Even if he loses another election, Trump's fans aren't going anywhere

The former president has built a following that will continue to shape US politics for a long time to come

Donald Trump continues to command a strong lead in Republican party polls. Bloomberg
Powered by automated translation

Much has already been written regarding the indictments against former US president Donald Trump. The crimes he is alleged to have committed have been examined. And his defence that his prosecution is a partisan political attack to derail his candidacy has been thoroughly critiqued. The story, however, is bigger because, in a real sense, Americans are not just dealing with the law, justice or even reason. Instead, what is playing out is the radical transformation of a substantial component of the American electorate into a cult-like movement in the thrall of Mr Trump.

There was a time when the Republican Party was a centre-right group that prided itself on the simple conservative philosophy of rule of law, individual freedom, fewer taxes and small government. But over the past six decades, a vocal part of that party morphed into a largely intolerant, xenophobic, pseudo-populist movement that deepened political divisions and exploited the fears, insecurities and resentments of Americans shaken by the economic, political and cultural changes occurring in the US.

While these factors laid the kindling, what provided the spark that ignited the flames of social unrest were the sudden economic collapse of 2008 and that year’s election of Barack Obama as president. Mr Obama had inspired much of the electorate with a message of hope and a vision of an inclusive America that brought together a substantial coalition led by young voters, women, minorities and a number of recent immigrant communities.

Within months of Mr Obama’s decisive victory, Republicans launched a cultural counterattack that preyed on the resentments of voters who felt left behind. The party effort took two forms: the “birther movement” – suggesting Mr Obama was not born in the US and therefore was an illegitimate president – and the Tea Party’s railing against “big government” as responsible for the economic woes and social tensions confronting middle-class white Americans. The political revolution generated by these two movements laid the predicate for Mr Trump’s ascent to power in 2016.

We can debate the charges against Trump, but what must not be ignored is his hold over the Republican Party

Mr Trump was never a conservative Republican, in the traditional sense, and therefore can’t be understood by his political philosophy. He has been called a showman whose popularity was due to his celebrity status. But he’s more than that. He fits the classic definition of a cult leader who has been successful in convincing a sizable minority of the electorate that he alone understands them and can save them, in the way a cult leader often might.

The leaders of cults and other fanatical movements throughout history share many characteristics. They are narcissists who seek the limelight. They never avoid conflict, but rather seek it out as it places them at the centre of attention. They project success and power, never admitting failure, error or wrongdoing, and use humour to ridicule and demean their opponents. They are charismatic and persuasive, convincing their followers that they alone know their fears and insecurities, and they alone can address them. At the same time, by creating this identification with their followers, they convince the faithful that those who oppose them or seek to bring them down are not just the leader’s enemy, but their enemy as well. The vision of success they project is “if I win, you win, and all will be well in the future, but if I lose, you lose, and we’ll all be doomed”.

This was the essence of Mr Trump’s address to the Republican Convention in 2016. He drew a dark and foreboding portrait of America and painted himself as the only one who could lead America “back to greatness”.

During the campaign and the years that followed, Mr Trump further developed these themes and, as his hold over his followers grew, he not only sought to deepen this identification with his base, but also successfully established their shared enemies: Democrats, Republicans who opposed him, the press, the courts, the “deep state” and those who supported foreigners who were, in his words, “ruining America”.

When the reality he sought to create was undermined by facts, he posited “alternate facts”. And his followers believed them.

What is playing out in response to the recently unsealed indictments is more of the same. His words and his supporters’ raucous cheers illustrate what is so worrisome about this situation in which we find ourselves.

For example, in his remarks to the Georgia Republican Convention, less than a day after the indictments were released, Mr Trump painted the following picture. Maintaining that the 2020 election was stolen, he portrayed the indictments as just another form of “election interference”. It was a “witch hunt” and an abuse of power by Democrats who were using the courts to undermine his electoral chances in 2024. “Biden,” he said, “is trying to jail his leading opponent … just like they do in Stalinist Russia and Communist China.”

Mr Trump went to great lengths to defend himself and minimise the charges levelled against him, saying that his alleged misdeeds paled in comparison to those of his former opponents, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. He insisted that the indictments were all based on politics.

His list of enemies grew to include: Marxists, law enforcement agencies in the control of Democrats, Republicans who opposed him, “elites” in the media, and the “sick political class that hates our country” who were defending the “corrupt system” that he was determined to smash.

In remarks following his first court appearance, he made the following claim to a cheering crowd:

“If the communists get away with this, it won't stop with me. They will not hesitate to ramp up their persecution of Christians, pro-life activists, parents attending school board meetings, and even future Republican candidates ... They want to take away my freedom because I will never let them take away your freedom. They want to silence me because I will never let them silence you and I am the only one who can save this nation because you know they’re not coming after me, they’re coming after you.”

We can debate the charges against Mr Trump and the validity of his claims of persecution, but what must not be ignored is his hold over a substantial portion of the Republican Party. Despite the indictments, endorsements by Republican elected officials continue to roll in. He is their cult leader, and they are afraid to go against his large following.

While the legal process runs its course, no one should expect that a conviction will spell the end of Donald Trump or his following. If he wins, his followers will feel vindicated. In the likely event that he loses, large numbers of his supporters will feel as victimised, threatened and ripe for revolt as they were on January 6, 2021. This phenomenon has been decades in the making and won’t be ended by an election defeat or a conviction. Attention, therefore, must be paid to the root causes that gave rise to it – and they must addressed in order to restore sanity to American political life.

Published: June 21, 2023, 2:00 PM