When a president can utter the phrase “in my great and unmatched wisdom” and about 35% of American voters don’t laugh their asses off, we’re in uncharted territory. Leaders who proclaim their own “great and unmatched wisdom” without a trace of irony normally speak from balconies in front of huge crowds. Their portraits hang in places such as Tiananmen Square, not 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In dictatorships. Not democracies.
Smarter folks than I have tried to explain the extraordinary phenomenon of Donald J. Trump. It is easier to explain the hold of Mao or Hitler or Stalin over their countries. They used raw power to crush dissent. The displays of adoration they enjoyed were largely just expressions of fear. But the loyalty that Trump supporters show to their leader isn’t the result of a bloody coup. Trump didn’t become president by ordering tanks to roll into our nation’s capital, but by a quirk of the Electoral College. If he’d been wholly successful in overriding and obliterating the checks and balances of our democracy, Trump would not be facing an impeachment inquiry. Trump speaks like a dictator. He may admire dictators, even aspire to be one. His opponents may compare him to dictators or warn that he could become one. But the truth is that he is “only” a president. And an embattled president at that. So how do we explain the fact that he can do no wrong in the opinion of his fanatically devoted supporters…many of them in the neighborhoods where this newspaper is read? I invite you to go to my Facebook page and read the responses to any Trump criticism that appears in these columns. You’ll see that Trump’s supporters worship him like no president’s followers before him.
It’s easy to explain the Trump phenomenon as “tribal.” This columnist once bought into that reasoning (TRIBES—Sept. 5, 2018). But as the president’s actions have become increasingly contradictory and even bizarre, the tribal explanation seems inadequate. Indeed, if Trump’s assertion that he could shoot someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue without losing any of his supporters is true — and I think it is — then conventional explanations fall short. And since it is true that Trump wields his power without need of a Gestapo or KGB to enforce it — then something else has taken place in America the last four years. The cult of Donald J. Trump. One dictionary defines a cult as “a religious veneration and devotion by a relatively small group of people.” Does Trump’s hard-core support fit the definition of “relatively small?” Well, his approval rating never dips below about 35%. We’re talking folks who NEVER disagree with anything Trump says or does. Even when he changes his mind, as he often does, 24 hours later. “Relatively small” is in the eye of the beholder, but this beholder does not believe that 35% of Americans can be construed as “small” by any definition. Another dictionary defines cult as “a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.” Bingo. Trump is not just a poor president in the mold of Andrew Johnson or James Buchanan. Trump is much, much more than that.
Some, including myself, have remarked that Trump reminds them of the Andy Griffith character, Lonesome Rhodes, in A FACE IN THE CROWD. Rhodes uses cunning and political demagoguery to rise from a small-town entertainer to the heights of national fame before he’s exposed. Trump IS no doubt a political demagogue. But he wears no mask. His true self is revealed multiple times on a daily basis through off-the-cuff remarks on his way to board Air Force One or on his Twitter account. Trump is much more than a Lonesome Rhodes. Trump is more like Jim Jones or David Koresh, and other cult leaders. The president’s followers are as much mesmerized by him as Charles Manson’s “family” was by Manson. But Donald J. Trump poses a different kind of danger than Manson or any of the other infamous cult leaders in American history.
Trump is not leading his followers to group suicide. His aim is not to murder a movie actress. It would be tempting to say that our president is trying to use his followers as accomplices to murder nothing short of our democratic form of government. And although that may be where he leads them, Trump is not an ideologue. He was a Democrat when it suited him — a Clinton supporter. Then a Republican when he sensed a shift in the political winds and became an obsessive Clinton-hater. He was pro-choice until he was pro-life. He’s a “conservative” budget hawk in rhetoric, but a big deficit spender in reality. For the Iraq War and then against it. Loved the Kurds one day. Abandoned them the next. Trump’s greatest source of power may be that he isn’t ideological. He is the bottom-line president. He does deals instead of promoting American values…Trump…like the crime lords in all those Hollywood B movies, operates on the belief that “Everyone has a price.”
Like George Wallace, Huey Long and other American demagogues, Trump pretends to be the voice of those without a voice, those who have been truly screwed over and those who only think they have. And like all demagogues, Trump thrives on fear—real and illusory.
Welcome to the cult of Trump. ••
You can see Tom Cardella talk football on Monday at 6 p.m. with his guest, former Eagle Mike Reichenbach, streaming on wbcbsports.com, or hear the rebroadcast Tuesday at 5 p.m. on 610 AM ESPN Radio.