From a 12-minute hagiographic video of his political rise to his boast that Britain had just named a prime minister in his own image to the high school student who told Trump he wears a “Make America Great Again” hoodie every day, the Turning Point event reflected a president who, 2 1/2 years into his tenure, is luxuriating in his own reflection while addressing his most rabid supporters.
The crowd cheered. The president beamed. “Boy, I’ll tell you, that’s what they’re afraid of,” Trump joked of his political rivals.
For Trump, the outpouring appeared to be a balm after a week of intense criticism over his racists tweets targeting four Democratic congresswomen. He was in his element, airing grievances, settling scores and reliving his 2016 election upset over Hillary Clinton for an estimated crowd of 1,400 students.
“Let’s have a good time, right?” Trump began, taking the stage after the video concluded with embellished, computer-generated images of Marine One flying past the Lincoln Memorial to the White House as if from a sci-fi action film. He waited for 2 1/2 minutes as the crowd chanted “USA! USA!” and sang along to Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” the president’s campaign theme song, even though this was an official event.
Gazing over the audience, the president, who has accused the four Democratic women of “hating our country,” called his supporters “great American patriots.”
“They don’t realize there’s more of you than there is of them,” Trump said in a warning to his political opponents. “They haven’t figured that out yet.”
To Trump’s critics, such performances smack of an elected leader who has eschewed traditional politics in favor of fostering a cult of personality, one that won him support of 87 percent of self-identified Republicans, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll this month.
Christopher Hedges, an author and former foreign correspondent who has studied collapsed societies, said Trump has employed the tactics of demagogues to insulate himself from critics — Democrats, the media, Never Trump Republicans — who have sought to hold him accountable.
“The old rules of politics don’t work. It’s almost inverted — so you have an enraged, disempowered, infantilized population that seeks in essence a cult leader, who presents himself as omnipotent, who is able to disregard and violate all the norms and rules of society, which appeals to this disempowered base,” Hedges said.
Democrats “still haven’t figured out that Trump does not function as a political leader but as a cult leader,” he added. “The more he flouts social convention, the more vulgar he is, the more openly he disregards the law, the more his base is enthused.”
Turning Point organizers scoffed at the notion that Trump has a cultlike appeal, even though a spokesman said the group arranged for the 12-minute biopic and that the president had no advance knowledge of it.
The video opens on Trump’s upbringing in Queens, touting his military academy education and his schoolboy athletic prowess, and asserting that he was “socially popular with men and women.” Then it cuts a montage of Trump vanquishing his 2016 political opponents — including Republican Jeb Bush and Democrat Hillary Clinton — and proving his naysayers wrong.
Text on the screen flashed: “Winning is what he does best.”
In March, after Trump gave a 2-hour address to the Conservative Political Action Conference, conservative writer Jonah Goldberg wrote a column saying he had declined an invitation to speak at the event. He argued that Trump’s speech “shared many of the traits associated with demagogues who feed off a cult of personality” and suggested long speeches are a method of “proving dominance over an audience.” He cited Russian President Vladimir Putin’s five-hour news conference in 2013.
“It frustrates me that this ‘cult of personality’ keeps being a thing,” said a Turning Point spokesman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak bluntly. “You could have made the same comment about President Obama . . . I think Trump is a personality who inspires a passionate response on both sides. To this crowd of people, he’s an inspiration because he’s fearless, he’s authentic.”
In March 2012, amid his reelection campaign, Obama unveiled a 17-minute video titled “The Road We’ve Traveled” narrated by Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks. The video, which has racked up more than 2.8 million views on YouTube, told the story of the nation’s recovery from the Great Recession and the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Obama was painted as steely-eyed in making tough decisions, featuring interviews with his top White House aides.
In 2017, Ronald Krebs, a professor of comparative politics at the University of Minnesota, conducted research that found Trump and Obama had employed self-reverential rhetoric far more often than had their predecessors. In their study, Krebs and co-author Robert Ralston determined that Obama used first-person pronouns such as “I” or “me” 69 percent more than the presidential average, and that Trump exceeded Obama by another 20 percent.
In an interview, Krebs emphasized that there are “important differences” between the two, citing Trump’s “faux narrative portraying himself as self-made, in contrast to Obama, who really was a self-made man.” But he said that both presidents appealed to voters seeking strong leaders in an age of extreme political partisanship and polarization and noted that executive power expanded greatly under both of them.
At the Turning Point event, Trump called Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), one of the four congresswomen he suggested in a tweet last week “go back” to foreign countries even though they are Americans, “a crazed lunatic.” He lambasted the New York Times and Washington Post. He repeated a falsehood that many undocumented immigrants voted in California, some more than once, despite the fact that the Commission on Voter Fraud he appointed disbanded in January 2018 without finding any evidence.
“Don’t kid yourself,” Trump said. “The numbers in California — they’re rigged.”
Trump’s critics said the willingness of his supporters to echo his false statements and conspiracy theories is more evidence of his cultlike appeal. At a rally in North Carolina last week, the crowd chanted “send her back!” as Trump railed against another of the four Democratic women, Rep. Ilhan Omar (Minn.), who was born in Somalia but is a naturalized citizen.
“Obama triggered empathy; Trump triggers hate,” Hedges said. He added that while some foreign leaders have played to the president’s ego in a bid for geopolitical advantage, Trump’s “followers are not trying to play him. You surrender to cult leaders.”