We suppose it had to happen sooner or later in America; the emergence of a leader whose followers are devoted to persona over and above, or even instead of, policy. “Drain the swamp” is not a policy. Ending free, open and unvetted immigration is not a policy if, in fact, there is no free, open and unvetted immigration in America. We don’t usually associate the term Cult of Personality with American Politics. Certainly, we’ve had our share of charismatic leaders who were more likable, homespun, down to earth or just plain more popular than their opponents—think John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, or Barack Obama. They were certainly admired, but they were admired primarily because they were, at least in the moment, admirable.
“Cult of Personality” was coined as a political term by former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in a speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party on February 25, 1956. He referred to the ardent followers of Joseph Stalin as a Cult of Personality that would condone anything the dictator commanded, including internecine banishment and murder. No, we’re not equating Trump with Stalin or other 20th Century dictators, but blind support of illiberal and incoherent pronouncements and a willingness to ignore behavior unbecoming a president or a presidential candidate is pretty much a modern American version of the antiquated Russo-Sino Cult of Personality.
In the bad old days, state-controlled media run by skillful propagandists carefully nurtured various Cults of Personality (think followers of Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler). Today, it doesn’t take state-run media. All it takes are social media sycophants creating or passing along, non-stop and unmitigated praise of a political personality. And with literally billions of Facebook, Twitter and Google users throughout the world, it is small wonder that Trump takes to Twitter and Facebook as often as he does.
No President in history has, nor could they have, deliberately and so studiously cranked out missives to so many people throughout the world. Trump himself has 42 million followers on Twitter and 22 million “likes” on Facebook. Add to this the number of “shares” and “retweets” his comments garner, and he personally reaches, on a daily basis, an incredible number of people. Then, of course, his utterances and his behavior garner more newsprint and broadcast coverage every day than any other president in history.
Sociologist, Robert N. Bellah has written, “It is hard to determine the extent to which the media reflect the cult of personality in American politics and to what extent they have created it. Surely, they did not create it all alone, but just as surely, they have contributed to it. In any case, American politics is dominated by the personalities of political leaders to an extent rare in the modem world…in the personalized politics of recent years the “charisma” of the leader may be almost entirely a product of media exposure.” And, we would add, no one has manipulated American media as has President Donald Trump.
While we might identify political cultists with the likes of Stalin, Mao Zedong, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler and Kim Jong-un today, political cults can arise anywhere, as long as there is a distinctive political figure, with a keen sense of media.
In America, we don’t have huge banners hanging from public buildings with the likeness of our Presidents. Traditionally, we might simply see buildings festooned with American flags rather than the likenesses of our presidents. Interestingly, we do have large skyscrapers in our major cities emblazoned with the name (often in lights) of our current President, who either built the structures or “leased” his name to the developers. That’s not a criticism, just an observation of a new phenomenon in American politics.
Trump also has the biggest, outsized personality of any president in memory.
National Public Radio recently asked four historians for their take on how the presidency has changed Trump and how Trump has changed the presidency. Their answers are illuminating. H.W Brands, author of biographies of Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan: “Previous candidates who get elected are almost always sobered by the office and the responsibility they take on,” Brands says. “Donald Trump shows no evidence of that. He’s the same Trump that he was when he was the host of his reality TV show. He’s the same Trump that he was when he was a candidate.”
Douglas Brinkley, author of biographies of Gerald Ford, John F, Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and both Roosevelts: “By tweeting incessantly, he sets the agenda for the media and controls the narrative. Richard Nixon ate up a lot of clock trying to destroy the press. Trump now has a mechanism to do it because he’s not beholden in any way, shape, or form to traditional media…So by going over them, it gives him an instant kind of power and credibility… every day he wants the lead story to be ‘Trump.’ Even if it’s controversial, it allows him to be the dominant force in American politics.”
Barbara Perry, director of the Center for Presidential Studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and editor of books on George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton: Perry says Trump has used his dominance to change the traditional relationship between a president and his party…”But because Trump has succeeded in remaking the party in his own ethno-nationalist, populist image, he has managed to confine that public criticism to just a handful of Republicans. And all of them share one important characteristic — they are no longer running for office. Perry says Trump and his former political adviser Steve Bannon have created a new party line for the GOP. “It does appear that they have cowed the party regulars. They’ve cowed the party traditionalists,” Perry says. “We have seen it already with the Jeff Flakes in the party, who are having to step aside and actually step out of politics at least for a while. And if that happens, if people who oppose him leave the party, or leave politics, that will be a success for him.”
William Inboden, associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas and onetime staffer in the George W. Bush White House: “…He’s ignored the traditional boundary between the chief executive and the Justice Department, repeatedly calling on the FBI and the DOJ (agencies that are supposed to be independent when it comes to criminal investigations) to go after his political enemies.” Inboden wonders how many of the changes Trump has made to the office will outlive his tenure.”
President Trump brooks no criticism. He is a political pugilist looking to scrum with anyone who has the temerity to question his judgment. Millions of Americans, fed up with Washington elitism cheer him on. They channel their dissatisfaction with the ways of Washington into support for a President who gives voice to their dissatisfaction, even though he evidences little skill at governing. We’ve seen this before in history. It generally hasn’t ended well.