About half of President Donald Trump’s supporters believe in the tenets espoused by QAnon, according to a Yahoo News/YouGov poll released earlier this week. The survey came after Trump refused to denounce the shadowy internet-based theory whose followers believe the world is run by a global Democrat-led cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles and child-sex traffickers who are plotting against Trump — brought to power to defeat the cabal — and his supporters.
If there is a Biden landslide, they’ll come to see that the Wizard of Oz is no wizard after all, just a short frumpy guy with technology.
There is reason to fear that if the election does not go in Trump’s favor, some true believers might be mobilized to violence. But from my time studying cults and helping followers escape them, I can reassure you that QAnon will disintegrate in the United States over time if effective measures are taken if and when Trump is defeated.
At first, a cult may be legitimized by people in authority, such as Trump and other influencers when they retweet QAnon messages. Programmed true believers focus on this confirmation of their beliefs and ignore what is not part of the ideology. However, once people see that Trump hasn’t been re-elected and that there never was a secret pedophile cabal that Trump would be willing or able to break up, they will come to realize that their leader is, in actuality, totally untrustworthy and just using them. If there is a Joe Biden landslide, they’ll come to see that the Wizard of Oz is no wizard after all, just a short frumpy guy with technology.
When cult adherents get confused, then ashamed, then realize they’ve been scammed, they get angry and exit. While some followers may continue to believe in the cult for some time — especially if they stay in an information silo — eventually contact with family and friends who care about them and others who have escaped from cults can and will help people come back to themselves. People are not permanently programmed, despite what some pundits and politicians may say.
Like fashions and fads, movements end. How do we dismantle a dangerous cult safely and turn this into yet another American fad as embarrassing as bell-bottoms, polyester and pet rocks? By dismantling the power of its mythology so people who have been pulled into it return to independent thinking.
Fundamentally, QAnon is a mind virus, and we must bring the rate of transmission down. For starters, stop mocking QAnon and calling it a conspiracy theory; it is a psy-op, an intentional online cult movement aimed at recruiting and indoctrinating people into an all-or-nothing, us-vs.-them, good-vs.-evil frame. It is important to understand that QAnon believers think they are heroes and believe they are aligned with a righteous cause. We must take them seriously and build a rapport of respect.
In other words, agree and amplify that human trafficking is bad and wrong. Then show legitimate groups fighting trafficking, as well as former trafficking victims speaking out about those actually helping them — for example, how the criminal justice system convicted Keith Raniere of the NXIVM cult of sex trafficking. Reclaim this issue and demonstrate that QAnon is talking about it but does nothing, while others are taking action to make a difference.
But not just anyone in any style can communicate this message and have the desired effect on QAnon adherents. Outside scrutiny, internal corruption and division, as well as criminal investigations, have all helped put cult leaders in jail where they belong. But that does not end cults.
Similarly, while QAnon promoters are currently being removed from the internet platforms they use to spread their propaganda and interact with adherents, as they should be, this approach will only temporarily disrupt and slow down new recruits, rather than help anyone exit. In fact, these moves can validate followers’ beliefs that they are being persecuted, while a large percentage of cult members will simply be directed to alternative platforms.
Instead, cult leaders and former top insiders are the ones most typically responsible for ending a cult. I know from my work helping people get out of cults — and from what it took to remove myself from the Moonies — that this is effective.
Thankfully, that’s already starting to happen with Trump and QAnon. For example, a new documentary coming out soon focuses on former Trump true believers like Joe Walsh who now renounce him and are speaking out. They joined other disillusioned supporters, from former White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman to former personal lawyer Michael Cohen to former national security adviser John Bolton to many, many more.
If we want to end QAnon, we also need to out the recruiters and movies and other technology, like an addictive alternate-reality gaming structure, that most people consume to get sucked in. Those who escaped this way of thinking need to help followers revisit this content and see it’s not valid. Because the recruiters’ goal is to recruit, rather than promote any specific beliefs, the group’s ideology is bent to have wider appeal. So many ardent QAnon supporters lower down the totem pole who actually do have deeply held beliefs will be surprised as they start to learn the identities, criminal records and past political affiliations of those who have conned them into the cult.
Together we can end this, exposing how these leaders work and also welcoming those who start to question what QAnon is feeding them. We have a moral responsibility to do so. And there are millions of former cult members from a wide variety of similar cults who can offer antibodies to those affected by the virus. They do this by sharing their stories and educating people about what brainwashing and mind control is.
A movement like #MeToo is getting started, and we are calling it #IGotOut. I am asking all people and especially celebrities to consider joining the effort. The campaign aims to normalize and destigmatize having been deceived and manipulated by a cult or narcissistic psychopath. There are many millions of Americans who have experienced this firsthand or have close friends or family members who have experienced a radical personality change along these lines.
The key to helping these folks out is more respectful interaction — not cancel culture, demonization or mockery. People need to be able to exit with dignity. We need to find ways to allow people to return to society with their humanity intact, in a way that honors the very real questions that led them to look toward alternative answers in the first place.
Steven Hassan is a mental health professional with more than 40 years of experience helping people recover from undue influence and cult mind control. He is the founder of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center and the author of numerous books, including “The Cult of Trump, Freedom of Mind, and Combating Cult Mind Control.”