There are a lot of similarities between people in a cult like the Church of Scientology and the hardcore true believer supporters of Donald Trump. And there are also many parallels in the tactics needed to deprogram the most ardent believers.
You are rarely going to convince a cult member that he or she is in a cult, let alone convince them to simply leave the cult by reciting facts and figures from reality that counter the cult’s core message and construction of reality. In the world of traditional cults, even extreme methods like kidnapping and forcing people to listen to an argument has a poor success rate.
In A&E’s series Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, actress and former scientologist Leah Remini (best known for the sitcom The King of Queens) interviews many former scientologists and detractors and one common thread runs through many of their stories. In addition to reacting to the mental torture that scientology imposes on followers by forcing them to disconnect from family members who leave the church, the other most potent anti-cult weapon has been educating the public on what Scientology is all about and up to.
Here’s Remini explaining the series and why she thinks it will hurt the cult:
In the last fifteen years or so there has been a steady stream of books, tv series, and documentaries about just how crazy the behavior of the church has been historically and leading up to the bizarre behavior of current leader (and Tom Cruise bestie) David Miscavige. This informational war has demystified the church in the minds of most of the public, turning it into more of a punchline than anything.
You see in the interviews with former church members in the series that this had more of an effect on them than going up to them at any point during their time as a true believer and saying “Scientology is a scam that’s taking your money and is based on made-up theology from an unbalanced science fiction writer” (L. Ron Hubbard, the church’s founder).
Over and over in the series the former members discuss how they got access to the internet (the church monitors everything they do) and had moments where their world as constructed by the church collided with the reality of its behavior as documented from the outside and caused them to question their commitment.
It didn’t happen overnight, nor has it worked on even a majority of the church’s members. But it has had an effect. People are leaving, and it is because the church has repeatedly been exposed for what it truly is.
We find ourselves in a similar situation with Donald Trump and his most ardent defenders. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told on social media, after pointing out some lie of his or expose of his malfeasance, that “his supporters won’t care.” This has been the mantra of many on the left from early on in the election season, and has probably worsened since he assumed the office of the presidency.
This is missing the point. In an ideal world, a Trump supporter would learn about the bed of lies his entire persona is built on and simply leave the Trump compound of their own accord. But in the real world, this is unlikely to happen. If anything, Trump cultists will double down on their loyalty due to external attacks, with Trump issuing verbal kool-aid to them by describing everything outside the bubble as “fake news.”
But outside reporting and debunking of his lies and mendacity does erode the cult of Trump. It galvanizes those of us on the left who are opposed to him with a shared set of information and logic to pass back and forth within our ranks as ammunition. Then for those moderates who are open to a logical argument, it arms them with information they need to form an informed opinion. With these two divisions of an information army continually supplied with material, you can win a war.
What about the true believers, though?
We can pick them off. It will take a lot of time and a lot of work, but if you continually aim for the ground under Trump’s feet, he will slowly but surely continue to dissolve. It won’t happen overnight, or even within a year or two. But if the fire remains consistent, it will force retreat, and even if he is not in a full-fledged run to his Berlin bunker, any sign of retreat is also a signal to those within the cult that all is not well. They will wonder why, despite his proclamations about what reality is, why he feels the need to pull back – even slightly. That crack in their programming is what can lead to a deluge and another defection.
You can win without the defectors, simply by galvanizing our own side and giving those caught in the crossfire the data they need to make an informed decision. But you can have a massive long-term victory by also using that information to erode his credibility even in the eyes of the most locked-in cultists.
The cult can be broken, hope is not lost, it just takes time and work.