Let me begin by expressedly mentioning that this piece is not written with the intent to attack, or take the side of Trump or Obama, or any political side for that matter. But rather, I would like to ruminate over the cult of personality phenomenon in the realm of politics.
So firstly, what does this phrase “Cult of Personality” actually mean? According to Merriam-Webster, it is, “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.”
Without getting too deep into the policy trenches, how exactly does this apply to either of the aforementioned party leaders? And what is the problem with this phenomenon?
I often find political discourse to be abnormally difficult whenever talking with someone about a political figure that they happen to hold in this “holier than thou” regard — this figure can do no wrong in their eyes. Even when presented with contrary evidence to the image that has been firmly planted within their neural community. The typical refrain goes one of two ways:
- “But look at what X (previous president is a popular example) did, what about that?” or
- “This is just spin by the Y party (or news source)! Propaganda! Fake News!”
Quite frankly, it doesn’t matter how indicative of wrongdoing it is of their beloved figure, or how nonpartisan the source is, the excuses continue to fly. The blood could be dripping from a knife they are holding, and their defenders would never waiver in their strident support.
Another frustration of mine is with the knee-jerk reaction from these types of supporters to automatically presume that I am with the “other side”. “So you must love Trump then? Huh?” or, “Why don’t you run back to Obama and those gun-grabbing Libs then?” What I have gathered from these reactions is that there is little difference from that of devout religious believers, and my skepticism is treated like heresy.
You shall not question the actions or motives of their beloved figure! And to admit that you are willing to call out both sides of the aisle, either I am called a coward for not taking an unrelenting side, or am criticized for cherry-picking facts, trying to weave a false-equivalency. Worse still is to be completely outcast by those within these circles, much like a cult. For the sin of asking the wrong question, or delivering an inappropriate accusation.
Could I argue that one is better than the other? Absolutely. But this type of conversation would be incredibly circular, never progressing in any meaningful way — particularly if I am unwilling to exhibit an honest attempt on my part to call out my own “side”.
And we can certainly argue about which base of support that has exhibited worse instances of cult-like behavior, no doubt about that. But, I will strongly argue that this isn’t merely the case on only one side of the aisle.
A Difference Among Supporters
Beyond the clear superficial differences between Obama and Trump on their respective styles of communication and leadership (and their are many, to be sure), I have noticed that the supporters themselves look for different things within their leader of choice.
For Obama supporters, they love how well-spoken he is. His perceived intelligence. Grace and sincerity on the world stage. They really appreciate his powerful speeches, and his seeming attempt to unify the country.
For Trump supporters, they love his perceived honesty. The “call it like it is” mentality. His bombastic nature, and comedic stump speeches (whether intended or not). They appreciate his projections of strength on stage, and truly believe that he is an excellent businessman and negotiator.
Obama was far more conservative than his supporters (or detractors) would ever like to admit (particularly on war and immigration), and Trump is far more statist and big government (and pro-war, as well as an obvious liar) than his supporters will ever actually acknowledge, all while unironically routinely lambasting the so-called socialist for his big government tendencies.
“Are you trying to create an equivalency between Obama and Trump? How dare you!!!”
This is what I will say in regards to Trump and Obama: Trump’s supporters seemingly are much more outward and active in their activism (some would say racism) surrounding Trump’s policies; Obama’s supporters were supportive but more wilfully silent (or better yet, complacent) on actual policy (outside of Obamacare).
And I have exhibited frustrations under both administrations for their supporters lack of willingness to be honest about any of it. A future article may be written detailing the various blind-spots of these two groups of supporters.
Both groups of supporters would seemingly follow their leader to the ends of the Earth and back, marching in a parade of woeful ignorance. And when challenged on particular policies, the ears will be immediately plugged, or an angry response will ensue. Again, we can disagree as to which group is worse, but this is often the experience that I have had with both parties.
As for the media, this should come as little surprise that the media does have its biases. When Obama was in office, MSNBC and many others at liberal outlets were practically fawning over him, while the more conservative outlets and pundits were ripping him to shreds. Conversely, more-or-less the same has happened with Trump.
What is lost in all of this partisan noise is any semblance of nuanced discussion. They treat the opposing candidate with complete disregard, jumping to attack at every perceived failure, and completely ignoring any success. It’s as if politics and political figures operate solely in black or white territory: democrats are GOOD, republicans are EVIL — and so are their supporters! And this loss of nuance in discussion of our leaders dribbles down to our conversation on policy — which is the biggest travesty around all of this.
To Hell With Policy
Policy discussions rarely advance in a productive manner due to these emotional attachments to certain leaders (and parties, and pet issues), and the narrative that has been cleverly woven. As goes the leader, so goes the party. And so forth.
Imagine having a policy debate between democrats and republicans that didn’t devolve into, “We can’t do that, that’s SOCIALISM!” or, “Republicans don’t care about you and want you to DIE!”. Imagine if a debate could navigate the actual policy nuances of the problem at hand — even sharing agreement that a problem exists would be a great start (half the country doesn’t even believe that climate change is a thing…).
But instead, we resort to sports-like tribal conduct that trivialize political differences into a blood-sport for entertainment. Its more about winning one over against the other side, rather sitting down and agreeing about what the damn problems actually are. Our fascination with following particular leaders into potshot warfare only seems to contribute to this ever-prescient issue. Facts and logic do not exist within the heat of a battle.
I am still a firm believer that people can be still brought together if presented with actual facts, and a genuine sincerity to solve an issue. The caveat is that these conversations almost have to be done in person — online conversations are giant cesspools of hateful debauchery.
I am not writing this as a way to exude how much more “enlightened” that I am. I am not. And certainly this isn’t an attempt to suggest that I am not ideological, or do not hold strong core beliefs. That I do.
But, what I hope is that our discourse can shift from this blind fascination of leader/party, to a realm of discussing actual policy with actual facts to substantiate an argument. I hope that future discussions can be conducted among honest actors whose intent solely rests within the mission of problem solving. And if an impasse arises around a particular issue, lets take a break on it and find an area in which we do share some agreement. And if something is clearly bullshit, then we need to be able to call that out as well, together.
Ultimately, a failure to evolve in our discourse will only serve as a means of failing ourselves. Those who fully understand and utilize the nature of the “Cult of Personality” will not suffer if this dynamic continues. Their wealth and power, and those with nefarious means to maintain the status-quo, welcome our lack of productive action on the matter.
To continue with our blind allegiance to a particular figure (rather than idea) makes it incredibly easy to pull the strings of the masses. And the easiest way to safeguard oneself from the allure of certain personalities is the development of core principles — and sticking to them. Simple as that. Its hard to argue against a person who has a demonstrable history of principled positions, because even if you still disagree, it is nearly impossible to call them a hypocrite. And that is the ultimate weapon in tribalized political discourse.
So instead of being blown around by the political winds, you can plant your flag firmly beneath your feet, rooted deeply into the earth by the principles in which you strongly believe. And when a candidate comes by that happens to land within your proximity on principle, you have little trouble deciding whom you support. And if said candidate drifts way from where it is you stand, you will not be swept away by the ensuing political theater.
So, find your flag, and plant the damn flag.