Steven Hassan arrived at the Capitol steps on a weekday morning, ready to do whatever it took to prove his loyalty to the president. Surrounded by hundreds of comrades, he prayed and fasted for 72 hours beneath American flags, convinced he was fighting for freedom like the Founding Fathers. The president was facing removal from office—and Hassan, 20, a onetime poetry major from Queens, New York, had had been told that the man was an archangel. It was July 22, 1974, a few days before the House Judiciary Committee would vote to impeach Richard Nixon.
In the wake of a bad breakup earlier that year, Hassan had traded his creative writing studies for membership in the Unification Church, a Christian-based group—often referred to as a cult—led by Sun Myung Moon and popularly known as “the Moonies.” Hassan quit college and his job, surrendered his bank account, and swapped his hippie-ish wardrobe for T-shirts that said “I’m a Moonie and I Love It!” His family was flummoxed at what had happened to their quiet son, previously an honors student whose only group affiliations had been middle school chorus and their synagogue’s basketball team.
It took two and a half years for the spell to break, and for Hassan to leave the group for good. Now 67, he has built a career for himself on trying to understand, and atone for, his past. A mental health counselor, Hassan flies around the country to hold interventions with cult victims, multiday affairs involving lectures on psychology and cult behavior—a “toolkit,” as he puts it, to enable people to take back their minds and lives. He helps people “develop a sense of self-worth,” said Anthony Pratkanis, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has recommended Hassan’s approach in his own work with victims of economic fraud.
In recent years, though, Hassan has tried something more controversial: to apply his methods to politics. In 2019, he published The Cult of Trump, a book that laid out what he sees as the former president’s cult-leader tendencies and offered advice for the families of Trump extremists. At the time, the book gained little traction, dismissed in its seemingly loose use of cult. “The C-word turns out not to be a very useful guide to the nature of charismatic leaders who get people to embrace unorthodox or irrational explanations of the world around them,” wrote a reviewer in the Washington Post. “Indeed, concluding that someone is under the control of a cult can seem to absolve them of responsibility for their beliefs and actions: ‘Don’t mind Uncle Jerry, he’s just into that crazy cult thing.’ ”
But since the Jan. 6 insurrection, Hassan’s profile has risen dramatically. Publications like the Boston Globe, the L.A. Times, and Vanity Fair have turned to him for articles about how to move past the “cult of Trump” and rescue loved ones. In May, Hassan spoke at a virtual conference on fact-checking hosted by the Poynter Institute’s PolitiFact that included a keynote from Dr. Anthony Fauci. “The book was dormant for a while, and when Trump left office the interest in Steve exploded,” said Alan Scheflin, a law professor at Santa Clara University and Hassan’s longtime mentor. On one CNN interview in mid-January, Hassan sparked a response from Fox News and conservative commentators like Sean Hannity after he said, “The bottom line is all of America needs deprogramming because we’ve all been negatively influenced by Donald Trump.”
Hassan emphasizes that not all Trump supporters are part of this “cult”—in his book he uses QAnon, the alt-right, and religious groups like the New Apostolic Reformation as examples of the former president’s most ardent followers. Hassan believes that some followers, like QAnon or NAR members, are already in cults and so are primed to follow their leaders’ political views. Die-hard Trump devotees, according to Hassan, display “blind-faith” and “an unwillingness to look at any inconvenient facts,” as he said in a Vox interview. And so his primary advice for dealing with loved ones who fall into this category is not to argue but to maintain the relationship, express support, and ask questions. One Cult of Trump reviewer described it as an approach that would require “the temperament of [Fred] Rogers.”
Hassan does not exactly have the temperament of Fred Rogers. Gray-haired and bespectacled, he talks about love and neighbors in a slow, monotonal voice, but self-promotion leaks into his sermons. He sometimes sounds as eager to publicize himself (“I scratch my head why everyone who cares hasn’t read The Cult of Trump book?” he tweeted recently in response to a CNN segment on Trump and the Republican Party) as he is his bedrock pitch—that anyone could fall for a cult under the right conditions.
