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Will Republicans Defy Trump’s Authoritarian Cult of Personality?
The pundits are going to tell you that Trump is now toast. Don't listen to them.
On Tuesday, Donald Trump had a bad night. He leveraged his cult leader-style sway over the Republican base to shoehorn terrible candidates through GOP primaries. These were cartoon caricatures, figures so absurd they seemed to have responded to a casting call for unelectable villainy. A quack doctor who lamented the rising cost of crudité faced a long drive home to New Jersey after losing a winnable seat in Pennsylvania. An outspokenly pro-life candidate in Georgia has paid for a seemingly limitless number of abortions, thinks climate change means that China is sending America “bad air,” and allegedly has a penchant for threatening people with guns. In Arizona, the Republican candidate was a venture capitalist who enjoyed military cosplay was running against a literal astronaut. And don’t get me started on Doug Mastriano, who apparently loves dressing up as a Confederate soldier and wants to charge women who get abortions with murder.
The Trump candidates were authoritarian extremists. They mostly lost.
The conventional wisdom, which you’ll now hear repeated over and over by pundits and insiders is that Trump is toast. Let the DeSantis coronation begin. Republicans will fire Trump “like a dog,” as Trump was so fond of saying when getting rid of Rex Tillerson or some other forgotten Trumpian trivia question who may, if we’re lucky, never infect another brain cell of our thoughts ever again.
There’s good reason for Republicans to ditch Trump. Since 2016, he has been an electoral liability. The right way to think about Trump’s strategic “genius” is that the guy had two strokes of genuine political genius: he realized that immigration was an electrifying third rail in US politics and understood that a significant chunk of his party’s voters were latent authoritarians, meaning that the only reason they weren’t voting for a strongman was because one hadn’t been offered to them on the ballot. Those insights propelled him to the presidency. Once he got there, he shot himself in the foot repeatedly, a level of savvy political skills that culminated most deliciously in the Four Seasons Total Landscaping debacle, a fitting coda to a disastrous, slapstick presidency.
But here’s the bad news: Trump isn’t going anywhere. To understand why, you need a frame of reference for US politics that isn’t learned in glitzy political consulting firms, one they don’t teach you if you graduate from the Ronald Reagan school of political history, even if you have read every biography of Lincoln and JFK that’s ever been published.
To understand Trump’s grip on the Republican base, you need to look not to American history or US political science, but to authoritarian politics. It’s objectively irrational for Republicans to stick with Trump, but a huge chunk of the base will hold the line because he has built an authoritarian cult of personality. Their devotion is not interchangeable, no substitutions allowed. It’s a bit like a superfan’s obsession with their favorite sports team; they wear the jersey win or lose.
That’s because the MAGA base loves him, not Trump’s policies. That’s why they can chant “Build the Wall!” until they’re blue in the face, but then not really care that he didn’t. And they’re in so deep that it will take more than a lukewarm midterm election to break the spell he has over those voters who slap stickers of Trump riding an eagle in a superman outfit on their pickup trucks.
Why has this happened? I’ve studied power and dictators around the world for more than a decade, interviewing many former heads of state across sub-Saharan Africa, southeast Asia, the Middle East, and post-Soviet Europe. The successful despots have learned a key lesson: if you make politics a devotional cult to one individual, and steadily increase the costs of abandoning that movement, then you can survive the inevitably choppy waters produced by incompetence. Trump understood this logic and exploited it.
When people think of cults of personality, they think of the Kim dynasty’s bizarre lies in North Korea. Their lies include learning to drive at the age of three, composing thousands of operas, and even apparently inventing hamburgers, which they originally called ‘double bread with meat’. It’s crazy, yes, but not irrational. There’s an extremely effective strategic logic to these lies.
Cults of personality function as loyalty tests that make it harder to leave the movement. You start with smaller lies, then increase the magnitude of the lies over time. There’s a built-in reason why they must become more extreme over time: once a lie becomes orthodoxy, it’s no longer an effective loyalty test. So, imagine that you’re Kim Jong-Un and you start by telling people that Kim is the world’s best chess player. A reasonably harmless small lie, but one that soon becomes accepted dogma throughout the population. Once that happens, the lie no longer differentiates the true believers from those who merely nod along. You need a new lie, a new loyalty test, which creates a ratcheting effect: it can become more extreme but never less so.
Now consider Trump. What was the first official lie? Sean Spicer, on day one, told the world that Trump’s inauguration had the largest crowd size, even though there was photographic evidence everyone could see that it was blatantly untrue. That’s the chess-style lie. Throughout Trump’s time in office, though, the lies grew in intensity and extremism. Eventually, the lies became so outlandish that they did effectively separate the diehards from everyone else. The QAnon conspiracy theory and the rejection of the 2020 election are cases in point.
But there’s a secondary benefit to a cult of personality: it also creates extremely strong cognitive dissonance in the true believers such that they can’t abandon the lies. If you have told your friends and family that you believe a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping Democratic pedophiles run the country from the basement of a DC-area pizza joint, it becomes really hard not just to admit that you were wrong, but also to abandon the man who is the leader of a political movement full of people who also spread those insane lies. If you’ve worn a red hat since 2016 and have linked your personal and social identity to one man, you’re not likely to jettison him because Blake Masters lost in Arizona. That’s not how this works.
These dynamics are further amplified because Trump—a veteran of WWE wrestling—understands that modern tribal politics are akin to professional wrestling. It’s about the entertainment, and for that, you need an entertainer. Ron DeSantis may indeed be the 2024 presidential nominee, but without the rockstar-style performances that Trump’s supporters love about him, DeSantis just comes off as a meaner, more boring version of him.
Trump has nonetheless clearly suffered a serious setback due to the midterms. Millions of Republicans were never part of the full-blown Trump cult of personality, and they will become more vocal. But the death of Donald Trump’s political influence has been greatly exaggerated. The pundits and political consultants will tell you otherwise. But they continue to make a cardinal mistake in understanding Trump: they mistakenly think of him as a Republican, not an authoritarian. The spell he has over his base has not broken.
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