Republicans have built a cult of personality around Trump that glosses over his disgraced presidency

Trump
Donald Trump addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held in the Hyatt Regency on February 28, 2021 in Orlando, Florida.

  • The GOP has fomented a personality cult around Trump, similar to authoritarian regimes.
  • The party is defined by Trump worship instead of distancing from him after the fatal Jan. 6 riot.
  • ‘”Getting away with it’ has always been at the center of Trump’s brand,” an expert told Insider.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The GOP of 2021 is increasingly defined by worshipping Donald Trump, as the party builds a cult of personality around a former president who left the White House in disgrace less than two months ago. Experts warn it poses an ongoing threat to democracy in the US – as evidenced by the Capitol attack he stoked.

Trump became the GOP’s supreme leader five years ago. The GOP did not even bother to issue a new party platform in 2020, instead pledging to “enthusiastically” support Trump. But Trump’s personality cult has endured past his disastrous response to the COVID-19 pandemic that killed more than 400,000 during his time in office, the economic crisis and job losses that came with it, and his 2020 election loss. 

“Whatever Trump personally decides to do about his political future, the fact that GOP lawmakers continue to perform their loyalty acts to him on television bodes nothing good for the health of our democracy,” Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University historian and expert on facism, told Insider.

Trump was impeached for inciting the fatal insurrection on January 6, but loyal Senate Republicans ensured he was acquitted. This left the door open for Trump to run for president again in 2024.

Jason Stanley, a philosophy professor at Yale University and author of “How Fascism Works,” recently told Insider that Trump’s acquittal showed authoritarianism remains a “potent force” in the US.

In his post-presidency, Trump is still actively pushing “the big lie” that the election he lost by more than seven million votes was “stolen” – a contention that didn’t hold water in the nation’s courts. The GOP is not just standing by Trump as he perpetuates a falsehood that stoked deadly violence in the nation’s capital and led tech companies to remove his social media megaphone, they’re continuing to make him the star of the show.

Meanwhile, pro-Trump conspiracy theories like Q-Anon are running rampant in the GOP, with some supporters of the former president still holding onto hope that he’ll be reinstalled via a coup. Along these lines, QAnon adherents have disseminated a bizarre theory that Trump would be reinstated on March 4, prompting warnings from law enforcement on the potential for further violence in Washington on the date.

In short, the Trump personality cult has reached toxic heights in 2021.

A golden statue of Trump

Trump statue CPAC 2021
People take a picture with former President Donald Trump’s statue on display at the Conservative Political Action Conference held in the Hyatt Regency on February 27, 2021 in Orlando, Florida. Begun in 1974, CPAC brings together conservative organizations, activists, and world leaders to discuss issues important to them.

At the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in late February, a gold statue of Trump was unveiled.

Attendees lined up to take photos with the statue like a mall Santa Claus. Based on images from the event, you almost wouldn’t know that Trump incited a fatal insurrection at the Capitol just weeks before.

The Republican party is no longer the party of Lincoln a party that advocates smaller government and few constraints on free enterprise and civil liberties it’s now the party of Trump. That’s the general message from top GOP lawmakers recently. Trump may have been a one-term president who lost the GOP the White House, House, and Senate in just four years, but the party’s loudest voices still see him as their best hope.

“I know Trump can be a handful, but he is the most dominant figure in the Republican Party,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told Fox News’ Sean Hannity in mid-February. “Trump is the most consequential Republican in the party.”

Speaking directly to Trump, the South Carolina Republican said: “You own the Republican Party, my friend.”

GOP Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, another close Trump ally, in a February 24 tweet declared that Trump is “the leader of the Republican Party.”

Trump even commands loyalty among Republicans he attacks

Trump McConnell
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell listens to President Donald Trump talks to reporters while hosting Republican congressional leaders and members of Trump’s cabinet in the Oval Office at the White House July 20, 2020, in Washington, DC.

It’s not entirely surprising that figures like Graham and Jordan are continuing to prop up Trump, as they were among his top allies in Congress during his presidency. But even Republican leaders whom Trump viciously attacked have continued to stand by him. 

