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From Putin, Boris to Trump, Is it the Era of Personality Cults Again?

A ‘god’ is brought to power so that ordinary people can gaze up and forget their increasing powerlessness.

Published
Opinion
5 min read
From Putin, Boris to Trump, Is it the Era of Personality Cults Again?
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(The Quint brings to you 'Khairiyat', a column by award-winning author Tabish Khair, where he talks about the politics of race, the experiences of diasporas, Europe-India dynamics and the interplay of culture, history and society, among other issues of global significance.)

This letter to the editor is reported to have appeared in The Guardian recently: “On Saturday, you published a photo of the UK prime minister above the headline ‘A dangerous cult now runs Britain’ (Journal, 29 May). I was pleased to see that, despite the constant turmoil of the modern world, some things, such as the Guardian’s famed penchant for typos, never change. – Tony Mabbott, Rotherham, South Yorkshire.”

If one looks away from Mabbott’s British humour and the implicit sexism of the ‘typo’, one is struck by the fact that personality cults, instead of political parties, seem to run many countries today. This was the case in the US, too, when Donald Trump was ruling the roost. If the 'BoJo' cult runs Britain today, then there are also personality cults running countries like the Philippines, Turkey, Hungary, etc, and, in different ways, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Until recently, Israel was being run by the cult of Benjamin Netanyahu. Vladimir Putin, despite plunging Russia into a devastating war, remains a personality cult in that country. There are examples closer to home as well, and even Imran Khan is trying, with limited success, to turn himself into a personality cult.

Snapshot
  • Until recently, Israel was being run by the cult of Benjamin Netanyahu. Putin, despite plunging Russia into a devastating war, remains a personality cult in that country.

  • When a personality cult takes over a political party and a country, the party and the country’s constitution become secondary to the personality.

  • I cannot think of any phase, apart from the period between World War I and World War II, when personality cults had blossomed to this extent internationally. Both periods are marked by economic and social uncertainty.

  • In such circumstances, people fall back on those who provide personal assurance, often by evoking old symbols and ideas, which are hollow but have not been replaced yet.

  • A ‘god’ is brought to power so that ordinary people can gaze up and forget their increasing powerlessness.

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When a Person Becomes Bigger than Constitution

When a personality cult takes over a political party and a country, the party and the country’s constitution become secondary to the personality. This personality, then, can change the contours of the political party, and even ignore constitutional rights or legal precedence. The personality is infallible, a bit like a god, to the cult members. This was and continues to be very much the case with Trump and Putin among their supporters in two very different countries.

There is always the danger of a personality cult in any system, but it is seldom that such cults come to dominate a country. Some people might claim that Indira Gandhi was a cult during the Emergency. This is only fractionally true: Gandhi was surrounded by sycophants in the Congress, but opposition to her was also very prominent. Large numbers of people did not blindly support whatever she decided, even if they were afraid to express their opinions aloud. This became obvious when she called for elections, and to her credit, the fact that she called for elections and lost them showed that she was not a cult, just a headstrong leader of a party full of sycophants.

When we think of personality cults, we actually think of people like Hitler, who could, for a number of years, do nothing wrong in the eyes of many Germans, even as he slowly drove the country to the ground.

Today, many countries are run by ‘personalities’, with no real ideas or solutions, who are nevertheless followed by large numbers with the absolute trust and loyalty that a cult leader evokes. I cannot think of any phase, apart from the period between World War I and World War II, when personality cults had blossomed to this extent internationally and taken over entire nations: think of Ataturk, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini, Hitler, and so many others.

A Comeback From the World War-Era?

Why this strange similarity between our times and the decades between the two world wars? Why have these two periods seen a profusion of personality cults replacing political parties and undercutting constitutional and legal principles in country after country? We are not talking of an isolated case here and there, which can happen anytime, but dozens of big and small leaders in dozens of countries who are obeyed and trusted as if they were cult leaders. What is similar between these two phases across almost a century, with a number of countries being run by, in The Guardian’s words, “personality cults”?

I would point out various inter-related factors. There was and is great socio-economic uncertainty, with many systems in obvious flux, partly due to the way technology changed. Change, in itself, is neither good nor bad. What matters is the use to which change is put. And in both the phases, the changes were being put to the use of making money recklessly. Both the periods, in different ways, marked the forging of huge fortunes by some. The gap between not just the poor and the rich but the middle classes and millionaires increased perceptibly in these periods.

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Ordinary People are Being Rendered Powerless

Writing around the period of the two world wars, Bernard Shaw had one of his characters, a businessman, tell a national politician: “Your sole job is to call out the army and the navy whenever my business interests are threatened.”

Perhaps it needed to be said in a play, because media were being increasingly controlled by big capital. Hence, while the old structures of power – associated with colonialism – had proved hollow and defective by the beginning of the 20th century, no new ideas were being allowed into the mainstream. Hitler, revealingly, was trying to get a colony for Germany in Europe, because Germany had been too slow to get substantial colonies elsewhere. Sounds familiar?

In such circumstances, people fall back on those who provide personal assurance, often by evoking old symbols and ideas, which are hollow but have not been replaced yet.

With the political sphere abjectly caving in to economic bullying, we have the inevitable rise of personality cults instead of political solutions. A ‘god’ is brought to power so that ordinary people can gaze up and forget their increasing powerlessness. It’s happening again.

(Tabish Khair, is PhD, DPhil, Associate Professor, Aarhus University, Denmark. He tweets @KhairTabish. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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