Despite Trump’s attempts to undermine democratic institutions, the United States remains a democracy, albeit a more fragile one than it once was. But alarming dynamics within the modern Republican Party — Cheney’s ouster being only the latest — do mirror the underlying logic of authoritarian cults of personality.
At the extreme end, cults of personality are not just dangerous; they’re also absurd. In Thailand, for example, I’ve had to stand up to watch a short film glorifying the monarch before watching “The Hobbit” in a movie theater. One unfortunate Thai man faced years in prison for crimes that included charges that he mocked the king’s dog.
As strange as they might seem, however, cults of personality are a rational mechanism to enforce control. They serve as loyalty tests that sort zealots from dissenters. Sometimes, they can be reasonably innocuous. But they morph into a dangerously authoritarian phenomenon when two criteria are met. First, if party members are required to publicly idolize a single political figure in order to be fully accepted, you have a problem. Second, if party members are punished for refusing to publicly parrot lies on behalf of that figure, things have gotten out of control.
Cheney’s ouster shows that the post-Trump GOP has passed both thresholds. It’s transparently obvious that she lost her position in the Republican leadership for two reasons: because she spoke out against Trump and because she pushed back against his lies about the 2020 election. There’s no doubt that she would still be a GOP leader if she had praised Trump unequivocally, or had just kept quiet.
It’s not hard to find democracies that lurched toward authoritarianism because they embraced similar dynamics. As Anne Applebaum notes, Polish politicians who want to show their bona fides as a devoted member of the authoritarian Law and Justice party know that they have to repeat the Smolensk conspiracy theory. It’s a litmus test. Are you a true believer, willing to repeat the theory even if you don’t believe it yourself? If you are, the party accepts you. This sort of corrosive loyalty test has caused tremendous damage to Poland’s democratic institutions.
Poland offers a warning for America. Cults of personality based on lies create predictably destructive results in democracies. Once there are formal punishments for breaking with officially sanctioned myths, fewer partisans become willing to speak out. The flip side is just as worrying: Some cynical politicians realize that they can rise within the party’s ranks by going further than others in publicly demonstrating their fealty to the cult of personality. In this case, Cheney’s likely replacement, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), is a case in point.
Stefanik has undergone an astonishing conversion. She used to cast herself as a principled, independent-minded Republican in the mold of Paul Ryan. Today, she is religiously parroting every Trumpian talking point. Stefanik has correctly identified the surest path to GOP leadership: lie on behalf of Trump while treating him like a political messiah.
Just as Cheney lost her post because she committed the thought crime of questioning the falsehoods that continue to be spewed out of Mar-a-Lago, Stefanik might gain her post because she was willing to eagerly insist that Trump is correct that 2+2=5.
In that regard, Stefanik is the most fitting person to replace Cheney. She, like the Republican Party more generally, has sacrificed her own ideas on the altar of Trumpism.
By replacing Cheney with Stefanik, though, the GOP is setting a clear precedent. Lie for Trump and become a leader. Defy his version of reality by telling the truth, and your days in power are numbered.
Poland’s authoritarian slide shows what can happen when devotion to lies becomes central to partisan identity. Republicans would be wise to keep that in mind — and voters would be wise to vote against a party that purges politicians for telling the truth.