A personality cult arises when a country’s regime uses the techniques of mass media, propaganda, the big lie, patriotism and rallies to create an idealized, heroic, and worshipful image of a leader. The term came to prominence in 1956 when Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union, criticized the lionization and idealization of his predecessor, Joseph Stalin. But personality cults brook no dissent. 

To eradicate accused “enemies of the working class,” Stalin instituted the “Great Purge,” imprisoning more than one million people and executing at least 700,000 between 1934 and 1939. By 1937, he had complete control over the Communist party and Soviet state, which he maintained until his death in 1952, by stoking his personality cult and executing critics. It took Khrushchev four years to begin de-Stalinizing the Soviet Union but a modern version of Stalinization has been re-established by Vladimir Putin, with narrowly-targeted, periodic assassination of critics to keep dissent at bay and a well-funded propaganda apparatus to maintain control over the political narrative. 

President Trump, a consistent admirer of Putin, has over the last four years been laser-focused on cultivating his own personality cult, principally via Twitter, Fox News and White House communications staff. When political allies failed to support Trump’s every whim, he has been ruthless in politically assassinating them. 

The former senator from Alabama, Jeff Sessions, serves as a prime example of a strong Trump supporter who failed to support Trump’s every whim and whom Trump then pilloried politically, ending Sessions’ political career. 

President Trump has now urged his followers to dump Georgia governor Kemp, another Trump loyalist, at the next election because Kemp refused to buck state law with respect to the certification of presidential votes. It is no wonder, then, that 140 Republican congressional representatives and a dozen Republican Senators feel compelled to vote to overturn the votes of the Electoral College, despite 60 court rulings affirming the legitimacy of those votes. So-called Minority “Leader” Kevin McCarthy appears ready to join them because his political career could be ended by a Trump tweet. Americans’ willingness to support authoritarianism is surprisingly unexceptional, given the right leader.

William McCarthy

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