Considering Cults in Context

Throughout history, several authoritarian and totalitarian governments solidified the power of their leaders by developing what is called a “cult of personality.” A cult of personality can be described as a collective positive perception of a political figure that’s built out of unwavering praise and propaganda in that figure’s favor. They are grounded in fanfare instead of facts and often push the idea of the figure being superhuman, larger than life, and impervious to all forms of criticism. Though cults of personality begin with the politicians or political structures themselves, they’re kept alive by the obsequious vigor of the people that their propaganda reaches. Historic world leaders like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong all owed their ascensions to prominent cults of personality that insisted that they and only they were capable of responsibly leading their respective countries.

Modern Cults of Personality

Though the term is usually used in the context of authoritarian and totalitarian politics, the social mechanics of cults of personality can be found elsewhere. Numerous commentators have suggested that the democratically decided presidency of Donald Trump was hinged on a self-made cult of personality that cast him as the last remaining defender of the American way. Even after his four years in office, many of his supporters hold fast to the notion that his political opponents, most regularly the current president Joe Biden, are plunging the nation into chaos that only Trump could’ve prevented. The same can be said of some ideologically aligned conservative politicians like Florida governor and presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis. His 2022 reelection campaign featured an ad saying that after creating the world in six days and resting on the seventh day, God made him on the eighth.

Outside of the political sphere, the same social mechanics can surround celebrities should their fans choose to create them. In a manner of speaking, it could be said that while political cults of personality begin with the personality, celebrity cults of personality begin with the cult. Without the influence of propaganda or superhuman analogies, disgraced popular figures like R. Kelly and Bill Cosby have been able to maintain loyal fanbases that steadfastly believe that the subjects of their admiration are either innocent or misunderstood. A recent example is the cult of personality surrounding social media influencer Andrew Tate, who built a large online following of mostly young men and teenage boys by peddling a misogynistic personal philosophy that he packages as self-help. Despite being the subject of multiple rape allegations and an arrest and ongoing investigation that could see him being charged for human trafficking and organized crime, Tate’s supporters remain as vocal as ever.

The Risks We Run

Cults of personality, like all types of cults, thrive by conditioning their members to fashion their own thoughts, opinions, and actions after those of another. They vilify free thinking and reward conformity. This mechanic is at once their most foundational and most dangerous aspect. Both recent and distant history has shown that in the absence of ideological independence, qualification becomes optional, and moral bankruptcy becomes a matter of opinion. Simply put, there is no limit to the harm that can be done in such conditions, and that is why single-minded thought mills of all varieties must be avoided at all costs. When they cannot be avoided, they must be fought, for we are sure to reap the consequences if they’re left unaddressed.

We are nothing without our right to judge things for ourselves, yet so many of us willingly abandon this innate ability to play marionette to the judgment of another’s strings. It’s at least understandable to fall in line with the dominant ideology, say, under authoritarian rule, where the failure to conform could mean bodily harm, imprisonment, or even death. But it costs nothing to think outside of Donald Trump’s, Andrew Tate’s, or other similarly bilious boxes. To think inside of them, though, can cost you infinitely more than your credibility or morals—it can cost you yourself.

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