Add former cult members to the list of groups triggered by President-elect Donald Trump’s rise to power.
Steven Hassan, a licensed mental health counselor, rehabilitation expert and the founding director of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center — himself a former cult member — said that he has been working with other former members who are disturbed by similarities between the president-elect and traditional cult leaders.
“Much like the leaders of cults, Trump advertises himself as being better than others in an almost divine way,” Hassan wrote in a blog post shortly after Trump secured the Republican nomination. “Anyone who questions him is cut down with a barrage of insults and threats. He instills in his supporters an ‘us vs. them’ and ‘black & white’ mentality that raises tensions and anxieties throughout the world.”
In another blog post, Hassan breaks down Trump’s behavior during the campaign and how, like a cult leader, he has “turned these beliefs and practices onto others in order to recruit, indoctrinate, gain power, and deflect criticism.”
Also similar to cult leaders, Trump uses fears and phobias to manipulate his supporters’ emotions, Hassan explained. For example, someone who is xenophobic may be drawn to Trump’s promise of a ban on Muslims entering the country, believing that this policy may keep them safe. According to Hassan, the same reasoning can also be applied to Trump’s ability to attract voters with his propensity for sexism, racism and other hateful attitudes.
Abigail Bukas, administrator for the Freedom of Mind Resource Center, has also seen a significant trend in potential and current clients who are “profoundly upset” about the results of the November election. She said that many of them had to take a break from the news cycle, as they found Trump’s victory to be triggering.
But it’s not just the similarities between Trump and cult leaders that disturbs former cult members — it’s also the fact that someone like him was able to garner enough support to be elected.
“It’s not just what Trump says,” Bukas said. “It’s everyone’s reaction to it, and the realization that we live in a world where people can be taken in by a cult leader, and they’re not as safe as they thought they were. It’s about the whole system that allows things like this to happen.”
Hassan noted that Trump supporters appear to be acting like people do when they’re getting recruited by a cult, rising above their instincts or hardwiring and believing what they want to believe.
“Everybody wants to believe they’re special and have hope for the future,” he told SheKnows. “And everybody was a child once that needed to believe in a strong authority figure that would make things better.”
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Also a former cult member, Bukas explained that when people are in cults, they may see abuses going on internally and have doubts or concerns about them, but are conditioned by the leader not to think about them or to somehow justify the behavior.
“Sometimes those legitimate concerns are too troublesome to ignore,” she noted, “but if you see that other members are going along with it, that can be really troubling — that other people taken in and OK with the abuse.”
In other words, witnessing the rise to power of someone who mocks people with disabilities and openly brags about sexually assaulting women is difficult for many people, but especially for those who have lived through this power dynamic before. Bukas said that what bothers her the most is how Trump treats women.
“When there’s a whole culture of not addressing the concerns of victims, you can feel small and not taken care of,” she said. “When you see that in a larger picture, it really hammers it in.”
Moving forward, Hassan and Bukas will be using the start of the new presidential administration as a call to activism — specifically educating people on undue influence, fake news and propaganda.
According to Hassan, unless the average citizen is educated on how to discern ethical influence vs. unethical, undue influence — including researching and evaluating sources of information — it can be difficult to determine what is credible or factual in the media cycle.
“It’s really important for us to focus on this as a learning opportunity in a constructive way and not just get angry,” Bukas said. “We need to look at what will be effective and healthy for people.”