By John Haltiwanger
The GOP of 2021 is increasingly defined by worshipping Donald Trump, as the party builds a cult of personality around a former president who left the White House in disgrace less than two months ago. Experts warn it poses an ongoing threat to democracy in the US — as evidenced by the Capitol attack he stoked.
Trump became the GOP’s supreme leader five years ago. The GOP did not even bother to issue a new party platform in 2020, instead pledging to “enthusiastically” support Trump. But Trump’s personality cult has endured past his disastrous response to the COVID-19 pandemic that killed more than 400,000 during his time in office, the economic crisis and job losses that came with it, and his 2020 election loss.
“Whatever Trump personally decides to do about his political future, the fact that GOP lawmakers continue to perform their loyalty acts to him on television bodes nothing good for the health of our democracy,” Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University historian and expert on facism, told Insider.
Trump was impeached for inciting the fatal insurrection on January 6, but loyal Senate Republicans ensured he was acquitted. This left the door open for Trump to run for president again in 2024.
In his post-presidency, Trump is still actively pushing “the big lie” that the election he lost by more than seven million votes was “stolen” — a contention that didn’t hold water in the nation’s courts. The GOP is not just standing by Trump as he perpetuates a falsehood that stoked deadly violence in the nation’s capital and led tech companies to remove his social media megaphone, they’re continuing to make him the star of the show.
Meanwhile, pro-Trump conspiracy theories like Q-Anon are running rampant in the GOP, with some supporters of the former president still holding onto hope that he’ll be reinstalled via a coup. Along these lines, QAnon adherents have disseminated a bizarre theory that Trump would be reinstated on March 4, prompting warnings from law enforcement on the potential for further violence in Washington on the date.
In short, the Trump personality cult has reached toxic heights in 2021.
A golden statue of Trump
At the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in late February, a gold statue of Trump was unveiled.
Attendees lined up to take photos with the statue like a mall Santa Claus. Based on images from the event, you almost wouldn’t know that Trump incited a fatal insurrection at the Capitol just weeks before.
The Republican party is no longer the party of Lincoln — a party that advocates smaller government and few constraints on free enterprise and civil liberties — it’s now the party of Trump. That’s the general message from top GOP lawmakers recently. Trump may have been a one-term president who lost the GOP the White House, House, and Senate in just four years, but the party’s loudest voices still see him as their best hope.
“I know Trump can be a handful, but he is the most dominant figure in the Republican Party,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told Fox News’ Sean Hannity in mid-February. “Trump is the most consequential Republican in the party.”
Speaking directly to Trump, the South Carolina Republican said: “You own the Republican Party, my friend.”
GOP Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, another close Trump ally, in a February 24 tweet declared that Trump is “the leader of the Republican Party.”
Trump even commands loyalty among Republicans he attacks
It’s not entirely surprising that figures like Graham and Jordan are continuing to prop up Trump, as they were among his top allies in Congress during his presidency. But even Republican leaders whom Trump viciously attacked have continued to stand by him.
GOP Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in late February said he’d “absolutely” support Trump if he’s the 2024 GOP presidential nominee. Roughly two weeks before, McConnell was excoriating Trump for inciting a violent insurrection at the Capitol, describing the former president’s actions as a “disgraceful dereliction of duty.”
Though McConnell bashed Trump in that speech, he also voted to acquit him. Trump, who has never taken kindly to criticism, ripped into McConnell over his remarks in a lengthy statement. He called the Kentucky Republican “a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack.”
Even still, Trump apparently has McConnell’s support in 2024.
Similarly, Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, whom Trump has relentlessly attacked, on Wednesday said he’d “absolutely” support the former president if he’s the nominee in 2024. Trump at one point shared a tweet suggesting the Georgia governor would be jailed for not challenging his state’s election results, but Kemp has still not abandoned him.
“As I said, again, I worked very hard for the president. I think his ideas … will be part of our party for a long time in the future,” Kemp told Fox News’ Neil Cavuto.
Trump has repeatedly lambasted Kemp, expressing regret about endorsing him. But obedience to Trump is seemingly the ultimate tenet of the GOP at the moment — as Republican lawmakers prioritize fomenting culture wars regarding topics like Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss amid an ongoing pandemic — and even figures like McConnell and Kemp are towing the party line as they fight for political survival.
Recent polling shows that Trump continues to hold major sway over Republican voters, and he’s the leading contender for the 2024 GOP nomination. A USA Today and Suffolk University poll in February found that almost half of Trump supporters (46%) would abandon the GOP if the former president started a new political party.
‘Idol worship isn’t conservative’
As leading Republicans enable and amplify this personality cult around Trump that whitewashes his legacy, it’s also revealing deep fractures in the party.
In a mid-February statement explaining why he was voting to convict Trump over the Capitol riot in the former president’s Senate impeachment trial, GOP Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska warned about the dangers of “tribalism.” Sasse was effectively calling out his Republican colleagues who were standing by Trump despite the damning, indisputable evidence against him on top of his relentless attacks on the foundations of America’s democracy.
“Tribalism is a hell of a drug,” Sasse said. “If we allow tribalism to repeatedly blind us against defending our institutions, we will lose them.”
Reacting to the gold statue at CPAC, GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois tweeted, “Idol worship isn’t conservative. #RestoreOurGop.” Kinzinger was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for inciting the Capitol attack on January 6. Like Sasse, he’s a minority in the party of Trump.
“It makes no sense why anybody thinks embracing a disgraced, twice impeached president is the path forward for the party,” former GOP Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania said March 1 on CNN. “The fringe elements of the party have too large a voice … it’s a cult of personality.”
Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, who joined Sasse in voting to convict last month, also thinks the Trump personality cult is a losing formula.
“If we idolize one person, we will lose,” Cassidy told CNN’s Dana Bash in late February. “And that’s kind of clear from the last election.”
Though Trump lost in 2020, he still earned more votes (74.2 million) than any presidential candidate in US history other than Joe Biden. He was an unpolished leader, but that was a large part of his appeal for many Americans turned off by establishment politics — they liked that he wasn’t a traditional politician.
That said, Trump’s unabashed racism and xenophobia also drove many voters away from him while fostering controversial policies that diminished America’s global reputation. Moreover, his bungled handling of the pandemic revealed Trump as incapable or unwilling to lead the country through the crisis. Trump deliberately downplayed the threat of COVID-19 — a virus he contracted and was hospitalized for as president — and America became the epicenter of the pandemic under his watch.
Trump’s cult of personality is straight out of the authoritarian playbook
Cult of personality is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a situation in which a public figure (such as a political leader) is deliberately presented to the people of a country as a great person who should be admired and loved.”
The concept is often associated with the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and Stalinism, as well as leaders like China’s communist founder Mao Zedong. Both were portrayed as larger-than-life figures with all of the answers.
In the present day, despots like North Korean leader Kim Jong Un continue this tradition, in which they essentially mandate the public worship their every move. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also sought to build a personality cult during his roughly two decades in power, painting himself as a macho figure with annual, shirtless (and heavily photographed) excursions in Siberia.
Experts and historians like Ben-Ghiat repeatedly pointed to stark parallels between such leaders and Trump while he was still in office, and now warn that the Capitol attack helped elevate his personality cult even further.
“Many Republicans embrace former president Trump because of, not in spite of, his incitement of violence on January 6th,” Ben-Ghiat said. ‘“Getting away with it’ has always been at the center of Trump’s brand, and he diffused a culture of lawlessness within and around the GOP that fueled January 6th and raised his status as a cult figure after.”
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