It’s a now-normal 21st-century anxiety, but it wasn’t always like this. Perhaps it was my wide-eyed, dangerously-sincere reading of Don DeLillo’s novel Mao II as a high school senior that did me in, but I’ve always harbored an uneasy fascination with cult of personality figures. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, even Steve Jobs, Jon Gruden, Elon Musk. It’s a Ted Talk that lasts years from the same persona.
We oftentimes say these figures have got “charisma” and leave it at that, but I think there’s more to it. It’s a curious blend of confidence, entertainment, desire. These figures represent a lifestyle. They are a lifestyle. There’s something in their… rhetoric.
What is it about these (straight, white) men that makes so many people accept, unequivocally, their self-serving worldview?
Watching Donald Trump yesterday compare the intelligence community’s leaking of unverified information to something typical of “Nazi Germany” is not merely offensive but also .
Nothing within Trump’s demeanor carries much weight anymore- half the population will support anything he does or says, and half will oppose it- and at this point we’ve weeded out any possible middle space. I’m not ready to declare our cultural era “post-fact” quite yet, but we seem to have almost completely lost sight of appreciating critical judgement on what we should value within our “cult of personality” leaders. And don’t think this is something out of a science fiction film or a historical reenactment gone awry- we’re more susceptible than ever to pleasing, echo-chamber charisma.
I’m inclined to think we’ve lost the ability to accept any gray areas within super-partisan social conventions. You’re either one way or the opposite in today’s attention economy. There’s little room for gray area when identity itself is increasingly simplified to nothing more than a liked social media page, a Twitter bio or a showcased college you attended. We like labels. We like differentiation. Is there any such thing as a “complicated” political actor anymore? If we’re progressives, we’re grouped into the umbrella category “Bernie supporters.” If we’re any kind of Republican, you’re automatically either a pro-Trump-Repub or a Never-Trumper, and there is no middle. If you’re a libertarian, you’re… going to have to make some concessions.
Will we ever again elect a president whose act doesn’t privilege entertainment and emotion over reason and policy articulation?
Make no mistake about it- Obama himself is a “cult” figure as well, though I contend Trump to be a far more obvious and caricatured stock example. We respect the dignity Obama lends to the office of president. We respect his approachability, his everyguy-ness, this president of Jay-Z albums and basketball shorts. We respect his community-centered approach. We respect his family. We respect the respect he gives to others.
And what is it that Trump supporters most admire in their “cult” figure? I can list the keywords- deals, great, jobs, media, swamp, win(ner), business, trade, wall, TREMENDOUS, success. We admire his business success, his playing of the system to his organization’s benefit. We admire his willingness to say the politically incorrect thing. We admire his honesty (I choked writing that). He is nothing if not candid. He wears everything on his sleeve. Everything he does is centered around his image.
I think if we watch our own admiration of Trump closely enough, we find ourselves celebrating greed and gluttony on an unprecedented scale. We see someone who celebrates narcissism, who embodies it, a man whose every act seems driven not by a desire to do what’s right for the people of the United States but by a desire to make himself look like a winner. His policies may be good or bad- you can decide on that- but no one can watch a Trump press conference or look at his Twitter feed and claim he’s anything but image-centered. He does nothing outside of talk about himself. Every issue circles back to his image, his brand.
He’s a celebrity first, and a politician second. We can’t keep up.
Watch two hours of MSNBC or Fox News. You’ll be just as jaded as I am.
Trump is a lifestyle. Think about the values of the life that he lives.