Cult Following: Jeffrey Epstein, NXIVM's Keith Raniere, MAGA's Donald Trump

An interview with investigative journalist Chet Hardin

CHET HARDIN, an investigative journalist and an expert on cults, was among the first reporters to cover the dark side of Keith Raniere, the founder of NXIVM, the Albany-based sex cult. He wrote a fantastic book on the subject—The Program: Inside The Mind Of Keith Raniere and The Rise and Fall of NXIVMwith Toni Natalie, Keith’s former business partner and (pre-NXIVM) ex-girlfriend, who has been warning everyone who would listen about Raniere for the last 25-plus years.

With Jeffrey Epstein on the brain, I reached out to Hardin to answer some questions about the similarities and differences between Epstein and Raniere—and another would-be cult leader, Donald John Trump.

Greg Olear: It’s been, what, nine months since The Program came out. Can you give us an update on where things stand on all things NXIVM? I was heartened not to read of any great push to release Keith Raniere due to coronavirus concerns.

Chet Hardin: There isn’t much to report. Raniere was scheduled to be sentenced on June 23rd, which is a little more than a year after he was found guilty in federal court. But because of the pandemic, that date has been pushed out indefinitely. 

We haven’t heard any news about further prosecutions, either. Since Keith was tried in the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn, we were hoping that he would also stand trial in the federal district for the Albany area, which is where NXIVM had its headquarters. That’s not looking likely, however, which is a shame. I would have happily sat through another two-month trial.

Knowing Keith, he will spend the rest of his life convinced he is history’s greatest martyr. 

GO: I wanted to talk to you ever since I heard the Zev Shalev interview of Laura Goldman, a close friend of the Maxwell family. She described Ghislaine Maxwell as smart, vivacious, kind, insecure, and—and this is critical—motivated by a desire to marry Jeffrey Epstein. According to Goldman, Epstein dangled the prospect of marriage in front of her for years, and this is what compelled her to participate in such horrible activities. I immediately thought of Lauren Salzman, who was manipulated in much the same way by another evil genius, Keith Raniere.

CH: One would think that Ghislaine Maxwell could have found herself a less vile man to pine over. Especially if she is so smart and kind. She didn’t need the money or access to powerful people that Epstein provided, as she was the one who was born into wealth. Maybe it was the promise of marriage that motivated her, or maybe she just liked it. If the allegations are true, Ghislaine was as much a predator as Epstein. 

In Lauren’s case, you take one look at Keith Rainere and think, why would a woman in her right mind commit felonies for that guy? She did, though, and she’s probably going to prison for a long time. 

It’s true that Lauren wanted to marry Keith. It was a fantasy of hers that went back decades. Probably to when she was still a child. She was so young when she met Keith. Her mother, Nancy Salzman, brought him into their lives. Nancy adored and worshiped Raniere. Lauren looked up to her mother and, in turn, learned to adore and worship Keith, as well. 

But in the end, I don’t think Lauren harbored any romantic notions of a happy marriage with Keith. At the end of NXIVM, I think Lauren was driven by competition. Not just a competition with the other woman in Keith’s life, but with Keith himself. She was doing everything she could to prove to him that she was worthy of love. Can you imagine trying to convince a sociopath to love you? 

GO: Something else I learned from Zev’s reporting: When Jeffrey Epstein worked at Bear Stearns, his biggest client was, wait for it, Edgar Bronfman, Sr. Which means that some of the Bronfman family fortune was handled by both Epstein and Keith Raniere! Some legacy. Raniere, of course, had, and likely still has, enormous control over two of Bronfman’s daughters, Clare and Sara, although only the former was indicted and convicted.

CH: That’s the world that Keith wanted to operate in. He wanted to associate with the rich and the powerful, and he did. He gained access to unlimited wealth through the Bronfmans, and spent something like 150 million dollars of their inheritance in a few short years. He counted Emiliano Salinas, the son of the former Mexican president, as one of his most loyal followers.

He collected famous followers, too. The only reason most people have heard of Keith Raniere is because the star of Smallville, Allison Mack, was arrested as one of his accomplices.

GO: Epstein had Bill Clinton and Prince Andrew; Keith had a supporting player from the teenybopper show about Superman. Not quite the same league.

CH: NXIVM is known for the sex trafficking that ultimately brought Keith down, but he had much larger ambitions than that. The end goal, for him, was political and social domination. Anything less than being the unquestioned dictator of his own country was going to be too little for him.

GO: Thankfully Keith did not acquire his own island, as Epstein did. 

CH: They came close though, didn’t they? Clare had purchased an island off the coast of Fiji, for about $50 million, before everything went to hell for them. I think the goal was to set the island up as their tropical getaway, but they ran out of time.

GO: Perhaps understanding Keith Raniere will help us better grok Jeffrey Epstein—in the way that Hannibal Lecter helped Clarice Starling catch Buffalo Bill. What similarities do you see between the two men?

CH: Outside of their horrendous crimes, I don’t see many similarities between Raniere and Epstein.

GO: Yeah, but the crimes are so similar. And so unusual. Not just the sex trafficking, but the financial stuff, too. Epstein was Steven Hoffenberg’s right-hand man running the Ponzi scheme at Towers Financial in the 1980s. So Keith and Jeffrey are both narcissistic sociopaths who kept underage sex slaves, weaseled very wealthy people out of their money, and ran businesses that ran afoul of the law. Although, to your point, as actual people, there’s no comparison. Like, I can’t imagine Jeffrey Epstein playing volleyball, as Keith loved to do.

