he had committed were covered by God’s mercy and the only important thing was that he was now doing “God’s work”. The only time I began to open my mind to at least reading some of that literature was after I had allowed some doubts about the church enter my mind. Even then, I found myself reacting with anger against some of what I had read. The criticisms showed no mercy to my lingering feelings of loyalty to the church that had been the centre and love of my life for so many years so for a while I hated it for the sheer brutality of its truth-telling. So the following reading list is for those Trump loyalists who have allowed niggling questions to enter their thoughts on occasions. Others will simply ignore it or dismiss the works as lies or “irrelevant truths” without bothering to seriously check them out.
I was inspired to post this list after skimming Steven Hassan’s The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control. Many ex-cultists will recognize the name Hassan as the author of Combatting Cult Mind Control. Hassan’s personal cult experience was with the Moonies but his analysis demonstrates the common elements involved in a wide ranging spectrum of religious cults. Hassan writes in The Cult of Trump,
Cult members believe that they are completely in control of their own thoughts, feelings, and actions. That’s true of most, if not all, of us—we believe that we are in possession of our faculties, that we make our own decisions and choose our own path. Yet, as we have seen, we are all continually being influenced by our parents, friends, bosses, colleagues, government, and the media, both traditional and online. We all have an illusion of control. It’s part of being human. This raises the question: how would any of us—Trump supporters or critics—know if we were being unduly influenced? Here is a five-step formula for answering that question, one that requires an investment of time and energy, but that is quite powerful. I have geared this five-step experiment to a Trump supporter but anyone could benefit from it, no matter their political affiliation or group involvement.”
I don’t think it’s quite that simple, though I’d like to be wrong on that point. Hassan’s first point of advice is for anyone to “take a break from your situation — disconnect from all sources of influence that could reinforce your current point of view.” Easy said. But that’s another discussion entirely. The next points get to the “essential reading”.
Educate yourself: Read about social psychology, in particular mind control, and the models created by Robert Jay Lifton, Margaret Singer, along with my BITE model. Educate yourself about social influence techniques, propaganda, and logical fallacies. Libraries are great places. Hopefully this book has given you a good start. You also might contact responsible, ethical mental health professionals to help you.
Certainly, my mind began to open as never before when I heard a psychologist explain cult thinking in a radio interview. I have since explored all forms and ways in which individuals and groups are attracted to “radical” ideas and commitments that are deemed by many to be hostile and harmful to both the individual and the wider society. There are significant overlaps between political and religious “radicalization” as I’ve discussed (from the professional literature) here several times.
But to get to the point of this post: Hassan’s next item —
Listen to critics and former believers: Seek out highly respected, credentialed, or experienced experts who hold views that differ from your own. Look for verifiable facts. The Mueller Report, though a daunting 448 pages long, is an important read, especially since Trump and Barr have stated their biased conclusions. Robert Mueller gave a brief but definitive statement before resigning from the Department of Justice, which is worth listening to or reading. If you are a Trump supporter and think Trump is a great leader, or even God-chosen, seek out the views of critics and evaluate dispassionately what they have to say. Listen to your inner voice as well as your conscience. When you hear trigger words like “fake news,” “deep state,” or “radical Democrats,” adopt a neutral attitude and use your critical abilities to sort through sources, check credentials, and look for supporting factual evidence. Ask probing questions like “Why is that?” or “Is that plausible?” Listen to what others have to say and reach your own conclusions based on research and evidence. Read books, newspapers, blogs, and magazines that run the gamut of political orientation, remembering always that facts do matter. When a leader or group makes extraordinary claims, demand extraordinary proof. The burden of proof is always on the leader or group to prove their claims. It’s not on us to disprove them. If Trump claims that he knows more than anyone else on a subject, fact-check his assertions. I have quoted several resources in this book including books written by David Cay Johnston, Bob Woodward, Malcolm Nance, and James Comey, to name just a few.
Let’s itemize the “essential reading” in that paragraph a little more directly by adding links to the titles. (There are other sources that copyright does not permit me to make public. Private correspondence might be more appropriate for some of those.)
- The Mueller Report
- Complete statement from Special Counsel Robert Mueller
- Johnston, David Cay. 2016. The Making of Donald Trump. Brooklyn: Melville House.
- Johnston, David Cay. 2018. It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Especially informative is Pulitzer prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston’s DC Report website. If you are not familiar with that site then read the “about” page to give you some background. Johnston and his fellow authors demonstrate in post after post the gap between what Trump claims to have accomplished and what has really been done.
- Woodward, Bob. 2018. Fear: Trump in the White House. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Woodward, Bob. 2020. Rage. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Nance, Malcolm, and Rob Reiner. 2018. The Plot to Destroy Democracy: How Putin and His Spies Are Undermining America and Dismantling the West. New York: Hachette Books.
- Comey, James. 2018. A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership. New York: Flatiron Books.
“To name just a few”, as Hassan says. Testimonies from former loyalists are most relevant, in my view:
- Cohen, Michael. 2020. Disloyal: A Memoir: The True Story of the Former Personal Attorney to President Donald J. Trump. New York: Skyhorse.
