Rick Alan Ross (LEFT) and Donald Trump (YouTube/Getty/Fusion)
It’s no secret that Donald Trump has been using powerful tools of persuasion to swing voters to his side. It’s also no secret that the Trump campaign has amassed a zealous group of supporters, many of whom have sworn their allegiance to him despite a string of embarrassing revelations, racist gaffes, and violent incidents.
If you’re like most Americans, you probably have friends or family members who support Trump, and plan to vote for him in November. And if you’ve tried to convince these people to change their allegiance, you know that it’s not easy. Arguing with Trump supporters generally doesn’t help. Neither does shaming or insulting them.
Audience member Robin Roy (C) reacts as U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets her at a campaign rally in Lowell, Massachusetts January 4, 2016. (BRIAN SNYDER / Reuters)
Convincing a Trump supporter to back down from their views requires a tactical, professional approach. So I called a cult deprogramming expert, and asked him how to convince Trump supporters to change their minds.
Rick Alan Ross runs the Cult Education Institute, a non-profit organization located in Trenton, New Jersey. Since 1982, he’s worked as a cult intervention specialist, conducting over 500 “interventions” (his preferred term for the cult deprogramming sessions he runs) on members of groups like Scientology and the Branch Davidians.
The first thing Ross told me was that, technically, the Trump movement isn’t a cult. To qualify as a cult, you need a thought reform program (commonly referred to as “brainwashing,” though Ross doesn’t like that term) and a way of using coercive persuasion to “gain undue influence” over subjects and harm them. He compared the Trump movement to the Bernie Sanders campaign, and said that technically, these movements display elements of “cult followings,” rather than being true cults.
“There’s a big difference between Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Jim Jones, and Charlie Manson, and David Koresh, Shoko Asahara,” he told me.
But he did say that some of the techniques that he’s used to deprogram cult members over the years could still apply to political figures with cult followings, like Trump.
So if you’ve been wondering how to convince your Trump-supporting family and friends to change their minds before November, here’s a deprogrammer-approved guide.
Approach the topic compassionately
Ross’ anti-cult “interventions” typically begin with a request from a family member, who requests help deprogramming their loved one. During an intervention, which can take three or four days and is always a surprise, the cult member is isolated in a room along with concerned friends and family members, and guided through a series of conversations. (Ross says he “wouldn’t suggest something quite [as] drastic and formal” for Trump supporters, but he tells me that the general principles of intervention could still be helpful.)
In the first part of the intervention, Ross says, he educates the subject about the traditional definition of a “destructive cult,” and tries to get them to see the ways in which their membership in a group has been harmful. Then, Ross attempts to explain the principles of thought reform, and how it operates in various group settings. Lastly, he asks the subject why they think their family is so concerned, and went so far as to stage an intervention.
Framing an intervention as an act of personal care and compassion is important, Ross says. Otherwise, it’s just viewed as an ambush, and the subject starts off on the defensive. He tells me about a recent attempt at an intervention that lasted all of two minutes because the subject had been coached and felt persecuted, causing them to literally flee the room. One of the questions Ross asks subjects is: “What behavior have you exhibited, and what has happened to cause [your friends and family] to be so concerned that they brought me in?”
If you’re trying to convince someone not to vote for Trump, in other words, you should start off compassionate, not angry.
Give them information
Part of a successful intervention, Ross says, is conveying new information to the subject, so they can make their own informed decision about staying with or leaving the group.
During an intervention, Ross asks the subject what they know about the group and its leader. Does the leader have a criminal history? Has the leader been sued by former members for things like personal injury? Does the leader have assets like real estate holdings or investments derived from the group that you’re not aware of? Are there former members with similar grievances that you’re not aware of?
“It’s not therapy, it’s not counseling. It’s education and sharing information,” Ross says.
In the case of a Trump supporter, you could start off with emotionally charged issues close to his or her heart. If your Trump-supporting friend or family member is a woman who believes in reproductive health rights, explain that Trump supports defunding Planned Parenthood and holds lots of retrograde opinions about women. If it’s a friend whose house was once foreclosed on, perhaps show them a video of Trump saying he cheered for the housing collapse of 2008. If it’s a small business owner who employs immigrants, show them how disruptive Trump’s immigration policies would be to their work.
Here’s a primer, with citations, of where Trump stands on the core issues. If your Trump supporter insists that the other candidates aren’t any better, you can show them these explanations of how Trump and Hillary Clinton compare on the issues, and how Trump and Bernie Sanders compare.
Introduce divergent views
Information alone can’t help a cult member escape, because cult experiences are emotional, not just intellectual. But changing the information intake of a person in an insular community can help them realize what they’re missing.
To illustrate this, he tells me about how anti-North Korea activists have had their best successes by airdropping thumb drives and other media and information that show North Koreans what life is like in the outside world, often with Hollywood shows and movies. Rather than telling North Koreans that they’re being lied to, this technique allows North Koreans to see it for themselves.
