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
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.