Two weeks ago on Reddit's largest community for Donald Trump supporters, a user named WolfOfAnarchy dropped by with a request that was becoming almost tediously common for regulars on the site.
“Sanders supporter here,” he began. “Can you convince me (just not with idiotic oneliners) that Trump is not who the media makes him out to be? Thanks.”
“If you have any time, you should watch this,” another user jumped in.
That comment, which had the highest score, linked to a website: UntruthAboutDonaldTrump.com.
Other Trump supporters piled on, saying they were sick of having to post this same video over and over again. “I really wish our mods would sticky this (or affix it to the top of the website permanently) so we don’t have to link this all the time,” one user wrote.
“That one video would clear up so much all the time,” said another.
Why? Because this video, for some reason, tends to work. And now, again, Trump's online supporters got to watch it in action: someone being told the real truth about Donald Trump for the very first time.
“I’m 5 minutes in, very very interesting so far,” WolfOfAnarchy reported back. “Trump is not stupid, that’s clear, damn.”
When you click through to UntruthAboutDonaldTrump.com, you simply see this: a balding man smiling through a salt-and-pepper goatee, clad in an ironed button-down shirt, and standing well-lit in front of a static white background. He greets you warmly in a trusting, even-toned Irish accent. His name is Stefan Molyneux.
“Hope you’re doing well,” he says. “We’re going to go through a list of untruths about Donald Trump, just so you can get a fair assessment of the man’s character and avoid the sensationalistic nonsense and get to the man’s actual positions and policies—which are well worth an examination, and certainly not above criticism.”
Basically, as subreddit users put it, Molyneux sets out to make a reasoned, calm, intellectual argument for the candidacy of Donald Trump.
And for the first few minutes, it’s hard to disagree with him. Molyneux, slowly reading along from a PowerPoint-like text of talking points, breaks down passages from Trump’s Art of the Deal. He contends that Trump can’t possibly be as dimwitted as the media makes him out to be and convincingly argues that it all must be part of Trump’s plan. Molyneux, 49, is charismatic, open, immediately transfixing—almost enough for you to forget the video’s 73-minute run time.
“15 minutes in,” WolfOfAnarchy wrote. “Jesus, the misinformation of the media is insane. I have never listened to a Trump speech, only the media. I now read his quotes and holy fuck have the media been turning my mind into a certain direction.”
Later on comes the questionable stuff from Molyneux—sentences like, “It’s crazy you have to go to the former KGB leader to get the truth about the American presidential race”—but by the time he gets there, Molyneux has you hooked.
It’s a pattern all too familiar for some families who’ve had a child watch Molyneux’s videos and listen to his podcasts. At first, it’s just their kid watching videos about something controversial but familiar—The Matrix, The Martian, or Donald Trump.
Then, a few months and a few more podcasts later, there’s a note on the door. After that moment, they never see their child again.
Barbara Weed said she never understood the appeal of Molyneux’s videos. She always found him “loathsome.”
But Weed said she knows the feeling this first-time Molyneux watcher is experiencing all too well.
She said it’s the feeling her son, Tom Bell, had a little over eight years ago, the last time she saw him. It’s the feeling he had before he ran away from home to join what she and experts like those at the British Cult Information Center call “Molyneux’s cult.”
“My son is still gone. He’s alive, in a foreign country. He cut off not just me, but all of the family and all of his friends. I haven’t had direct contact with him since 2008,” said Weed, a Labour councilor from South Leamington in the U.K. “It sounds a bit strange when I say that to people.”
One day eight years ago, Weed came home to see a note on her doormat from her son. It said he was moving in with a friend and it instructed her not to contact him.
About six months before that, she had heard him listening to podcasts in his room. It all started with a school assignment for his Critical Thinking & Philosophy class. That led him to a YouTube video called “Introduction to Philosophy.” It shows Molyneux pacing around a room in 2006, talking about perceptions of what is really “true.”
Tom initially tried to introduce his mother to it, but she said she simply wasn’t interested.
