In October 2019, Benjamin Zeller wrote an article in Religion & Politics critical of my new book, The Cult of Trump, which he had not even had the courtesy of reading. It was entitled, “The Cult of Trump? What “Cult Rhetoric” Actually Reveals.”

A response was thoughtfully written by independent scholar Jon Atack who is an expert on Scientology, author, and researcher and sent to Religion & Politics. The editor refused to publish it. When cult expert and sociologist Stephen Kent heard about the refusal to publish it, he emailed the editor the following:

Dear Ms. Stanley,

Although I have stayed out of the debate regarding brainwashing and cults that developed around an earlier item that the newsletter published, I am encouraging the publication’s editors to allow a response to appear. I am a sociologist of religion and an adjunct professor in religious studies, so I have followed, and occasionally participated in, discussions and debates concerning religion and politics in several countries.

Current debates about both “cults” and “brainwashing” are very timely in this peculiar historical period, so it will be unfortunate if the newsletter only portrays one side of these discussions. I have read the defense that academics, mental health practitioners, and writers have sent to the newsletter, and it is well-argued and supported. Its publication would broaden the information base that readers have in thinking about these complex issues.

I understand that the newsletter decided not to publish this response to Benjamin Zeller’s article, which is unfortunate in the context of established norms of debate and discussion within academia. Moreover, I can see no harm in its publication—and only see a benefit.

I do hope, therefore, that the decision-makers overseeing the newsletter reconsider their refusal.


Stephen A. Kent Ph.D.,

Professor of Sociology; Adjunct Professor in Religious Studies, Department of Sociology

University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, CANADA T6G 2H4

web page:

Graciously, cult expert Dr. Janja Lalich kindly offered to publish the article on her web site. Dr. Lalich has authored and co-authored numerous important books. She herself has done interviews about Donald Trump acting like a cult leader. This one is about Trump’s GOP. Here is one where she was interviewed for an article entitled, Escape from the Trump Cult. Please note that at the end of this article, a number of other cult experts and scholars have signed their names showing they agree with what was written by Jon Atack.


I truly hope that Professor Zeller will review Steve Hassan’s book The Cult of Trump. I feel that he rather jumped the gun by reviewing the title without first seeing the book. His article is a critique of words used in the title and pre-release promotion. He takes exception to the words “cult” and “brainwashing” and adds his views about charisma (which is not discussed in Hassan’s text, but is a fascinating topic).

“Brainwashing” is not Hassan’s preferred term of art. As he says, “Whatever term you wish to use—mind control, thought reform, brainwashing—it is ultimately a process that disrupts an individual’s ability to make independent decisions from within their own identity.” This is a succinct statement of an essential concern that we all should share. There are many studies that support the view that there can be disruption of “an individual’s ability to make independent decisions from within their own identity.”

Zeller’s ideas have been rehearsed often over the years. They can be found, for instance, in James T. Richardson’s A Social Psychological Critique of “Brainwashing” Claims About Recruitment to New Religions in 1993, or, by Gordon J Melton, in 2000 (the introduction to The Brainwashing Controversy: An Anthology of Essential Documents, which, as far as this author can tell, was never published). These papers were published by CESNUR, which is protective of “New Religious Movements”.

Brainwashing as “a credible scientific concept”

Zeller assures us that “Neither the American Psychiatric Association nor American courts accept brainwashing as a credible scientific concept, and major academic journals no longer publish papers on the concept.” When he reads Hassan’s book, he will find this citation from the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) published by the American Psychiatric Association:

DSM-5 Dissociative Disorders: Not Otherwise Specified 300.15 (F44.89)

Identity disturbance due to prolonged and intense coercive persuasion: Individuals who have been subjected to intense coercive persuasion (e.g., brainwashing, thought reform, indoctrination while captive, torture, long-term political imprisonment, recruitment by sects/cults or by terror organizations) may present with prolonged changes in, or conscious questioning of, their identity.[i] [emphasis added]

This has been the stance of the American Psychiatric Association with regard to coercive persuasion for decades (this author has checked back to DSM-III-R, published in 1987).

