Is the Republican Party a cult of personality?

How to think about what comes after Trump

President Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Has the Republican Party degenerated into a cult of personality?

It has become something of a journalistic cliché to say so — to argue that veneration of the Dear Leader and ritual denunciation of his enemies has eclipsed any ideas or actual plans for governance that the party may once have had. For those inclined to such a view, the first nights of the Republican National Convention offered some confirmation: in the obsequious praise of the president, the apocalypticism with which the opposition was regarded, and, perhaps most alarmingly, the alternative-reality quality of the discussion of the state of the country and the record of the administration, especially with respect to the coronavirus pandemic. When, in lieu of articulating a platform responsive to radically changed national conditions, a political party simply says that it will support the agenda of its leader, it's hard to dispute that its only remaining tenet is the Führerprinzip.

But it's worth pondering a little more deeply what the characterization implies about the future, not only of the GOP but of the country as a whole. The Democrats — very much including former President Obama in his convention speech last week — have engaged in an apocalypticism of their own (which they surely feel is justified), describing this election as the last chance to save American democracy. If the GOP really has become a cult of personality, though, then it will take far more than an election victory — or even multiple such victories — to save it.

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To explain why requires thinking about what a cult of personality essentially is, and how it is to be distinguished from more normal charismatic leadership as well as from other kinds of extremist movements or quasi-religious forces in politics.

The Tea Party, for example, could be characterized as both extreme and paranoid in its view of politics. It certainly threw up some memorably odd characters, and it caused no end of headaches for more mainstream GOP leaders because of its unwillingness to engage in normal political give-and-take. Black Lives Matter can, in some ways, be characterized similarly. The massive protests and sometimes riots that continue to rock the country, flaring up anew with every viral record of apparent police abuse and misconduct (most recently in Kenosha, Wisconsin) are in the service of a profound rethinking of American identity. If it's not always obvious how that rethinking might be instantiated in mundane policy terms, the movement's language sometimes points to radical demands for change that may yet prove difficult to assuage or appease.

But these movements were and are largely leaderless. They were expressions of authentic emotion and interest that were capitalized upon with varying degrees of success by existing and new organizations and by individual political entrepreneurs. They weren't — and aren't — properly described as cults.

As for charismatic leadership, most successful leaders in a democracy partake of it to some degree, because political power ultimately stems from the ability to mobilize popular support (which is one reason why thinkers like Plato abhorred democracy as a system that would inevitably decay in to demagoguery and tyranny). Leaders like Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan built enduring coalitions in part on the strength of their personae, and won long-lasting allegiance from their supporters that long outlasted their presidencies. But their political persuasions were never defined by their individual personalities, but by the ideologies, interests and identities that they championed.

To call the contemporary GOP a cult of personality, then, is to assert that the Trump phenomenon is quite different from these antecedents. In a cult of personality, the intense emotion powering the movement is centered on the figure of the leader, who does not move people by persuasion but by proclamation, because the experience of surrendering their wills is what adherents come to seek. In totalitarian regimes like North Korea, the cult is produced in a coordinated fashion by the regime, which has a monopoly on mass-media and the ability to compel popular participation in collective rituals of public adoration. But religious cults arise in conditions of freedom, and there's no reason a political cult couldn't form similarly. Those who use the term to describe Trump's party are implicitly claiming that in America it has.

What are the implications if the diagnosis is correct? A cult of personality goes beyond a traditional autocracy where decision-making ultimately rests in the hands of one man, because the people are not merely obedient but generate positive feedback. Lacking the negative-feedback mechanisms common to most political organisms, the behavior of the system becomes as mercurial as the cult leader, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

And cults of personality don't necessarily end when the cult leader faces a setback, even a devastating one like the loss of an election. If what binds the GOP's voters to the party is worship of Donald Trump, then if he loses, even decisively, the question will not be what Trump did wrong but whose betrayal is to blame — and Trump will be in a position to fan those particular flames. Even death is frequently insufficient. Years after Stalin died, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, denounced the cult of personality as a violation of Marxist-Leninist principles, part of a larger process of de-Stalinization. That process caused enormous turmoil among the Soviet populace, necessitating (among other things) military intervention in Soviet Georgia, and helped trigger the fatal split with Mao's China. No wonder North Korea's regime has opted for dynastic succession instead.

That could be the outcome in the GOP as well. The first night of the convention prominently featured Donald Trump Jr.'s vigorous attacks on the opposition as enemies of the republic, and he did a bang-up job if that's the sort of thing you like, certainly more compelling than Nikki Haley's "kindler, gentler" rendition of Trumpism. Don Jr. is one of very few plausible successors on the convention roster; former Trump rivals like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz will not be speaking, nor will Trump allies among the many GOP governors like Florida's Ron DeSantis or Texas's Greg Abbott. If Trump wins, they'll have to spend the next four years performing obsequies, which will only diminish them further; If he loses, who will be better positioned to prosecute revenge than his son? And if any would-be successor tries the Khrushchev strategy, who is better positioned to shout that effort down than the man already being hailed at rallies as "46!"

Either way, the potential implications for American democracy are quite dire. It's bad enough if America has decayed into hostile tribes motivated primarily by the desire to see the opposing tribe humiliated. It's far worse if one of those tribes has decided to hand over not only custody of its interests but its very powers of reason to a single will in which they long to be dissolved. I doubt it's possible to operate a democracy where any significant fraction of the populace partakes of such a longing, which a demagogue will always stand ready to satisfy. The only consolation is that a cult of personality built on a personality as widely disliked as Trump seems extremely unlikely to ever garner majority support. A Trump cult could well be powerful enough to make America ungovernable, but it is unlikely to be powerful enough to actually govern. Even in our frequently counter-majoritarian system, that's not the formula for an American Putin, Erdogan or Orban.

But that is not the only possibility. It's possible that what looks like cult-like adoration is really just the kind of fawning that narcissistic celebrities frequently crave, and which Trump craves especially much. It's possible that the enthusiasm for Trump is just tribalism, something that will last only so long as Trump faithfully exchanges loyalty for loyalty. Inasmuch as there's a cult-like element to the Trump phenomenon, it may be far smaller than the party as a whole.

That's a hopeful possibility for democracy in one sense. But it's a risk for the Democrats in another. In 2016, the Democrats tried to make the election entirely about Trump, reinforcing his centrality to our politics. But what gave Trump his victory were voters who disliked both candidates, who were never tempted to join the cult, but still wanted a change. This year again, Trump is not only trying to dominate our minds; he's making an argument, however demagogic and mendacious, with the potential to persuade: That the Democrats are scared of offending vandals and looters, scared of living shadowed by a deadly virus, scared to face down a rising and hostile China — and that Trump isn't selling bogus fear, but bogus strength.

That possibility should worry Democrats as well as democrats. Cults prey on weak minds that are afraid of responsibility. That kind of character cannot sustain a democracy, so lovers of democracy have every reason for alarm that a major party's most loyal voters could be accurately characterized that way. But the Democrats probably can't win simply by saying that, declaring that their tribe must win because the other tribe has become a cult — particularly if they themselves come to be seen as the fearful ones. Persuadable voters might still prefer a leader who looks strong, even if they are turned off by the cultish trappings around him. If they do, that means not only four more years of Trump, but a powerful vindication for precisely those cult-like qualities, even if they aren't what actually delivered victory.

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