Cults of Personality past and present
Past and present leaders inspire and mobilize large populations, playing a role in history and what becomes of modern-day society. The cult of personality, also known as personality cult, influences the public to have a specific attitude about a leader and the government, no matter how corrupt and unscrupulous they may be. Like a cult, leaders of personality cults are regarded with awe due to their charismatic and unpredictable nature and personality.
Political leaders strengthen their cult of personality through the use of “media, lies, spectacles, speeches, patriotism, and event arts and demonstrations” to formulate an ideal image of themselves. They target the entire population by using mass media methods and propaganda to promote their messaging. Along with inventing a glorified image, a cult of personality is also used to assert control by manipulating the public’s attention so that it’s continually focused on them. Those captivated by this performance the most are often people who are experiencing pain or trauma. This is because when someone has experienced some kind of loss, they are more susceptible to friendly people who are offering community. Two-thirds of cult members are recruited by a friend, a family member or a co-worker ;someone whose invitation is hard to refuse. Unconditional loyalty is destined to sprout.
The “devoted actor” hypothesis stems from this, depicting individuals who are willing to go to extreme lengths to defend their values, morals and beliefs, especially if it’s part of a group identity. If a leader embodies those beliefs and values, they can manipulate and weaponize the conviction of the “devoted actors” to garner support and devotion for personal gain. Cult leaders will discredit and criticize any who disagree with those beliefs. As a result, their actions are viewed as patriotic and faithful to the belief system that’s most valued within the personality cult.
Cult of personality characteristics can be seen in totalitarian societies throughout history. When Joseph Stalin took power of the Union Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) in 1929, after the death of Vladimir Lenin, Stalin portrayed himself to be an extension of Lenin’s legacy. Casting himself in an untouchable position, he claimed absolute power and the inability to be wrong when Russia’s society was struggling due to the Russian Revolution. He swiftly exercised and asserted his dominance as Russia’s dictator by launching a five-year plan that aimed to transform the Soviet Union from a “peasant society into an industrial superpower.” Stalin also executed, exiled or sent potential enemies to the Gulag system during the “Great Purge” or “Great Terror.”
Ruling by fear, Stalin’s cult of personality utilized propaganda to influence the masses and create an imagined community by idolizing him. At the time, the propaganda, films and music showed a calm and joyous world that was at odds with reality. These instruments modeled the ideal image of Stalin, and encouraged the masses to pursue the collective goals of the Bolshevik vanguard.
Along with propaganda, Russian musicians, poets, writers and painters contributed to Stalin’s cult of personality by showing admiration for him through their work. The word “Father” was used in conjunction with Stalin’s name to undermine Russian priests and to insinuate that Stalin and the church were identical. In the press, they referred to him as the Father of Nations and called him a genius, wise and inspirational. In towns and cities, statues were built of him; in private homes, there were “Stalin rooms” where his portrait hung.
The effect of Stalin’s cult of personality was that the population had no other choice but to adhere to his demands, especially since they were provoked by fear to do as told. Citizens were encouraged to spy on one another but were always being monitored by the secret police. On a whim, Stalin had the ability to command brute force and violence, pressuring the general population to comply more than they already were with the media’s influence.
After Stalin’s death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev first used “personality cult” in his description about the effects leftover by Stalin’s rule during a congress in the Soviet Union. He criticized the way that people idolized Stalin and the Communist Party, which played into the “de-Stalinization” effort of the country.
What’s important about understanding the history of the cult of personality is how it plays a role in today’s politics. Although not all of the practices of Stalin’s rule aren’t glaringly similar to what is occurring today pre- and post-election, there are enough resemblances between Stalin’s dictatorship and the Trump administration. The media obsessively reports on the actions of Trump, polluting everyone’s timeline with senseless updates about his childlike complaints and statements. Although not ruling by fear, Trump uses his power and money to manipulate key players in the government and fires any of those that disagree with his rhetoric, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Executive Director of the U.S. the Global Change Research Program, Michael Kuperberg.
Trump’s cult of personality has its own “devoted actors” as they refuse to acknowledge Trump’s loss in the 2020 Presidential Election, promoting the “Stop the Steal” slogan. Marching in the “Million MAGA March,” the Proud Boys, Trump supporters and far-rights claimed that they would “take back America.” This is a result of Trump’s claims that mail-in-voting is “a corrupt system” and that if you “count the legal votes,” he won “the Election.” These false statements encourage his supporters to believe the conspiracies of a “fraud” election and to defend his claims at any cost, even if it means violence. All of these actions feed into a perpetual cycle of encouraging his followers to act just as he has, threatening the stability and structure of democracy as he has repeatedly undermined it.
Understanding what a cult of personality means and how it has influenced past and present societies aids us in fully comprehending the kind of damage it can wreak. The similarities between Stalin’s cult of personality and our modern-day democracy should be alarming. To deconstruct and assess its influence on specific populations, we first have to recognize the components that make up a personality cult and how that’s affected past societies.