Way back in 2015, when the candidacy of Donald Trump struck most of America as a joke, many of us floated the theory—with tongue only half in cheek—that Trump was actually a Democratic Party plant, installed in the GOP primaries to discredit the entire Republican Party and ensure Hillary Clinton would be elected president in November 2016.
While history has rendered this hypothesis obsolete, there remains the underlying assumption upon which the theory was based, which is that Trump serves as a moral Rorschach test for every would-be conservative in America.
Posed as a question, the test is simply this: How many of your so-called principles are you prepared to sacrifice on the altar of the most unprincipled man in America? How many bridges are you willing to jump off before realizing that each one leads to nowhere?
If Donald Trump shot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue, would you still vote for him in 2020?
Of course, it was Trump himself who asserted early on that the answer to that last question is “yes” among his core supporters, and if the last three years have taught us anything, it’s that he couldn’t have been more right.
At this point in his presidency, Trump is not a public servant so much as a personality cult, and as the corruption piles up and more and more of his deputies get hauled off to prison, it is becoming increasingly obvious that there is a certain fraction of the American public—roughly 30 percent, although estimates vary—who are so emotionally invested in Trump—the man, the brand, the whatever—that no amount of criminality is strong enough to penetrate the bubble of loyalty that exists between the commander-in-chief and his fellow travelers, the latter of whom appear utterly incapable of seeing what is directly in front of their noses—namely, that the man they worship is a crook.
They’re not drinking the Kool-Aid. They’re injecting it intravenously.
As with all personality cults, the fundamental problem isn’t the leader himself; it’s his followers. Any schmuck can stand on a platform and declare himself king. The question is whether there is a critical mass of people desperate and gullible enough to hand him the crown and obey his every command. There is no con without a mark, and it remains truly frightening how many of them the 45th president has acquired and maintained from the moment he entered the political fray.
While Trump undoubtedly constitutes the most insidious personality cult in American life today, his is hardly the only one from which to choose. Unseemly as it might sound, Republicans hardly have a monopoly on prostrating themselves to a populist politician who promises them the moon.
How else to describe the famous “Bernie Bros”? You know them: The far-left supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders who quote his über-progressive platform word-for-word and will expound for hours about how the 2016 primaries were rigged—rigged, I tell you!—against their beloved Bernie by the evil Democratic Party establishment. Never mind that Hillary Clinton received 3.7 million more votes than Sanders, winning 34 contests to Sanders’s 23: The point, sayeth the Bros, is that Sanders was the only Democratic contender who could’ve defeated Trump in 2016, and in 2020 it is he—and he alone!—who could pry Trump from power and usher his socialist utopia into existence.
Sure sounds cultish to me.
This is not to imply a moral equivalence between Sanders and Trump, only one of whom is a repugnant, shameless charlatan with no sense of basic human decency. Say what you will about the junior senator from Vermont and his pie-in-the-sky ideas, but Sanders has shown not a whiff of the racism or xenophobia that—odious as they are in one person—can quickly grow dangerous and deadly when harnessed by millions of mindless lemmings who believe they are acting on the Dear Leader’s orders.
And yet, in the end, a cult is still a cult, and the unifying characteristic of all cults is mindlessness—i.e., the willful suspension of one’s intellectual faculties in service of a singular Great Man to whom all loyalty is owed and from whom all of life’s problems will be solved. If the unquestioned adherence to Trump by the MAGA crowd takes this tendency to new heights—or should we say depths?—by and large, much the same was true for the most hardcore supporters of Barack Obama, whose very existence was seen as a panacea for all the partisan discord ravaging Washington, D.C., circa 2008.
In time, of course, a majority of Obama’s admirers came to realize that, for all his personal qualities, the 44th president could not walk on water after all, and was as capable of betraying his campaign promises as any commander-in-chief who came before him.
Will the aura of infallibility eventually break among those who worship Donald Trump—a man who, unlike Obama, seems to truly believe he can do no wrong?
Meet me on Fifth Avenue for the answer.