Building on the work of cult researchers and psychiatrists, Hassan has developed a model for evaluating whether people are unduly influenced, eliciting controversy along the way not just for his expansive definition of cult but his use of scientifically debated terms like brainwashing. After the Capitol riot, his platform is bigger than ever. But applying the framework of cults to politics is a complicated maneuver—and some worry that, in its sensationalism, it risks dividing the nation even further.
Hassan was a junior at Queens College in New York when his girlfriend broke his heart. It was January 1974, and he was already in the midst of an existential crisis, having turned down his father’s entreaties to run the family hardware store in favor of studying poetry. Now with a year before graduation, he worried that he had few career prospects. One day, Hassan was reading in the cafeteria when three young women started talking to him. Hassan thought the women were pretty; after class, on their invitation, he drove to their house to hang out with 30 other young people who spent the night musing about social justice and how to change the world. Hassan went home, he later wrote in his book Combating Cult Mind Control, feeling happy for the first time in weeks.
This was the first step of Hassan’s recruitment into the Unification Church. Sun Myung Moon, a millionaire businessman and self-ordained reverend, founded the group in 1954 in South Korea, claiming Jesus chose him as “the new Messiah.” By 1976, a New York Times article declared the group “the hottest—and most controversial” of the religious cults that dominated the decade, with its claims of 30,000 followers, 5,000 members, and $10 million a year in donations and sales. “I am your brain. What I wish must be your wish,” Moon was reported to have told followers. By 1982, the group would even boast ownership of a newspaper: the Washington Times, a publication active today in conservative circles and still owned by a company connected to Moon.
Like many cults of the era, the Unification Church poached young people at their most vulnerable. “Wherever the cleancut, smiling Moonies can find them—on city streets or college campuses—they engage young Americans in discussions of the state of the country or of their souls,” the 1976 New York Times article said. “There are a lot of lonely people walking around,” one Unification Church official said at the time. Hassan was the perfect target. According to his sister Thea Luba, he was an independent but insecure kid, as he struggled under the weight of disapproval from his father. Through a formulaic recruitment—dinners of excessive flattery, lectures on the “scientifically proven” arrival of the second Messiah, weekend retreats in upstate New York—the Moonies offered Hassan another version of himself. “I was being told ‘I am a leader,’ ” said Hassan.
Hassan recalls that he questioned the group at first but was quick to give the benefit of the doubt. “If Moon was the Moshiach (Hebrew for Anointed One), I reasoned, then I will be fulfilling my Jewish heritage by following him,” he wrote in his book. Soon, he was selling candies and flowers on the street to raise money, recruiting students, giving lectures at the group’s headquarters in Manhattan, and, he wrote, earning the personal approval of Moon—the “Father”—himself.
Hassan bought into the most radical beliefs of the group; he said he remembers agreeing that sex outside of Unification Church marriages (arranged through infamous mass weddings, still ongoing today) deserved the death penalty and that the Holocaust was necessary because Jewish people didn’t believe in Jesus. “I don’t care if Moon is like Hitler! I’ve chosen to follow him and I’ll follow him till the very end!” he once told ex-members of the group when they tried to convince him to get out. But leaving the group never seemed like an option anyway—Hassan remembered that Moon rented a movie theater to show The Exorcist, a newly released film that he upheld as prophecy of what would happen if one left the Unification Church. (The current iteration of the Unification Church, now called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, responded to a request for comment in an email to Slate: “Steve Hassan likes to capitalize on outrageous things that he heard people say during his brief membership, but to say that they are true beliefs of the Unification Church are simply untrue.” The spokesperson additionally said that Hassan “has been on a personal crusade against the Unification Church and other new religious movements for decades now.”)
Then one early morning in April 1976, a sleep-deprived Hassan fell asleep at the wheel of a fundraising van and collided with an 18-wheeler. He broke his leg and, after two weeks in the hospital, was allowed to recover at his sister Thea’s house, a rare respite from the Unification Church’s insular world. While Hassan’s parents had argued with him about his newfound life, even sending him to their rabbi for guidance, Thea had never reprimanded Hassan for his choices, an approach that Hassan would later counsel his own clients to follow. But at the time, few relationship-based interventions existed for cult members.
