THE BLOG
01/15/2016 04:30 pm ET Updated Jan 15, 2017

Donald Trump's Cult of Personality

Cults of personality: the term might evoke dictators like Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, and Kim Jong-un today.

Yet cults of personality can flourish in a variety of political contexts, as long as there is a charismatic leader and a coherent media strategy. Vladimir Putin's goes with his position as President of an authoritarian bureaucratic state, but Silvio Berlusconi built his while he ran for office.

That's why the concept can help us to understand Donald Trump's success as he seeks the Republican Presidential nomination.

In democracies, it helps if the politician in question already has a winning personal brand, so he (it's usually a he) can be independent from traditional political machines and finance his own media campaigns. Cue Berlusconi and Trump, worth 7 and 4 billion dollars, respectively.

Yet cults of personality go beyond private money and public influence. They are about an emotional tie that is forged between the leader and his followers. For this reason, they can be hard to grasp for those not making the connection.

Here's the trick to cults of personality: the leader has to embody the people but also stand above them. He must appear ordinary, to allow people to relate to him. And yet he must also be seen as extraordinary, so that people will grant him permission to be the arbiter of their individual and national destiny.

For instance, they're not about likeability. Leaders with cults of personality are usually aggressive. They keep audiences on edge with their outbursts and unpredictability. They create a bond that goes beyond agreeing with ideas and policies: people simply want a part of this person.

Berlusconi is Trump's predecessor here. This media and sports entrepreneur could afford to be a maverick when he jumped into politics in the 1990s. His original party, Forza Italia (Go Italy), took its name from a soccer stadium chant. Berlusconi's ego-laden pronouncements outraged the Italian political establishment, but delighted his fans, as when he described himself as "the Jesus Christ of Italian politics."

Berlusconi updated the cult of personality for a new age that blurs the lines among media, business, and political interests.

Putin, who has been friends with Berlusconi since the early 2000s, has learned from the Italian. Cults of personality have a meaning all their own in Russia: they fell out of official favor there in the 1950s, when leader Nikita Khrushchev criticized them after Stalin's death. Putin has revived the practice, guiding a wave of nostalgia for Stalin as he advocates for Russian nationalism and anti-West sentiment.

Putin has brought the leader cult into the 21st century, authorizing the creation of a Putin persona that has something for everyone.

Russia's rich can buy Putin cologne, an Apple Watch engraved with Putin's signature, or an IPhone featuring Putin's head, in gold. For the rest, there are collectibles such as a 2016 Putin calendar issued by the popular newspaper Zvezdi I Soveti. In it, the Russian President is an outdoorsman (including with a naked torso), a somber leader, a lover of animals, nature, and (Russian) female beauty, a churchgoer, a Commander in Chief (lots of camouflage here), and so on. Putin is an everyman - but one who stands above everyone.

How does Trump fit into this lineage? He's unlikely to pose shirtless, but his name has long been written in gold. And like Putin and Berlusconi, Trump's appeal is less intellectual than emotional. No matter if few of his political ideas are original. It's the way he presents those ideas--as an extension of his own personality and passion, rather than any party platform-- that wins people over. It's no surprise that in Italy Trump is known as "the American Berlusconi."

All three of these men have mastered the double appeal that is essential to cults of personality. They advertise their wealth and glamour, but connect with people as populists, using language full of earthy sayings, insults, coarse and broad humor (often directed at adversaries), and slogans (called "Putinisms" in Russia) Part of the international elite, they are also quintessentially of their own countries. That is one reason they are much more loved at home than abroad.

Trump does not have the ability to muzzle the media, like Putin (although he does his best to intimidate journalists who oppose him). And he does not own television networks, like Berlusconi. And yet Trump he has been able to set agendas and influence the news cycle like no other Republican candidate - as he has also built up a large grassroots following.

Social media and the digitization of news have changed the equation between publicity and power that supported classic cults of personality. Berlusconi was ahead of the curve when he first ran for office. He fashioned a new kind of politics, and a new leader image, that was relevant for the media era of the 1990s-2000s.

Trump is playing an analogous role in our decade. We can look to the concept of the cult of personality to explain his appeal - and know what to expect if he wins the Republican Presidential nomination.