Oxford University neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor examines the scientific evidence in her book Brainwashing: The science of thought control. Zeller can also find the discussion in the work of Benjamin Zablocki and Alexandra Stein. Kent and Lindquist have very recently published Contextualizing Debates About Brainwashing Within the Discipline of Sociology (ICSA Journal vol.10, 2019).


Dominic Streatfeild’s Brainwash: the Secret History of Mind Control provides evidence that techniques used by the British military during Internment in Northern Ireland caused a permanent psychological change to some of the victims, showing that people can indeed be tamed and broken, as the brainwashing – or coercive persuasion – hypothesis suggests.

The UK Police and Criminal Evidence Act came into being precisely because it was recognized that suspects can be brought to confess to crimes they did not commit – without violence or the threat of violence – despite the penalties for such confessions. To some, this would be “brainwashing”, but the point is really whether people can be cajoled, coerced, confused or hypnotized into false beliefs. The evidence strongly supports the reality: they can be. The problem seems to be with the loaded word “brainwashing”.

Zeller goes on to criticize the use of the word “cult”, without accepting that the term also appears in the current American Psychiatric Association definition. Before turning to this term, let us rebut the claim that the American courts do not accept “brainwashing” as “a credible scientific concept.”

Undue Influence:

With regard to the legal credibility of “brainwashing”, Zeller does not note the legal tort of undue influence, which has been established for at least four centuries (see this author’s Opening Minds for a discussion of this concept). Undue influence accepts the absolute control of one individual over another. It has been updated in UK law with the introduction of the Coercive Control Act in 2015, which recognizes such control in intimate relationships. There have already been many successful prosecutions under this law.

The concept of undue influence is far from “pseudoscientific” as Zeller asserts. It is a matter for concern to understand the extent to which noetic manipulation (as William James termed it), and the induction of awe and fervor, can bring about compliance in individuals (see for instance the cutting-edge work of Yuval Laor).

Alan Scheflin’s Social Influence Model is an excellent tool for examining influence in a legal context (“Supporting Human Rights by Testifying Against Human Wrongs,” International Journal of Cultic Studies, 6:69-82 [2015]). Scheflin’s model is entirely neutral in content, so it serves as a vehicle for experts to testify objectively in court, and to do so in a structured manner. It allows experts on both sides to put the relevant science before the judge and the jury and does so without name-calling or an improper focus on labels. In this way, it seeks common ground and moves the discussion back to the science (where it belongs).


Zeller adds his opinion of “charisma” (as we’ve noted, this forms no part of Hassan’s narrative). He relies upon Max Weber, but does not explain the two other types of authority – legal and traditional – that give shape to Weber’s account. If he is looking for a discussion of charisma to critique, he might try sociologist Janja Lalich’s examination of the concept in Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults, or Alexandra Stein in Terror, Love and Brainwashing.

Zeller relies upon Eileen Barker’s work and her definition of charisma is also useful: “The sociologists use of the term implies merely that the leader’s followers believe that he or she possesses a very special (possibly divine) quality and that the followers are, as a consequence, willing to grant him or her a special kind of authority over them.” (New Religious Movements, p.13). Sadly, it appears that some Trump followers do accord him divine status, or at least believe that he was chosen by God.

Psychological manipulation and the spectrum of influence:

Returning to the theme of “brainwashing”, Zeller accepts that “psychological manipulation” does occur at Trump rallies, but fails to discuss the spectrum of influence on which such manipulation occurs. Very few critics of “cults” use the term “brainwashing”, which was introduced by journalist and former OSS intelligence agent Edward Hunter.

