History books are replete with cults of personality. Mao Zedong, Eva Peron, Charles DeGaulle, even Vladimir Putin. In Georgia, Gene Talmadge had one going back in the day.
But modern Georgians have had no chance to glimpse one – until Sunday, when Donald Trump came to Atlanta and the Georgia World Congress Center, one day after his victory in the South Carolina presidential primary.
What is a cult of personality? You can find variations, but one good definition is when a figure, usually political but sometimes religious, overshadows the movement he or she represents. Remove the personality and the movement disappears. What is Trumpism without Donald Trump? That’s hard to say, which is precisely the point.
All revolves around the leader. You might have thought that Sunday’s rally of Trump supporters was a public event. Not so. All in the very large room were invited guests, who could be just as easily disinvited. As was made clear when a disembodied announcer explained how to deal with demonstrators.
“This is a private event paid for by Mr. Trump. We have provided a safe protest area outside the venue for all protests. If a protester is demonstrating in the area around you, please do not touch or harm the protester.”
If non-believers were encountered, members of the standing crowd (there are only a few seats) were advised to “Please hold a rally sign over your head and start shouting ‘Trump, Trump, Trump!” until law enforcement arrives.
Writing about a Donald Trump speech is like trying to describe the whiplash that comes with a roller coaster ride. Ninety-degree turns in the middle of a dependent clause, trains of thoughts that dart into tunnels and never return. One can only hope to grab the tail of one thought, and hang on. One crowd-pleaser was a long paean to winning:
‘Our country does not win any more. We don’t win against ISIS. We don’t win with health care….We don’t win at the border with Mexico. We don’t win anywhere. But we’re gonna win. Oh, are we gonna win. You’ll get so tired of winning, you’re gonna get so tired, you’re going to say, ‘Please, please, Mr. President, we can’t stand it anymore. We don’t want to keep winning. We can’t stand it.’ And I’m going to say, ‘I don’t care, we’re going to keep winning, we’re going to make America great again.’”
But the point of cults of personality is to empower followers, by permitting them to imagine that their success can be channeled and accomplished through a single human being other than themselves. A beautiful example jumped up during one of many, many Trump tirades against illegal immigration. In the middle of a sentence, the bright lights focused on the podium blinked off. A spokewoman for the GWCC blamed protesters.
“They didn’t pay the electric bill,” Trump quickly quipped. The glaring head beams aren’t there for the candidate. They are there for the TV cameras, and for the many smart phone videos in so many hands. But again, it was the candidate who counted here.
“Oh, I like that much better,” Trump decided. “Oh, that’s so much better. Those lights were brutal. They come from the dishonest press. Don’t turn the lights on. Plus, we save on electricity, right? And because the lights didn’t work, I won’t pay the rent. So we get better lighting, and we don’t pay the rent, right?”
GWCC officialdom had begun hustling as soon as the lights blinked off. And quickly the lights came on.
“No! Get those lights off. Off! They’re too bright. Turn ‘em off!” Trump shouted. And then he brought the crowd in. “Let’s go, ready? Turn off the lights! Turn off the lights! Turn off the lights!”
The crowd joined in. And the fellow at the light board surrendered. He flicked the lights off. Trump and the crowd had joined together and accomplished something.
“That’s the way we have to negotiate for our country,” the candidate said.