Trump falsely claimed his 'authority is total' as president. An expert on cults says this assertion could be taken right out of the 'cult leader playbook.'

Trump yells
President Donald Trump delivers remarks to the news media during a meeting with bankers on COVID-19 coronavirus response, inside the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 11, 2020.

REUTERS/Tom Brenner

  • Cult expert Steven Hassan said President Donald Trump's penchant for claiming "authority" and expert knowledge on the coronavirus is a move that could be taken right out of the "cult leader playbook."

  • Hassan illustrated how people are especially vulnerable to influence during an event like a pandemic, and Trump's unyielding behavior could be dangerous in a time where expert opinions are paramount.

  • From Trump's claims of absolute authority to his decision to cut funding to the World Health Organization, Hassan said he thinks it will only prolong problems as the US continues to grapple with the coronavirus.

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In a press conference earlier this week, President Donald Trump falsely claimed his authority as president is "total." A cult expert said the assertion could be taken right out of the "cult leader playbook."

"When somebody's the president of the United States, the authority is total," he said during Monday's press briefing about the novel coronavirus — specifically about lifting social distancing measures. "And that's the way it's got to be."

Both state governors and legal scholars were quick to point out that the US Constitution gives Trump no such powers. In fact, as Business Insider previously wrote, "The 10th Amendment delegates 'police powers' to the states to regulate behavior during public-health crises."

Steven Hassan, a licensed mental health counselor, cult expert, and author of a book called "The Cult of Trump," told Insider that what he heard in Trump's Monday rhetoric was reminiscent of a classic cult leader.

The "cult leader playbook," Hassan explained, is to have total power, have "obedient dependent followers, and to attack anyone, like the media, that's questioning that — to attack them and to try to exact retribution on them."

Hassan said he thinks Trump is "telegraphing his intentions of being an authoritarian leader," comparing him to authoritarian leaders like Viktor Orbán of Hungary. At the end of March, Orbán was handed the power to rule by decree indefinitely amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

"[Trump's] lack of leadership and his obsession with his own ego versus what's best for the people is going to prolong — in my opinion, and of so many other people — the problems, not only the deaths and the illness but also the economy having more trouble," Hassan said.

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Hassan also cited Trump's decision to cut funding to the World Health Organization as another cult leader characteristic.

He said cult leaders "always like to demonize on 'the other' as a way of enforcing more conformity within the group."

"I want to comment on the fact that Trump was saying he wants to defund the WHO at a time where foreign heads of state from many countries are coming together saying we need to work together to find the common solution because this is going to affect everyone on the planet," Hassan said.

"Part of Trump's ideology is 'America first,' and, you know, screw everybody else. So it was congruent with that part of his platform that got him elected, but it does not make any sense in terms of science," he continued.

Hassan believes Trump's unyielding behavior is dangerous in a time where expert opinions are paramount, saying that he thinks everyone is a victim of the "cult of Trump," including the mainstream media who report on him and perpetuate his legacy as president.

"What I've learned about cult leaders is they'd rather be feared than forgotten, and with someone who is a mind controller, they want to occupy people's attention," Hassan said. "Even if people hate them, they want to be in people's minds."

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