“My politics were just very different from [Molyneux’s],” she said.
Still, that Introduction to Philosophy podcast had Tom hooked. His mother thought he was listening to the same one over and over again in his bedroom, as Molyneux droned on about the same ideas: identity, an extreme version of libertarianism, and the inherent abuse embedded in the concept of family.
It turns out, however, they were all different episodes, and sometimes there were group Skype chats with Molyneux and his fellow diehards.
“He told me he was getting advice from people on the Internet,” she said. “I didn’t know what he was planning to do. I didn’t know how deeply he was involved.”
What she also didn’t know was that Molyneux’s uniform advice to his dedicated listenership was a simple, cruel plan: Move away from your parents, because it is almost impossible for any mother or father not to have abused you in some way over the course of your lifetime.
“I’ve interviewed former insiders, and I’ve learned a fair bit about [Molyneux] and about the cult,” said Steve Hassan, a licensed mental health counselor and leading American cult expert. “He thinks that anyone who has circumcised a child is a child abuser and convinces his followers to cut off all contact from family and friends—even if it was a sibling who has nothing to do with it.”
Last year, Hassan was hired by a family to help them reunite with a child who had run away under the influence of Molyneux’s ideology. Hassan said he believes this kind of “YouTube cult” can often be more dangerous than a sect with a built-in church or community, as it can convince vulnerable young men and women with nowhere to go to leave on a moment’s notice—and without any support system to help them get by.
All of it is part of a process Molyneux calls “deFOOing,” or extracting oneself from their “family of origin.”
Molyneux’s wife, Christina Papadopoulos, a licensed therapist in Canada, was sanctioned by the College of Psychologists of Ontario in Mississauga in 2012 for appearing on her husband’s podcast and advocating for precisely that. The panel found her guilty of professional misconduct for giving improper advice and telling people to leave their families.
Molyneux’s group, which organizes in forums online and sometimes in person, was called a “therapy cult” by family members in Canada’s Globe & Mail.
In response to allegations that his group is a cult in a 2008 Globe & Mail interview, Molyneux called it “the c-word” and said, “I’m sure a few marriages broke up because of feminism. It doesn’t make feminism a cult.”
On defoo.org, however, some of the group now self-identify as a “highly profitable self-knowledge cult.”
Molyneux did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Daily Beast.
“Partly what’s going on with the people on the Internet who are indoctrinated, they spend lots of hours on the computer. Videos can have them up all night for several nights in a row,” said Hassan. “Molyneux knows how to talk like he knows what he’s talking about—despite very, very little academic research. He cites this and cites that, and presents it as the whole truth. It dismantles people’s sense of self and replaces it with his sense of confidence about how to fix the world.”
Molyneux’s plan to fix the world may start with disassociation from family, but it also relies on devotees sending him cash—although recently he has insisted it’s not necessary—in a tiered donation system not unlike the one Scientology uses. Weed said her son had been giving money to Molyneux in order to reach the highest level of membership and, in turn, become part of Molyneux’s inner circle.
“That level is called Philosopher King,” said Weed. “Tom was giving all of his money to him to become one of his special little friends, despite being a starving student.”
“He’s making a living off of people donating money,” said Hassan.
Worse yet, Molyneux’s staff and followers publicly shame and post personal information about those who leave the group. Molyneux’s group calls the process of reuniting and making amends with family “reFOOing.”
Former inner-circle members often speak out in videos posted to YouTube and in the support group for spurned family members and ex-Molyneux acolytes, FDRLiberated.com. (FDR is short for FreeDomainRadio, Molyneux’s YouTube and podcast channel.)
Once members leave the group, bios are posted on defoo.org that outrank any other mention of that member’s name on Google. Those bios include every previous address, phone number, family member, and traffic violation, plus texts with a clear aim to shame the individual in question. A typical example reads:
“[A former member] gave up on FDR because the community didn’t support the wearing of makeup. After breaking up with [redacted], she needed to attract a new male and was having trouble without her precious face paint. She has struggled with acne and feels insecure if people can see it. [That former member] now applies a thick layer of makeup to her face every day. It’s almost as thick as her False Self.”
