“Deprogramming” the Trump cult: Is it too late to “humanize those who worship at the altar of MAGA”?

In 2016, then Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton said that some of Donald Trump’s followers were a “basket of deplorables”:

You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people, now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric. Now some of those folks, they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.

Clinton was lambasted from both the left and the right in response to her statement. Trump, with his fake right-wing populism, used Clinton’s comments to rally the MAGA cult as part of his narrative that “real Americans” like them are oppressed and disrespected by “Washington DC elites” in their own country. The mainstream news media also used Clinton’s description of the MAGA movement as an opportunity to continue with their decades of rumor-mongering and general animus towards the Clinton family and to further advance their attempt to normalize (and elevate) then-candidate Trump.

Clinton’s claim that many of Trump’s followers were “human deplorables” was also widely viewed as being more evidence of how “elitist” and out of touch people like her (meaning the Democratic Party and “liberals”) were from “real” members of the (white) working class. The Democratic Party consultant class concluded that Hillary’s disrespect and “elitism” led to a refusal to understand the reasonable grievances of the so-called white working class and blamed that as the reason that they lost that prized group of voters — again. (Of note: Trump’s “white working-class voters” in 2016 had a household income that was higher than the national median; political scientists and other experts have repeatedly shown that is not “white working class” anxiety but instead white racism and white racial resentment and social dominance behavior that is the main factor behind support for Trump.) 

There is no similar demand that the country’s news media and political leaders go on a quest to develop a deep understanding and empathy towards black and brown working-class and poor people. Alas, in the seven or so years since Hillary Clinton’s bold truth-telling and warnings about the dangers that Trump and his MAGA movement and its basket of human deplorables she has repeatedly proven to be correct. And Clinton has remained undeterred. She continues to sound the alarm about the extreme dangers that Trumpism and neofascism and other forms of fake right-wing populism represent to American democracy and civil society.

Ultimately, when a future history of the Trumpocene is written – assuming there are real historians in the Orwellian nightmare that would be a second Trump regime and the end of democracy — it should include a subheading that reads “Hillary Clinton was right!”

In the most recent example of Hillary Clinton’s bold and uncomfortable truth-telling, last Friday she told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that Donald Trump continues to be a cult leader and that his MAGA followers will require a collective intervention if some sense of normalcy is to ever return to American society:

“Maybe there needs to be a formal deprogramming of the cult members,” Clinton told Amanpour. “And sadly, so many of those extremists, those MAGA extremists, take their marching orders from Donald Trump, who has no credibility left by any measure.”

Clinton added: “He’s only in it for himself.”

Clinton also said the following about Trump:

[He is] an authoritarian populist who really has a grip on the emotional [and] psychological needs and desires of a portion of the population and the base of the Republican party, for whatever combination of reasons.

[Republicans] “see in him someone who speaks for them and they are determined they will continue to vote for him, attend his rallies and wear his merchandise, because for whatever reason he and his very negative, nasty form of politics resonates with them….

Maybe they don’t like migrants. Maybe they don’t like gay people or Black people or the woman who got the promotion at work they didn’t get. Whatever reason.”

Predictably, Donald Trump and the other leaders, spokespeople, and propagandists on the right and those sympathetic to them, were enraged by Hillary Clinton’s suggestion that the MAGA movement is a cult whose members will require some type of mass psychological intervention and deprogramming.

But there is a very important difference between Hillary Clinton’s prescient warnings in 2016 and her recent warnings about the Trump MAGA cult. Now the American people and the world have more than seven years of experience with Trumpism and American neofascism and the horror, tumult, death, and other great troubles that such forces and leaders have empowered and unleashed. The question is now, will enough Americans listen to Hillary Clinton’s warnings and then vote against Trump and his MAGA movement in 2024? The future of the country and its democracy greatly depends on it.

In an attempt to better understand Hillary Clinton’s warnings about the Trump MAGA cult, her recent suggestions about deprogramming its members, and what potentially comes next, I asked a range of experts for their insights and reactions: 

Dr. Marc Goulston is a prominent psychiatrist, former FBI hostage-negotiation trainer and author of the bestsellers “Just Listen” and “Talking to ‘Crazy’.”