GOP Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in late February said he’d “absolutely” support Trump if he’s the 2024 GOP presidential nominee. Roughly two weeks before, McConnell was excoriating Trump for inciting a violent insurrection at the Capitol, describing the former president’s actions as a “disgraceful dereliction of duty.”

Though McConnell bashed Trump in that speech, he also voted to acquit him. Trump, who has never taken kindly to criticism, ripped into McConnell over his remarks in a lengthy statement. He called the Kentucky Republican “a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack.”

Even still, Trump apparently has McConnell’s support in 2024.

Similarly, Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, whom Trump has relentlessly attacked, on Wednesday said he’d “absolutely” support the former president if he’s the nominee in 2024. Trump at one point shared a tweet suggesting the Georgia governor would be jailed for not challenging his state’s election results, but Kemp has still not abandoned him. 

“As I said, again, I worked very hard for the president. I think his ideas … will be part of our party for a long time in the future,” Kemp told Fox News’ Neil Cavuto.

Trump has repeatedly lambasted Kemp, expressing regret about endorsing him. But obedience to Trump is seemingly the ultimate tenet of the GOP at the moment – as Republican lawmakers prioritize fomenting culture wars regarding topics like Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss amid an ongoing pandemic – and even figures like McConnell and Kemp are towing the party line as they fight for political survival.

Recent polling shows that Trump continues to hold major sway over Republican voters, and he’s the leading contender for the 2024 GOP nomination. A USA Today and Suffolk University poll in February found that almost half of Trump supporters (46%) would abandon the GOP if the former president started a new political party.

‘Idol worship isn’t conservative’

As leading Republicans enable and amplify this personality cult around Trump that whitewashes his legacy, it’s also revealing deep fractures in the party.

In a mid-February statement explaining why he was voting to convict Trump over the Capitol riot in the former president’s Senate impeachment trial, GOP Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska warned about the dangers of “tribalism.” Sasse was effectively calling out his Republican colleagues who were standing by Trump despite the damning, indisputable evidence against him on top of his relentless attacks on the foundations of America’s democracy

“Tribalism is a hell of a drug,” Sasse said. “If we allow tribalism to repeatedly blind us against defending our institutions, we will lose them.”

Reacting to the gold statue at CPAC, GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois tweeted, “Idol worship isn’t conservative. #RestoreOurGop.” Kinzinger was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for inciting the Capitol attack on January 6. Like Sasse, he’s a minority in the party of Trump. 

“It makes no sense why anybody thinks embracing a disgraced, twice impeached president is the path forward for the party,” former GOP Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania said March 1 on CNN. “The fringe elements of the party have too large a voice … it’s a cult of personality.”

Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, who joined Sasse in voting to convict last month, also thinks the Trump personality cult is a losing formula. 

“If we idolize one person, we will lose,” Cassidy told CNN’s Dana Bash in late February. “And that’s kind of clear from the last election.”

Though Trump lost in 2020, he still earned more votes (74.2 million) than any presidential candidate in US history other than Joe Biden. He was an unpolished leader, but that was a large part of his appeal for many Americans turned off by establishment politics – they liked that he wasn’t a traditional politician.

That said, Trump’s unabashed racism and xenophobia also drove many voters away from him while fostering controversial policies that diminished America’s global reputation. Moreover, his bungled handling of the pandemic revealed Trump as incapable or unwilling to lead the country through the crisis. Trump deliberately downplayed the threat of COVID-19 – a virus he contracted and was hospitalized for as president – and America became the epicenter of the pandemic under his watch. 

Trump’s cult of personality is straight out of the authoritarian playbook

Cult of personality is defined by Merriam-Webster as “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.” 

The concept is often associated with the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and Stalinism, as well as leaders like China’s communist founder Mao Zedong. Both were portrayed as larger-than-life figures with all of the answers.

Stalin
May 1947: Heavy artillery on parade during a review of the Moscow Garrison troops during the May Day celebrations in Red Square, passing posters of Lenin and Stalin.