One day, he was sitting on Thea’s couch when his father walked in and moved his crutches to prevent him from leaving. Several “deprogrammers,” all former members of the Unification Church, arrived to try to talk him out of his beliefs. Hassan silently prayed throughout their lecture, feeling furious with his family. The next day, Hassan’s father told him they were going to visit his mother, but when they drove by the exit to his parents’ house, Hassan realized he had been tricked into further deprogramming. “While it might seem hard to believe, my first impulse was to kill my father by reaching over and snapping his neck,” Hassan wrote. “As a member, I had been told many times that it was better to die or kill than to leave the church.”
When they arrived at their new location, Hassan refused to get out of the car, threatening violence. His father began to cry. “[He] asked me what I would do if it was my son,” Hassan said. Hassan had seen his father cry only once before, at the passing of his own mother, and the rare emotion caught him off guard. He agreed to deprogramming sessions, determined to prove to his family—and to himself—that he was in his right mind. But after five days, Hassan had an epiphany. He read a speech that Moon had given to Congress in which he professed his respect for Americans, claiming they weren’t foolish enough to be “brainwashed”—what Hassan recognized as a lie, given that he had heard Moon mock Americans’ stupidity dozens of times. “Once I connected those dots, it was like a house of cards coming down in my head,” Hassan said.
The cards kept tumbling in the following months, and years. Hassan moved back in with his parents. He said he felt terrified he would be killed by members of the Unification Church, guilty that he had recruited other young people, and deeply embarrassed that he had fallen for such lies in the first place. The shame doubled under his father’s blame. On particularly bad days, Thea said she remembers driving from her home in New York to Boston make sure Hassan wasn’t going to hurt himself. “He had no support afterwards,” she said. “Steven spent the rest of his life trying to figure out what they did to him.”
Jim Picariello was taught to fear people like Steven Hassan, but when he arrived at a friend’s house for an intervention in 1993, he could find little that was intimidating in the mild-mannered counselor sitting before him. Picariello, 20 years old at the time, had joined what he later called a quasi-Buddhist computer programming mind control cult, and his family and friends had organized a meeting for him with Hassan. Hassan walked through the methods that cults use to recruit followers, showed documentaries on other cults, and shared his own story. About four hours into the session, Picariello said he felt a “popping” sensation, as if he had “woken up from a yearlong dream, where I had been living someone else’s life.”
Picariello’s experience was quite different from the argumentative and involuntary confrontation associated with traditional deprogramming, and this shift in the approach to counseling cult victims has defined Hassan’s career. For a few years after leaving the Unification Church, Hassan worked as a deprogrammer—a self-imposed penance for his own involvement in recruiting members. But a combination of burnout and mentorship from Robert J. Lifton, a psychiatrist well-known for his work on “brainwashing,” inspired Hassan to change tack. He got his master’s degree in counseling psychology, started counseling cult victims and their families, and in 1988 published Combating Cult Mind Control, a part-memoir, part-handbook that launched him into the small field of cult research. “The number one thing that I think Steve’s contributed is a way to have people exit a highly manipulative undue influence situation,” said Pratkanis. “In our work we recommend an approach based on Steve’s and that is help the person develop a sense of self-worth and help them question the situation they’re in.”
Hassan calls his method the “Strategic Interactive Approach.” He advises families and friends on how to maintain a relationship with someone they believe has joined a cult; if the cult victim agrees, Hassan travels to meet with them and their loved ones, leading a three-day retreat that resembles a Psychology 101 class. He walks his clients through well-known studies like the Stanford prison experiment to explain how influence works, talks about his time in the Unification Church, and brings in ex-members of the client’s specific group to talk about their experiences. Hassan also counsels people who have already left coercive groups about how to rebuild their lives. One client told me that Hassan helped her develop a sense of self-worth after 12 years in what she called a “Bible cult.” Unlike all the therapists she had seen over the past decade, Hassan affirmed that there wasn’t something “wrong” with her because she joined the group. “I was barely 18 years old and I had vulnerabilities and was recruited using techniques that they use on other people,” she said.
