These expressions of love should be concerning. They share features with the unconditional form of love typical of political cults that has often manifested in dangerous ways.
Historically, idolizing the “leader” is a key dimension of fascism. In the 1930s and 1940s, different fascist leaders inspired cults of personality, which came in different colors across the globe. In China, supporters of Chiang Kai-shek wore blue shirts, while Brazilian supporters of Plínio Salgado wore integralista green shirts. Argentina’s dictator José F. Uriburu, Romania’s Corneliu Codreanu and Spain’s Francisco Franco similarly inspired loyal followings. Supporters of fascism fervently believed in the heroic, even Godlike nature of their leaders. Joseph Goebbels, the infamous Nazi propaganda minister, wrote in his diaries about his feelings for Adolf Hitler: “I love him … I bow to the greater man, to the political genius.” Such devotion ultimately allowed leaders to insulate themselves from criticism and accountability.
Instead of seeing idolization as a natural expression of grass-roots support, we should examine more closely the ways leaders cultivated this particular form of devoted love to distract from obvious limitations and failures — and to sustain their dangerous ideologies.
As Hitler’s biographer, the British historian Ian Kershaw, first explained, Hitler made Christian religious images and metaphors of adulation central to his cult. A sense of divine infallibility had once belonged exclusively to the history of institutional religion, but in 20th-century fascism, it was applied to the leader, with supporters developing a sense of sacred faith in him. Benito Mussolini spoke in the name of what he called a “sacred truth,” and he also stated that when thinking about the historical destiny of the nation, he was able to “see” the work of a sacrosanct will, “the infallible hand of providence, the infallible sign of divinity” in the unfolding of events. Hitler made his own link with the divine even more explicit, asserting, “I hereby set forth for myself and my successors in the leadership of the Party the claim of political infallibility. I hope the world will grow as accustomed to that claim as it has to the claim of the Holy Father.”
Taking secular politics and applying the language of sacred ritual helped create a cult of leadership that motivated followers, leading them to persecute and to even exterminate others in service of the leader. For Mussolini, the “sovereignty of the people” existed only through absolute delegation of power to the leader, who ruled by force, not consensus. Hitler took it even further. By claiming “I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord,” Hitler used religious-like faith in his leadership to provide a rationale for many Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust. Fascists thus tortured and killed with the understanding that their leaders sacredly embodied the will of “the people.”
Another consequence of this political cult and idolizing the leader: It led followers and minions to take the heat for their leaders. They absorbed blame for the leaders’ failures, leaving the leaders’ images intact for the rest of their followers. The cult of personality was so strong that it took extreme economic hardship and military defeat to pierce the belief that leaders were infallible, sent by God to renew the country.
A similar dynamic may be at play in both the United States and Brazil today.
With Trump’s supporters, the attachment seems so secure that it transcends transgressions or failed promises — and justifies the president’s most offensive and allegedly illegal acts. Fanaticism and feelings of deep political love have perhaps replaced critical thinking for some. Some supporters seem unconvinced that Trump has done any of the things he is accused of, but upon confronting irrefutable evidence of, for example, pressuring a foreign leader to interfere in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, or ominously caging children, they say that whatever he did wasn’t wrong. Trump’s justification for these actions centers on faith in him as an individual: He recently tweeted that Americans should trust him to “only do good for the USA.” They should not ask further questions.
Bolsonaro has deployed similar tactics. In the face of controversial actions, such as accusing Afro-Brazilians of being fat and lazy and defending the physical punishment of children to prevent them from being gay, Bolsonaro’s most fanatic supporters believe that, as the Brazilian leader said, he is fulfilling “God’s mission.” He is casting himself as an epic hero, a Christian warrior of patriotism and family values who must never be questioned.
These leaders are demanding their followers’ faith, and they are using symbols and language from Christian texts and liturgy to depict themselves as modern-day saviors.
This is one reason perceptions of persecution embolden them, feeding the savior or martyr image they are constructing. Trump recently deemed himself the most persecuted leader in history, and he seems to relish the opportunity to complain that any investigation into his alleged crimes is a “witch hunt” or harassment.
Lies, propaganda and the glorification of violence are not new in modern American politics. What is new, however, is that the current occupant of the White House is borrowing so many elements from fascism: racism, a pseudo-religious cult of personality, a myth about a golden past where one ethnic group ruled uncontested over the others and a steady stream of propaganda using contemporary mass media forms. The devotional love on display at Trump’s rallies and from Bolsonaro’s fans is a warning sign. It should be understood as a threat to democracy in both the United States and Brazil.