Cohen on his recognition that his loyalty to Trump was “cultish”:
[Trump] also possessed a cult-like hold over his supporters, some of them demonstrably unhinged and willing to do anything to please or protect the President. I knew how committed these fanatics were because I’d been one of them: an acolyte obsessed with Donald J. Trump, a demented follower willing to do anything for him, including, as I vowed once to a reporter, to take a bullet.
. . .
As I said at the start, I was in a cult of personality. And I loved it. I reveled in the intrigue and gamesmanship and manipulation, as terrible as that sounds. I had convinced myself I was in on the joke with the Boss, but, in truth, the real joke was on me.
. . .
. . . I discovered that despite the rhetoric, Trump was . . . screwing the many contractors and subcontractors who were working on the project. This wasn’t unusual, and a significant part of my job description involved dealing with vendors the Boss had decided to rip off. This behavior was part of what constituted “loyalty” to Donald Trump: whatever he wanted done, I would do, no matter how dishonest, or dishonorable. Trump saved the crappiest jobs for me, a fact that I took pride in; I was given the dirty work because I was willing to get dirt on my hands—and blood if necessary.
If that seems bizarre to you, think about it like being under the spell of a cult leader. I don’t mean that as a cliché or an accusation: I mean literally. How did Jim Jones get his followers in Guyana to drink the poisoned Kool- Aid (actually, it was a cheap knockoff called Flavor Aid) and commit mass suicide? The answer was that Jones took control of the minds of those drawn to him, not all at once but gradually, over time, by luring them into his mind.
“Stop drinking the Kool-Aid,” we would say to each other at the Trump Organization all the time.
The joke wasn’t really a joke, even as we joshed around. Trump would say so many things that were illogical or just plain bullshit, as we consciously would know, but we would stay on his message, even though we knew it was nonsense. We would repeat what he said, as if it were true, and then we’d repeat the message to one another so often that we would actually begin to believe the distortions ourselves.
This mind meld is what I see every day as I sit in prison watching the nightly news from the White House. Trump’s staff and advisors aren’t all so stupid that they don’t understand, for example, that extorting the President of Ukraine to investigate Democratic candidate Joe Biden is a terrible, terrible idea and precedent, or that downplaying a global pandemic might work for one news cycle but will only harm innocent people over time. But witness the politicians and media folks like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh making excuses for Trump, or saying he did nothing wrong. Or the pathetic spectacle of Rudy Giuliani committing harakiri for Trump, just like I used to do, somehow imagining that the fate that befell me and Roy Cohn won’t happen to him—as if the rules of gravity have been suspended magically. Think of all the responsible and conservative and moral, even devoutly religious, Trump supporters not just rationalizing or explaining away his transparent dishonesty, but actually turning it upside down and saying it’s perfectly normal.
. . .
This was part of his cult-leader persona—his slow, incremental, relentless way of saying nasty things to me about my abilities and intelligence, things that weren’t true, until some part of me started to believe him.
. . .
Recognizing that reality is one of the most humbling things I have been forced to admit to myself, and confess in public, a true measure of the destructive nature of Trump’s cult.
. . .
Pass the Kool-Aid, right. But here’s the thing that I never hear mentioned, but is fundamental to understanding the cult thinking that envelopes Trump’s world: Jim Jones drank the Kool-Aid in Guyana too. Jones believed his own apocalyptic bullshit, just as Trump nodded in agreement and looked around for approval as I spoke that day in church; the reason cults exist is because the cult leader has manifested his own crazy way of seeing the world.
Jared Kushner personifies this illness. As the grandson of a Holocaust survivor who was forced to hide in the woods in the family’s village in Poland from the Nazis during the Second World War, he now stood silently to the side while Trump demeaned and dehumanized immigrants.
Remember when I said in the foreword that you’re not going to like me, or the things I did? Well, this is an example. I praised Trump in ways that I knew were not only untrue but downright dishonest, stooping so low as to invoke the plight of my own ancestors in Eastern Europe during the Second World War. Hard to think of a way I could have topped that particular load of horseshit, except to say that I actually believed myself at the time, at least on some level, as I willfully turned a blind eye to all the red-alert signals I had witnessed.
And of course,
- Trump, Mary L. 2020. Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man. Simon & Schuster.
Let’s add a few more for good measure,
- Heffernan, Virginia. 2020. “Call Trumpism What It Is: A Cult.” Los Angeles Times, January 10, 2020.
- Lee, Bandy X., Robert Jay Lifton, Gail Sheehy, William J. Doherty, Noam Chomsky, Judith Lewis Herman M.D, Philip Zimbardo Ph.D, et al. 2017. The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.
- Post, Jerrold, and Stephanie Doucette. 2019. Dangerous Charisma: The Political Psychology of Donald Trump and His Followers. Pegasus Books.
There are others of course, but I have singled out those I think are most useful on the basis that they are written by professional analysts (Trump’s stress on anti-intellectualism will cause many Trump supporters to shun these like any plague except covid-19) and persons who were personally closest to Trump.
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