How cult leaders entrap their followers — and their detractors

Understanding the ways cult leaders gain and maintain power

Hello! I’m speaking more openly about cults and cult leaders, because we had a cultic leader in power here in the United States, and after the failed and deadly coup attempt, we had more that 140 Republican lawmakers who supported his lies and sedition. It’s not over.

But not being supporter of this cultic situation doesn’t free any of us. I’ve observed that many (most?) people on the outside of this cult have mostly failed to help, to protect the people trapped in the cult, or to offer a way out.

Instead, most outsiders have engaged in shaming, mockery, dehumanization, and unskilled expressions of hatred and panic. I understand all of these emotional reactions, and I also know that they not only don’t work; they backfire and strengthen the cult.

I had written in subtext up until the months before the 2020 election, because I know, as a cult survivor myself, that if anyone disrespects your group or your leader — with mockery, shaming, hatred, panic, or yelling — you will attach yourself with more intensity to your cult and your cult leader.

But as a cult survivor, I can tell you this: there is a way out.

There is always a way out, and it’s never too late to leave

One of the first things a cult does is to get people to see themselves as special (or especially victimized), and to see outsiders as wrong, deluded, or evil. So right there, the cult becomes protected against any outside influence. The cult begins to seal itself in.

But if people outside the cult use mockery, yelling, rage, shame, or panic, that self-sealing becomes even stronger. It actually supports everything the cult leader is saying.

Cult leaders somehow understand this, and often, they’ll begin acting in wild ways — creating fevered delusions of conspiracies, behaving abusively, or spinning out mentally — which alarms outsiders (naturally!) and makes the outsiders even more vocal and intense.

Which then makes the followers attach even harder to the leader and the group. It’s a trap, for everyone.

Outside pressure creates interior cohesion

Cover of the book Escaping UtopiaSome group members will leave when their leader begins to deteriorate, but many will double-down on their devotion, because watching the breakdown of their leader fills them with empathy and concern — and they feel more distrust or even hatred of outsiders.

Or they tell themselves stories about their leader’s divinity or his wisdom, or blame outsiders for driving him off the deep end.

So outsiders need to be very smart and not fall into the trap. Knowing what to do when a loved one is in a cult is crucial.

You cannot yell, shame, mock, or rage someone out of a cult. You can only welcome them out with respect and care for their humanity.

And cult leaders usually know that, which is why they make themselves (and through them, their followers), seem unlovable and even inhuman.

It’s a trap, friends. The whole entire thing is a trap, and the only winning move is not to play.

And I told you all of that to tell you this: There was nothing about Trump’s leadership style that *wasn’t* cultic.

Let’s look at the list of nine features of cult leaders from my book with cult expert Janja Lalich: Escaping Utopia.

Evaluating Unhealthy Leaders

The following checklist can help you identify whether a leader is toxic or cultic. 

Unhealthy leaders treat others as means to an end and require unquestioning devotion to their beliefs, desires, and demands.

If you want to gauge the health of any leader or group, ask yourself: Are any of these statements true?

  • The leader or group has an inflated sense of importance and connection to greatness.
  • The leader’s needs, ideas, and desires are overriding; they erase the needs, ideas, and desires of group members.
  • The leader can do or say almost anything without repercussions; there are no checks or balances on his or her behavior.
  • The leader belittles all other ideas and belief systems, and any other leaders who are in the leader’s realm (e.g., other New Age leaders if the leader has a New Age philosophy).
  • The leader takes credit for anything good that happens, and blames others for anything bad that happens.
  • The leader treats questions and challenges as threats, and he or she may see enemies everywhere – inside and outside the group.
  • Members must idealize and revere the leader and the ranking leadership.
  • Members who challenge the authority of the leader or leadership group are punished, publicly humiliated, shunned, or kicked out, and may be portrayed as enemy traitors.
  • The leader claims special powers, knowledge, and lineage – or may claim to be divine.

Donald Trump used all of these behaviors, and they’re deeply entrapping for his followers, his colleagues, and his family.

But if you’re an outsider who is yelling, screaming, mocking, or raging at his followers, you’re in the trap too.

There is a way out, for all of us. It’s never too late.

See this post for a list of the features of healthy leadership: Understanding Unhealthy Leadership

May we all learn to identify healthy leaders, healthy people, and healthy relationships.

May we all become free, and in turn, free others.


This post originally appeared on my Facebook page.

6 Responses

  1. Jeremey
    | Reply

    Interesting. Do we not see the same phenomenon with the Biden administration, however less opaque and more subtle it is?

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      No. A cult is a very specific type of social grouping, and there are 4 features that need to be present, which you can read about here:

      The democratic party isn’t cultic, and Biden isn’t a cult leader. If you’d like to look at a country that is cultic, North Korea is a good example.

      Something I’ve noticed is that a cult, because it’s a high-control group with totalistic views and usually a toxic narcissist at the center, can get a hell of a lot done. And can do a lot of hell.

      Non-cults really can’t compete. A cult creates its own weather pattern and urges people into fiercely indoctrinated intensity.

      I’m haunted by the thought that there will be another presidency like the one we barely made it through, but I think the damage to our country and our culture may take decades to heal, if it ever heals at all.

      Cults do a hell of a lot of hell.

  2. Kay
    | Reply

    Good article. MAGA is certainly a cult with Trump as its leader. But Trump is a very weak man with no moral compass who poses as a strongman. I believe that when he is facing his trials and has to defend his Big Lie, the truth will emerge then. Some people will never believe they were wrong about him, others will. Some want violence anyway but most people will not want a civil war.
    You mention there is usually a toxic narcissist at the centre – can there be a partial cult where someone gentle and kind is put up on a very high pedestal by his fans, tries to guide them to be good citizens – most are reasonable in fact and they support him without stint and also do charitable deeds in his name. Then there is a cohort who behave exactly in the ways you describe and viciously attack his supposed enemies – he seems unable to stop this. Can there be a puppeteer hidden behind the curtain in some cases?

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Yes. Cadres can form around certain people, and it’s sad when people are put in positions of leadership but have no understanding of power or power vacuums.

      Many naïve leaders have created unhealthy social structures around themselves, which is what allows these controlling and cultic cadres to form.

      This is why I wrote descriptions of healthy leadership in Escaping Utopia:

      Many people, sadly, don’t know what healthy leadership looks like, and they end up creating trouble out of sheer ignorance.

  3. Vivien Wolsk
    | Reply

    Good article but what’s the solution?

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Understanding and education. In each of the dimensions of cultic control, I include ways to tell if a group is unhealthy, and things to look for in healthy groups.

      Another important things is to know how to approach people when they’re trapped. Yelling at them, mocking, them, or challenging them is sure way to further entrap them. That also takes education and understanding.

      These groups and leaders flourish in areas where a lack of education about the very specific aspects of unhealthy groups exists. Knowledge is power here.

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