One of the unpleasant features of presidential primary campaign season is the personality cults that surround candidates. Anyone who has been involved in arguments about primaries in this or other years, especially online, has seen this dynamic in action. It’s un-republican (in the small-r sense of the word) as well as contributing to the incivility of a lot of debate. On the other hand, it’s also both inevitable and necessary — no candidate gets elected without inspiring some excesses of devotion, and all of us are in some ways prey to these idealizations and rationalizations. Yet some candidates seem to inspire a disproportionate amount of it.
There are really two different species of personality cult: what we might call the Cult of the Ideal and the Cult of the Strongman. They may seem similar, but there are important differences.
The Cult of the Ideal arises when supporters want a candidate who is a pure champion of some set of ideas. Having found a person who seems to embody those ideas, supporters then dismiss all evidence that the candidate has made real-world compromises or deviations from them. The ideal may be a political ideology, it may be a concept of good government or ethical purity, or it may be an idealized concept of the candidate’s biography; it doesn’t matter. Highly ideological candidates like Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders, or Ron Paul are those most likely to inspire the Cult of the Ideal, but we see it in other ways, like the idea that Donald Trump embodies success in business or that Barack Obama or Bill Bradley embodied political reform, or that Mike Bloomberg is the ideal of non-ideology. Believers in the Cult of the Ideal tend to chase constantly after new vessels to represent the purity of their vision after their prior champions inevitably disappoint them. That quest tosses up new and less experienced candidates with each cycle, always proclaiming themselves purer and different from all those regular politicians (Sanders is unusual in this respect for having a long record). The danger of the Cult of the Ideal is when it leads to mounting frustration with the imperfect nature of politics and the very imperfect nature of politicians.
The Cult of the Strongman, however, is much more dangerous when it becomes widespread (it always infects the inner circle of any politician). Candidates who run on identity politics and biography tend to inspire this the most. The Cult of the Ideal is an excess of devotion to ideas, but the Cult of the Strongman is an excess of devotion to the man, such that its devotees will eventually go along with just about anything the Leader proposes. A number of polls have illustrated this, showing that you can get a number of Republicans to back liberal ideas by telling them their favorite Republican supports them, and can similarly get Democrats to back conservative ideas. Obama, because much of his appeal is bound up in his racial identity and ‘cool’ factor, has inspired many comical excesses of this type, and to the extent that Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio have personality cults, they tend in this direction, as did those of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, whereas Ronald Reagan had more of a Cult of the Ideal.
Donald Trump may be even worse than Obama in his inspiration of the Cult of the Strongman, given how much he is about being a “winner” and a guy who makes great things happen just by being Trump, and how little ideological content there is to Trumpism beyond immigration and trade. You don’t have to think Trump or his supporters are any kind of fascist to get a whiff of fascism from the nature of the Trump rallies and the arguments for Trump and the willingness to support whatever thing Trump comes up with next. Thus, you have a quarter of the GOP electorate running off after a guy who thinks single-payer health care is a good idea. Trump’s joke about not losing votes even if he walked down to Fifth Avenue and shot someone suggests to me that on some level the cult scares even him.
Both cults can be put to political uses, which may be good or ill. ‘Only Nixon could go to China’ reflected that Nixon’s anti-Communist Cult of the Ideal was so strong that it could not be dented by dining with Mao himself. The softening of African-American hostility to same-sex marriage as Barack Obama embraced it is a fairly vivid example of the political deployment of the Cult of the Strongman. But in the long run, marrying the Cult of the Strongman to the expansive powers of the modern presidency and its tendency to trample the restraints of federalism and separation of powers is a menace to our system, and one that should be resisted. Past generations have eventually hit the limits of their tolerance for American leaders who took ‘they’ll follow me anywhere’ too far, the most vivid example being the outraged reaction to FDR’s Court-packing plan in 1937. That is a healthy instinct we shouldn’t lose.