CH: Raniere is the guy in high school who just discovered Fountainhead and won’t shut the fuck up about it. He’s the guy who builds computers in his parents’ basement, wants to practice his invincible judo moves on you, and is just impossibly weird. He is living proof that cult leaders do not need to be charismatic.  

Epstein, on the other hand, seemed more than comfortable operating within normal society. In fact, he thrived in ways that Keith was absolutely incapable of.

GO: You’ve written extensively about NXIVM, but you’re an aficionado of cults of all kinds. What is the attraction to the subject?

CH: Yes, I admit it, I am obsessed with cults. All I want to talk about is the latest YouTube guru or the Midwestern vampire cult. I used to be a well-rounded person. 

From Jim Jones convincing a thousand people to move to the middle of a jungle to grow vegetables to dopey, mushy Marshall Applewhite pestering his followers to castrate themselves over a dinner of chicken pot pie, cult leaders are rarely boring. 

GO: If you’re so fascinated by cults, how did you manage to play volleyball with Raniere and not be hypnotized by him?

CH: Raniere had no chance to hypnotize me that night. I was there for the volleyball game.

GO: I’m no expert, but MAGA seems to have achieved cult-like status. Adherents must comply with a belief system that is focused on the cult leader, even if those beliefs have zero basis in reality. For example, at Sean Spicer’s very first press conference as press secretary, he insisted that the crowd at the 2017 inauguration was larger than it was, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Donald John Trump suggesting his subjects drink bleach had echoes of Jim Jones and the Kool-Aid. Do you think MAGA is a cult?

CH: There are so many reasons why Trump could be thought of as a cult leader. He is a narcissist, as the amount of gold leaf in his penthouse indicates. He claims to have the best words, possess the best brain and perfect body, and as we know, makes perfect phone calls. He brags about sexual assault, urges supporters to violence, and is likely a sociopath. And his followers adore him with an absurd amount of passion. 

So yeah, he sounds like a cult leader. I mean, he sounds like Raniere. 

But I don’t think MAGA is a cult. For one thing, Trump doesn’t have the stamina to maintain a proper cult. That’s way more work than he’s used to. 

Another reason: the ideology and passion that makes up the “cult of MAGA” was around way before Trump. It wasn’t called MAGA, of course—that’s Trump’s contribution. Before Trump it was called the Tea Party. And before that, it was called the Oath Keepers and the Eagle Forum and the John Birch Society. Just as Bernie Sanders didn’t invent socialism, Trump didn’t invent the white-class objectivism that propelled him into the White House. He stumbled upon it and took advantage. He gave a national platform to ideas that have long been simmering under the surface. As has been said before, he traded in the dog whistle for a bullhorn.

GO: For a sonic boom.

CH: Funny enough, the last person to ride that wave, though not as successfully, was Sarah Palin, and the last time we saw her she was dressed like a bear dancing to “Baby Got Back” on network TV. 

GO: Ha! Palin is from Alaska, which was one of the places where NXIVM was strong. Could you imagine if one of Palin’s kids wound up in the cult? 

CH: Sarah has been connected to the New Apostolic Movement through the “prophet and apostle” Mary Glazier. So, maybe they already are in a cult.

GO: There are also a lot of similarities between Trump and Keith Raniere, although the latter has considerably more IQ points than the former, who is clearly not a supergenius. In other words, there’s a huge gap between Mega and MAGA. But like Raniere, Trump took an exaggerated claim that got good media play—in his case, his net worth in Fortune magazine—and parlayed it into a full-blown myth, much as Raniere did with his supposed genius. Do you see any other similarities?

CH: They both employed political trickster, now felon, Roger Stone. They both supported Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008. Neither of them drink alcohol. And they are both vain, though Keith does have the better hair. 

GO: I’m sure his fancy coif will serve him well in the hoosegow. 

What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

CH: Toni Natalie and I are still working on our podcast about Keith Raniere and NXIVM. If you haven’t yet, buy our book, The Program: Inside The Mind Of Keith Raniere And The Rise And Fall of NXIVM. It’s a vivid portrait of that lunatic and his cult. 

GO: Don’t Bogart the interview, man! I’m the one who’s supposed to plug your book. So: If you haven’t yet, buy their book, The Program: Inside The Mind Of Keith Raniere And The Rise And Fall of NXIVM. It’s a vivid portrait of that lunatic and his cult. In all seriousness, though, I actually think it will go down as the definitive book on the subject. Toni knew Keith much longer than the NXIVM people, so the scope of the book is really something.

CH: So right now, Toni and I are busy gathering materials, interviewing sources, and just generally doing the pre-production groundwork required to tell a story as complicated as this one. Our goal is to present an in-depth look into Keith’s life and the life of his cult. And there is so much left to be told.

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Note: If you have any information that you would like to share about Keith Raniere, NXIVM, his accomplices, or his company from the 1990s, Consumers’ Buyline Inc, please contact Chet at thefallofNXIVM.com or at their Twitter account @thefallofnxivm.

Photo credit: Michele Wright.