Trump, Obama & the Cult of Personality

I recoil when politics becomes too much about The Leader. Mussolini, Kennedy (yes, Kennedy!), those Obama posters, and now Donald. Yuck.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

As an introspective person, I’m curious as to why Donald Trump doesn’t appeal to me. Could it be that I’ve never seen an episode of The Apprentice? Possibly. But I suspect it’s because I’m reflexively opposed to even a hint of authoritarianism---which is, perhaps, the defining feature of Trump fans.

Before you think I’m unfairly criticizing Trump, I called out then-candidate Barack Obama for his 2008 campaign’s fascistic tendencies here and here.

And here’s something I wrote specifically about his propaganda posters. when I worked at back in 2008:

“You know those Obama posters? They scare me.

“Other countries love posters with people’s faces on them. They parade them around at rallies and marches. It smacks of fascism. That’s not our style. Give me a good ol’ sign with someone’s name on it, any day, but the pictures of faces ... I can do without.

“Another thing about it. It’s unabashedly the cult of personality (like Mussolini and Kennedy). It’s the epitome of symbolism over substance. It’s the kind of stuff that punk-ass kids would put on a tee-shirt ...”

(Later the guy who created the Obama iconography admitted that he designed the image specifically to give Obama “gravitas.”)

Trump is, in many ways, the right-wing overreaction to Obama. Rather than scaling back Obama’s executive overreach, there’s a sense he would use the presidency to get our things make the trains run on time.

I can think of a couple of very prominent Trump supporters who backed Obama in 2008—Matt Boyle of Breitbart, and Trump spox Katrina Pierson. This makes more sense than you think; these are the Kool-Aid drinkers. Not me. Hell, I don’t even go to most of the “team building” events for companies that pay me money.

Some of this, I suspect, has to do with my wiring. I am hypersensitive to anything that smacks of authoritarianism. But I also think some of it is learned.

I took a psychology class in high school where the teacher performed an experiment on us that essentially demonstrated that most humans are vulnerable to manipulation.

My teacher’s hoax was based on a 1967 experiment that a teacher really conducted on his students, known as The Wave. As the Telegraph reported, “It is the ultimate classroom mind-game. A charismatic teacher suddenly introduces strict discipline into his lessons and, far from rebelling, the students embrace it with gusto. Within a week, they have devised a uniform, insignia, salute and banners, and eagerly spy on and intimidate schoolmates. The movement swells to more than 200 members who, on the last day, flock to a rally.

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“The Wave is about fun and creating a community and I believe that’s still appealing. There is a strong urge today for a big idea that is bigger than yourself. Not necessarily fascism; it could be, say, the Green movement.”

There was even a cheesy 1980s Afterschool Special about The Wave.

In the case of the experiment I was involved in, our teacher had us patrol the halls to monitor and report incidents of public displays of affection being perpetrated by underclassmen (we were juniors and seniors). He later introduced a name (I think it was “sex patrol”) and other symbolism. Eventually the experiment had to be shut down after some of the class members began getting rough on the offenders. Our principal (as I recall) made our teacher pull the plug before things got out of hand.

How did I respond? I wish I could tell you a nobler story. I didn’t get swept up in it, but I didn’t stand up to it, either. Only my late friend Chad had the courage to publicly call it “bullshit” at the time. The rest of us were either active participants or complicit in our silence.

Our activity was, after all, sanctioned by an authority figure. What is more, I was just going with the flow—just a face in the crowd—just one anonymous member in the mob.

When I see how the crowd responds to Trump at his rallies, I keep thinking of The Wave. And trust me, the thought isn’t comforting.