We're living with a cult of personality — and that personality is sociopathic
When Josef Stalin unleashed what historians now uniformly view as an utterly insane, counterproductive and destructive onslaught on the Soviet Union in the 1930s in the form of the “collectivization” of agriculture, the consequences of his ideological crusade to seize private land for integration into state-controlled “collective farms” was widespread famine that killed somewhere between seven and fourteen million people, the majority of them in the Ukraine.
When Mao Zedong put into motion what has become known as the Great Leap Forward, from 1958 to 1962, herding Chinese citizens into communes and implementing fantastical schemes of agricultural reform, the resulting starvation among the populace claimed what many historians believe to be as many as 45 million people. When, facing threats to his authority both real and imagined, Mao instigated in 1966 what later became known as the Cultural Revolution, the end result was a nearly-destroyed economy and deaths estimated from the hundreds of thousands to tens of millions, depending on which source is consulted.
What Stalin and Mao had in common with hundreds of lesser-known political leaders was their reliance and ascent to power based on what has been historically termed a “cult of personality.” This potentially loaded descriptor has been applied to tinpot dictators and revered statesmen alike, even to figures we respect from American history such as George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt. A “cult of personality” is colloquially defined as “a term, usually pejorative in nature, which refers to a situation where a public figure is presented to the populace via propaganda as an amazing person who should be admired, loved, and respected.
Donald Trump has spun a cult of personality around himself, aided by a wholly complicit Republican Party now under his complete control. Most of what Americans are witnessing happening to the country today in real-time is a direct consequence of that cult of personality, with a death toll from the Sars-CoV-2 virus now exceeding 170,000 Americans, with a collapsed economy hamstrung from recovery by Republican ideology, and now, in a bizarre twist, with the bizarre attack on the U.S. Post Office by Trump and his willing sycophants to tilt the election in his favor.
Adam Serwer, writing for The Atlantic in March, 2020, presciently foresaw what we could expect from this pandemic, coming from a leader who maintained his power through a personality cult:
[S]oon after the coronavirus outbreak emerged in China, the rest of the world began to regard it as a threat to public health, while Trump has seen it as a public-relations problem. Trump’s primary method of dealing with public-relations problems is to exert the full force of the authoritarian cult of personality that surrounds him to deny that a problem even exists. This approach has paid political dividends for the Republican Party, in the form of judicial appointments, tax cuts for the wealthy, and a rapid erosion of the rule of law. But applied to the deadly pandemic now sweeping the planet, all it has done is exacerbate the inevitable public-health crisis, while leaving both the federal government and the entire swath of the country that hangs on his every word unprepared for the catastrophe now unfolding in the United States.
The bizarre ritual of public-health officials fawning over the president during coronavirus briefings is not some trivial matter. In fact, it illustrates how democratic backsliding during the Trump administration has damaged the federal government’s ability to respond to emergencies and the credibility of its public statements on matters of life and death. Authoritarian leaders prize loyalty over expertise, and part of the way such leaders determine loyalty is through demanding sycophantic praise from underlings, smoking out those unwilling to bend the knee. This is how you end up with the president’s unqualified, pampered son-in-law, his foggy brain addled by Fox News propaganda, using his influence to undermine officials trying to turn back the outbreak.
At this point the tragic scope of the COVID-19 disaster in the United States, unique among most other developed nations in the world, is the best evidence that we are being led not by a George Washington, not by a Franklin Roosevelt, not by any of those world leaders for whom the appellation of “cult of personality” could be a term of grudging respect or even admiration, but by one whose personality is akin to that of a Stalin or Mao—one whose destructive megalomania translates into the destruction of his own people. In Trump, we are dealing with the cult of a personality where the “personality” at issue is that of a dangerously deluded psychotic (or sociopath, if you prefer). The only difference between Trump’s destructive impulses and those of Mao and Stalin is the environment where it is taking place; fortunately, at least thus far, there are some institutional barriers to the consequences of Trump’s cult of personality. But, as we have seen, it is none the less destructive personally to millions of Americans for that fact. The differences essentially amount to differences in scope and execution.
The attack on the U.S. Postal Service, in particular, is reminiscent of what occurred in the Soviet Union after Stalin in 1951-53 fabricated an anti-semitic attack on Jewish Doctors, an attack that although wholly baseless in fact, resulted in the arrest and torture of doctors accused by the Soviet regime of plotting to assassinate Soviet leaders. Although the origins and motivations of the smear now known as the “Doctor’s plot” were and are somewhat murky, there is no doubt they arose from Stalin himself, who may have used the scheme as an excuse to depose his powerful Secret Police Chief Lavrentiy Beria, or as a means to depose other Soviet officials who he, through his paranoid lens, perceived as rivals.
The point is that the arrests, which numbered in the hundreds, just as the process of collectivization twenty years before, and just like the nationwide mobilization of pro-Mao fanatics marshaled by the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, were enabled and furthered only by a willing cult of personality, a single-minded almost worshipful deference by his cultists to the leader’s wishes, based on his deification among the faithful.
In the context of Trump’s attacks on the Post Office, we are seeing the complacency of huge swaths of the Republican Party as the mechanisms of one of America’s most cherished institutions is being attacked and dismantled, without so much as a word of serious objection or condemnation from most Republicans who are in a position to stop it. The fact that this dismantling stems from a delusional assumption by Trump that the Post Office somehow contributed to his loss of the popular vote in 2016 makes no difference. As was reported in the Washington Post (and highlighted in this post by hughwill) Trump’s obsession with the Post Office dates back to a single delusion borne of his personality cult; namely, that “voter fraud” was the cause of his popular vote loss to Hillary Clinton.
Since some unnamed, devoted cultist whispered this falsehood in his ear, Trump’s hatred of the Post Office, whom he somehow blames for this delusional “voter fraud,” has metastasized.
As reported in the Post article:
Allies coddled Trump by telling him the reason he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton in 2016 was widespread mail-in balloting fraud — a conspiracy theory for which there is no evidence — and the president’s postal outrage coarsened further.
Then Trump complained to senior White House advisers that Jeff Bezos — a presidential foe in part because he owns The Washington Post, whose news coverage the president thought was unfair and too tough on him — was “getting rich” because Amazon had been “ripping off” the Postal Service with a “sweetheart deal” to ship millions of its packages, one of them recalled. They explained that this was not true and that the Postal Service actually benefited from Amazon’s business, the adviser added, but the president railed for months about what he described as a “scam.”
And now Trump has fixated again on the Postal Service, this time trying to make it a tool in his reelection campaign by slowing mail service, blocking an emergency infusion of federal funds and challenging the integrity of mail-in balloting. The president acknowledged last week that his opposition is rooted in his desire to restrict how many Americans can vote by mail.
This delusional fixation against the Post Office has now manifested itself by the insertion of a loyal sycophant, Louis DeJoy, who was eagerly recruited by another sycophant, Steven Mnuchin, to further Trump’s obsession.
As a result we are now seeing a pillar of Americans’ existence lives come under assault, not for any rational reason, but in the feverish pursuit of pleasing the leader. This is the cult of personality writ large. It is as insidious, senseless and corroding as any institutional attack fostered by a Stalin or a Mao.
The difference is only one of degree.