The Unconservatism of Personality Cults

Greg Weiner is Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Assumption University. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is regular contributor for The Constitutionalist.

Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, records that a local tyrant, Periander of Corinth, began his rule in the seventh century B.C. mildly but quickly grew brutal. The reason, Herodotus explains, is that Periander sent a messenger to another despot, Thrasybulus of Miletus, to seek counsel on maintaining his power. Thrasybulus provided none explicitly. Instead, he walked the messenger through a cornfield, scything any ear that rose above the rest. Periander grasped the metaphor: To establish power, eliminate any citizens who stand out and ensure the only tie of social dependence runs directly from the people to the ruler.

Donald Trump did not know Thrasybulus. One doubts he has read Herodotus. But his assault on any dissenting Republican—including, most recently, denying Republican fundraising committees use of his likeness because they support candidates insufficiently loyal to him—would be recognizable to them both.

The danger dissenting Republicans—who run the gamut from Mitch McConnell, who voted to acquit Trump, to House members who voted in favor of impeachment—pose is not simply that they dare to question Trump. It is that they represent any alternative source of influence at all. The attack shows why the personality cult surrounding Trump—which ensures he is the only object of his supporters’ adoration—is central to his power. But it equally shows why Republicans’ obsession with the former president’s personality is profoundly at odds with the conservatism they profess.

The root of conservatism is “conserve”: Its fundamental commitment is to preserve what T.S. Eliot famously called “the permanent things.” A politics based on one leader, especially one as mercurial as the former president, is necessarily transient. The extraordinary extent to which leading Republicans openly link the party to Trump personally rather than to principles he claims to espouse forebodes instability, not conservation. “President Trump is the most consequential Republican in the party,” Senator Lindsey Graham, the former president’s acolyte, recently declared. “If Mitch McConnell doesn’t understand that, he’s missing a lot.” Trump advisor Jason Miller similarly proclaimed that “Trump effectively is the Republican Party.”

Those are strikingly unconservative formulations that reveals the extent to which Trump—not the ideas, but the man—has distorted the gravitational field of American politics. Graham did not say Trump’s ideas were consequential, only that he was. That is also the apparent basis for Graham’s otherwise inexplicable claim that Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, who has no background in politics but may run for the Senate in North Carolina, is “the future of the Republican Party.” That grandiose assertion makes sense only on the basis of her surname.

The suggestion is that the former president—who Graham also said “own[s] the Republican Party”—is indispensable not because he espouses conservative principles but rather because he is personally adored. On that footing, what can endure? Asked another way: If Trump changed his principles tomorrow, would Republicans change theirs?

For many—and for Democrats as well—the answer is apparently “yes.” Longstanding partisan stances on issues like free trade, concern about Russia and global American leadership reversed themselves with stunning speed at almost exactly the moment Trump established his influence. Republicans and Democrats simply flipped, nearly overnight.

A change of mind is not in itself problematic, nor, intrinsically, are Trump’s views on these issues. Enduring ideas must adapt themselves to changing circumstances, and reasonable people should be open to persuasion. What is remarkable about the reversals is their suddenness and scope. They indicated a massive and rapid political transformation that swept up Republicans and Democrats alike, with no apparent basis other than affinity or antipathy for Donald Trump.

Yet because conservatism is rooted in what endures, it prefers the slow over the sudden. Edmund Burke explained that gradual evolution enabled political communities to absorb both wisdom and experience over time. “By a slow, but well-sustained progress,” Burke wrote of political reform, “the effect of each step is watched; the good or ill success of the first gives light to us in the second; and so, from light to light, we are conducted with safety through the whole series.”

The alternative is faith in the reason of any individual at any moment. Yet conservatism has traditionally prized humility about such matters, instead emphasizing the wisdom of generations whose principles have been tested against and adapted to the circumstances they have encountered. A cult of personality elevates a single leader instead—a disposition better suited to the progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which sought to rearrange society on the basis of a scientific approach to politics. This adoration of one personality cloaks itself in populist egalitarianism by making all individuals equally dependent on the leader.

Aristotle noted that democracy and tyranny were both rooted in radical egalitarianism because neither could tolerate differences, or even trust, between people. The demagogue’s power is rooted in direct dependence of the people, with no intermediary links in between. The result is a necessarily shallow form of connection rather than face-to-face relationships that, as Alexis de Tocqueville emphasized, conferred real meaning but also imposed real obligations. “Sentiments and ideas renew themselves, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed,” Tocqueville wrote, “only by the reciprocal action of men upon one another.”

Dependence on one leader—whether economically or simply for emotional and political validation—destroys the bonds of community that meaningfully connect individuals to a larger society while conserving its customs. Burke called these the “little platoons” of social life. But emphasizing the single leader requires nothing of citizens but passive lionization of their protector and leader. This is not the reciprocal human interaction of which Tocqueville wrote. It is a shallow, anonymous and one-way relationship.

Such dependency is a source not only of immense instability but also of immense power—usually a source of conservative angst as well. As the imperial presidency rose in the 20th century, conservatives like the political theorist and public intellectual James Burnham emphasized the primacy of legislative over executive authority because Congress was more prone to deliberation, gradualism and the diffusion of authority.

Moreover, the presidency of the American regime is not designed to bear this much weight. As Douglass Adair showed, the founders sought to harness fame as a motive for good political behavior. Federalist 72 refers to “the love of fame” as “the ruling passion of the noblest minds.” John Adams believed “the passion for distinction” was so strong that people would rather be remembered as villains than not be remembered at all. Consequently, Adams wrote, a regime had to arrange honors in such a way as to encourage a healthy fame. In his Lyceum Address, Lincoln made a similar point: “Towering genius distains a beaten path. … It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.” Personality cults operate on a destructive confusion of fame with notoriety. Their leaders are less interested in generational fame than in being personally, and immediately, adored. Yet the Democrats are not immune to personality cults. Their infatuation with Barack Obama is a recent example, and their own sudden reversals show that, even in their aversion, they are willing to orbit around the Trump personality as well. But Democrats do not present themselves as the institutional embodiment of American conservatism. They have at least the virtue of consistency, since a single personality can more readily drive the rapid progress they seek.

By contrast, as long as Republicans’ principles—even their sense of personal worth—are subordinated to one man, they are not entitled to assert their conservatism. If Donald Trump best embodies their principles, Republicans should make that case. But they will have to disenthrall themselves from the cult of personality to do it. A genuine conservatism would argue that one leader is only a momentary advocate for enduring ideas. From an electoral perspective, subordinating the principles to the person may be savvy. But there is no point of view from which it can be called conservative.

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