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How a party became a cult

2 July 2018

And what it means for the midterm elections


“There is no Republican Party. There’s a Trump Party”: president Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Fargo last Wednesday. Evan Vucci/AP Photo

“There is no Republican Party. There’s a Trump Party”: president Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Fargo last Wednesday. Evan Vucci/AP Photo

The idea that a cult has taken over not only the US administration but also the Republican Party and its most ardent supporters is gaining increasing currency. It’s easy to see the evidence for this view and why it finds favour with those who are otherwise unable to explain Trump’s rise to power, the failure of the Republican leadership to repudiate his policies and language, and the fervour and loyalty of his followers.

Trump’s refusal to play by the rules, his increasing rejection of shared values and relationships internationally and at home, his preoccupation with power, and his distrust even of those who serve him, coupled with narcissistic traits, distortion of the facts, constant dissembling and need for adulation, certainly make him a very divisive and different sort of American political leader.

He is openly willing to align himself with dictators and authoritarian figures like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte in preference to Western leaders and other allies. He has spoken enviously of authoritarian powers, slips easily into racist rhetoric, and is indifferent to human rights.

The Republican Party has remade itself in Trump’s image, abandoning conservative standards — fiscal responsibility, free trade, pro-family policies, opposition to authoritarianism — held sacred for decades. To remain part of his team, Trump’s appointees find that they must prove their dedication by casting aside integrity and moral judgement and defending what is often indefensible. The least reluctance is taken as betrayal. Yet no one at cabinet level has stepped aside on the basis of conscience.

There is a cultish quality to Trump supporters. His rallies (which grow more popular after every political uproar) exhibit the emotional intensity seen at a religious revival event, complete with ritualised communal chants. Attendees appear to feel bound together by their admiration for a charismatic leader. His divisive tribalism seems to make them feel protected and gives them a sense of social belonging in a world they see as threatening. Trump tells them that their support for him makes them better than those who oppose him. “You’re smarter, you’re better, you’re more loyal. We have the greatest base in the history of politics,” he said recently in South Carolina.

Trump fed this approach from the moment he entered the campaign. He consistently paints a grim portrait of a frightening, fearsome world where the United States, a once-great nation, is now taken advantage of and ridiculed. And he offers himself as the only saviour, the only person who can get things back on track. Then, having destroyed trust and ridden roughshod over the recognised norms and values, he creates an environment in which he can thrive and others are left floundering.

A cult, by definition, is not mainstream theology, so in this regard Trump certainly ticks all the boxes. His cult-like grip on the Republican Party is keeping most members in line. Former Republican House Speaker John Boehner has lamented that the GOP he knew is no more, saying, “There is no Republican Party. There’s a Trump Party.” Only those who aren’t looking for re-election, like senators Jeff Flake (Arizona) and Bob Corker (Tennessee), are willing to speak out.

Corker has ramped up his criticism of the Republican congressional leadership for not wanting to take on the president on core Republican issues like trade. Flake has criticised Trump’s embrace of “despots and dictators” while “ridiculing our allies.”

“We’re in a strange place. It’s becoming a cultish thing, isn’t it?” Corker said recently. “It’s not a good place for any party to have a cult-like situation as it relates to a President that happens to be purportedly of the same party.” That led Senator Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) to accuse Corker of “trying to destroy the Republican Party.” Donald Trump Jr was more sanguine, observing, “If it’s a cult, it’s because they like what my father is doing.”

And therein lies the real issue. Trump claims to be delivering on his promised agenda, and his supporters believe he is succeeding — that he has destroyed Islamic terrorism, got tough with China, denuclearised the Korean peninsula, boosted the economy and jobs with tax cuts, protected the borders, beaten back fake news, and always placed America First. Even those on the other side of politics must concede that Trump has undermined Obama’s legacy on health and the environment, that he dominates the news and claims success where that is hardly the case, and that he and his family and associates have so far survived a series of scandals around sex, money and collusion. Furthermore, Trump’s relentless assault on democratic norms has changed America in ways that raise very real concerns; minorities, immigrants, Muslims and mainstream media all feel threatened and have been harassed; even the Department of Justice is under threat.

Trump’s supporters love his attitude and his language and his embellishments of the truth. They are not interested in his policies, which are largely vague, non-existent or constantly changeable, but rather in his promise to Make America Great Again and to take the nation back to a time they believe was better (at least for them) than today. When things go wrong, they believe Trump’s claims that this is the fault of others — Obama and the Democrats, the Republican leadership he denigrates as “weak and ineffective,” Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau who “stabbed us in the back,” or the “fake news media,” which is responsible for everything from the scandals surrounding Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt to aiding smugglers and human traffickers.

