There’s a reason people think President Trump has a cult of personality, but it may not be the reason you think.
Yes, there are those who think Trump was delivered to us by God and that his decisions and actions are imbued with divine providence and authority. But that sort of stuff is taking the word “cult” too literally. It harkens back to pre-Enlightenment notions like the divine right of kings, the Roman imperial cults or the Chinese mandate of heaven — which were mainstream, not cultish, beliefs anyway.
As with so many words and ideas, “cult of personality” in the modern sense probably begins with Karl Marx, who used “personality cult” in a letter to a friend in 1877. Nikita Khrushchev cited that passage (and several later ones by Marx) in his famous 1956 “secret speech,” formally titled “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences.” That address began the “de-Stalinization” of the Soviet Union and the de-escalation of Stalin’s terror.
Before I go on, let me state unequivocally that Trump isn’t Stalin. He’s not even close.
Khrushchev’s speech was monumentally important for numerous reasons, but I’m going to focus on the part that’s relevant to my point. In Marxist lingo, “cult of personality” is synonymous with “cult of the individual” — indeed, Khrushchev used the phrases interchangeably in his speech. Both terms refer to the idea that a single person can be greater than the party, or wiser than the ideology the party stands for. Think: “I alone can fix it.” Such a mindset is a threat to the power of the party and the legitimacy of its doctrines.
Stalin didn’t care. He encouraged, often through murder and terror, the idea that his judgment trumped any other authority or doctrine. He was infallible.
And it worked. During Khrushchev’s speech, delivered to the cream of the Communist Party leadership, some members of the audience grew physically ill and had to leave the room — it was that alien to their ears to hear Stalin criticized. There’s still a cult of Stalin in Russian. One might even say that Vladimir Putin is its high priest.
Of course, having dictatorial control over a country and possessing the will to murder and terrorize tens of millions makes it easier to cultivate a cult of personality.
None of that has much relevance to American politics today. But there’s a simpler reason for a cult of personality: It’s the only sustainable line of defense. Stalin violated party ideology all the time. He contradicted his past positions cavalierly, adopting and discarding ideas on a whim. He would even change his views to test his loyalists. Today, insist that chocolate ice cream is the best flavor and get everyone to agree with you. That way, if anyone disagrees tomorrow when you say it’s vanilla, you’ll know who the potential traitors in your midst are.
This is where Trump’s cult of personality comes in. For several years there’s been a kind of competition on the right to come up with a coherent intellectual or ideological framework to support Trump’s presidency. Every single one that comes out of the clouds of theory to get close to the reality on the ground has crashed. He’s a nationalist who puts America first but says we’ll await Saudi Arabia’s say-so on a military strike against Iran. He says he wants free trade but also thinks tariffs are good.
Just this week, the same people who insisted that Trump would never collude with a foreign nation for his political interest are now defending collusion with foreign nation for his political interest. The people who turn crimson with rage when you point out Trump’s decades of corrupt business practices now insist his only interest in the Bidens is his concern about corruption. They say it’s outrageous that Biden’s son sat on the board of a Ukrainian company when Biden was vice president, but they also say it’s fine to have a daughter and son-in-law duo running vast swaths of foreign and domestic policy while also making a fortune from their business interests around the world. Enemies are sinful or decadent when they lie or cheat on their wives, but who are you to judge Comrade Trump?
There’s no halfway defensible ideological, intellectual or moral standard that Trump doesn’t violate, often routinely. A cult of personality that replies “Trump’s right” or “his enemies are worse” before the question is even asked is the only place to hide.
A doctrine of infallibility is the only defense of this deeply fallible man.
Contact Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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