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It’s not just Donald Trump ­— both Republicans and Democrats have cults of personality: James Miller

Posted 9/27/17

“I tell you one and one makes three.

I’m the cult of personality.” — Living Colour


They don’t call him Teflon Don for nothing.

It’d be an …

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It’s not just Donald Trump ­— both Republicans and Democrats have cults of personality: James Miller


“I tell you one and one makes three.

I’m the cult of personality.” — Living Colour

They don’t call him Teflon Don for nothing.

It’d be an hallucinogen-induced exaggeration to say that the first nine months of Donald Trump’s presidency have been flawless — the Obamacare repeal flub; the countless administration resignations; the striking absence of any coherent agenda.

This isn’t what moderate voters bargained for when they took a chance with Trump over Hillary Clinton. And it shows. The latest Gallup poll has the president with only a 38 percent approval rating. Upward movement seems unlikely.

Don’t tell that to the Trumpian base, though. A Reuters poll from last July shows that seven out of every eight Trump voters would, again, pull the switch for their man if the election were held today. According to an August Monmouth University poll, six out of every 10 Trump backers say they’ll never ditch the president.

Columbia University professor Thomas B. Edsall is aghast at this seemingly blind and unthinking support. Writing in The New York Times, he found that reflexive Trump approbation was even swaying ideological stances. Singling out white evangelicals, Edsall cites a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute to demonstrate the laxity of moral beliefs held by the president’s biggest supporters. In 2011, 61 percent of evangelicals thought that public officials who behaved immorally in public were incapable of acting ethically in office.

The same question was posed to the same group in 2016. The results took a dramatic turn. Only 20 percent agreed that a private letch couldn’t behave like a principled statesman. 

“Many Republican voters,” Edsall concluded, “including self-identified strong conservatives, are ready and willing to shift to the left if they’re told that that’s the direction Trump is moving.” This malleability doesn’t bode well for the future of bargain-based politics. Tribal struggles don’t allow for give and take — it’s winner-take-all to the end. Edsall ends on a dour note: “[I]nsofar as elections have become primal struggles, and political competition has devolved into an atavistic spectacle, the prospect for a return to a politics of compromise and consensus approaches zero.”

A dark deduction indeed. But is it true? Has Trump, unique among world leaders, inspired a cult-like devotion?

The president’s critics like to think so. By painting Trump is a messianic salesman, a mega-church preacher promising a cheap way to paradise, it becomes easier to dismiss the concerns of his voters. 

Kevin Williamson of National Review caused a stir last year by portraying Trump supporters as desperate children “waiting for Daddy to come home … the father-führer figure they have spent their lives imagining.” Following the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Jonathan Last of The Weekly Standard implied that those who agreed with the president’s “both sides” response were victims of a “personality cult.” How else could they possibly believe that white supremacists and antifa radicals both came to slug it out that fateful day?

These reductive determinations bring to mind the scene in “All the King’s Men” where Broderick Crawford, playing Willie Stark, berates his audience as “hicks” and encourages them to fight back against a corrupt political machine. The tough talk wins him a devoted following, similar to Trump claiming he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody” and not lose a single voter.

There is truth in the idea that politics inspires a febrile loyalty. But the concept is by no means exclusive to President Trump. Congress has an approval rate around 15 percent, yet 96 percent of incumbents are re-elected.

Or consider Barack Obama. The former president remains popular among Democrats. He left office with a near 90 percent approval rating from his party. But for what? Under his tutelage, the party lost more than 1,000 elected seats at the federal and state level. Obama walked away from the White House with a wish list of outstanding demands: closing Guantanamo Bay, extricating us from the Middle East, making a dent in health care costs, curtailing big banks, ending unconstitutional citizen surveillance, lowering the rate of deportations, tempering racial tension.

Then the biggie: Obama, through his own failures, cleared the way for a reality show host to assume the presidency. And yet he’s still a darling with the Democrat base. 

Political cult-of-personality is hardly a Republican phenomenon. It exists in both parties, and in their respective fringes. 

The billion dollar question is: why? Why does collective decision-making put individuals on invincible pedestals?

Legal scholar Cass Sunstein has a theory. His “law of group polarization” holds that when individuals with shared values join together, they have a tendency to reinforce their beliefs, hardening and expanding them. This can include support of persons of power. 

I have my own theory. It comes from the Robert Sherwood play “Idiot’s Delight.” In a revealing scene, protagonist Harry Van tells a German doctor why he’s an optimist, even as the horror of World War II is just setting in. Doctors, Harry says, “dissect corpses and rats and similar unpleasant things.” But as a traveling showman, Harry sees himself as a social observer whose job it is to “dissect mugs.”

The doctor presses him on what kinds of mugs he observes. Harry replies: “The common ordinary simple-minded mugs that love to be fooled.” Among folks of “meagre intelligence,” Harry has found “Faith” with a capital f.

Politics is not normal business. For anyone with a job, a family, hobbies and interests, it’s an attenuated concern. So voters tend to put trust in their immediate public officials. They affiliate with parties they feel most represented by. And they leave the finer points to babbling heads on television.

This doesn’t make the average voter dumb. It just makes them faithful that their choice in the polling booth was the right one. So they stick to it, trusting in their own judgment. When Trump’s support dips with most die-hard backers, that’s when something is wrong. Until then, it’s just politics — warts, frivolities, ignorance, and all.

James E. Miller, a native of Middletown, works as a digital marketer in Northern Virginia.