This post is prompted by Frank Rich’s article in this week’s New York Magazine, “What Will Happen to the Trump Toadies?” * Rich doesn’t know how to be a bad pundit or poor writer, so I recommend the piece without reservation. (Link below.) I do, however, paradoxically perhaps, take strong exception to his fundamental assumption: “Trump’s Republican Party is nothing if not a cult.”
First, let’s consider the word – cult. A cult is a “system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.” More broadly cult members share a “misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person,” such as in, for example, when the phrase “cult of personality” is associated with a certain leader.
Second, let’s consider who composes “Trump’s Republican Party.” Common sense dictates that there is not a single, monolithic Republican Party in which every member is a clone of every other. Rather the Republican Party consists of all sorts of people, some of whom are, no doubt, true believers – cult members. But others of whom toe the Party line not because they are diehards, but rather for transactional reasons. They figure that if they give something, especially their unswerving support, they’ll get something in return, one or another favor or reward.
Third, let’s consider who specifically Rich targets in his piece. Curiously, he concentrates not on those who genuinely seem cult members, but on those who seem not. Rich focuses on those who regularly and reliably fall into line for one of two reasons. Either they support President Donald Trump on ideological grounds – they believe in what he does and who he appoints to, for example, lifetime judicial appointments; or they support the president on professional grounds – they are careerists concerned that if they fail to fall into line they will be out of a job, whether appointed or elected. Names mentioned by Rich include those still around, such as Mike Pompeo, William Barr, and Mitch McConnell, and those long gone, such as Gary Cohn, Rex Tillerson, and Paul Ryan. While each of these men have had their reasons for following where Trump led, to all appearances these reasons have not included deep personal devotion or excessive professional admiration.
Contrast Trump’s close associates with those at greater remove: with members of the Republican Party who seem genuinely seized by what they experience as Trump’s charisma. I refer of course to true believers – most strikingly and stridently people such as those who show up at the president’s rallies to cheer his every word, no matter how outrageous an assault on decency or even on the truth. Those who to this day can be found hooting and hollering at the phantom of Hillary Clinton, “Lock her up! Lock her up!”
You looking for cult members? These are cult members – ordinary people. Americans like you and me who, for whatever their various reasons, are enthralled, literally, with a man described by Rich as presiding over a time when “truth and shame are on life support.”
All followers are not the same. They never are. In this case cult members are not the Republicans Rich names in his article. They are however the Republicans he does not.