President Donald Trump loves a good show, especially if he’s the protagonist. He’s the first POTUS to have starred in his own reality television series, and, with President Ronald Reagan (a former actor), arguably the American head of state who has best understood the relationship between visual spectacle and power.
Yet Trump’s need for that spectacle to revolve primarily around him and include displays of admiring attention puts him in a different category. We know he admires authoritarian leaders, but he seems intent on borrowing from their cults of personality as well.
While the term cult of personality may evoke dictators like Adolf Hitler or Kim Jong Un, such cults can flourish in a variety of political contexts, as long as there is a charismatic leader and a coherent media strategy.
In democracies, it helps if those seeking power are already known to the public, perhaps through a personal brand or success in an outside endeavor (this is the case with Trump and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi). Their notoriety helps them forge bonds with their followers based on admiration for and loyalty to the leader. Once in office, they work the media so they are always the center of attention as they try to consolidate their power and make the public office they hold adapt to their private agendas and circumstances.
Staging occasions for their public adulation and then prolonging the coverage through disruptive or outrageous “post-game” commentary is part of that strategy, as are attacks on the press over how they covered the leader’s spectacles (the short answer is: always too critically, and never enough). Thus every event lives on for multiple news cycles — and the next one is always on the horizon.
Their need for ego satisfaction and their use of provocative statements means ordinary leader events like press conferences, dealing with opposition politicians, or receiving other heads of state can quickly become the outrage or entertainment du jour. With Trump, Americans, too, are experiencing politics in this key.
It’s not surprising that the leader Trump most fawns over — Vladimir Putin — has perhaps the most effective personality cult today outside those of one-party states such as North Korea. Putin has the advantage of building on Russian expertise in leader glorification; the Soviets pioneered the cult of personality almost 100 years ago.
The calendar that’s released by the Russian popular newspaper Zvezdi I Soveti, in which he appears shirtless, is just one small part of his persona as a leader who combines the self-discipline of the communist era with the glamour of the capitalist oligarch. In his frequent and highly staged public appearances, Putin plays the everyman who’s also everything a man should be — who also knows what the people want before they do, from buying the Putin-inspired “Leaders One” cologne to invading Crimea.
Trump’s need for public adulation has turned traditional American presidential rituals such as the State of the Union address into media circuses that prolong the event, drawing more attention to his person. Unhappy that the political opposition — Democrats — did not clap for him enough during his SOTU speech (he filled the void by clapping for himself) he told a crowd in Cincinnati that Democrats were “un-American,” and “treasonous.” Democrats pushed back at his authoritarian manner. “We don’t live in a dictatorship,” retorted Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois.
Now Trump’s desire to have a bang-up military parade on the model of the one he witnessed in Paris on Bastille Day during his state visit to France last July dominates the news.
It was amusing to see him so enthused about Bastille Day, which celebrates the storming of a building used as a political prison and armory during the French Revolution: It honors the kind of popular liberation struggles against tyranny Trump does not sympathize with. But Trump’s delight likely came from the display of military might and the prestige and photo opportunities it afforded to Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron, who presided over cheering crowds. Ever since, he’s pressed his Cabinet to have the opportunity to stage similar American pageantry.
The American military community’s flatly negative response to this idea hopefully means this particular Trump fantasy won’t be fulfilled anytime soon.
When retired Gen. Mark Hertling, a CNN military analyst, asked his military colleagues on Twitter “Who likes parades?” he received many responses. This one by an Army man sums up the prevailing sentiment more politely than some: “I didn’t serve to bask in glory, be held high on a pedestal for display, or as a showpiece for any leader’s narcissistic tendencies — I served for the defense and common good of my country, and to make my existence on Earth worthwhile. No parade necessary or desired.”
As a historian who predicted before the inauguration that Trump would follow an authoritarian playbook in governing America, I’m heartened that Trump’s attempts at self-glorification are increasingly bringing out good old-fashioned American common sense. Unlike the Bastille Day parade, the one Trump envisions seems disconnected to any holiday of significance, which lays bare its true function: to build Trump’s personality cult.
Americans are showing they don’t want authoritarian spectacles. Let’s hope this translates into electoral wins in 2018 that put candidates of both parties in place who will push back against the assault on our democracy — and an American media strategy that reports the news without becoming part of Trump’s game.