Focus on the Trump cult

Much has been written regarding the indictments against former President Donald Trump, his alleged crimes, and his defense that it’s a partisan political attack. The bigger story, however, is the radical transformation of a substantial component of the American electorate into a cult-like movement in the thrall of a cult leader—Donald Trump.
Once a center-right Republican Party prided itself on simple conservative philosophy: rule of law, individual freedom, less taxes, and small government. Now it’s an intolerant, xenophobic, pseudo-populist movement, exploiting the fears and resentments of Americans shaken by economic, political and cultural change.
These factors were kindling. The spark igniting the flames of social unrest was the 2008 economic collapse and Barack Obama’s election. Obama inspired a coalition of young voters, women, and Black, Latino, Asian, and recent immigrant communities with a message of hope and vision of an inclusive America.
Within months of Obama’s decisive victory, Republicans launched a cultural counterattack, preying on the resentments of voters who felt left behind. The “Birther movement” suggested that Obama wasn’t native-born, and his presidency was illegitimate—and the Tea Party railed against “big government” for the economic woes and social tensions confronting middle-class white Americans. These two movements laid the predicate for Donald Trump’s 2016 ascent.
Never a traditional conservative Republican who could be understood by his political philosophy, Trump is also more than a just celebrity showman. Having convinced a sizable minority of the electorate that he alone understands and can save them, he’s transformed the contemporary GOP from a political party into a personal cult. Cult leaders throughout history share many characteristics. They’re narcissists who seek the limelight and conflict, to be the center of attention. They project success and power, never admit failure or wrongdoing, and use humor to ridicule and demean their opponents. Charismatic and persuasive, they convince their followers that they alone know their fears and insecurities and can address them. By identifying with their followers, cult leaders convince the faithful that those who oppose them are shared enemies.
The essence of Donald Trump’s address to the Republican Convention in 2016 was a dark and foreboding portrait of America where he was the only one who could lead America “back to greatness.” During the campaign and the subsequent years, Trump developed these themes and deepened this identification with his base, establishing their shared enemies: Democrats, Republicans who opposed him, the press, the courts, and the “deep state.” When the reality he sought to create was undermined by facts, he posited “alternate facts.” And his cult believed them. The response to the recently unsealed indictments is more of the same. In remarks to the Georgia Republican Convention, a day after the indictments were released, Trump maintained that the 2020 election was stolen, portraying the indictments as “election interference,” a “witch hunt,” and an abuse of power. “Biden,” he said, “is trying to jail his leading opponent…just like they do in Stalinist Russia and Communist China.”
Minimizing the charges leveled against him, Trump claimed his alleged misdeeds paled in comparison to Hillary Clinton’s and Joe Biden’s. His enemy list grew: Marxists, law enforcement agencies controlled by Democrats, and the “sick political class that hates our country” and defends the “corrupt system” he’s determined to smash. Following his first court appearance, to a cheering crowd, he claimed:
“If the communists get away with this, it won’t stop with me. They will not hesitate to ramp up their persecution of Christians, pro-life activists, parents attending school board meetings, and even future Republican candidates. I am the only one that can save this nation.”
We can debate the charges and claims of persecution but cannot ignore his hold over a substantial portion of the GOP. Despite the indictments, endorsements by Republican elected officials continue to roll in. He’s their cult leader, and they’re afraid to go against him. The legal process will run its course, but a conviction won’t doom Donald Trump or his cult. If he wins, his followers will feel vindicated. If he loses, Trump’s supporters will feel as victimized and ripe for revolt as they were on January 6th, 2021. Decades in the making, this cult won’t be ended by an election defeat or conviction. Attention must be paid to its root causes—which must be addressed to restore sanity to our political life.

ePaper - Nawaiwaqt