Hassan is less interested in what a given group believes than in the tactics they use to reel in new members. “I am of the belief that the right to believe unusual, bizarre, unorthodox things is very precious. … The issue for me really comes down to the issue of how a group recruits and indoctrinates, the methodology a group will employ,” Hassan once said in an interview. This distinction—between methodology and belief—has become his mantra. He’s developed a system for determining whether a group is indeed a cult and, moreover, a dangerous one. In Combating Cult Mind Control, Hassan describes what he calls his “BITE model,” an acronym for the four components of “mind control”: behavior, information, thought, and emotional control. For example, modes of “behavior control” could include dictating where someone lives, whom they associate with, and what they eat and drink.
Hassan believes that there are healthy and unhealthy ways of influencing people. “Destructive mind control can be determined when the overall effect of these four [BITE] components promotes dependency and obedience to some leader or cause,” he writes on his website. Over the years, Hassan has worked with clients struggling to leave not only what most think of as traditional cults, but also “cults” of parental alienation, human trafficking, multilevel marketing, and more. The client who got out of the “Bible cult” told me that Hassan helped her deal with the aftermath of leaving not only the cult but also an abusive marriage, what she termed “a double indoctrination.”
Online, Hassan’s definition of cultlike behavior can seem particularly wide-ranging. Of the royal family’s treatment of Meghan Markle, he wrote on his blog, “any organization willing to maintain its public image by sacrificing the well-being of its members relies on many of the same psychological theories and tactics used by authoritarian cults.” In early April, he was quoted in an Independent article attesting to the cultlike aspects of SoulCycle. “I would say that Steve has a tendency in some ways to see everything as undue influence because he’s primed to see it that way,” said Scheflin. “I feel that he’s still the victim of the cult. I think that one of the things that happens when you come out of a cult is you have tremendous distrust. You have to become the center of your own universe.”
Even before treading into politics, Hassan was familiar with controversy. At the 2012 International Cultic Studies Association conference, Hassan sparred with other participants over how to define terms like cult and brainwashing. A Toronto Star article declared the conference an “emotional tinderbox.” Hassan’s argument that there is a continuum of cults—some good, some bad—is in itself seen as controversial to some academics who object to applying the word cult too broadly. Michael Langone, the executive director of the ICSA, said that many counselors of cult victims—not just Hassan—tend to use the term cult rather liberally. But many sociologists have long been critical of terms like cult and brainwashing, Langone explained. “I think with some good reason … they’re not precise terms,” he said.
When Hassan expanded his definition of cult even further with The Cult of Trump, he argued that Trump exhibits the personality traits and behaviors of a cult leader. Trump, he writes, fits into the pyramid power structure characteristic of destructive cults: a single leader enabled by his most ardent supporters and followed by legions of “fringe members.” Referring to his BITE model, Hassan details how he thinks Trump controls, for example, his followers’ behavior by shunning those who don’t promise absolute loyalty, short-circuiting critical thinking with phrases like “fake news,” and instilling phobias such as fear of immigrants. “[Writing this] was a chance to reach a world audience in a way I could never reach with a generic book about cults,” Hassan said. But the book’s initial reception was wary. As the Washington Post’s review noted: “Cult is the kind of word Trump loves. It’s instantly alarming, inherently sensational. It can mean so many things, and it can mean nothing.”
One night at a music club in 1998, a mutual friend introduced Hassan to a woman named Misia Landau, whose relative had been in a religious cult years ago. Landau, a science writer and anthropologist, remembers peppering Hassan with questions, and he directed her to the FAQ section of his book. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding?’ ” Landau said. But then a Beatles cover band began playing, and the two started dancing, and three months later they were engaged. “Partly what attracted me to him was this sense that he was engaged in this larger struggle, if you want to put it in terms of good versus evil,” she said.
The larger struggle has been less grandiose, and more personal, over the years. In 1991, Hassan’s first wife, whom he was divorced from at the time, drowned in a local pond while walking her golden retriever. Hassan took rescue training courses and, along with her parents, donated rescue gear to fire stations. “You don’t want anyone else to have to go through what you went through yourself,” Hassan said, as he began to cry.
Hassan has spent his career trying prevent people from going through what he went through. But it’s also been a career spent searching for validation, the kind he once sought from the Unification Church and, in the years since, from academics, the media, and his own family. “When people praise his work or demonstrate an interest, that means a lot to him,” Landau said. Hassan says his own father’s approval trickled in slowly over the years, first when he got his master’s degree and later when he published his first book. Only when his father was in his 90s and in a nursing home did he give Hassan a full blessing. “ ‘Well, you turned into a mensch. You turned into someone I could be proud of,’ ” his sister Thea remembers him saying. “He said, ‘I love you,’ ” Hassan recalls.
