Creepy Personality Cult in the West Wing Revealed
Radio and MSNBC talk-show host Ed Schultz has revealed that a personality cult has been created around Barack Obama at the White House. On his radio show for Friday January 29, Schultz said that the White House has become “almost a shrine” to President Obama. Schultz was visiting the White House the day before to meet with David Axelrod and apparently was shocked by the amount of photos of Obama that are hanging in the West Wing of the White House. He said (the audio is here):
SCHULTZ: First of all you walk into the White House, in the West Wing, and there are pictures all over, I mean everywhere! Of President Obama! I mean, of his life in the first year as president of the United States. Now I don’t know if that’s the way it is with every president, but it was almost a shrine. I mean, well, here’s a picture of Obama the president with his kids over here. There he is getting on Air Force One. Here he is with some military people. Here he is on the line working the line at one of his campaign stops. I mean, just, it was just one picture after another! (laughs)And so I got the message right away that there’s nothing but Obama fans in the White House which I think is a good thing. ‘Cause it’s always good to have the team together, right? (laughs)
Theory of the Personality Cult:
Deconstructing the Adulation of Political Leaders
The “personality cult” is a broad term that refers to the adulation or following that a leader can gain through the use of media manipulation and propaganda. The overarching aim of the personality cult is to enact radical change within society using innovative ideas1. In a personality cult, the individual leader’s image becomes associated with this new set of values or goals that are perceived by the public to be beneficial to the nation’s well-being. In some cases, this belief is maintained even when said values or goals have a negative effect on everday life. Despite these potential negative effects, personality cults can often be maintained through glorification of the leaders to a benevolent or god-like status.
This section will explore the theories surrounding how these leaders create and maintain their cult of personality. In addition, it will examine common pyschological theories related to power, leadership, and group dynamic. While the following assertions apply to many examples of the personality cult, not every concept is universally relevant and it should be noted that some examples are more thoroughly examined in the following sections.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE PERSONALITY CULT
The personality cult has existed ever since the establishment of civilizations and the institution of political leaders. It became most pronounced with the creation of monarchies, as Jane F. Gardner points out, because “there is some suggestion of divine authorization for their position.”2 For example, the Ancient Egyptians elevated their kings to a god-like status, while Imperialist China often deified their leaders.
In fifth-century Greek civilization, “exploitation of emotional and irrational responses in the citizens–the fostering of a ‘personality cult'”3 becomes evident. To justify the monarchy at the time, the people developed the theory that the ruler embodied the law. Here, the direct link was forged between a charismatic leader and a political vision or dream. The Roman empire further demonstrated early personality cults:
“Development of monarchical control in Rome provides an object-lesson in manipulating the forms while altering the realities of government. The cult of the personality is used as a technique of gaining acceptance, while the content given the cult is carefully controlled. By the end of the first century A.D. elaborate justifications of the principate as an institution appear alongside laudation of an individual princeps.”4
This manipulation took place through a variety of means. Often, leaders of this time were given “lavish and showy honours”5 that publically set them above the common people. From the Hellenistic Kings to Caesar, these ceremonial affectations allowed the personality cult to develop the myth of power and to accrue public adulation.
Coinage with the face of the leader imprinted on it was also widely disseminated, serving as propaganda and public manifestation of authority. This practice was especially popular in Roman and Greek societies.
Additionally, art was used to inflate the leader’s heroic qualities. By placing valiant images of the leaders in sculpture or in paintings, those leaders were able to gain unprecedented devotion and adulation among the masses, a cornerstone of the personality cult.6 These visuals created a strong and infallible myth of the leader, influencing the general public to adopt such beliefs.
Poetry and writing were also used to influence the masses in personality cults of yore. Throughout much of the narratives were positive words for the leaders which heralded them as god-like, brave and all-powerful:
“And while the whole of [the poet] Virgil’s Aeneid is a kind of allegory of Augustus as Rome’s man of destiny, the statement is most clearly made in the prophetic vision of Rome’s destined future which closes the sixth book, with the advent of Augustus inaugurating a golden age.”7
As the times and technology have progressed, so also have the methods of propaganda. With the advent of print, radio, television and the internet, the way in which power structures have manipulated the masses have become more sophisticated. However, as Taylor points out, “…yesterday’s epic poem or painting is really no more than the equivalent of today’s propaganda film or television broadcast”8 As the 20th century progressed, personality cults often became associated with extreme-left wing Socialist or Communist groups in Russia. However, infamous personality cults also sprang out of the far-right Fascist movements of the inter-war period. These specific personality cults are the focus for the rest of this site.
SETTING AND PYSCHOLOGICAL GROUNDWORK
Among groups of associated people it is common to place the collective hopes and goals in the hands of one powerful individual.
