Over the weekend, Donald Trump, as he is wont to do, made some news. While extolling the loyalty of his supporters, he mused, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
He then blasted the “soft” support for other Republican contenders. “My people stay,” he said.
This suggestion — that Trump thinks his supporters are so committed they’d willingly overlook a murder and vote for him — earned the predictable condemnation from the predictable places. (And Trump told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in an interview, “of course I was joking.”)
Yes, it was a shocking thing to say. Yes, it was an insult to his voters. But it’s probably also true — or close to it.
While we’ve all been busy grappling with how successfully Trump has mounted a political campaign — proof of which we won’t actually have until the first caucus and primary votes are counted — we’ve missed that Trump has actually mounted a successful cult of sorts. The presidential campaign is merely an organizing platform.
While we can hope Trump supporters are good but misguided people who wouldn’t, in fact, maintain affection for a murderer, they’ve shown a remarkable willingness to ignore all sorts of other moral, political and personal betrayals.
How, for example, do self-professed conservatives and patriots stand for their candidate questioning the heroism of a war prisoner? How do self-described evangelicals accept a candidate who is scripturally illiterate? How do people who list terrorism as their No. 1 concern trust a man who says he gets his foreign policy from watching “the shows”?
And lest you think this is the first time Trump has openly insulted voters, it isn’t. “How stupid are the people of Iowa?” he blurted at a rally — in Iowa — last year, for their unforgivable interest in Dr. Ben Carson. He promptly surged in the polls there.
Certainly, there’s nothing newsworthy about powerful and successful celebrities believing their own hype. John Lennon faced a backlash for suggesting the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. I once worked with a political personality who told me, with total seriousness, that if he built a town, people would move to it. He, too, was probably right.
You might hear that and think, someone tried that once, and it was called Jonestown. But not all cults end in suicide pacts or tales of daring escape. Some survive relatively unbothered by the rest of society.
Some gain annoying levels of ubiquity, their member-apostles lurking around every corner to insist you experience their “life-changing” awakening. Yes, I’m talking to you, SoulCycle and CrossFit. Just let me atrophy in peace!
Others still thrive and blossom into mainstream religions and mass political movements. Surely Jesus and his followers were called a cult at the time. As were Marxists.
Now, Trump is neither Jim Jones nor Josef Stalin. But to ignore his cultish appeal would be to discount his entire raison d’etre.
His line about shooting someone and not losing voters prompted me to revisit Eric Hoffer’s seminal 1951 work, “The True Believer,” which I find startlingly relevant every four years for one reason or another. It chronicles the history of mass movements and identifies the conditions that make a successful uprising possible. Consider the following from Hoffer, 65 years ago:
“The effectiveness of a doctrine does not come from its meaning but from its certitude. … It is obvious, therefore, that in order to be effective, a doctrine must not be understood, but has rather to be believed in. We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand.”
Trump’s potency is derived neither from knowledge nor nuance. His followers aren’t interested in how he will get Mexico to pay for a wall, nor are they bothered that he’s clearly never pondered our nuclear triad. When he says he’ll figure it out and that it will be the best ever, the certitude is sufficient, just vague enough to be possible, simultaneously reinforcing his omnipotence and their faith.
“The preaching of all mass movements bristles with admonitions against copying foreign models. … The imitation of outsiders is branded as treason and apostasy. […] Every device is used to cut off the faithful from intercourse with unbelievers.”
When Trump tweets at his opponents and detractors that “X” person or news outlet is “talentless” or “going out of business soon” or “dumb as a rock,” it’s not a message for the masses. It’s a message to his loyalists to say these people are unbelievers and not to be trusted.
“[When] the leader can exact blind obedience, he can operate on the sound theory that all men are cowards, treat them accordingly and get results.”
Trump’s opinion of his own supporters — that they are loyal to a fault — is a direct result of their own behavior, forgiving his every sin and turning a blind eye to his every flaw and ill-conceived idea. With every terrible proposal or offensive outburst, he is effectively testing their allegiance. In contrast, we don’t know how loyal the other candidates’ supporters are — on the left or the right — because no other candidate has wanted to risk his or her viability to see.
But here is Trump’s key strength:
“The leader personifies the certitude of the creed and the defiance and grandeur of power. He articulates and justifies the resentment dammed up in the souls of the frustrated. He kindles the vision of a breathtaking future so as to justify the sacrifice of a transitory present. … He evokes the enthusiasm of communion — the sense of liberation from a petty and meaningless individual existence.”
It’s not enough to just say that Americans are angry, and thus Trumpism. Every candidate, from Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton to Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush, has tried to tap into the anger of the electorate.
The difference is that Trump has turned that anger into an exclusive, cultish club that promises to have the panacea. Membership requires unflinching and blind devotion, not to mention the total surrender of skepticism and knowing better. But with that comes the exhilarating feeling of community and the prospect of a more perfect future.
Unlike the religious cult members who stay even when their leader’s predicted end of the world hour comes and goes, Trump followers won’t learn whether his political eschatology is right or wrong, possible or impossible, unless he actually becomes president. Which, for the rest of us, feels pretty apocalyptic.