On Jan. 6, nearly 15 months after The Cult of Trump was published, Hassan watched as insurrectionists took the Capitol from his home in Newton, Massachusetts, where he now lives with Misia and their teenage son. “I could have done that,” he thought. He’d recall thinking the same thing when he saw coverage of the Jonestown massacre in 1978; at the time, he felt guilty relating to the cult members. But in 2021, Hassan felt validated.
Then came the media hits. CNN had him on twice in the span of a few weeks. Rick Wilson, the co-founder of the Lincoln Project, interviewed him on their livestream, a spot Hassan’s wife said he woke up for at 3 a.m. in excitement. Katie Couric talked with him on her YouTube channel. And then there was a crop of explainer articles sharing Hassan’s advice on how to “save” a loved one from the cult of Trump. “The most important thing is activating and educating people who don’t like Trump to understand that they need to start building bridges back to their family and friends who are into Trump and apologize if they called them nasty names,” Hassan told Vanity Fair. “Just say, ‘I miss you, you’re my brother,’ or ‘I miss you, you’re my uncle. Can’t we just be in each other’s lives?’ ”
Far-right media circles latched onto Hassan as well, in particular for a CNN segment in which he said that “all of America needs deprogramming because we’ve all been negatively influenced by Donald Trump.” But Hassan, who unfailingly tweets all of his media appearances, framed the backlash to his advantage. “Even though they’re dissing me, anyone who has been questioning consciously [their place in a cult] then knows how to look for me on the internet,” he said. As he wrote on his blog: “I wish to thank them for broadcasting my message to their followers.”
Drawing a line between an infamous 1970s cult leader like Moon and a former president, even one whose adherents include a conspiracy theory contingent, is inevitably messy. Joe Uscinski, a political science professor at the University of Miami who studies conspiracy theories, says he finds some aspects of QAnon “cultish” but would hesitate to compare the group to Jonestown, as Hassan does in his book, given how decentralized its members are. Moreover, he worries that broadcasting messages about the dangers of QAnon misconstrues the reality of the group’s influence—as Uscinski and his colleagues found in a study in January, “support for QAnon is both meager and stable across time,” despite its characterizations in the media as “growing.” (Uscinski notes, for example, that a poll recently highlighted in the New York Times was framed as evidence that QAnon was as popular as some major religions in the U.S., but that poll didn’t differentiate between those who actually follow QAnon and those who simply believe some of its conspiracy theories. Such conspiracy theories, he added, have long existed outside of the group.) And articles that promise to help you “save your loved one,” Uscinski noted, risk conflating Republicans and Trump supporters with QAnon members. “I think what’s important to do is make distinctions about what people’s motivations are and how far they are into something,” he said. “I’d be careful of doing interventions with family members just because they disagree with me politically.”
Believing that Trump-worshipping loved ones are victims of a cult is in some ways a generous narrative, one that might just inspire family members to follow Hassan’s advice and tell their crazy uncle they love him. “We need to de-stigmatize the experience: We all can be deceived and manipulated,” Hassan told Salon in March. He has recently tried to start a hashtag, #IGotOut, for former cult members to share their stories and, with that, create “an exit ramp” for others to leave.
But is this narrative too generous? The question of how much blame we should attach to individual extremist actors—vs. how much we should attach to the groups and people who influenced them—is one we’ve been grappling with as a culture for decades. In a 2002 Slate piece, Dahlia Lithwick explored the “brainwashed defense” that terrorists like Richard Reid, John Walker Lindh, and Zacarias Moussaoui were invoking at the time. Embracing the idea of “brainwashing”—or undue influence, as Hassan often calls it—as an explanation for someone’s actions can be dangerous in the way it tends to absolve not only the perpetrator, but also the public, of responsibility. “If everyone who doesn’t think as we do can be dismissed as ‘brainwashed,’ we can keep asserting cultural and religious supremacy and still appear open-minded and tolerant,” Lithwick wrote. Calling someone else a cultist, ironically, can spare us from interrogating our own insularity.
