In my book, The Cult of Trump, I explored the parallels between Trump and cult leaders, arguing that his presidency was much like a destructive cult. Trump’s lies, lack of conscience, inability to admit when he is wrong, and projecting his shortcomings onto others can be seen in many cult leaders. Trump’s indoctrination techniques to build fanatical devotion in his supporters are akin to those of Jim Jones, David Koresh, Ron Hubbard, and Sun Myung Moon. With his rise to the presidency, he became more authoritarian. Though he lost the election in 2020, he continues the lie that it was stolen, and his supporters continue to believe him.
They attacked the capitol building, threatened to hang the vice president, and beat a capital police officer to death. They went to jail for these crimes, and yet, many continue in their fanatical devotion to Trump. The fierce loyalty and obedience seen in cults are widely apparent among Trump supporters.
Are these people stupid, uneducated, and lacking in some crucial understanding of common sense? No, they are much like anyone who falls under the influence of cults, the undue influence of a man they have come to see as a savior, the only one who can make things right in a world that seems out of control. Under the right circumstances, anyone can be persuaded to believe in ideas that seem irrational or unjust. History proves this repeatedly, with the Holocaust providing a horrendous example.
Trump Voters Disillusioned
What happens when people come out of the fog and realize their savior is all smoke and mirrors? Who are the previous believers in The Cult of Trump, and how did they see the light?
Melissa Joe Peltier is the two-time Emmy award-winning producer and director of the documentary The Game Is Up: Disillusioned Trump Voters Tell Their Stories recounting how a former GOP congressman; a rising Young Republican; a party-loyal Ohio farmer; a US Army Veteran & hardcore ‘MAGA’; and three evangelicals evolved from Trump supporters in 2016 to adamant adversaries in 2020.
Peltier interviews David Weissman, a US Army veteran, who was a Trump troll. Peltier discusses Weissman’s trolling behavior in the podcast and how he changed his viewpoint after trolling actress Sarah Silverman. Silverman used a strategic interactive approach, thanking him for his service as a veteran and asking questions about his ideas for managing issues such as gun violence. Once she started that line of questioning, Weisman began reality testing, which is a fundamental component of combating undue influence.
In the documentary, Peltier also interviews Batya Goldberg, who went to Trump rallies, which she described as a “drug,” feeling amped up, and even if you disagreed with things going in, you came out doing so. These are standard cult leader tactics.
“Say Good Things…”
Peltier discusses the idea that there are people in Trump circles who don’t like what he’s saying and doing, but they’re afraid to say it for fear they are wrong, given that no one else is voicing these ideas. Additionally, if they do voice these thoughts, they get shut down. When Goldberg expressed her disappointment to a reporter regarding what Trump said about Charlottesville, she received a call from the Republican Party in New York telling her she couldn’t say that. Republicans have to love Trump. They must say good things about him or nothing at all. This experience helped her awaken to reality, to understand that Trump was not the antidote to society’s ills that he claimed to be when he stated, “I alone can fix it,” as he accepted the Republican presidential nomination in Cleveland on July 21, 2016.
Goldberg discusses in the documentary the people who feel there should be only one party, the Trump party, which would be a dictatorship that would wipe out all the people those believers hate. Unfortunately, as Peltier explains, those believers don’t understand the catastrophic effects of dictatorships in every area of life nor know that Christian nationalism is not what our country was built on. It’s not what the founders envisioned. However, people who grew up in authoritarian cults, which include Bible or political cults, often seek out an authoritarian type of group because that’s what they know. That’s what makes them feel safe.
Peltier discusses wanting to understand Republicans, wanting to educate on the idea that in 2016, not all Republicans were racist, crazy evangelicals. They assumed Trump’s presidency would be a standard Republican presidency. This was not the case, and once they figured that out, they had a hard time changing their minds and admitting they were wrong.
Moving forward from Believer to Survivor
This is very common because the consequences of doing so are sometimes embarrassment, shame, and humiliation. We need to be conscious of helping people move forward by acknowledging that we all make mistakes and believe lies sometimes. We need to be gentle in our approach to those suffering undue influence so we can lead them out of the cult with kindness rather than repeatedly ripping them away and sticking their noses in their mistakes. Having respectful curiosity is paramount to helping people examine their beliefs, understand their thoughts and feelings, and ultimately change their minds.
To create this path for people to exit without a lot of negative emotions, we initiated a hashtag movement #IGotOut for victims of all kinds of undue influence cult situations in the hope it will destigmatize and provide more of an off-ramp for QAnon and Trump believers. We welcome all former members of all types of cults to tell their stories. This includes people who were in BITE model controlling relationships. We must normalize the fact that people can be deceived and manipulated and follow something or someone harmful and full of lies and abuse.
In The Game is Up documentary, we see how so many people fell into the cult and got out. It is possible, and if everyone starts telling their cultic abuse stories, we can eliminate the stigma and fear surrounding those stories as well as provide an exit strategy for those still stuck in the cult.
Please start using #iGotOut to tell your personal stories on whatever platform you choose: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, TikTok, etc.