Ross says that for cult members, insular information bubbles “can create an alternate reality, an alternate universe, an echo chamber in which they only hear affirmation of their one world view, one mind set,” he says. “If you can control everything that goes into the mind, you can control the mind itself because the mind can only utilize what information it has coming in.”
Establishing environmental control is a huge part of increasing the amount of information the subject sees, Ross says. So if your Trump-supporting friend only watches Fox News or listens to Mark Levin on the radio, try to convince him to watch some MSNBC or read the New York Times. E-mail her articles from websites she wouldn’t normally visit. Many Trump supporters likely have suspicions about mainstream media bias, so try sharing information that comes from non-mainstream sources, like Facebook groups or YouTube channels.
“You can use the principles of deprogramming to challenge the basic assumptions of a particular political faction that’s devoted to a political leader, and the idea is to stimulate critical thinking and analytical thought and cause an individual to reflect rather than just say “YEAH!” all the time,” Ross says.
Avoid loaded language
One potential land mine is loaded language. According to Ross, cliches like “Dangerous Donald” and “Crooked Hillary” won’t work for the purposes of convincing someone to change their political beliefs.
“Slogans and mantras shut down critical thinking,” he says.
Groups like cults use a principle called “dispensing of existence” to get their followers to reject dissenting views—it’s how Paul Haggis became persona non grata in the Church of Scientology after speaking out about its shady practices. But it’s the same thing done by political campaigns, which write off the views of detractors as unpatriotic or irrational.
You don’t want to be written off. So when you’re talking to your Trump-supporting friends about their beliefs, use neutral language. Don’t call him a “birther” or a “misogynist,” since those are words typically used by people who don’t like Trump. If the person you’re talking to feels “othered” or attacked, they’ll shut down.
Appeal to authority
In his interventions, Ross relies heavily on works of academic scholarship, such as previous research concerning thought reform and the science of personality changes that lead people to cults. He also emphasizes how many years he’s been doing deprogramming, and how respected he is in the field. There’s a reason for this—when a cult member hears authoritative voices talking about the dangers of cult behavior, it carries more weight than hearing an amateur talk about it.
To sway a Trump supporter, perhaps you’d begin by identifying people she respects, and seeing which of those people have spoken out in opposition to Trump. If the Trump supporter is a huge basketball fan, perhaps show him Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s open letter to Trump supporters. If she’s an avid “House of Cards” fan, consider showing her a video of Kevin Spacey blasting Trump’s policies.
Celebrities alone probably won’t convince your friend or family member to give up on Trump. But endorsements matter, and sometimes, an admired public figure’s words can do more to change minds than a hundred policy papers.
Cults use a principle that the Harvard psychologist Robert Jay Lifton called “sacred science”: they convince their members that the group’s teachings have produced real, measurable effects for other followers, and that if something goes wrong with an individual follower, that simply proves that they weren’t applying the principles correctly. In order to deprogram a cult member, you need to break that science down by pointing out mistakes and contradictions in the group’s ideology.
Ross tells me that he’s used this technique during an intervention with a Scientologist. He pointed out that one of L. Ron Hubbard’s theories (that toxins reside in the fatty tissue indefinitely) was scientifically false, and that, therefore, Hubbard couldn’t have been right about everything. This revelation led to other revelations about things Hubbard might have been wrong about, and started breaking down the thought reform that the Scientologist had been subjected to.
“It’s helpful to show, in the leader’s own words, how they’ve been misleading or said things that are disingenuous or even lies. That begins to shake the faith of a true believer,” Ross says.
Ross says the key to introducing more critical thinking is pointing out ambiguity and nuance, rather than challenging core beliefs directly. For a Trump supporter, this might mean showing them evidence that immigrants don’t actually commit more crimes than native-born Americans, or that you’re more likely to get shot by a toddler than a Muslim terrorist. It might mean fact-checking some incorrect assertions Trump has made about ISIS’ oil holdings in Libya, or gently correcting some misinformation he’s spread about Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.
Be respectful and loving, not smug and condescending
Near the end of our conversation, Ross touched on an important part of the process of deprogramming: don’t underestimate the intelligence of the person you’re talking to.
“The idea that just stupid people fall for this is just simply not true. I’ve deprogrammed five medical doctors. It can happen to anyone,” he said.
Ross was talking about people who had gotten involved in cults, but it’s important in relation to Trump as well. Yes, a lot of Trump’s supporters are aggrieved white men, but there are a lot of other types of people supporting him. Maybe your Trump-supporting friend lost his manufacturing job when his company moved factories overseas. Maybe she was genuinely spooked by the terrorist attacks in Paris, and wants to elect someone who will keep America safe.
Only by recognizing these motives as genuine, and treating people with respect—remember how slogans shut down critical thinking?—will you see success, according to Ross. In his experience, people who are successfully deprogrammed from cults are usually most persuaded when they see how concerned their families are, and how much they love them, along with learning things they did not know prior to the intervention.
Personal affection is a strong motivator—in the end, the persuasiveness of the anti-Trump arguments you make to your loved one are likely to matter less than the fact that it’s you making them. So keep it civil, and you’re more likely to take a vote out of Trump’s column.