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Trump is Running as a Cult Leader. His Campaign Events Promote Authoritarian Goals
Propping up his personality cult and indoctrinating Americans to hatred are the real functions of campaign events, not promoting policies
Welcome back to Lucid! Here is a link to my MSNBC appearance last weekend talking about how authoritarians use disinformation, including as ways of reinforcing their leader cults.
"Trump's town hall is a sign of a broader and more traditional campaign strategy," read a CNN headline the morning before the town hall that generated huge blowback against the network. It is unfortunate that even the violent coup of Jan. 6, 2021, carried out at Trump's instigation by members of his MAGA tribe, has not moved the needle on how he is seen.
Trump is a cult leader, rather than a conventional politician, and his speech and behavior cannot be assessed using democratic metrics or models of leadership. The “traditions” he continues as a candidate —insulting and threatening journalists, boasting about violence— belong to the history of authoritarianism, as do the goals he has for his rallies and other campaign events.
Who would Trump be without his personality cult and his devoted tribe of MAGA fanatics? For cult leaders, public appearances such as rallies are less occasions to promote this or that policy than to renew the bonds between the leader and his people, reinforcing ties of affection and promises of loyalty.
Maintaining personality cults requires a stream of images of the leader being supported and adored by those followers. That is one reason the optics-obsessed Trump held more than 150 rallies during his presidency. By limiting the crowd at the town hall to Republicans and GOP-leaning independents, and reportedly requesting that people not boo (but allowing positive reactions), the CNN town hall reinforced such leader-follower dynamics and Trump’s grandiosity.
Keeping the personality cult robust is particularly important when the leader faces setbacks, since he needs a receptive audience for his favorite narrative: the idea that he is a victim. His victimhood is key to his followers accepting the line that his repressive and brutal actions are taken in self-defense. His aggression is always marketed as necessary for his survival and that of his followers as well.
This strongman scam, in use since the days of Benito Mussolini, works on people because the victimhood stories make followers feel protective of the leader, no matter how many crimes he has committed or deaths he has caused. "Trump has been through a lot and deserves our support," said Tina Beth Horn, a devotee of the former president who attended his March rally held in Waco, TX. For cult followers, it makes sense that a man persecuted by "the deep state" would choose an anti-government extremist pilgrimage site to kick off his campaign.
Trump also uses campaign events to emotionally manipulate his followers. The goal is to create a civilian corps ready to harass and harm those the leader designates as enemies of the people —we saw the outcome of that on Jan. 6. "Part of the problem...is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore," Trump said at a March 2016 rally when security treated protesters too politely for his tastes. This was one of hundreds of times he has encouraged rally attendees to exchange compassion for cruelty. This is one way to create the proper emotional and psychological climate to sustain autocracy.
Giving violence a positive association is critical. Trump's comment at the town hall that Jan. 6 rioters had "love in their hearts" continued that re-education, but it also contained a grain of truth. Jan. 6 was a rescue operation of a beloved cult head, and the MAGA thugs who assaulted the Capitol proclaimed their allegiance to Trump to the world. They did have "love in their hearts" --for him --and rage against his many supposed enemies.
Misogynist violence is just as important to model. The CNN town hall showcased this when the audience cheered Trump's mockery of E. Jean Carroll. Trump had just been found guilty of defaming and sexually assaulting Carroll, and the town hall allowed him to psychologically "undo" his defeat at the hands of the court by getting the audience to applaud his misogynist and brutal behavior. Having the images of that applause go viral was just as important.
Similarly, Trump called CNN interviewer Kaitlin Collins "a nasty person" on air because he wanted to remind CNN viewers how much he hates women. Always an efficient propagandist, he also got in a stab at the network that hosted him, refreshing one of his most popular themes: journalists as enemies of the people.
Authoritarian, not democratic dynamics, hold the key to Trump's behavior as a candidate now and in the future. The main goals of his campaign events are not to advance policy proposals but rather to prop up his personality cult, circulate his lies, and emotionally retrain Americans to see violence as positive and even patriotic.
”Keep your heart a desert,” said Mussolini to a journalist who asked him the secret of his success. That bleak Fascist ethos is the tradition Trump upholds.
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