Explaining the president’s penchant for artifice

President Donald Trump listens to a question during a meeting with FIFA president Gianni Infantino and United States Soccer Federation president Carlos Cordeiro in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

In early August, the president amended his previous claim that the press is “the enemy of the people,” suggesting instead that “the fake news, which is a large percentage of the media, […] is the enemy of the people.”

MSNBC and CNN are unwatchable,” Trump tweeted. “Fox and Friends is great!” Though it is not unusual for politicians to disparage unsupportive journalists, the incumbent president calls every critic of his a moron, liar, lunatic, or dog. This contempt for the opposing party and its vision of the world constitutes a deliberate attempt to install a cult of personality in the GOP.

Take, for example, the High School Leadership Summit held in July of this year by Turning Point USA, the most prominent conservative student organization in the country. When Senator Rand Paul spoke of the GOP’s failure to repeal Obamacare and uttered the name “John McCain,” the crowd erupted in boos. A few years ago, McCain was the face of American conservatism, as the Republican Party’s presidential candidate and the man who made Sarah Palin a national icon. Because McCain did not vote to overturn the Affordable Care Act, and because he was critical of President Trump, conservative voters now consider him an unperson. John McCain, the war hawk who created the 9/11 Commission, opposed universal healthcare, and regularly voted against financial and environmental regulation, was called a “Republican in Name Only” by a Fox News contributor a few hours before he died. This is what bipartisanship gets you in present-day America.

Howard Kurtz, a Fox News analyst, opined that liberals who say Trump is leading a cult of personality are revealing “a condescending media mindset toward the president and his followers.” Kurtz misses the forest for the trees. Certainly, there are plenty of liberals who have nothing but condescension and contempt for Trump supporters, but that is not the reason why critics of the president accuse him of fostering a cult mentality. Cultic ideology is rooted in devotion to a leader whose personality wholly defines the group’s belief system. The leader tries to make his followers believe in ideas that are contradictory or untrue, maintains a “polarized us-versus-them mentality” and does not consider himself “accountable to any authorities.” Does any of this sound familiar?

Of course, it is inaccurate to say that Donald Trump possesses absolute control over his supporters or that he envisions a Charles Manson or Jim Jones-style doomsday for the world. But is it so outrageous to note that, like politicians who have built cults of personality, President Trump values loyalty above all else and attempts to destroy the credibility of anyone who opposes him? At the TPUSA High School Leadership Summit, the speeches of Senator Rand Paul and Attorney General Jeff Sessions were both interrupted by the crowd chanting, “Lock her up!” No one in the room seemed to realize that Hillary Clinton no longer holds elected office, that Donald Trump has no intention of ever sending her to jail and that he would fail if he tried.

“Lock her up,” like “fake news,” is a mantra that is divorced from reality and used only to unite Trump voters in their hatred of an enemy. The president ceaselessly rants about “fake news” because it is easier to persuade people to believe in him if they think his critics are all liars and criminals. He has managed to persuade half of the country to scream for the imprisonment of “crooked” Hillary Clinton while his advisers, lawyers, and business associates are being whisked off to jail. The day his former campaign chairman was convicted and his former lawyer pleaded guilty for fraud, the president could only cry about the “witch hunt” and “fake news” at his West Virginia rally. His followers only tolerate such purposeful disinformation because their leader has predicated his movement on the exploitation of voters’ credulity.


Alex Klein is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus and can be reached via email at alex.klein@uconn.edu.