The challenge with “deprogramming” Trump’s base is that they have formed psychological adhesions and not just mere attachments to him. You can sometimes break attachments with reason, but to break an adhesion, you have to sever (i.e. deprogram) it. One of the challenges to doing that is that Trump is addicted to excitement – i.e. the adrenaline rush – and has addicted his followers to it. And the only thing more powerful than an adrenaline rush is the fear of an adrenaline crash and once addicted to the rush, people will do anything – which we’re seeing Trump’s need to stay in the spotlight every day – to avoid the crash. 

Something that people have lost understanding is that you can feed pleasure (dopamine) with excitement, which is fleeting along with the constant need to keep feeding it to maintain it, or with emotional connection (oxytocin) which is more satisfying and lasting. 

Dr. Lance Dodes is a retired assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a training and supervising analyst emeritus at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute.

In her recent comments describing Trump as an authoritarian populist, leading a cult of followers who are blinded to his criminality, Hillary Clinton summarized what many have known for years. Mental health professionals have repeatedly noted that Trump’s rampant paranoia, absence of a normal capacity for empathy, and massive dishonesty are signs of severe mental illness, specifically that regularly seen in populist psychopaths from Hitler to Putin. Yet, in 2023, the fact that he is one of these populist psychopaths is still treated as “news.”

Clinton’s hope to deprogram Trump followers, unfortunately, faces an uphill road. An important advantage for cult members is that their opinions, and their sense of worth, are supported by other cult members. To break away means incurring the hatred and even demonization from remaining cult members, who up to that point have served as a kind of family.

It would help people to break free if a large percent of the cult membership simultaneously realized, as the result of some major event, that the godlike emperor has no clothes, so no individual has to break away by himself. So far, impeaching Trump and charging him with many crimes, in multiple venues, has not been enough. There may have to be an even more outrageous action by Trump. Even then, Trump’s power to replace democracy with himself as dictator may not be undone until enough Republicans have the moral courage to publicly separate from him, making it easier for Trump followers to also leave.

Dr. Justin Frank is a former clinical professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University Medical Center and the author of “Trump on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President.” 

In a recent CNN interview, Hillary Clinton described Trump’s followers as a “cult” that “may need deprogramming.” I’ve written in the past about Trump’s “God complex” but Trump’s need to be a god combined with his followers’ need for a supreme being is what leads to cult formation. While a Trump 2024 defeat (should he get the Republican nomination and be qualified to serve) would damage the cult’s power, it won’t eliminate the factors that allowed Trump to cultivate it in the first place.

Clinton has had experience dealing with the power of cults, having predicted their danger as far back as the mid-1990’s when she warned of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” working to destroy her husband’s presidency. In 2016, candidate Trump tapped into the irrational fears that dominated much of that “conspiracy.”

As children, humans are naturally wired to look for heroic adults once they realize (as we all do) that our parental figures have clay feet. By age five, many children revert to putting their faith into organized religion and/or other authority figures like grandparents or teachers. Doing so becomes a source of comfort and security, helping children manage their fears as they grow and change. People whose early lives are characterized by insecurity and disappointment, unmitigated by the presence of kind and wise adults, tend to gravitate toward cults in later life.

Trump thrives on those leftover childhood fears and turns them into collective rage against what he calls the “deep state” – a stand-in for the exclusive parental couple, their bunker bedroom and all the secrets and goodies they keep from their poor child. This experience of feeling left out in the cold has deep effects on both psychological function and even on anatomical neurological development. In simple terms, the developing brain has two sides – left and right – that reflect feeling and thinking. In rational people, the two sides are linked together over time, one informing the other and vice versa. Cult-formation blocks that connection, making it difficult, if not impossible for cult followers to think in the face of the powerful feelings that are constantly, callously stoked by the cult leader to feed his own need for unconditional love. This also makes it difficult for those outside the cult to question its members’ allegiance, because facts don’t matter when they are blocked by powerful feelings. 

To defeat Trump in 2024 is a precondition for change, but not enough in itself since people with these needs already aroused will look elsewhere for a new messiah.  It seems inevitable that a GOP bereft of compassion, dignity, social responsibility and real ideas will have nothing to offer these sad souls but a bargain-basement imitation of the original cheap imitation of an American president.

Steven Hassan is one of the world’s leading experts on cults and other dangerous organizations, as well as how to deprogram people who have succumbed to “mind control.” Hassan was once a senior member of the Unification Church, better known as the “Moonies.” He is now the founder and director of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center.

