All presidential campaigns have some personality cult to them – support from ultra-loyalists for whom the candidate can do no wrong. Not only is the super-loyal personality cult important in getting through the inevitable ups and downs of a long Presidential campaign, but the strength of the cult is an indicator of whether a candidate has the ability to inspire. And, all candidates try to foster at least a bit of cult around them. If you think President Obama has not fostered a cult around himself, then you’re part of the cult.
However, when the personality cult is dominant the candidate has serious trouble. By nature, cults are exclusionary. The more intense the cult, the more exclusionary and the more difficult it is to appeal to a majority. In this campaign, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are polar opposites. While Trump has spent a lifetime building a personality cult, Clinton is a collection of interests.
Three factors count most in the world of personality cults: Infallibility (the leader is never wrong), superiority (the leader is better than the rest) and loyalty (the leader comes first no matter what). Trump has always had a personality-driven brand and instincts for self-promotion that edge into cult territory. It explains decisions that often baffle political observers.
All political candidates hate to admit mistakes, but they normally deal with this problem by stonewalling, spin and changing the subject. Trump does none of this. He never backs off, and vociferously defends all his statements. Confronting him with fact-checking is pointless. In the world of Trump, he is the man with all the answers, to refine, clarity or triangulate would diminish him in the eyes of his followers.
Trump’s infallibility obsession explains why he has had a difficult time with the immigration issue and why he keeps claiming that the election could be stolen. While a hard line on immigration worked well with the Republican primary electorate, it is clear from public polling that such a hard line is a drag for the general election. If Hispanic voter turnout increases and Trump gets shutout, he simply can’t win. Yet, to moderate his position (and admit a mistake) would damage the personality cult. The result is vacillation between doing what is necessary to win and maintaining the personality cult. Trump has not figured out how to solve this problem.
Trump’s “rigged election” claims started quickly after he secured the GOP nomination. The national news narrative had changed from Trump beating his Republican opponents to Trump losing to Clinton in the polls. Since it was undeniable that Trump was behind in the polls, he had to figure out a way to reclaim his infallibility. Saying that any loss would be the result of cheating was a perfect strategy. Trump is never a loser unless his opponent cheats – and then it doesn’t count. As long as there is a risk of losing, he will never drop the rigged election talk. If he does lose, he will forever claim he was robbed – and no margin of defeat or evidence to the contrary will stop him.
But personality cults are not just created by rhetoric, the way Trump campaigns reinforces the idea that he is superior to everyone else. The big rally dominates Trump’s campaign. He is on stage and in the spotlight, with the crowd listening just to him. He is rarely joined by others, even prominent GOP candidates and officeholders (often by mutual consent). Recall that Sarah Palin got only one shot on stage with Trump – there is no room for another diva.
For Trump, the rally supersedes the campaign and that is why he has made such strange geographic decisions. He will go where he can get a big crowd, even if it means going to noncompetitive states. Traditional factory tours, mix-and-mingles are rare – and Trump wouldn’t be caught dead in a bus.
Hand in hand with superiority comes loyalty. In any cult, the leader is supreme and disloyalty is the ultimate sin. Demand for loyalty is why Trump mires himself in intra-party disputes and lashes out at media figures like Joe Scarborough. For Trump, all GOP officials must follow him as their nominee/leader and must subordinate their needs to his. Criticism by (former) friends in the media, like Scarborough, is a betrayal and has to be punished.
That these feuds alienate potential allies and distract from the main goal of winning is beside the point. Trump’s instinct is to punish disloyalty at all costs.
In direct contrast Hillary Clinton is not just the ultimate conventional presidential candidate, her entire campaign is a collection of special interests. Clinton is the consummate political shape-shifter, continuously trying to appeal to anyone and everyone. But her efforts are so transparent, that her untrustworthiness rating rivals Richard Nixon. Without credibility little she says is believable and even refuting charges from her opponents, whether valid or not, has become very difficult.
Clinton does not try to be above the people, but wants to be viewed as one of the people. Yet, she shows no facility for this, unlike Bill Clinton did. Hillary Clinton’s attempts to identify with “regular people” come off as staged and inauthentic.
As for loyalty, what loyalty? Clinton seems to be surrounded by an operation composed of people who see her as a vehicle for their own gain. Chief among them is her own husband. Bill Clinton’s jet-setting and grasping for money may yet sink his wife’s campaign. In the face of controversy and criticism, he won’t even cancel the Clinton Global Initiative extravaganza – which looks to many as one big cash grab.
An even bigger problem for Clinton is that, a campaign built solely on interests is always at conflict. The more interests you have to piece together, the more likely those interests are to be in conflict with one another. Clinton must constantly thread the needle between different groups.
While the unpopularity of both groups is truly remarkable, that unpopularity stems from how one-dimensional Trump and Clinton are. If either party had been able to nominate a more balanced candidate, this election would be a rout by now. Instead, it’s a race to the bottom with an uncertain result.