“[There is]…the tendency of human societies to single out certain individuals and place them in positions of authority, and to find justifications for doing so. The individual’s pre-eminence may rest on a formal constitutional basis or on the susceptibility of the people in general to certain appearances and types of behavior which betoken, or are believed to be betoken, the possession by a man of certain qualities which make him superior to his fellows and therefore deserving of their deference or even obedience.”9
Why do people put so much trust into the hands of another human? Where does this faith originate, and under what circumstances can the personality cult best be fostered? These questions can be attributed to a few fundamental rules of human behavior.
First, humans have an innate desire for law, authority, and structure. They seek stability and in turn create political institutions and hierarchies of power. Indeed, humans crave an authority figure, and their submission and levels of obedience have been scientifically studied. Stanley Milligram created a study in the 1960’s that demonstrated the tendency of humans to resign in the face of authority: “An astonishingly large percetage of adult participants willingly inflicted what they thought were painful, even life-threatening electric shocks to another adult simply because an authority figure in a white lab coat insisted, “The experiment must go on.””10 For more information on this Milligram’s theory, please see the following critical essay:
Secondly, humans often feel inclinated to apply a human face to structures of authority. This helps them legitimate their devotion or allegiance, and gives them a visual cue of power. This theory is often appropriated by personality cults in the form of symbols in order to gain increased obedience and adulation.11
In addition, humans are naturally disposed to replace the authority of the parental figure with that of a strong political figure. As Lipman-Blumen points out, “The yearning to fill the vacuum left by a parental authority figure commonly prompts adults to accept controlling leaders. Our childhood experiences with authoritarian, even punitive parents, who also loved and protected us, may condition us, as adults, to accept difficult, hostile authority figures.”12 In fact, a leader who presents a strong agenda act essentially as parental replacements, and often induce adults to accept radical or different ideas that are common to the personality cult.
This concept was echoed in Sigmund Freud psychology work, which is here sumarized: “Freud explained the loss of individuality in mobs as due to aim inhibited libido and the Oedipus complex. Group members identified with the leader as a father figure, who replaced their ego ideal, and they identified with one another. This he felt was a phylogenetic inheritance from the primal horde.”13
It is also important to note that certain sociopolitical and economic situations are often conducive to the rise of a personality cult. Desperate economic climates, unpredictable exchanges of political power, and weak national morale often play into the rise of a personality cult (as seen in both Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany).14 Such extreme conditions allow people to accept extreme or drastic measures, which are often presented by the leadership in a personality cult. Members of the society are far more susceptible to these dominant figures when there is a significant dissatisfaction with the existing regime.
In general, humans are innately attracted to security and will often sacrifice reality for a sense of safety. As Freud pointed out, humans “constantly give what is unreal precedence over what is real.”15 A heroic or dominant political leader provides a clear direction and sense of control to a world that is filled with doubts and ambiguities. If extreme extenuating economic or political circumstances are calculated into the mix, it becomes apparent why many people might adhere to a personality cult.
CREATION OF THE PERSONALITY CULT
What kind of person can amass such widespread appeal that they can form personality cults? Is it the diabolical and conniving opportunist or the charismatic leader with benevolent aims? Several theories have been brought up to discuss this issue. E.A. Shils highlights the ability for a truly charismatic leader to rise up naturally through the ranks of power. On the other hand, scholar Max Weber believes that for a truly charismatic leader to arise, a “widespread belief in the existence of extraordinary or supernatural capacities…”, a circumstance which in modern society is unfeasible. He contends that leaders in the modern era generally rise out of situational circumstances that are opportune for his specific agenda.16
Many of the mechanisms that leaders of personality cults employ are similar to that of high-powered business CEO’s. In many ways, the political leader runs the nation like a corporation, using heavy delegating, centralized power, and strong rhetoric to achieve obedience and adulation.
It is important to note that although many of the leaders of personality cults are retrospectively seen as corrupt, they undoubtedly possess certain qualities that would engender the rise of their power. Strong leadership skills are almost always necessary for the maintenance of a personality cult, as finely tuned attention to one’s public image is compulsory. Many of the attributes presented can be found even in a leader like Hitler; One attribute is “People Motivator,” and Hitler indeed was an excellent and rousing orator who was able to charge the German citizens with national pride even in the heat of World War II.
In addition, these dominant political figures often align themselves with a strong moral message which they repeatedly claim to be the noble or moral truth. It is an innate tendency for humans to want to be apart of something they perceive as noble or greater than themselves. It is tied to many humans insecurity with the meaning of their lives — by being a part of a movement larger than themselves it allows them to feel a distinct sense of purpose or overall aim.17 In Germany, for example, Hitler applied a strictly pro-Aryan moral code to his rhetoric which presented a grand message for the masses to latch onto.
It is important to note, however, that the message a personality cult leader espouses is fluid and changing, usually depending on political circumstances. While the central ideology might remain the same, there are continual adjustments to incorporate new situations or revised attitudes. For more information on this concept, please visit the critical essay Ideological Strategy.
