Former Cult of Trump member and Congressman Joe Walsh on the Political Scene in the United States

When asked about their idea of a cult, most people will conjure up the image of a group of religious devotees following an alternative doctrine and worshiping an authoritarian leader. Many cults fit into this category, but destructive cults take many forms, and mind control and undue influence are also present in political groups. In my book The Cult of Trump, I make the case that Donald Trump is a malignant narcissist and uses the “cult leader playbook.” When measured against my BITE model of Authoritarian Control (Behavior, Information, Thought, and Emotional Control), Trump fits the criteria of an individual exercising undue influence.

I recently had the honor of interviewing Joe Walsh, a former Republican Congressman from Illinois who was one of the leading voices of the Tea Party movement. He supported Donald Trump in 2016, but after witnessing lies, deceit, and fearmongering from Trump, as well as his open support of authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin, Joe became one of Trump’s most outspoken opponents. He waged a Republican primary challenge against Trump and in 2020 released the book F*ck Silence: Calling Trump Out for the Cultish, Moronic, Authoritarian Con Man He Is – the title reflects just how strongly Joe feels about the issue! Joe experienced many harmful elements within what he calls “the MAGA cult.”

Joe left the Republican Party in 2020 and is now a political independent. He is the Chairman of Center Street PAC, an organization dedicated to helping elect Republicans, Democrats, and Independents who put the country before the party. He also spends his time trying to educate people about the threat of Trump to the country. He also hosts a podcast, “White Flag with Joe Walsh.”

The Polarizing Effects of Fourth-Generation Warfare

I said in my book, and Joe agrees, that by the time Trump was elected in 2016, the social and political environment of the United States was ripe and ready for an individual like Trump to come to power and exert undue influence. Many Americans believed that our political system could not meet their needs. Joe identifies with this sentiment: “I understood who Trump’s voters were because they were my voters. I understood how angry and scared and frustrated they were, and I understood that they wanted disruption in our politics – I wanted disruption!”

Donald Trump seized upon people’s needs and fears and magnified them. Getting people to distrust experts, institutions, and science makes them more pliable for manipulation and authoritarian messaging. Questioning the government and the media are part of a healthy democracy. Still, Trump’s campaign used many us-versus-them techniques common in cults, along with ‘fourth-generation warfare’, a type of psychological warfare aimed at polarization. By telling his followers, “trust me,” “believe me,” and “only I can fix this,” Trump is exploiting the same ‘playbook’ used by other cult leaders.

The Digital Age Wires Us for Indoctrination

Digital technology allows destructive individuals or groups to control and manipulate people’s behavior, information, thoughts, and emotions. People no longer need to be physically isolated to be indoctrinated. Trump and his supporters are using social and mainstream media to gain access to followers in ways cult leaders like Sun Myung Moon, L. Ron Hubbard, or Jim Jones never could. They use the internet to weaken, divide, and disrupt the US government and program their own version of reality.

Joe and I discussed how social media is being used for hate, harassment, and misinformation and how managing this is challenging while still maintaining First Amendment rights. As a mental health professional, I am very concerned about how digital information can cause people to become anxious and depressed or radicalized and prompt them to act in ways that are out of character. I worry about the role of AI and social media on people’s mental health, so I support the regulation of digital media. I believe we also need to reformulate how politics works so that there are checks and balances in place to prevent the abuse of power.

Helping People Come Out of Mind Control

Earlier this year, I did a TEDx talk on how people can “reality-test” in order to know if they are being brainwashed, radicalized, or unduly influenced. I believe the recommendations I gave apply to Trump supporters in the same way they would to cult followers. Of course, not every Trump supporter is a fervent follower, and not every fervent follower is necessarily a member of the Cult of Trump. Still, I suggest taking time out from people who share your ideology and from sources of information that could reinforce your current point of view – turn off your cell phone, switch off your computer, walk in the woods, eat well, and listen to music that you love. Then, learn about models of mind control, particularly Chinese communist thought reform programs, and see whether you can identify any aspects of mind control in your own experience. This helped me get out of the Moon cult. Then, deliberately seek out critics and former members to hear a different perspective. Once you have done this, I suggest reflecting on how you came to adopt your current belief system.

If you have a friend or family member that you believe has been radicalized, I always say that it is better to be respectful and curious and not to call them stupid or cut off contact with them. That’s the worst thing you can do with someone who’s been unduly influenced because they need contact with non-believers who care about them. My Strategic Interactive Approach is based on the presupposition that respect, trust-building, and love are stronger than fear, hate, and mind control. It’s about finding common ground, asking questions, and having positive discussions rather than trying to prove your position is right.

There is so much stigma around being tricked or co-opted into a cult. The public falsely believes that only weak, stupid, or uneducated people can be sucked into a destructive cult. This is not true. Anyone in the right circumstances can become unduly influenced.

The reality is that mind control exists and is a potent threat to our lives, our democracy, and our nation. Now is not the time for division. Instead, we need to heal the rift through education, reconnection, and reconciliation. As Joe so aptly put it, “Speak your mind. If you love this country, don’t get discouraged. This is the time to really fight for it!”

Resources

Center Street Pac

“F*ck Silence: Calling Trump Out for the Cultish, Moronic, Authoritarian Con Man He Is” 2020 book

“White Flag With Joe Walsh” podcast by Joe Walsh

How to Tell if You’re Brainwashed? – Steve, Hassan’s TEDx Boston

Does Trump Display the Stereotypical Profile of a Cult Leader?

What Is Wrong with Asking “How to Deprogram People from a Fervent Belief in Trump?”

4th Generation Warfare and The Christian Right

Rewired: Protecting Your Brain in the Digital Age