On the NPR program “On Point” this morning, the excellent commentator Jack Beatty offered an apology and retraction. On an earlier program, apparently, Beatty had referred to the Trump following using the word “cult.” Some had protested, saying that it was just a derogatory term for putting down people Beatty disagreed with. Beatty yielded to that protest.
Not knowing (or being able to locate via Google) what was the context of Beatty’s original comment, or how broad a brush he was using, I can’t judge if any sort of retraction was called for. Surely, not all of Trump’s supporters should be understood as part of a cult with Trump as the cult leader.
But some of this week’s primary results provide suggestive evidence that — at least for a significant piece of the Republican base — a cultish devotion to the Leader is all that matters.
At least, that’s my interpretation of a bit of evidence from this week’s primary results.
I’m referring to the punishment that a cadre of Republican primary voters dished out to several Republican candidates for their sin of having pronounced a negative judgment on Trump when the Hollywood Access tape was released, showing Trump boasting about sexually assaulting women.
The most prominent example of this is Congresswoman Martha Roby of Alabama. A four-term incumbent, Rep. Roby nonetheless failed to get even close to the 50% of the Republican primary vote required to avoid a run-off. Her getting only 39% of the vote has been universally interpreted as demonstrating that some of the Republican base was punishing her for her saying, after the Access Hollywood tape went public: “I cannot look my children in the eye and justify a vote for a man who promotes and boasts about sexually assaulting women.”
Now, it’s easy enough to imagine that some who feel supportive of Trump would have thought that the reasons for supporting him outweighed their repugnance at Trump’s behavior that violated some fundamental conservative moral principles. One can also imagine there are Trump supporters who never really cared about sexual morality.
But there’s something striking about there being a cadre of Trump supporters who cannot forgive — even after two years — a conservative Republican congresswoman who criticized Trump on the basis of long-established conservative (and likely Christian) moral values.
Here’s where I take a leap to an intuitive conclusion.
What I intuit about these unforgiving Republican primary voters is this: for them, support for Trump is not just the most important thing, it is the only thing. Anything against Trump is necessarily bad, unforgiveable. Loyalty and devotion to Trump defines the good.
We’ve seen other instances of this kind of utter collapse of all other values into the whole-hearted exaltation of the Beloved Leader, or der Fuehrer, in other nations. (We’ve not seen much of this kind of relationship between leaders and their supporters in America.) Such fusion of the followers in subordination to the words and will and person of the leader is often called a “cult of personality.”
So, on the basis of such a reading of what at least a number of Alabama voters expressed in their votes in the Republican primary this week, had I been in Jack Beatty’s position, I would have dealt with the protests differently.
Within the whole picture of Trump’s following, I would have said, there is evidence that at least an important part of that has the properties of a cult. And it is a kind of cult — so thoroughly subservient to the leader’s will, so completely identified with his dominance — that history has shown quite clearly is unhealthy for the followers, and dangerous to the nation in which that leader wields great power.