The cult of Donald Trump. As the persona of Donald Trump continues to dominate our public lives, increasingly, we have become aware of the cult of personality that has risen up in his shadow. To be sure, it has evolved over time, but its existence as a cult cannot be denied. In order to make sense of the fanatical support of Trump’s MAGA base, it’s important we understand this. This base remains so unwavering in their support–largely–because they’ve become a cult. Without noticing, cults become obsessive in their commitment to the cult leader. Moreover, we should note that cults aren’t always aware they are a cult.
People are often drawn to cults because they want something to believe in. Typically, new cult members are insecure and uncertain about the future. They want to climb on board with someone who–they believe–has all the answers. During the 2016 presidential campaign, we remember Trump’s comment to his supporters: “I alone can fix it.” This is exactly what these supporters want to see in their leader.
Cults are evil. To begin with, cult leaders, while charismatic, are invariably narcissistic, authoritarian, and neurotically self-absorbed. They are pathological liars, stunningly incapable of empathy. As Tony Schwartz, the author of Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal, has said about Trump: “He is absolutely incapable of empathy.” Think about that in light of a president’s role to provide comfort and reassurance in the face of tragedy and hard times!
Cult leaders are often paranoid as well. They are quick to demand strict loyalty and to demonize anyone whom they perceive to be their enemies, like leaders of the opposition party and even those in their own party who do not sufficiently fall in line. And in Trump’s case, note the dangerous rhetoric he uses to berate judges, prosecutors, or election workers who are merely trying to do their job. It’s in this sense that cults are evil; they manipulate, exploit, and gaslight their followers to where the followers lose their sense of self.
The power of evil. With the election only a little over 13 months away, we Americans need to be aware of the evil that is among us. This evil (Donald Trump) has become a monstrous cult leader who hides behind his clamoring of victimization. In everything, he is the victim, the victim/the martyr for his millions of followers. He’s “doing it for them.” Indeed, “he is their retribution.” Could he be more phony, more pathetic? And yet, as the embodiment of evil, he is a real and present danger.
In reflecting on this, we are reminded that evil, according to theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, is always “the assertion of some self-interest without regard for the whole.” In Trump’s case, he is incapable of anything beyond his own self-interest. He just assumes his loyal followers want whatever is best for him. It is always, always, always all about him.
Talking about this further, Niebuhr affirms that the “doers” of this evil know what theyare doing. They understand the power of their own self-interest. On the other hand, those who oppose them understand the need for self-interest to be subordinated to a higher law or universal principle. The problem with this latter group, says Niebuhr, is they are naive. And in their naivety, they underestimate these “doers” of evil.
This is precisely the situation now with the democratic party as it seeks to counter the menace of the Trump personality cult. The democrats underestimate the evil intent of Trump. Within the context of his cult, the evil of Trump has an energy to it that has an almost incalculable power. To begin with, the lying and misinformation are incessant. They never end. They are everywhere; and the lies are repeated again and again. Lying destroys trust. And without trust, relationships lack viability. In trying to manage the endless lying and misinformation, TV pundits are now referring to life in the Trump personality cult as “earth 2,” in contrast to life on “earth 1” for the rest of us.
Beyond the Trump cult. The good news in all of this is that cults do not live forever. When the leader dies or, in Trump’s case, is perhaps convicted and put in prison, the cult dies. About this, NYU professor, Ruth Ben Ghiat, who has done extensive study on authoritarianism, says “It takes prosecution and conviction to deflate personality cults. That’s what it takes.”
She reminds us that personality cults can function within a democracy, as was the case with Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi’s personality cult did not deflate until he was convicted. Again, “That’s what it take,” she adds. “It takes prosecution and conviction to deflate their personality cults.”
In the big picture of things, what’s at stake in all of this is our democracy. The 2024 election is certainly not about policy. When do Republicans ever talk policy? Assuming Trump is their candidate (which is not a slam dunk, by the way), his only platform is grievance politics and open revenge against his perceived enemies. Through it all, his bottom line is to stay out of prison. While Biden and the democrats have a sizeable list of impressive achievements, voters don’t seem to care; they seem more preoccupied with the President’s age. Still, the stakes are high; and we must do everything we can to save our democracy. We can only hope that people will vote in large numbers and that the government of the people, for the people, and by the people will win the day.