Regardless of any ideological shifts, it is very clear that the personality cult rests on multiple factors of leadership. With the right socioeconomic and cultural situation and the right charismatic leader, a personality can rise to attain power. Additionally, it undeniable that leaders of personality cults possess certain traits of leadership; without those inherent skills, the structures of power would fall apart and the myth of the leader would most likely be destroyed.
“Illusions are the umbilical cord linking leaders and followers. Leaders understand their followers’ need for illusions. So do their entourages, who promote illusions about the leader’s omnipotence and omniscience. In addition, the media feed the followers’ thirst for information about potential saviors, corporate and otherwise. To boot, we followers weave our own illusions about leaders.”18
To create a personality cult, a leader must take into consideration all of the aforementioned information about their people’s psychological tendencies and apply it in a practical and convincing way. This often involves the dissemination of propaganda to create the image both of what the leader wants to portray and what the public wants to see. Propaganda is described by author Philip Taylor as “the triumph of emotion over reason in a bureaucratic struggle by the machinery of power for control over the individual.”19
In Fascist regimes, propaganda played an integral role in creating the myth of the leader, and was produced in several forms. These mediums often included posters, social/cultural programs, speeches, statues, and artwork. All of these various efforts combined to create an inescapable message that continually emphasized the leader’s dominance and the regime’s strength. This pervasive message was highly effective in maintaining the personality, as was seen in Fascist Italy:
“The ubiquity of Benito Mussolini’s image, along with the heroicization of his person and the myth of his power contributed to the deification of the Duce in Fascist Italy in the years between 1922 and 1945. According to some scholars, these elements not only constituted the main narrative device of the Fascist regime’s discourse about its leader, but they were central to the creation of a new civic culture or secular religion which formed the basis of Fascism’s totalitarian conception of politics and the nation-state. The myth and cult of Mussolini occupied all visible realms of political life, it monopolized public space, and it presented Fascism with a model of centralized power and authority that rotated exclusively around the mythical and spectacular authority of one person.”20
Coercion and Conformity
One of the most basic ways for a leader to strengthen his following and quell resistance is to subordinate one group or way of being and champion another:
“Toxic leaders are likely to exploit these group dynamics by isolating and spotlighting ‘traitors,’ ‘troublemakers,’ and individuals who ‘aren’t team players.’ They may resort to multiple forms of intimidation to make sure that others don’t support those ‘bad guys.’ Sometimes they seduce potentially dangerous members with various rewards. When objectors are cut down, tamed, or separated from their supporters, they may not feel quite so strong – and vice versa with regard to supporters.”21
This type of behavior is seen in both Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. By creating a visible opposition, the leaders of the personality cult play upon insecurities in the masses while pinpointing a scapegoat or target that his followers can mobilize around. It allows him to blame problems in society on this visible enemy, taking critical heat off himself. In addition, the reasoning behind this scapegoating is usually rooted in morality, playing upon the human need to be apart of something noble.22 To maintain this oppression and source of mobilization, violence is often used.
Personality cults have been around for thousands of years, and still exist today. From the brief summary seen here, it is clear that a myriad of psychological underpinnings exist in the creation the personality cult. A variety of factors allow humans to latch onto dominant leaders, ranging from the innate need to replace the parental figure to the desire for security. Leaders of the personality cult combine their innate personality traits with several strategies of gaining power, including propaganda, coercion, and violence.
What is crucial to understand is that the personality cult is a complicated and multi-tiered topic, a topic that this site attempting to ground in the framework of Fascism. As the site continues, there are three case studies of Fascist personality cults, as well as a comparison to Communist personality cults. These sections will help contextualize the theory presented here, and offer more vivid examples of the personality cult manifested.
2 Gardner, Jane F. Leadership and the Cult of the Personality. Toronto: Aldine P, 1974.
5 Gardner, xxvii
6 Taylor, Philip M. Munitions of the Mind: a History of Propaganda From the Ancient World to Present Day. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2003.
9 Lipman-Blumen, Jean. The Allure of Toxic Leaders. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006. 1-320.
10 Lipman-Blumen, 10
13Palestini, Robert. A Path to Leadership: the Heroic Follower. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. 1-261.
14Abse, Tobias. Rethinking Italian Fascism: “Rethinking Italian Fascism in the Case of Livorno” Ed. David Forgacs. Lawrence and Wishart.
16Shamir, Boas. “The Motivational Effects of Charismatic Leadership.” Jstor. 4 Nov. 1993. Organization Science. 6 Dec. 2007 <http://www.jstor.org/view/10477039/di013150/01p01433/0>.
20Cavaliere, Patrick. “Mussolini and the Cult of Personality.” Humanities and Social Sciences. Apr. 2004. University of New Brunswick. 6 Dec. 2007 http://www.h-net.org/announce/show.cgi?ID=138184.
22Fuller, Timothy, ed. Leading and Leadership. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame P, 2000.