If you are interested in the field of cults, Chinese brainwashing and thought reform, as well as apocalyptic cults, like the terrorist cult Aum Shinrikyo, then you already know some of Dr. Lifton’s many important contributions. My previous interview with Dr. Lifton was in July 2020 when we discussed Trump, COVID-19, and racism. Since then, much has escalated. As my mentor (from 1976), and now colleague, and subject-matter expert, I am thrilled once again to have the opportunity to interview Dr. Lifton.

This time, we discussed the current situation (interview was conducted December 16th, 2020) with America and what to do about it. Donald Trump has lost the election but the harm he has done to the United States and the American people is incalculable. This includes COVID-19, the climate change crisis and undermining of democratic institutions. Since this interview, we have learned of a massive cyber espionage attack by Russia on the most important government agencies. Donald Trump has also been issuing a flurry of pardons to cronies who have committed serious crimes and deserve to serve their sentences in the name of justice. There is hope though!

Dr. Lifton is quite prolific and has written many important books, listed below. In his most recent book, Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry, he proposes a radical idea: that the psychological relationship between extremist political movements and fanatical religious cults may be much closer than anyone thought. Exploring the most extreme manifestations of human zealotry, Lifton highlights an array of leaders, including Donald Trump—who have sought the control of human minds and the ownership of reality. For those that have not yet read all of his other books, this one is a summary of his essential work and a must-read!

In Losing Reality, Lifton builds on his book, Destroying the World to Save It.  The apocalyptic impulse—that of destroying the world in order to remake it in purified form—is not limited to religious groups but is prominent in extremist political movements such as Nazism and Chinese Communism, and also in some of the groups supporting Donald Trump. Lifton focused on the sarin gas cult of Japan, Aum Shinrikyo. Their leader, Shoko Asahara was hung after sitting in jail for some 20 years.

Robert Jay Lifton, MD

Dr. Lifton is a National Book Award-winning psychiatrist, historian, public intellectual, author and a leading authority on the nature of cults, political absolutism, and mind control. He has taught at Yale University, Harvard University, the City University of New York, and is currently Lecturer in Psychiatry at Columbia University.

His 1961 book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China, was instrumental in my deprogramming from the Moon cult in 1976. When we first met and discussed Moon brainwashing in 1976, he validated me and heartily encouraged me to study psychology in order to help others.

Lifton has spent decades exploring psychological extremism. His pioneering concept of what he now calls the “Eight Deadly Sins” of Thought Reform has been widely quoted in writings about cults, and embraced by members and former members of religious cults seeking to understand their experiences. These criteria are:

  1.  Milieu control
  2.  Mystical manipulation (or planned spontaneity)
  3.  The demand for purity
  4.  The cult of confession
  5.  Sacred science
  6.  Loading of the language
  7.  Doctrine over person
  8.  Dispensing of existence


There are cultic dimensions in play with Trump and his followers. Trump has the stereotypical profile of a destructive cult leader–malignant narcissism. He is a liar who believes he is above the law. Despite the Electoral College’s confirmation that Joe Biden is President-elect, Trump continues to propagandize broadly–saying the election was stolen from him. No one who is close to Trump thinks he actually believes this, but he is raising many millions of dollars continuing to spin this false narrative. January 20, 2021 cannot come soon enough when Joe Biden and Kamala Harris bring a competent administration to address our many challenges.

Sadly, an estimated sixty to seventy million people still believe that Trump won the election. Trump has been insistent in rejecting the truth of the election, which is an indication of the “reality disorder” that affects our society.

