The Definitive Guide to Helping People Get Past "The Big Lie"
Cult-like behavior is at issue, and it can be addressed, carefully.
Posted November 23, 2021 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
- Promoting a false narrative of a stolen election aligns with signs of cult behavior.
- Some followers are so devoted that they have cut off relationships with close friends and family.
- The same strategies that help people leave destructive cults can be applied.
Under the right circumstances, even rational, well-adjusted people can be deceived and persuaded to believe the most outrageous ideas. For example, as multiple tallies and audits have proved, Joe Biden won the 2020 U.S. Presidential election, by more than 7 million votes. But more than a year after his defeat, former President Donald Trump maintains that he was the real victor and that the election was stolen from him—a false narrative widely referred to by news organizations as "the big lie."
According to a national Ipsos/Reuters poll conducted in May 2021, 25% of all Americans believe that Trump is the rightful president, losing only because of illegal voting. In addition, a study conducted for CNN by SSRS (an independent research company) in September 2021 shows that 36% of Americans think that Biden did not win enough votes to become president. This includes 23% reporting they believe there is solid evidence Biden lost and 13% having a suspicion only. Even without evidence of widespread voter fraud, many still believe The Big Lie.
How is it that so many people believe something demonstrably false? Trump has been known to use some of the same deceptive psychological techniques that cult leaders use, fostering a fanatical devotion in his supporters. Promoting a falsehood in the face of facts showing otherwise is a major trademark of cult behavior.
Stereotypical Characteristics of a Cult Leader
- Grandiose self-centered behavior: Like cult leaders of the past, Trump displays a grandiose self-image. He thinks he is “chosen” and past utterances confirm he is the “best” at anything and everything.
- Fantasies of power, success, and attractiveness: He displays a belief that he is special and unique, and as such should associate with special or high-status people or institutions. He has, in fact, declared himself to be a genius.
- Need for praise and admiration: Cult leaders require constant praise. Trump continues to surround himself with people who praise and admire him, including large crowds.
- Sense of entitlement: Cult leaders have a sense of entitlement. They think they are above the law and can do anything. Trump continues to block the release of presidential records for the U.S. Capitol riot probe.
- Tendency to create alternative "facts" and realities: The Big Lie that the election was stolen from him stands as a major example of an alternative reality.
- Shunning and belittling of critics and ex-believers: Trump is known for turning on those that no longer support him. He has a reputation for retaliating against them.
- Cultivating an "us-versus-them" mindset: Exploiting and encouraging division helped Trump get elected in 2016; if he runs in 2024, similar divisive tactics are likely to be part of his campaign.
With so many people still believing that Trump is the rightful winner of the 2020 election, we all likely know someone in this situation. It contributes to the polarizing politics of the day. It is possible to reach out to friends and family in order to help them out of this cult-like mindset.
The Definitive Guide to Helping People in the Cult of The Big Lie
As a mental health counselor and former cult member with over 45 years of experience helping people leave and recover from destructive cults, I have developed some strategic and helpful techniques. It is essentially the same advice I give to families of people in mind-control cults.
Things to Do First
- Start with you. Do your homework. Be informed and have a plan. Research cults and mind control. Don’t make the mistake of trying to rationally argue. Understand how mind control works and the effective communication strategies that work. Don’t fly blindly. Realize that helping a person will be a process requiring patience, effort, flexibility, and love.
- Build rapport and trust. Rebuild your relationship if it’s broken. If you were the one to break contact, apologize. Reach out and be warm. Remember the good times. Focus on common values and areas you both enjoy (children, pets, music, dancing, fishing, sports). At first, don’t talk about controversial topics or Trump. Avoid hot topics. Just try to connect with the other person and have positive interactions. Build credibility, and sustain positive interaction. Build a long-term relationship based on respect, compassion, and love.
- Do what you can to remove or minimize exposure to media that indoctrinates to only one point of view. This is a positive step. You can even agree to go on a media fast together. Don’t make this about “them” or “their problem.” Make this a fun thing to do together as a “break.” Be prepared to honor requests on your end.
Things to Do During Your Conversations
- Ask thought-provoking questions while being warm and curious. Be prepared to listen deeply. You will know whether you have listened well if you can repeat back to them what they said. Be humble and open to hear what they say.
- Keep conversations positive, productive, and civil. Never get angry. Stay resourceful. It is better to end an interaction than to say something counterproductive.
- Adopt a general tone of curiosity and interest in their positions. Pretend you’re an impartial counselor. Really try to get inside their beliefs.
- Try to connect them with the authentic identity they displayed before they took on extreme beliefs. Remind them of past experiences together. Talk about the connection you once had and how you miss it.
- Don’t “tell” them anything. Help them to make discoveries on their own.
- Try to get them to look at reality from many different perspectives. This can include many things.
- Teach them about indoctrination and mind control by using examples they have no attachment to (don’t talk about Trump!).
- Use examples of cult leaders with similar qualities to Trump and have conversations about them.
- Share feelings and perceptions, not judgments. Use “I feel” statements. Don’t claim to be “right.” Stick to what your perception is when reflecting back to them.
- Ask a question and then wait for them to think and respond. You do not need to fill the silence.
- Caution: An abundance of facts won't necessarily help. Do not overwhelm them with information, especially if it attacks the leader or doctrine.
Lastly, be patient. This is a journey and enlightenment will not happen overnight. Do not get discouraged.
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