Hunter may well have chosen this translation of hsi nao (or xi nao) for propaganda reasons, but we can skip the translation and discuss the practices it describes. As Alan Scheflin wrote to this author,

“‘Brainwashing’ was a perfect thought-stopping concept.” It continues to stop thought to this day.

As Professor Scheflin also wrote to this author: “‘brainwashing’ is a shorthand form of saying ‘influenced by extreme techniques created to alter the way a person thinks and acts.’ Furthermore, if one actually studies the scientific literature, the concept of psychological (and physical) methods designed to dramatically alter thoughts and beliefs has a very robust presence in science dating back several centuries.”

If we follow the lead of the courts, the American Psychiatric Association and the body of scientific evidence, it is surely obvious that “coercive control” can and does occur. It is really a matter of degree.

Why “brainwashing”?

“Brainwashing” is something of a red herring. A deeper study leads to Mao Zedong’s introduction of ssu-hsiang tou-cheng (in Wade-Giles) or “thought struggle”, 20 years before the “re-education” camps opened to non-cadres in China in 1949. The method was introduced by Mao shortly before his first purge (he tortured and murdered a quarter of his 40,000 strong army in 1930). Thought struggle became the weapon of choice to destroy resistance to his often capricious will.

Between 1942 and 1944, Liu Shao-ch’i imported Stalinist methods as part of the Party Reform Movement. He devised his own system, aspects of which are in use to this day. Liu’s expression for the method is “self-cultivation”, and Party documents show that it was designed to “steel” subjects through “organized indoctrination by means of criticism, self-criticism, discussion and the continued study of selected Marxist writings.” (quoted from Richard L. Walker, China Under Communism: the First Five Years, Yale University Press, 1955).

The official organ of the Chinese government, China Today, gave this account of the “re-education” camps, in 1950, soon after they were opened to the general public (200,000 cadres had already been subjected to this program):

“The government has adopted the principle of making the greatest possible use of students, government personnel and other intellectuals of the old society. But the minds of such people are thickly encrusted with the ideology of the feudal gentry and the bourgeoisie. And while these people retain the viewpoint of the former ruling classes, they cannot carry out the program of the new government, which is based on the interests of the laboring class.

“This problem was met by setting up people’s revolutionary colleges in all newly liberated sectors of the country. These educational centers specialize exclusively in transforming old-type students and intellectuals into the new-type of cadre willing to place all of his talent and energy at the service of the people … a great bulk of their students have virtually become new people at the end of a six-month course.” (Walker, op.cit.).

As Walker points out, there were four processes involved in the “hsi nao” program: to create cadres, to convert enemies, to control the masses and to extract confessions. Robert Jay Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (1961) remains the essential account of the methods used in the camps.

The success of this method of indoctrination can be measured in the compliance of the Chinese since the Communist (or, more properly, fascist) take-over of China. The terrible events of the Cultural Revolution, where young people murdered their own parents, are a testament to the ruthless efficacy of the approach. Using thought-struggle, self-criticism and self-cultivation, Mao unified a country that had been at war for thirty years. He also made everyone a spy on everyone else and created a culture of fear that rules to this day.

Mao is the greatest mass murderer of all time with as many as 70 million victims, yet he was never charged with a single crime and died peacefully in his bed (see Chang and Halliday Mao: the Unknown Story).

The re-education (or “brainwashing”) program continues to this day, as CESNUR’s Massimo Introvigne points out in his 2019 piece China Plays no Favourites: It Persecutes all Religions there may be three million prisoners in these camps, including a million Uighur (about ten percent of the Uighur population). Even official state videos of these prisoners show both abuse and compliance. BBC Panorama has just aired a documentary on the Uighur detention camps called How to Brainwash a Million People (25 November 2019).

The social transformation in China is well summed up in the documentary One Child Nation (Nanfu Wang, 2019), which shows how for more than thirty years the propaganda machine persuaded health professionals to abduct pregnant women and in tens of thousands of cases murdered newborn babies. The state boasted it had “prevented” more than 338 million births. It is unknown if the same utterly horrifying methods will continue with the Two-Child policy.