In the present day, despots like North Korean leader Kim Jong Un continue this tradition, in which they essentially mandate the public worship their every move. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also sought to build a personality cult during his roughly two decades in power, painting himself as a macho figure with annual, shirtless (and heavily photographed) excursions in Siberia. 

Experts and historians like Ben-Ghiat repeatedly pointed to stark parallels between such leaders and Trump while he was still in office, and now warn that the Capitol attack helped elevate his personality cult even further.

“Many Republicans embrace former president Trump because of, not in spite of, his incitement of violence on January 6th,” Ben-Ghiat said. ‘”Getting away with it’ has always been at the center of Trump’s brand, and he diffused a culture of lawlessness within and around the GOP that fueled January 6th and raised his status as a cult figure after.”

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The GOP’s ‘outrageous’ effort to overturn the election and its deference to Trump cements its status as ‘a willing party to authoritarianism’

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Donald Trump, then the Republican presidential candidate, with two of his children, Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump, in 2016.

  • The Republican Party engaged in a brazen and unprecedented effort this year to ignore the will of the voters, overthrow a free and fair election, and install its preferred candidate in power.
  • Had the party succeeded in its efforts, most recently via a longshot Texas Supreme Court case, “that would have ended” US democracy, said Jason Stanley, an expert in fascism.
  • The fact that a majority of House Republicans backed Texas’ lawsuit shows the GOP is a “willing party to authoritarianism,” Stanley added, because it’s “openly signaling that they regard the only legitimate outcome as one that leaves them in power.”
  • The party’s near absolute deference to President Donald Trump, moreover, is a sign that even though Trump will leave office in January, Trumpism is here to stay.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

On Monday, 538 members of the Electoral College convened across the country to cast their votes in the 2020 presidential election. The process is a staple of the US electoral system that typically doesn’t draw much national attention because it’s widely viewed as pro forma, a procedural step in the peaceful transfer of power that has been a bedrock of American politics since the country’s founding.

This year, however, the eyes of the nation are on the Electoral College because it represents, in many ways, US democratic institutions withstanding a brazen and unprecedented assault by one of two major political parties as it seeks to ignore the will of the voters, overthrow the results of a free and fair election, and install its preferred candidate in power. Republicans carried out their attempted coup d’etat with the enthusiastic support of the incumbent president, as well as a maj of the party’s apparatus.

The most striking development in the GOP’s efforts was a lawsuit brought by the state of Texas this month asking the Supreme Court to nullify the election results in four battleground states that voted for Biden. The court, for its part, told the GOP to take a hike, roundly rejecting Texas’ lawsuit in a terse yet monumental ruling last week.

Constitutional scholars and experts in authoritarianism breathed a collective sigh of relief after the court issued its rejection. But the fact that the case got as far as it did, and with most of the Republican Party’s backing, was a telling sign to many of what the GOP now stood for.

“We already have a massively compromised democracy,” said Jason Stanley, a professor at Yale University and the author of “How Fascism Works.” But had Republicans been successful in their longshot bid, “that would have ended it.”

Republicans almost succeeded in pushing the US ‘out of the democratic camp’

“That was an outrageous move,” Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College and the author of “Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe,” told Business Insider, referring to Texas’ case. “It was a blatant, Hail Mary attempt to try to leverage Republican appointees on the court for an openly partisan and anti-democratic purpose. And if it had succeeded, not only would it have destroyed the court’s legitimacy, it would have pushed the US out of the democratic camp.”

Texas’ lawsuit was brought by the state’s Republican attorney general, Ken Paxton, who was indicted in 2015 on felony securities fraud charges and still hasn’t gone to trial. He’s also under a separate FBI criminal investigation over allegations that he abused his office and engaged in bribery to help out a wealthy campaign donor.

After Paxton filed his lawsuit, 18 other Republican attorneys general backed the effort, as did 126 House Republicans, which is a majority of the GOP caucus. Trump also hyped the case, describing it as “the big one,” before the high court kicked it to the curb. While a handful of senior Republican lawmakers expressed skepticism about the case, the vast majority of the party was either silent or actively supported the president and his allies’ effort to maintain their grip on power.

“Today’s authoritarians come in through elections and manipulate elections to stay in office,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University historian and the author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the President.”

