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Cult of Personality: Donald Trump’s supporters see what they want to see in him

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There’s a maddening incoherence in the way that Donald Trump answers policy questions. Slightly less maddening is the incoherence that his supporters demonstrate when trying to verbalize their inexplicable adoration for the GOP candidate. They can’t point to tangible policies but they can regurgitate his sound bites like cult devotees listing their doctrines without being able to explain them in detail.

He’ll make America great again. He’ll beat Russia. He’ll beat China. He’ll beat Hillary. He “won’t be holden to lobbyists” (as compared to not being beholden to them). He’ll get rid of the immigrants. He’ll… the list of retorts really isn’t that long but there’s no need to list them all. You get the point.

Keep something in mind when talking to or chatting with a Trump supporter. They’re not stupid. The notion that Trump’s supporters are all uneducated is false. They are, however, naive. Their willingness to buy into his sales pitch without vetting out his claims, examining his policy proposals, or taking common sense into account when reconciling his unbelievable shift to Republican ideals across the board makes them naive.

They’re suckers for Trump, but that doesn’t mean they’re suckers in general. To see how good people can be so misled, one has to understand the power of a cult of personality. According to Wikipedia:

A cult of personality arises when an individual uses mass media, propaganda, or other methods, to create an idealized, heroic, and at times worshipful, image, often through unquestioning flattery and praise. Sociologist Max Weber developed a tripartite classification of authority; the cult of personality holds parallels with what Weber defined as “charismatic authority“. A cult of personality is similar to divinization, except that it is established by mass media and propaganda usually by the state, especially in totalitarian states.

The only difference in this definition and the blind trust his supporters demonstrate in Trump is that he’s not the leader of totalitarian state… yet. We’ve seen this before in the recent past, though not at this scale. It was President Obama’s cult-like following in 2008 and 2012 that propelled him to election victories and allowed him to be blindly loved regardless of the ineffectiveness of his policies. There is absolutely no reason for his supporters to continue their adoration because he has hurt them more than any prior politician ever has, but that’s one of the reasons that a cult of personality works so well. Even when you harm your people, they’ll continue to adore you.

Trump’s support is the same, only much more concentrated. He doesn’t possess the wider appeal that Obama did in his election years, but those who do follow Trump blindly are actually deeper in their appreciation. The more he does that should turn them off, the more they shift their own views to match his. For example, his proposal to socialize healthcare would have been dismissed by the vast majority of his supporters before they became his supporters. Now, they fall into one of three categories:

  1. Those who do not know that Trump proposes socialized healthcare because they either haven’t heard his proposal or weren’t really understanding what he was saying.
  2. Those who now support socialized healthcare Donald Trump does.
  3. Those who will pretend that he doesn’t propose socialized healthcare.

The last of these are the most dangerous. You can find them on Twitter and Facebook saying the strangest things. They’ll actually turn the argument around and claim that this candidate or that candidate supports Obamacare or another version of socialized medicine. They do this to defend their candidate’s stance even if they don’t agree with it. In many ways, it’s similar to the way that Clinton supporters (and often the Clintons themselves) charge everyone else as being sexist or waging a war on women. Hypocrisy by Clinton supporters and hypocrisy by Trump supporters echo in the same halls.

Understanding all of this is important for two reasons. First, the bandwagon effect can be dangerous. When people we respect support Trump, it’s easy for many of us to jump on his bandwagon without vetting him or his policy proposals. Second, it creates a new type of problem in our digital world. In the past, when you supported a candidate, you could change your mind and very few would be the wiser. We expressed our support with yardsigns and bumper stickers. Today, there’s social media. It adds a permanence to our support. This makes it much harder for someone who initially fell for Trump’s sales pitch to backtrack once they realize how bad he would be for the country. Once they’ve proclaimed their support proudly on their favorite social networks, learning the truth and converting back represents a minor public embarrassment. This is why it’s so important to handle current Trump supporters with kids’ gloves.

Be kind when talking to Trump supporters. They won’t be bullied into changing. The truth will have a harder time reaching them if presented aggressively. However, their patriotism should kick in if you give them enough examples of Trump’s liberal policies. Don’t dwell in the past. They believe that he’s changed. Focus on his current liberal policies like socialized healthcare, touchback amnesty, affirmative action, anti-free-market tariffs, increased government size and scope, progressive tax plan, or his unwillingness to address entitlements. If they’re thoughtful Republicans, they will eventually realize that Trump is still a Democrat in sheep’s clothing.

The Democrats survived their cult of personality candidate because President Obama didn’t pose an existential threat to the party. The Republicans will have a much harder time surviving the Trump cult of personality because he represents an implosion of the values that made the GOP so strong.

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