That sort of shaming—and the thousands of dollars Tom Bell has poured into Molyneux’s coffers—is why Barbara Weed doesn’t think she’ll see her son again any time soon.
“I don’t know where Tom is. I don’t have the money to get a cult expert, either. I don’t think Tom would listen to anybody else, even if I did,” said Weed. “All I can do is wait and try and get the message out to people that Molyneux is doing horrible things, and that it’s a cult.”
Hassan said it’s standard brainwashing, but there is good news: Molyneux isn’t all that good at it.
“I guess, on the scale of things, I would say he’s not that successful. He doesn’t have that many people in his core,” he said. “You talk to former members and critics, and they talk about what’s really going on at the core, that he’s acting like a total megalomaniac, that he says his gift to his mother was that he didn’t kill her.”
Hassan said he worries more about what Molyneux represents: charismatic people with a platform taking advantage of disaffected people who are “upset with how the relationships in their lives are going anyway” and are in desperate search for meaning.
“My life’s work is explaining it to everybody—to not get taken over by black-and-white, us-vs.-them thinkers,” he said. “In terms of politics, right now, does that sound familiar?”
Hassan believes there’s a clear reason Donald Trump attracts people like Molyneux and his supporters, or fans of conspiracy websites like InfoWars, which sells end-of-the-world food rations and which Trump called “amazing” in December.
Basically, both cater to the same idea: Get rid of one major thing from your life, and everything will work out.
“It’s no surprise he’s so into Trump,” Hassan said. “When Trump first talked about banning the Internet and Muslims, it was like that: They wanted to impose a one-sided view of what reality really is.”
Both Trump and Molyneux, Hassan said, make an appeal for your respect by offering a “truth” that the media simply won’t tell you. Only Molyneux and Trump can show you that it’s all one big “untruth,” anyway.
“Trump is the quintessential, stereotypical cult leader in that the crux of his argument is that ‘they’ lie all the time,” said Hassan. “‘Don’t you wanna follow someone who is trustworthy? If they lie to the public, how do you know they’re not lying to you? Why would you consciously want to follow someone who’s a liar?’ It’s an appeal for respect for people who want a black-and-white answer.”
Weed said she has a hard time watching Trump’s speeches on TV because she sees the same in Molyneux as she does in the presidential candidate.
“If you try and write down what Molyneux has said, it’s incomplete sentences. It’s not a logical flow of thought. There’s nothing like a conclusion. He just rambles. He’ll just jump midsentence to somewhere else, just like Trump does,” she said. “He uses very extreme language, except Molyneux is a bit more extreme, with a direct plan.”
Still, Weed doesn’t think Molyneux is all that much of a Trump supporter, after all. She believes he’s using Trump’s name as a new way to drag people away from their families and into his group.
Molyneux has done the same with videos about anything slightly countercultural but accessible, above all. He’s made videos about The Matrix. He’s made podcasts attacking President Obama. He’s created episodes about police shootings that were initially anti-police, but eventually started making videos that defended police and criticized the families of victims like Michael Brown.
“He’s gotten better and better at getting attention by just being controversial,” said Weed. “It’s just clickbait. At the end of the day, it’s whatever will bring more people to his site.”
After all, Tom got there because he felt he was finally being told the truth about the world from a YouTube video with a search engine-friendly title: an Introduction to Philosophy.
Now, almost a decade later, Weed is still holding out hope that her son will catch wind of the dozens of ex-members who post their horror stories on YouTube, or that Molyneux’s group will fold as, she said, “these cults tend to do.” Or maybe he’ll just drift away, as she said lot of Tom’s friends already have.
“It’s possible Tom will leave some day. Or, one day, Molyneux might just drop dead,” she said. “That would be lovely. He might get hit by a truck. A meteorite might fall on his head. I could have my son back.”