Had Republicans been able to pull off a victory in the Texas case, she said, Trump would have joined dictators like Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose 2012 election is widely believed to have been rigged and sparked massive protests, and the far-right Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Ben-Ghiat pointed out that both Putin and Orbán have since found ways to circumvent elections altogether, in Putin’s case by having Parliament amend the Russian constitution, and in Orbán’s case by having Parliament allow him to rule by decree.

That Trump and Republicans’ effort to annihilate the backbone of the US’s electoral process failed is a sign that “some resilience” remains in the democratic system, Berman said.

The Supreme Court joined lower courts and judges across the country who have handed Republicans defeat after defeat since Election Day in their bid to throw the race to Trump.

The president’s campaign and key Republican officials have filed nearly 40 lawsuits challenging the election results since November 3 and haven’t won a single case. And overall, according to the Washington Post, at least 86 judges from the state level all the way to the Supreme Court have rejected at least one legal challenge brought by Trump or his allies.

That said, Texas’ lawsuit “makes crystal clear that Trump and perhaps a majority of Republicans are more committed partisans than they are democrats and have broken the oath they took to defend the Constitution,” Berman said.

Focusing on Trump and not the Republican Party as a whole amounts to ‘deliberately taking our eyes off the problem’

Trump, for his part, has been laying the groundwork to declare the election illegitimate if he lost since as far back as the 2016 race, when he ran against then Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

“I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election,” he teased at an October 2016 campaign rally, before tacking on, “if I win,” as his supporters broke out into raucous applause. After losing the popular vote to Clinton, Trump lied and said that millions of “illegal votes” cast in California tipped the scales in her favor and that he was the rightful winner of the 2016 popular vote.

This year, as poll after poll showed him trailing Biden in the race for the White House, Trump rehashed many of those arguments, saying the only way he would lose the November election would be if it was “rigged” against him and if huge numbers of illegal ballots were cast.

As Business Insider has reported, this election was the safest and most secure in US history. But that hasn’t stopped the president and, crucially, a majority of elected Republican lawmakers, from ginning up nonsense conspiracy theories about secret ballot dumps and Democratic cabals working with dead communist dictators to help Biden win the White House.

The GOP’s actions have proven that it is a “willing party to authoritarianism,” Stanley said, specifically pointing to the fact that most of the House Republican caucus “signed on for stealing the election” by supporting the Texas case. The party is now “openly signaling that they regard the only legitimate outcome as one that leaves them in power.”

For that reason, he said, focusing only on Trump instead of the broader fact that Republicans have shown an overt willingness to subvert democracy and sow doubt about the legitimacy of an election if it suits their needs amounts to “deliberately taking our eyes off the problem.”

Officials who carried out their legal duty to certify the 2020 results in their respective states have faced death and rape threats from the president’s supporters as he shames them on Twitter for being traitors to the party. Employees working for an election vendor that was targeted by Trump and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, have had to go into hiding after they and their families were threatened. US intelligence agencies are investigating a website that featured the home addresses of election officials along with photos of them with rifle crosshairs superimposed on the images.

And on Monday, as Michigan electors prepared to carry out their constitutional duty to cast votes for the rightful winner of the election, they had to be escorted from their cars by armed law enforcement officers and taken into the heavily guarded capitol building because officials were concerned about “credible threats of violence” stemming from a large pro-Trump “Stop the Steal” rally taking place outside the building.

The silence from Trump and his Republican backers was deafening. But some officials spoke out.

Mike Shirkey, the majority leader in the Michigan state Senate, issued a statement saying “Michigan’s Democratic slate of electors should be able to proceed with their duty, free of threats of violence or intimidation.”

And Rep. Paul Mitchell, an outgoing Republican congressional representative from Michigan, said he was so disappointed by his party’s actions that he was leaving it altogether.

It is “unacceptable for political candidates to treat our election system as though we are a third-world nation and incite distrust of something so basic as the sanctity of our vote,” Mitchell wrote in a letter to Republican leaders. To that end, he said, he is withdrawing his “engagement and association with the Republican Party at both the national and state level.”

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