Saturday, November 14, 2020

“Donald J. Trump’s Cult of Personality Did This”: A Nation Unprepared for the Present Public-Health Calamity | The Atlantic


This week offers an excellent opportunity to examine the premise of the political Cult of Personality and its effects and consequences even in a relatively liberal democratic society such as our own. Let's begin with the general definitions of the term and its application throughout modern history, beginning with The New Yoker's “The Field Guide to Tyranny”. Then moving on to a more contemporary correlative with their, “The Strongman Problem, from Modi to Trump”, in which Steve Coll draws the parallels; "In the cases of Modi and Trump, two recently empowered strongmen presiding over relatively robust democratic systems, the question is whether their populism and authoritarian instincts will allow them to alter the laws of democratic accountability. Trump is already altering certain norms - about the access of the press, conflicts of interest, and nepotism - with the acquiescence of the Republican Party. After his Inauguration, on Friday, he will preside over the largest economy and the most powerful military in the world. It is tempting to assume that accountability will eventually take hold, as in the past, whether through prosecutors and courts, if the President or his aides act illegally, or at the next election, if they govern poorly or betray the hopes of their voters. Yet the history and machinery of populist rule worldwide offers no easy comfort. Sometimes strongmen break the constitutions they inherit, or bend the functioning of those charters until they become, gradually, unrecognizable." With more troubling correspondence in cycles of performance and audience reception and to be found in between the 45th president of the United States and Benito Mussolini, as mapped by Ruth Ben-Ghiat, professor of Italian history at New York University's, “A Scholar of Fascism Sees a Lot That’s Familiar with Trump”. As a cursory assessment, she writes; “There’s this whole political theatre that they stage,” Ben-Ghiat said of both leaders. She called up a photo from a folder of images on her laptop, material from a PowerPoint she delivered at a recent seminar on the election. In the picture, Trump is walking through a rolling mist, from darkness to light, to accept the nomination at the Republican National Convention. “They have this hunger for approval. But their personas are created by the symbiosis with the crowd. They need the crowd to consolidate their personalities.”

Both figures clearly establishing an adversarial relationship with any demographic or sphere of thought opposing, or even deviating from the given narrative, the demarcation of a clear line can be seen in The New Yorker's “Trump and the Enemies of the People”. From which its author David Remnick is quoted; "It should serve as a warning to Americans in the era of Donald Trump about the fragility of principles and institutions, particularly when those principles and institutions are under attack by a leader who was ostensibly elected to protect them. This week, dozens of American publications are publishing editorials in ardent opposition to President Trump’s assault on the press and his use of that poisonous phrase “enemies of the people.” The refusal to bend to that assault, and the protection of practices and institutions that are more fragile than we usually care to acknowledge, is essential to the future of American democracy. Because Trump knows little about policy or history, it is tempting to imagine that he knows nothing at all. This is a mistake. He knows well that the American press is hardly popular and, in many ways, is on the defensive. He knows that the ecosystem of information and its distribution has changed radically, and he has figured out how to exploit that change. He has seized on the capacities of right-wing radio, cable television, and social media to form an alternative, fact-free, Trumpian universe. For decades, Trump took little interest in matters of state, but he has studied the media for years. Even as a real estate mogul, he was not a master builder; he was a master manipulator. He spent decades honing his self-aggrandizement in the pages of the New York tabloids and on local television. He came to believe that he could fool enough of the people enough of the time to suit his purposes. He learned how to render himself as a distinctive and “colorful” character. He sensed the weaknesses in lesser reporters: their laziness; their willingness to cut a deal or make a trade; their desire to please an editor with cheap sensation, a “story.” He even made “catch and kill” deals with tabloids such as the National Enquirer, which protected him from carnal and financial scandal."

Yet the New Republic speculates what it will take for these supporters and willing members of this political worldview, or "Trumpian universe" if you will, to reconsider the quantifiable evidence before them. To what extent must their own well-being and the given "American way of life" for which they purport to be defending be compromised and endangered for individuals to be self-motivated to, “Escape from the Trump Cult”? As Alexander Hurst paints it, there may be no returning from such an impasse; "Trump sold his believers an engrossing tale of “American carnage” that he alone could fix, then isolated them in a media universe where reality exists only through Trump-tinted glasses, attacking all other sources of information as “fake news.” In the most polarized media landscape in the wealthy world, Republicans place their trust almost solely in Fox News, seeing nearly all other outlets as biased. In that context, the effect of a president who lies an average of ten times a day is the total blurring of fact and fiction, reality and myth, trust and cynicism. It is a world where, in the words of Rudy Giuliani, truth is no longer truth. “Who could really know?” Trump said of claims that Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “It is what it is.” Amidst the frenetic pace of disgrace and outrage, Trump’s support remains stable among too large a chunk of the American public to just ignore. Trump, who insisted on the presence of voter fraud by the millions in an election he ultimately won, and a coterie of prominent Republicans spent the week after the 2018 midterms delegitimizing the very notion of counting all the votes in key races in Florida, Georgia, and Arizona. Trump’s claim that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and still retain the loyalty of his followers is jokingly referred to as the truest thing he’s ever said, but it’s less funny that 52 percent of them would hypothetically support postponing the 2020 election if he proposed it. What happens when a man who has already promoted political violence, and whose most hardcore supporters have shown their willingness for such violence, finds on election night two years from now that he has just narrowly lost? Do any of us truly believe that Donald J. Trump and his followers will simply slink away quietly into the night?"

With foresight, Hurst continues; "The debate over how to deal with Trump’s anti-democratic following has largely avoided the question of engaging it directly. These days there is no shortage of articles and books dealing with radical-right populism, despots, democratic backsliding, and the tactics that authoritarian leaders deploy. Dozens of experts have pointed out that liberal democratic institutions need constant attention and reinforcement in order to be effective bulwarks. But most of the solutions on offer are institutional in nature: maintaining the independence of the judiciary, thwarting a would-be autocrat’s attempts to grab hold of the levers of justice, maintaining a legislative check on executive authority, enshrining political norms more clearly into constitutions. Democracy, especially liberal democracy, has always been dependent on the trust and belief of the self-governed. It is one thing to implement tangible measures to prevent the decay of bedrock institutions, and when it comes to voting rights, elections, the courts, and restraints on executive power, we know what these measures should look like. It’s another, far tougher thing to figure out how to maintain the legitimacy of these same institutions - and how to restore it once lost." With that question, we now find ourselves in this political moment, faced with the mis-management of America's share of the global health crisis. The Wall Street Journal's view on the lack of federal initiative is on the conservative side of the assessment. All the while, bipartisan statements of solidarity like The New York Times appeal to the wider public in April, “Don’t Let Trump’s Cult of Personality Make Covid-19 Worse” have been met with not only silence, but outright resistance from almost half of the electorate. While reductive, it is not inaccurate to say that, “Donald Trump’s Cult of Personality Did This” as we enter into a third wave of the pandemic, with little or no guidance, resource management, and messaging from those who were elected to safeguard the country and the well-being of its populace. We have seen a man, his administration, and 'audience' unequal to the task of this historic moment, and the scientific community has responded decisively with their political endorsement of the opposing candidate. Whether we voted red, blue, or third party this past week, we will all be bearing the consequence of this cult of personality and the support it has found both within the electorate, as well as government officials and institutions. All the while we move toward a deeply consequential future just around the next bend, in which “The Surging Coronavirus Finds a Federal Leadership Vacuum". Map graphic courtesy of: The New York Times Covid in the US: Latest Case Count