Opinion: The cult of personality


Published: 06-26-2023 6:00 AM

Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.

Back in the years prior to 2015, there used to be two major political parties in America committed to democracy. The parties disagreed vehemently about policy and the Republicans relied on voter suppression and gerrymandering but both parties accepted election results and the verdict of the voters. They could both generally accept electoral defeat and move on.

The Republican Party has, however, evolved into what the historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat would call “an autocratic party operating inside a democracy, and it is a party in thrall to a cult leader.” The old Republican Party used to be a conservative party defined by a set of principles. I was never a fan but they had a party platform with an agenda. Now, instead of any principles, the Republican party is defined by loyalty to a person: Donald Trump. He remains their leading presidential candidate for 2024.

Cults of personality are typically constructed around extreme devotion to a charismatic leader. Followers accept the leader based on the notion that together they will bring about an imagined future (“Make America Great Again”). As someone schooled in TV, Trump focuses on the manipulation of repeated images about himself. He wants to control the narrative so he can show himself as strong, in control, and adored by his followers.

He builds the personality cult to keep people loyal to him and to prolong his power. Also, staying in power or running for office serves his goal of avoiding prosecution or possible jail time. It is his get-out-of-jail-free card.

Recent developments, the two criminal prosecutions and the E. Jean Carroll case, have complicated Trump’s narrative. He sells his victimhood to gain support and to encourage his followers to feel protective of him. He presents himself as an innocent and honest man who has suffered and been unfairly victimized by a Deep State conspiracy.

He seeks to discredit and destroy public trust in any sector of the government (FBI or Department of Justice) that investigates him or any press that engages in honest inquiry about his corruption including his bizarre illegal eccentricities like keeping and hiding classified documents after his presidency ended.

Largely though, the American mass media still wants to see the same horse race that has defined American politics in the past. They want to normalize and pretend that nothing significant has changed but in this, they could not be more wrong. The Republicans are anything but conventional politicians.

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If you actually listen to the words of former President Trump he is now talking about “the final battle.” After losing a free and fair election, he launched the January 6 coup. He did not and has not accepted the election outcome decided by the voters. He created the Big Lie of a stolen election. As noted, he has clung to that Big Lie to this day and has doggedly tried, with much success, to get other Republicans to make that Big Lie a defining principle for the party.

Propaganda works through repetition. To quote Ruth Ben-Ghiat, “Propaganda is never just words and it goes beyond lying. It is a system of organizing belief so people come to see the world in ways that benefit the leader and the party.”

In his most recent campaign appearances, Trump has returned to the theme of purging the government civil service and replacing federal government employees with his loyalists and cronies. Instead of talking about jailing Hillary, he talks about jailing “the Biden crime family.” He wants to punish those who opposed his attempt to overthrow the government and he talks about pardoning convicted January 6 insurrectionists.

Vengeance on his enemies remains a major preoccupation. He has consistently told his supporters that violence is a good way to solve conflicts. At a March 2016 campaign event, he said, “Part of the problem is…nobody wants to hurt each other anymore” when he felt security treated protesters too gingerly. Many times at his rallies he told audiences that he would pay legal fees if they beat up a protester.

At his March 2023 CPAC speech this year he said, “In 2016 I declared, I am your voice. Today, I add, I am your warrior. I am your justice and for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”

This “I am your retribution” stuff has a distinctly fascist resonance. He wants to create a corps of believers like he had on January 6 who would be willing to attack his political enemies at his command. It is reminiscent of the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, saying “What did Italy need? An avenger! …It was necessary to cauterize the virulent wounds …and eliminate evils which threaten to become chronic.”

Accepting Trump’s narrative ties his followers to him and makes them partners in the fascist project. They share the thrill of an amoral adventure with a leader who has defied all political conventions and normal restrictions.

All who care about democracy must not overlook what has happened to the Republican Party. For many millions of people worried about losing status and their foothold, Trump’s message has appeal. His being a con man, a grifter, and a charlatan gets shunted aside because he has the ability to connect with masses of people.

The writer Alissa Quart has made some good points about Trump’s appeal in her book “Bootstrapped.” She argues the importance of origin story and she says many voters have been heavily and falsely influenced by a story that presents Trump as a self-made man. It is very American to love Horatio Alger-type stories.

Quart says Trump doctored his own story. Trump makes it sound like he took out a small loan and turned it into a massive real estate empire. The truth is quite different. Trump was born into great wealth. He was the son of a real estate mogul and he received many millions from his father to start and later to keep his businesses afloat. Trump is anything but self-made.

Trump’s project is about destroying democracy. The cult of personality is in furtherance of that aim. You can count on him to say that any election he loses was rigged. Ruth Ben-Ghiat has said that if he gets back into power, he will never leave. I think that is a safe bet.