Propaganda slogans were posted on walls in every city, town, and village in China urging the One Child policy. Statements like, “Whoever violates the One Child policy will lose all their possessions.” Reluctant families did indeed lose all of their possessions, and their homes were also often destroyed. Operas lauding the policy were broadcast regularly, and entertainers toured China ceaselessly promoting the evil of refusing sterilization (which was enforced rigorously). As the documentary shows, many developed fetuses and newborn babies were dumped on rubbish tips as “medical waste”.

Yet, when interviewed many Chinese continue to support the policy and repeat the slogan, “We were fighting a population war.” As Nanfu Wang comments, “China started a war against population growth, but it became a real war against its own people.” And that war was waged through social compliance, the restriction of information (see Hassan’s model), and the destruction of free thought and choice which characterizes members of all authoritarian groups.

This is the fate of a nation – an empire indeed – that adopts “brainwashing”. Hopefully, the program will be abandoned soon, and China’s totalitarian regime will give way to democracy, but despite the recent Hong Kong council elections, this is no more than a hope.

“Cult” or “new religious movement”?

The term “cult” took on its pejorative meaning in the twentieth century, after two millennia of use derived from cultus, meaning “worship”, “devotion” or “growth”. The Oxford English Dictionary records no pejorative use in the 1977 edition, adding only the use from 1711 of “Devotion to a particular person or thing, now especially as paid by a body of professed adherents”. It was a useful and serviceable word until very recently.

It is unfortunate that the imprecise term “new religious movement” is substituted for “cult”. “New” meaning since the eighteenth-century millenarian movements according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, or “since the 1950s” according to Barker [op.cit.] (as Zeller says, new “is a slippery concept”); “religious” meaning commitment to any belief system, whether religious or not; and “movement” meaning two people or more. I would strongly suggest the more accurate “alternative belief systems”, so that multi-level marketing, large-group awareness training, pseudo-therapy, and commercial groups can be better included, as they already tend to be in the classification NRM when used by sociologists and historians of religion.

“NRMs cannot be lumped together”:

Zeller tells us about Professor Barker’s study of the Unification Church and his own work on Heaven’s Gate. At this point, Barker’s own caveat is pertinent: “NRMs cannot be ‘lumped together’; they differ from one another in numerous respects.” (op.cit., p.xiii) and further, “It cannot be stressed enough that almost any generalisation about NRMs is bound to be untrue if it is applied to all the movements.” (ibid, p.10).

Writing in 1989, Barker said, “Claims have been made that there are up to 5,000 ‘cults’ in North America, but no one has produced a list … a figure somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 might be more realistic.” (op.cit., p.148). Hassan is very specific about both the groups and the traits that he is considering in his evaluation of President Trump.

How much harm is actually harmful?

Before moving on, it is worth questioning the notion that we should not be concerned when only ten percent of recruits remained in the specific Unification Church (or Moonie) group that Barker studied, if that NRM is potentially harmful, as many of its former adherents say. Zeller tells us, “the UFO religion Heaven’s Gate that ended in the 1997 mass suicides, suffered from a 75 percent loss rate of its initial members over its two decades of existence [proving Barker’s assertion about the difference between NRMs], and its overall success rate from the point of attempted recruitment at public meetings to the eventual suicides was about one percent.” He does not give a comparison to the 14 per 100,000 suicide rate in the US (in 2017), which shows just how alarming the one in a hundred rate in Heaven’s Gate recruits is (70 times the national US rate of 0.014%).