In the case of the Trump supporters who raided the Capitol, Uscinski worries that the narrative “it could happen to anyone” is more than imprecise—it risks smoothing over the country’s underlying problems. “Trump support is the outcome and it’s an expression of something, and we’ve got to figure out what that something is for those people,” said Uscinski, who has studied underlying personality traits, like higher levels of narcissism and psychopathy, of QAnon supporters. Uscinski believes that conspiracy theorists like QAnon followers don’t necessarily just “fall down the rabbit hole by following information.” “That could happen,” he said, “but I think a more likely way that this happens is people already have personality dispositions and worldviews that are bringing them to something.”
Hassan has taken the critiques that his work is unscientific to heart. At the encouragement of one of his mentors, Michael Commons, a psychiatry professor at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, he recently finished a doctorate in organizational development and change. For his dissertation, he surveyed active and former members of cults (as well as nonmembers) about whether they identified with the criteria outlined in his BITE model. (He concluded that his model was effective.) “There are two kinds of people in psychiatry and the law—the storytellers and the scientists,” Commons said. Hassan has long been a storyteller; now he’s working to refashion himself as a scientist.
When it comes to Trump, Hassan says he isn’t advocating for interventions with all the former president’s supporters—just the ones who seem to fit within the BITE model’s parameters of undue influence. And while he says he understands the dangers of overstating the influence of a group like QAnon, he sees his own media appearances as a way of countering news stories that dismiss Trumpists as crazy.
But he admits that he worried that his book’s title would turn off too many people, particularly those in the so-called cult of Trump itself. (The book’s subtitle: “A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control.”) “[My agent’s] argument was, they’re not going to read your book anyway, and we need to educate others,” he said. Rather than fueling political divisions, Hassan hoped the book would help people understand undue influence in general and prompt them to think critically about their own beliefs.
Even with all his publicity, Hassan has had only a few paying clients reach out to him about a loved one swept away by Trump or QAnon, and only one has materialized into an actual conversation with the devotee—a man who approached him last year about his wife, an ardent QAnon supporter. Hassan spoke with the woman, and she agreed to stop going to QAnon websites and said that if Trump wasn’t reelected, she would leave the group. Hassan followed up with the husband after Joe Biden’s inauguration but hasn’t met with the wife again.
Next, Hassan hopes to establish his BITE model as a way of evaluating undue influence in the legal system. He thinks he could be an expert witness for the defense of some of the insurrectionists, particularly given that one of the lawyers compared the insurrectionists to “followers of Jim Jones” while another referred to Trump as a “cult leader.” Hassan said he offered on Twitter a few months ago to talk with Jacob Chansley, the insurrectionist known for wearing a fur helmet and horns, but did not receive a reply. “I don’t know that’s the best forum for Steve,” Scheflin said, of his expert witness aspirations. “I see him as a media person.”
Today, Hassan and his wife are active members of their local temple; they go scuba diving on vacations with their son. And while the guilt for his past has long dogged him, at age 67, Hassan says he’s finally forgiven himself. Next, he plans to write a book on combating authoritarian mind control in the digital age—since cults, as he writes in The Cult of Trump, no longer need to physically isolate members on compounds when the internet has its own silos. He hopes someday to work at a university. “I’m certainly not going to stop talking,” he said.
When Thea, Hassan’s sister, watched her brother on television recently, she thought of how proud their parents would have been. He had changed so much over the years. “It’s almost a miracle,” she said.
Hassan has now pulled back from counseling clients one on one in favor of finishing his doctorate, juggling media requests, and maintaining his blog and social media accounts—efforts that he hopes will help him reach even more people than individual counseling sessions. But though he may be ready in theory to retire from flying around the country to chase cultists, he can’t bring himself to fully stop. In his counseling sessions, Hassan sometimes asks his clients to reimagine what they would have done in a particular situation if they knew then what they know now. “It changes your power,” he said. He’s practiced this technique on himself, too. He imagines a 19-year-old version of himself sitting in the Queens College cafeteria and telling the three young women, “I’m not interested.” In this alternate memory, Hassan wouldn’t have gone to their house that night or any night—wouldn’t have dismissed the alarm bells that rang in his head.