Americans have recently been transfixed by the drama of a narcissistic, bullying, autocratic leader experiencing a fall from power. I’m referring to Keith Raniere, leader of the infamous cult NXIVM, whose rise and fall is depicted in HBO’s “The Vow” and the Starz series “Seduced.” Though most of his followers have left the group, Raniere — who was sentenced to 120 years in prison — still manages to exert control over his few remaining members, including a man whose two daughters were sexually abused by Raniere when they were children.
The proposition seems outrageous and immediately raises the question: How can they still believe in him? How could they have followed him in the first place? The question has gained new meaning in the aftermath of the recent presidential election. Joe Biden won the popular vote by more than 7 million votes, but Donald Trump received 74 million votes — 11 million more than he did in 2016. Biden supporters wonder: How can so many people continue to support a president who lies, cheats, abandons allies, sides with despots, has allowed more than 306,000 Americans to die of COVID-19, and undermines the foundations of democracy by insisting, with no evidence, that he won the election in a landslide?
Surely they must be brainwashed. Meanwhile, Trump supporters claim that the liberal media have indoctrinated Biden supporters. Both sides are demonizing and blaming the other. As the holidays approach and thoughts turn to gathering with families and friends, safely, many of us wonder if it’s possible, given the deep divisions in our country.
It can be done. Forty years ago, my family rescued me from a cult, the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon, popularly known as the Moonies. Since then, I’ve helped thousands of families whose loved ones were drawn in by narcissistic leaders.
When families first come to me, their initial impulse is to argue their loved one out of the group by persuading them that the leader is evil, manipulative, and crazy. It almost always fails. It puts the person on the defensive and ends up pushing them deeper into the group. It reaffirms the us-versus-them mindset that is a central part of their indoctrination.
Instead, families should take a strategic approach based on three steps: learning about mind control and social influence; building rapport and trust; and engaging in tactical conversations. Followers of narcissistic leaders often undergo a personality change. They develop a “cult self,” one modeled after the leader, that masks their “authentic self.” The overall goal is to elicit and connect with a person’s true self. Though many in Trump’s base exhibit a kind of cult-like fervor, and may even appear to have undergone a personality change, not all Trump supporters are true believers. Still, many show a level of devotion that goes beyond conventional alliances or political beliefs.
To reach them, start by educating yourself. Cult leaders use a variety of tactics to recruit and indoctrinate followers. Trump has mastered many of these techniques — sowing fear and confusion, distracting and deflecting, creating alternative realities, outright lying, shunning and belittling critics, and perhaps most effective, promoting a black-and-white, us-versus-them mindset. Yet human beings are social creatures. As decades of social psychology research reveals, we continually influence one another in all kinds of ways.
The next step is to build rapport and trust. Look at old photos, videos, e-mails, letters, and cards to reconnect with positive feelings about loved ones. Consider writing an e-mail in anticipation of seeing your loved one, either in person or virtually, and include some old photos and videos. Agree in advance that politics will be off-limits for the day. Tell stories and reminisce. The goal is to enjoy one another.
If all goes well, suggest meeting again to discuss an agreed-on subject. It’s OK to acknowledge your political differences, but do so by focusing on a more general issue, such as the role of the media, advertising, and propaganda in politics. Share your research. Talk about specific instances in your life when outside influences have swayed your political beliefs. Hopefully, they will do the same and see parallels with their own situation.
Most important, ask thoughtful questions and listen to the answers. When people feel heard and respected, they will be more likely to listen to you. They will feel freer to connect the dots in what you are saying. I have counseled people out of hate groups using this approach.
On Jan. 20, Trump will be out of the White House. Whether he faces legal charges and ends up in jail, like Raniere, is another matter, but his influence is likely to continue. A massive educational effort will be needed to help his followers realize that they were duped and that truth, facts, science, and the rule of law matter. All of us who love America need to make an effort to reconnect and rebuild our faith and trust in one another. I can’t think of a better time to start than at the holidays.
Steven Hassan is a licensed mental health counselor and author of “The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How The President Uses Mind Control.”