Everything becomes a contest between Right and Left, Them and Us, Trump’s good guys and the opponents’ bad guys, thus forcing everyone to choose a side, regardless of the substance of the argument. This fuels the perpetual political outrage and chaos that Trump thrives on, and makes winning more important than dialogue and policy. These are lessons learned from Trump’s mentor, lawyer Roy Cohn, who notoriously said, “I bring out the worst in my enemies and that’s how I get them to defeat themselves” and “My scare value is high. My arena is controversy. My tough front is my biggest asset.”

The vast majority of Republicans approve of Trump’s performance in office and a lot of them are unhappy with Republican office-holders they consider to be at odds with him. An 18–24 June Gallup poll shows how divided the nation is: Republican voters’ support for Trump remains high at 87 per cent (the average for his second year in office) even after the controversy about the separation of immigrant families. In contrast, the 5 per cent approval rate among Democrats is a new low.

Many committed Trump voters say their lives and the country are improving under his presidency. They may have misgivings about his language and character, and even about policies that separate families, but tough, investigative news coverage generally only serves to increase their support.

But Trump’s success with his followers comes at a price: his support has got deeper but not broader. Groups that have always been opposed to Trump — white women, whites with college degrees and African Americans — have become more pro-Democrat.

recent series of polls at the national and state level universally show Republicans trailing Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections and voters looking to elect congressional candidates who promise to serve as a check on the president. But again, there’s a divide. An NBC/WSJ poll taken in early June (before the immigration crisis became public) found 60 per cent of white women with a college degree but only 27 per cent of white men without a college degree would prefer a Democrat-controlled Congress.

The polling that shows that Trump’s base loves him more than ever doesn’t automatically translate into better midterm prospects for Republicans. Republican Party identification has dropped since 2016, largely due to an influx of young voters, and the number of Never Trump Republicans is growing and quietly aligning with Democrats.

Yet Republican candidates are not running away from their president. Indeed, the victory of Corey Stewart in the Virginia primaries and the defeat of Mark Sanford in the South Carolina primaries demonstrate that dissent is dangerous. “If you want to win a Republican primary, you can’t deviate much from the script,” said Senator Flake. “It’s the president’s script. You can’t criticise policy or behaviour.”

The Brookings Institute Primaries Project looked at the websites of 554 Republican candidates for the House of Representatives and found only 42 per cent mentioned Trump in a positive light, while 47 per cent made no mention of the president. Only 2 per cent mentioned Trump in a negative manner.

But there are other, countervailing forces at work. A number of well-known and respected conservative figures, including columnists George Will and William Kristol and strategist Steve Schmidt, have denounced Trump and the party. In a recent column, Will, a staunch defender of the conservative movement, urged Americans to vote against the party of Trump, arguing that the number of Republicans in Congress who kowtow to Trump “must be substantially reduced.” “It’s not a cult. A cult implies misguided if sincere worship. This is fear,” he said. “They’re not worshipful, they are invertebrates. They are frightened.”

Will anti-Trump sentiment help drive the November “blue wave” the Democrats are hoping for? The continuing attacks on Obamacare, Medicare and Medicaid, the ongoing gun-control debate, the immigration crisis that Trump and his administration have fomented and the Republican Congress is unable to resolve, and the impact of Trump’s trade wars all generate a tumult that has energised Democrats. This has been reflected by strong turnouts in the primaries so far.

Those who wish to see Trump and his family and associates held to account for collusion, profiteering and ethics violations recognise that this will only happen if the Democrats control the House of Representatives. The opportunity Trump now has to reshape the Supreme Court highlights how important control of the Senate will be.

Generally the midterms deliver a loss to the president’s party and no party has ever gained seats in the House in a first midterm when its president’s approval rating was below 50 per cent. Voter enthusiasm and turnout will be key. Here the “enthusiasm gap” appears to be benefiting Democrats. A Pew poll found 83 per cent of liberals said they were looking forward to the election (up from 59 per cent in 2014 and 48 per cent in 2010) compared with 61 per cent of conservatives (down 13 and 11 points from 2014 and 2010, respectively).

Still there are many unknowns that make predictions tricky. The Democrats have their own leadership problems and already Trump and Republican Party ads are targeting House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. Trump has called Pelosi the Republicans’ “secret weapon” in the midterm elections.

The ads seem to be working: more Republicans have a favourable view of Kim Jong-un than of Pelosi (19 per cent of Republican respondents indicated that they viewed Kim favourably, compared to 17 per cent who said the same about Pelosi). The Washington Post calls this the ultimate statistic of the Trump era — “one in which partisan tribalism and polarisation have become absolutes while truth and morality have become relative.”

Ultimately, there are democratic (small d) solutions to the Trump era. But if, as Thomas Friedman warns, Trump succeeds in his efforts to remake America in his image in the same way that he has remade the Republican Party, then the United States of Trump would loom as a threat to America’s future and the stability of the world. ●

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