In the world of effective communications, one always needs to consider who is the communicator and who is the target audience, and how to frame the messaging to have the greatest impact. Hillary Clinton was speaking to her followers. By not giving specifics about what she means by formal deprogramming, I also don’t think she understands what formal deprogramming is, or the fact that the term deprogramming was coined by Ted Patrick in the 70s and involved coercion, which of course, one naturally now thinks about Chinese communist thought reform or reeducation programs.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

I’ve resisted the use of the term “deprogramming” for decades because the news media fixated on it. I started trying to reframe deprogramming towards what I see as “strategic interactive communications”, where it’s based on respect, curiosity, openness to really active listening and asking questions in an effective strategic manner with the goal of empowering people to understand the differences between do influence which includes informed consent, and conscience and critical thinking and reading what you want to read and talking to who you want to talk to, with undue influence, which is what I criticize in all of my lifework, meaning destructive, authoritarian cults of all types, where there’s malignant narcissist leader, hate, fear, dogma, opposition to the Other. Those relationships are also marked by a requirement for obedience and dependency.

From my point of view, politicians and the news media need to start thinking about how to discuss political polarization in a way that doesn’t just amplify the polarization or upset others. They need to frame these discussions in terms of how we are all human beings. We also want to think about things from other points of view; We need to think about cooperation instead of polarization. We need a radical change in the messaging in this country if want it to come together and don’t want to amplify more chaos and destruction.

Rich Logis is a former right-wing pundit and high-ranking Trump supporter. Logis is the founder of Perfect Our Union, an organization that is dedicated to healing political traumatization; building diverse, pro-democracy alliances; and perfecting our Union.

I want to emphasize at the outset that none should construe anything I say as a downplay of the dangers of a second Trump presidency; the worst-case scenario outcomes—a retaliatory, politburo federal government, and attempts by Trump to remain president permanently, amongst other outcomes—are not hyperbolic. Trump’s re-election would irreparably damage America. None know what a post-Trump American democracy would look like, because there is no example to historically refer to, for guidance; it is a risk we cannot take.

Clinton is correct in saying that Trump embodies MAGA voters’ hopes, fears, desires and trauma. Yes, there were some valid reasons for supporting his candidacy, such as feelings of being ignored by politicians for years; and, yes, most MAGA voters are good people, deep down. But Trump—as he’s done since 2015—continues to lead them astray by exploiting and leveraging those concerns for his own gain. He does not care about his voters’ struggles; he sees them solely as his means by which to regain the presidency, just as cult leaders view their adherents as instruments to strengthen and consolidate their power.

Is Clinton correct that MAGA voters need to be de-programmed? For those who will vote Trump, no matter what he says or does, yes; that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose support is probably the truest statement Trump’s ever uttered.

Absorption into a cult (political, or otherwise) occurs gradually, and then suddenly, all at once; listen to anyone who escaped from a cult, and this is unambiguously clear. This was precisely my experience, as I fell further and further into the MAGA rabbit hole. Deprogramming, though, will be an arduous task. As a former MAGA grassroots activist, I implore everyone to try to humanize those who worship at the altar of MAGA. I recognize and respect that many opposed to Trump will recoil at this suggestion; I am well-suited to take on this challenge. Those who egress from cults are often assisted by former fellow cult members.

Though I don’t believe I’m the sole leading voice of those who left MAGA, I assure you that MAGA voters have rarely, if ever, heard from someone who was one of their own, but came to see the errors of his way. MAGA provides for what we naturally yearn for: a community and shared purpose. I can attest to the fact that the MAGA community and shared purpose keep its members in perpetual states of political trauma; it doesn’t have to remain this way.

The first step to healing and reconciliation is to electorally defeat Trump and his endorsed candidates; perhaps this is naive optimism, but I think this would result in more remorseful MAGA voters making known their regret for supporting Trump. MAGA won’t disappear, but it will be easier (not easy) to mend civic bonds with those who sever all ties to MAGA. However many there will be, for however long it takes, voters must repudiate MAGA at the polls, up and down ballots.

In addition to elections, cults always collapse from within, and we must assure the same fate for MAGA, whose voters need to be saved from themselves.

Read more

about the cult of Trump


Leave a Reply

Skip to toolbar