Cults of Personality and Where to Find Them
The psychological themes of our devotion to leaders from the 1930s until today.
Posted June 4, 2019 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
A few years ago, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump infamously remarked, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” The statement provoked scoffs and eye-rolls, which, for some, papered over worries that it might be true. One could see Trump’s profession of his invulnerability in the eyes of his base as a claim to cult status, based on his personality.
A mention of ‘Cults of Personality’ calls to mind portraits hung on every available wall and thousands of simultaneous salutes—associations which impart a distinctly old-fashioned tinge to the concept. Insofar as cults of personality are relevant to contemporary politics, they exist at the margins: in North Korea or Turkmenistan, perhaps Iran. However, I think that cults of personality continue to influence politics in even the most democratic of nations, even if the aesthetics have evolved.
My idea stems from a theory called the "devoted actor" hypothesis, recently advanced by Scott Atran and several other researchers. On this view, people are willing to defend religious, political, or moral ideals at great cost, “when such values are embedded in or fused with group identity, becoming intrinsic to ‘Who I am’ and ‘Who We are,’” as Atran writes. Particular ideals are called "sacred values," oft-cited examples of which include the protection of human rights or the environment and control of holy sites. If offered a chance to compromise one of these values for monetary rewards (say, if a developer wanted to buy the Temple Mount), an actor truly devoted to that site would never even consider it.
Alongside objects of obvious import—holy sites and human rights—different groups treat many seemingly mundane things as sacred objects. Hairstyles and flags are sacred in some quarters, as are slogans and symbols. There’s the famous ladder on a ledge of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, unmoved for hundreds of years because of intrafaith disagreements, now an important symbol in itself. As a result of this diversity, sacred values are defined in terms of the behavioral patterns that emerge when people interact with sacred objects, not in terms of content, i.e. what types of objects are in themselves sacred. That is to say, anything can become a sacred value if a community is willing to defend it unconditionally.
If anything can become a sacred value, it follows that a politician or dictator could come to occupy that cognitive place for a group of people. When this occurs, I’d say that person has their very own cult of personality. It surely seems so if their followers are: (1) willing to defend them unconditionally and (2) motivated by allegiance to the individual above party or policies. This understanding could replace (or supplement) traditional historical definitions of the phenomena that emphasize intentional campaigns to elevate the leader of (usually) a single party state, involving governmental apparatuses and media. The psychological perspective can assess the behavioral effects of buying into a cult of personality on both a personal and societal level.
Leaders have employed a variety of methods to build up cults surrounding themselves, with various degrees of success. Trying to transfigure oneself into a sacred object is a difficult and uncertain task; indeed, absent the propagandistic drum-beating of authoritarian states, like the USSR or Yugoslavia, it can happen more or less by accident. Two of the more recent cults of personality that have arisen in America likely surprised even their subjects—Trump’s aforementioned following, but also those who formed a circle surrounding Bernie Sanders. Tellingly, both groups of people adopted semi-ironic monikers around which they could rally.
The “MAGA fans” and “Bernie bros” manifest the same patterns of behavior that Atran finds among those committed to sacred values. For one, they elevate their favored leader, both mentally and by voting and making financial contributions to their campaigns. They also denigrate opposing candidates (not to mention the supporters of those candidates). Secondly, their activity becomes more intense when their candidate’s success was threatened—witness the reaction of Sanders supporters to moves the Democratic party made in Hillary Clinton’s favor. Finally, both sets of supporters display a proclivity for ignoring negative stories, and eventually in Trump’s case, his failures to make good on promises to build a convincing wall or deliver quality healthcare. On a small and interpersonal level, this is the treatment that cult leaders strive for: no questions, no doubts, only unending commitment and respect. Politically, of course, large numbers of energetic and decidedly uncritical followers make life easier.
Importantly, it’s not only the personality who benefits from such a political cult. Their followers find a sense of purpose and belonging; to use Atran’s language, they find answers to the vital questions of ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Who are we?’ Through attending a rally together, or working on an election campaign together, people achieve a sense of working on a common project, of place. The need for these increasingly scarce experiences is not tied to any one political perspective. People can bond at a Trump rally, but so too at a Democratic Socialists of America meeting. Perhaps the crucial aspect of the devoted actor hypothesis is its recognition that people are only bound together in a community through their shared respect for sacred objects. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, then, that politicians sometimes play this role.
There's something strange about idea of cults of personality within democracies. After all, aren’t we supposed to be voting for the candidate who makes the best arguments, who would serve the country best? The unconditional loyalty borne of treating a leader as a sacred object short-circuits the reasonable behavior implicit in idealized visions of democracy. Certainly, a callous politician can use his or her base of devotees to amass power and lessen the backlash from illegal or unethical actions. For this reason, reflexivity about even the leaders one loves the most is called for. At the same time, however, belonging to a community of partisans fulfills the very real need for a sense of belonging. Pursuing a cause greater than oneself brings with it positive emotions and a greater sense of self-worth. Balancing the desire to immerse oneself in a community of like-minded peers and an awareness of the potential for the abuse of collective devotion is a difficult task for even the most erudite politicos.
Atran, S. (2016). The Devoted Actor. Current Anthropology, 57: 13.