There is evidence that Trump is psychologically unwell. His mind is likely anything but coherent. He knows he lost the election but, in another part of his mind, he still needs to believe he won. People can hold two contradictory antagonistic views of any matter, such is the nature of the human mind. There is conflict or dissonance between the two, rather than the peace that living in integrity brings. This whole issue of “reality” is now perhaps the most important one for us as psychological professionals to address at this time of transition. One way to begin that address is to recognize that belief is not some absolute that stays in the mind in a single form forever. Belief is a form of adaptation. Followers and cults can embrace the entire constellation of a guru’s falsehood because it serves them in their adaptation at that point in their lives and adaptation is, after all, the great human evolutionary achievement. This is why we have become such masters of the universe. But, at this time, we are in grave danger of doing ourselves in. So this issue of reality and truth, and the means by which we adapt to it, is what really confronts us as we see a transition in administration.

We are adapting to a digital reality that is easy to manipulate with misinformation, disinformation, and deep-fake videos. This digital reality is absolutely crucial and central to so much that’s happening. This includes QAnon, a psychological warfare operation based upon alternate reality gaming structure, designed to make people try to solve the puzzles of Q-drops. There is also hypnotic stuff intentionally being used to indoctrinate people into black-and-white, all-or-nothing belief systems.

We are vulnerable and the pandemic with its isolation is making people more susceptible to influence and manipulation. The virus is hard to deny due to the incidence of contagion, illness and death and progress is being made to combat it with vaccines. But we must fight to sustain actuality and truth due to reality-falsifiers that refuse and deny the significance of the virus and vaccine; this is life-and-death terrain.

Trump and his followers are responsible for tens or even hundreds of thousands of deaths by their own collusion in regards to the coronavirus. One can apply that analysis to climate change, as well. They contribute to the potential end of our civilization by not only rejecting but defying necessary steps to take in connection with climate. In this and many other ways, we are ridding ourselves of a criminal administration. Our task is to make known as well as we can how these reality distortions can be deadly and criminal.

We live in an age of influence, not a post-truth world. Truth is science and testable; we can maintain an objective reality. People are confused between ethical and unethical influence;

What Can You Do?

  1. Remain hopeful, flexible and resilient. Things can and will get better, but your participation is vital.
  2. Develop a routine of looking at sources of information to determine credibility. Look at evidence vs. emotional fear-oriented messaging.
  3. Use tools to help you evaluate information. This is only one of many excellent resources. Share helpful tools with others.
  4. Consider using your voice to support and sustain actuality and truth in order to diminish falsehood.
  5. Protect our democratic institutions. Speak out about saving democracy.
  6. Learn about other resources to help yourself recover or a loved one to become free from undue influence.

There is hope. With the upcoming change of political administration, our society will begin to heal. We need to protect our democratic institutions. Speak out about saving democracy. Reinvigorate them and, ultimately, put into place checks-and-balances to make sure nothing like this can ever happen again to our society. If you are a former member and are ready to be public or already are, please join the #iGotOut social media effort. Check out igotout.org

Video Interview

Books by Dr. Lifton

Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry

Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir

The Climate Swerve: Reflections on Mind, Hope, and Survival

The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide

Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China

Revolutionary Immortality: Mao Tse-tung and the Chinese Cultural Revolution

The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation

Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima

Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial(with Greg Mitchell)

The Genocidal Mentality: Nazi Holocaust and Nuclear Threat(with Erik Marukusen)

Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism

Indefensible Weapons: The Political and Psychological Case against Nuclearism(with Richard Falk)

Home from the War: Vietnam Veterans – Neither Victims nor Executioners

The Broken Connection: On Death and the Continuity of Life

The Future of Immortality: And Other Essays for a Nuclear Age

Superpower Syndrome: America’s Apocalyptic Confrontation with the World

Who Owns Death: Capital Punishment, the American Conscience, and the End of Executions (with Greg Mitchell)

Six Lives/Six Deaths: Portraits from Modern Japan(with Shuichi Kato and Michael Reich)

The Life of the Self: Toward a New Psychology

Living and Dying(with Eric Olson)

Boundaries: Psychological Man in Revolution

History and Human Survival: Essays on the Young and the Old, Survivors and the Dead, War and Peace, and on Contemporary Psychohistory

Other Video Interviews with Robert Jay Lifton, M.D.

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