Peggy Whiteneck, Freelance Writer

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American Voters and the Cult of Celebrity

One of the things that differentiates the two main political parties in the United States is that only one of them talks about the party belonging to a specific individual. We never hear people referring to the Democratic Party as the party of Carter or the party of Clinton or the party of Obama. What we do hear is the Republican Party styled as "the party of Reagan" and, more recently, "the party of Trump."" (We hear the GOP also described as "the party of Lincoln," but, arguably, the party hasn't been Lincoln's since the late 1860s, when a radical shift in political alignment made the Republican Party the party of Jim Crow and the once Southern-dominated Democratic Party the party of civil rights.)

In pondering this, I was also struck that Reagan and Trump have more than a little in common. Both believed, for example, in trickle-down or supply side economics: if government offers tax cuts to the wealthy, as individuals and as corporations, the benefits of that will, by some hocus pocus of affluent largesse, trickle down to the rest of the population. Nothing has given the lie to this economic theory quite like the widening of what has become not just an income gap but more like a chasm between America's haves and have-nots. Clearly, a rising tide doesn't float all boats when so many boats have run aground.

Another thing Reagan and Trump had in common was their belief that, as Reagan so famously put it, "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." Trump put this anti-government philosophy on steroids as he set about dismantling much of the federal infrastructure on which, as it turns out, the US population depends. The COVID-19 pandemic served as nothing else could to drive home the need for a responsive federal government.

Both men also blamed the country's problems on the most vulnerable members of society. For Reagan, it was people on public assistance, whom he famously christened "welfare queens." (Subsequently, Democratic President Clinton went down this Reaganomic rabbit hole by signing into law a bill to "end welfare as we know it" - which simply put, meant making it harder to access public assistance - thereby proving that political expedience and social ignorance are equal opportunity infections.) Trump followed Reagan's suit by broadening the scope of victim blaming to include not only the poor but also immigrants, American-born people of color, and women.

Yet another point of comparison is that both Trump and Reagan had a penchant for spreading false rumors and misinformation. Reagan's focus on "welfare queens" came from an infamous case in which he publicly called out a particular woman who was allegedly bilking the system and making big bucks off the effort. Reagan held her up as being representative rather than exceptional. Later, it was proven that this individual was not a real person but, rather, a composite boogeyman of Reagan's own imagining. Trump, of course, became the king of misinformation, in his own peculiar mixture of ignorance and overt lying. (The two personalities differ, of course, in the comparative sophistication of their communication styles. Reagan was suave and polished in his prejudices while Trump's biases are more crudely expressed.)

How Is This a Cult?

Many Trump supporters will say they voted for him because of his business acumen, a voter bias based on a widely held belief that being a successful executive in the corporate world is a skill set that transfers naturally to running an entire country. The businessman shares with the cowboy the distinction of being an American idol. As it turns out, though, Trump's business reputation was essentially an Ozian mirage; peering behind the curtain reveals several failed enterprises (not to say fraudulent ones - Trump University comes immediately to mind). So, if he didn't ascend to the highest office in the land because he's a good businessman, there is another, perhaps less obvious, way in which Reagan and Trump are cast in the same mold: both came to public attention mainly through their roles as media celebrities, Reagan as a second-tier movie star and Trump as a reality [sic] TV host.

The principle characteristic of a cult is the charismatic leader who has convinced his followers to mothball their minds and substitute the leader's mythology for the real world. We could call the focus on media bona fides, as a uniquely modern political phenomenon, a "cult of personality." If John Wayne had been the Republican candidate running against John Kennedy in the 1960 election, Wayne would probably have won - a thought too chillingly plausible to be preposterous, especially in view that Trump's run for a second term in 2020 managed to corral 74 million votes. Trump supporters vociferously object to calling Trump's fan base a cult. And they may have a point - because the cult in question is broader than one personality. If neither Reagan nor Trump was especially qualified for the job to which he was elected, neither were California's Arnold Schwarzenegger and Minnesota's Jesse Ventura, two more media personalities who served as governors of their respective states in the early years of the millennium. All these men came to power riding the wave of America's long-standing infatuation with celebrities.

It seems no small coincidence that all four men ran as Republicans. Conservatives tend to gravitate to that party, and the romanticized Hollywood version of American history and culture is particularly beloved of conservative Americans. On the national level, the problem for the Republican Party today is not so much a "cult of personality" as it is a larger "cult of celebrity" that gave us not only Trump but Reagan before him. What characterizes a media celebrity, of course, is that the gilded image is seldom, if ever, the reality.

More Peg's Blog Spot Posts

 · The Unacceptable Cost of Deferred Maintenance
 · We Have Met the Enemy and the Enemy Is Us
 · The National Divide: Immediate Gratification vs. Future Gain
 · The Trouble with That Anonymous Trump-Circle Editorial
 · Breaking News: We're All "Values Voters!"
 · Monuments Flap Is Not about the Monuments
 · Have We Always Been the Disunited States of America?
 · A Humble Defense of the Constitution
 · The Trump Presidency: Bigotry's Cause or Only Its Effect?
 · Race, Class, and Access to Women's Health Services
 · Trying to Learn from the Holocaust
 · Trump's Angry White Folks
 · Whatever Happened to "Look It Up?"

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