Destructive, authoritarian groups:

My concern for more than three decades has not been for New Religious Movements – the majority of which pose little threat to either their own members or society at large – but rather with destructive, authoritarian groups – new or old – that wreak havoc on their own members and/or on society. The People’s Temple, Aum Shinrikyo, the Children of God, the Unification Church, Scientology, the Watchtower Society (complicit in thousands of unnecessary deaths by forbidding blood transfusions and the systematic cover-up of rampant child sexual abuse), the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments (far more victims than Heaven’s Gate’s one percent), the Order of the Solar Temple, followers of Vissarion or NXIVM (disguised as a “women’s empowerment group”) – there are surely enough of these authoritarian groups active today for even the most conciliatory academic to realize that we have a problem.

Such groups have existed throughout history and all too often become dominant. The perverse forms of Christianity that murdered tens of thousands of “heretics” or “witches”, the Thuggee murderers in India, the Nahua death cults of Meso-America – right up to the Nazis, the Bolsheviks and the Chinese and Korean Communists – give us plentiful examples of authoritarian groups that are tremendously harmful, so we should be eternally vigilant. We should also be cautious in labeling groups “dangerous” or “deviant”, which is exactly how authoritarian groups label their critics (or even disbelievers in general). We should look to the evidence, and there is evidence aplenty.

More rhetoric than reality?

Zeller rounds up his argument by saying, “Scholars of new religious movements have shown that the mythology of cultic mind control is more rhetoric than reality. It is easy to understand why critics of the president dismiss him as a cult leader and his political followers as brainwashed. But it says a lot more about the power of the language than it does the president himself.”

Of course, with this statement, Zeller dismisses the work of scholars including but far from limited to Robert Jay Lifton, Edgar Schein, Janja Lalich, Philip Zimbardo, Alan Scheflin, Stephen Kent, Robert Cialdini, Anthony Pratkanis, Margaret Singer, Louis Jolyon West, Benjamin Zablocki, Rod and Linda Dubrow-Marshall, Michael Langone, Daniel Shaw, and Alexandra Stein, but his last sentence can be refashioned to describe his own paper: it says a lot more about the power of language than it does about the book he has yet to read or the concepts he so eagerly – and erroneously – dismisses.

Jon Atack

The author is most grateful to Alan Scheflin, Janja Lalich, Lorna Goldberg and Spike Robinson for their helpful suggestions.



Steven Hassan, PhD, MA, MEd. LMHC, NCC, Founder of Freedom of Mind Resource Center

Alan W. Scheflin, Professor of Law Emeritus, Santa Clara University

Philip Zimbardo, Professor of Psychology Emeritus, Stanford University

Steve Eichel, Ph.D., Independent Practice, Newark, DE

Janja Lalich, Ph.D., Professor Emerita of Sociology, California State University, Chico

Daniel Shaw, LCSW

Dr. Nick Child, BSc MB ChB MRCPsych, Mphil, Retired Child Psychiatrist, Family Therapist, Edinburgh, Scotland

Linda Dubrow-Marshall, Ph.D., Clinical and Counselling Psychologist, the Re-entry Therapy, Information and Referral Network (RETIRN, UK)

Rod Dubrow-Marshall, Ph.D., MBPsS, Psychologist, the Re-entry Therapy, Information and Referral Network (RETIRN, UK)

Roberta C. Eisenberg, M.S.W., LCSW, BCD (RETIRN, US)

Yuval Laor, Ph.D.

Frances Peters, counselor

Christian Szurko, Th.B, counselor

Alexandra Stein, Ph.D., Visiting Fellow at London South Bank University

Lorna Goldberg, L.C.S.W., Psy.A., Director, Institute for Psychoanalytic Studies

William Goldberg, L.C.S.W., Psy.A.

Yves Messer, ex LaRouche member

Luigi Corvaglia, CeSAP, FECRIS

Bonnie Zieman, M.Ed., psychotherapist

Karin Spike Robinson, MM, author

Dennis Tourish Ph.D.

Joseph Szimhart

Helena Löfgren, licensed psychotherapist

Steven Hassan: Check out my previous blog responding to Cult Apologists who claim there are only “New Religious Movements” or NRMs and no cults.


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