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The Cult of Personality

Ed Kilgore is puzzled:

I can understand how some voters can rationally make a decision that Bush has done as well as he can on domestic and international issues, or that Kerry's record doesn't make him a desirable alternative. I can understand that some Americans really do believe that abortion is homicide, or that Republicans empathize with traditionalist cultural impulses more than Democrats, or even that Bush as a self-professed evangelical Christian has earned their support by rhetoric alone. There may even be a small percantage of voters who are convinced that erasing progressive tax rates and "starving the beast" of Washington by deliberate engineering budget deficits are valid and important goals. But that George W. Bush, of all people, has become the object of a cult of personality and of intense personal devotion for millions of Americans is harder to understand. Most of the serious conservative ideologues I talk to privately concede the president is a man of limited gifts who has united Republicans behind him as a matter of historical accident more than his intrinsic political or policy skills.
But of course that's just the point, it's a question of overcompensating for your weaknesses. Viewed objectively, from the point of view of someone who knows what he's talking about, one of the least-attractive elements of the Republican Party is that it is headed by George W. Bush, a man who never seemed like the best man for the job and who has proven himself in office to have an extraordinarily poor ability to implement the ideas he stands for. Rather than concede this, it must be vehemently denied. Bush, rather than being a mediocre (at best) personality who just so happens to be the embodiment of the conservative movement is elevated to the status of Indispensible World-Historical Figure. It's a bit deranged, and out-of-step with what, as Ed says, are the actual views of conservative elites, but it's what they think must be done.

October 31, 2004 | Permalink

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» Bride, Batman, Bush & BinLaden from Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Regardless of the fact that, as Matthew Yglesias has pointed out over and over again, GWB's cult of personality is rather ridiculous, the fact remains that such a cult exists. I have to wonder if the modern disparity between fictively glamourous acti... [Read More]

Tracked on Oct 31, 2004 11:41:52 PM

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My wife has a tendency to start uttering profanities every time she sees Bush, Karl Rove, Karen Hughes, et al on the tube. It's gotten to the point that I can't even watch Crossfire with her in the room. I [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 1, 2004 8:03:07 AM

Comments

Matthew:

Has it ever occurred to you that most of America is possessed of "limited gifts"?

They simply identify with Bush. Modern politics demands the parties put forward inoffensive front-men more than strategically astute leaders.

Posted by: epistemology | Oct 31, 2004 2:20:03 PM

Exactly, He must look larger than life, because if he looks true to life, he's seen for what he is -incompetent. That expains why the Repugs have had to create a personality cult around him to have a chance of staying in power, but it doesn't exactly explain why so many people have bought into the scam.

Posted by: Just Thinking | Oct 31, 2004 2:31:52 PM

Has any president in modern times had a cult of personality like this? It's hard to imagine Reagan supporters hoisting giant "R!" signs. But if the AP photos are any guide, MOST of the signs at Bush rallies contain naught but the leader's middle initial. It would be less creepy if said initial did not look like a crown.

Posted by: Dave Weigel | Oct 31, 2004 2:37:48 PM

There's this line I heard from Christy Whitman on the Wolf's show today: Republicans are very enthusiastic about Bush, while the Democrats aren't so much about Kerry, they are driven by anti-Bush sentiment. And this somehow gives the Republicans advantage. What a pile of crap.

I guess for these people personality is everything and policy is nothing. Don't they know that every politician is a liar and megalomaniac - almost by definition? One can be enthusiastic about politics, specific policies or general direction, but to be excited about the fella who makes speeches? What a bunch of idiots.

Posted by: abb1 | Oct 31, 2004 2:38:55 PM

If you ever have been in the studio audience of, say, Letterman or Leno, it's remarkable to watch how the little off-screen (to home viewers) cheeerleaders and flashing signs whip everyone up into a frenzy of applause. Similarly, in the movie business, we have these annoying test screenings, where audiences are hand-picked and then allowed to grade the movies in question. In theory, these are used to decide what if anything might be done to improve the movie; in practice, the audiences are selected to reflect "the audience for the movie" (excluding those who won't give a shit), and then they pack the house. The result is, like with the studio leno audience, a kind of frenzy. When the movie actually opens, the theaters are rarely packed, and will not conform to your selection process. So the only purpose your little screening had was a political one: you created a little false reality which corrosponds to your ideal reality (a packed house full of people who love precisely this kind of movie, whipped into a frenzy by the promise of something special in which they are participating), usually for the purpose of advertising to the executives in attendence, or the critics in attendence, that your movie is great.

Sort of like picking who can attend your rallies and pre-selecting the questions, etc.

I guess I'm wondering how hard it really is to get a few thousand people in every locale to go nuts for you for an hour and make it look like you're worshipped more than you are (and wouldn't this, as a strategy, fit into ROve's "inevitability" gambit?).

Look, isn't REO Speedwagon still touring?

Posted by: quisp | Oct 31, 2004 2:41:28 PM

If my European history serves me correctly, didn't something like this occur in Germany in the mid '30s??

"But that George W. Bush, of all people, has become the object of a cult of personality and of intense personal devotion for millions of Americans is harder to understand. Most of the serious conservative ideologues I talk to privately concede the president is a man of limited gifts"

Posted by: judyo | Oct 31, 2004 2:45:52 PM

Nine-Eleven Changed Everything.

It's pretty obvious, really. When a situation of such tremendous impact occurs, people will, barring extremely glaring evidence to the contrary, see what they hope to see in the person who happens to be their leader, especially if it is somebody was supposed to be "their guy" from the start. Some will of course not be effected in this way, others resent the person in question too much, and yet others will in time go back to their previous perspective, but it will have a decisive impact on public opinion.

It's never just about who, but where and when.

Posted by: G. Svenson | Oct 31, 2004 2:49:13 PM

I read some of the more moderate pro-Bush blogs. People who post there are typically defensive, but in less guarded moments they will admit that Bush is not a gifted politician, and that he has made mistakes. But they admire him for what they see as his honesty, his integrity, his straightforwardness, his resoluteness. I don't know why they see these qualities in him, but they do. The best example I've found is this post here, together with the commets:

http://www.indcjournal.com/archives/001221.php

We Americans really do seem to be living in two different worlds.

--Rick Taylor

Posted by: Rick Taylor | Oct 31, 2004 2:50:39 PM

to continue with my possibly idiotic TV/movie anaolgies:

A lot of people really responded to "the post-9/11 Bush Show" (Bush with bullhorn, Osama dead or alive, etc.) and some of them really don't want that show to go off the air. Neither does Bush, obviously.

Posted by: quisp | Oct 31, 2004 2:59:51 PM

The big advantage of GWB is that he is an empty canvas onto which can be painted any version of reality you care to define for the moment. Rove saw this very early on and has attached himself like a leech for the duration and sold the whole concept to the GOP elites.

This creates substantial problems for politicians such as Kerry who have substance and depth, substance that can be challenged effectively given the superficial nature of modern political campaigns and depth that anchors them to the spot unable to match the choreography that entertains rather than informs the undemanding electorate.

I think the cult of personality is an unintended consequence of this but not one Rove et al are about to look in the mouth.

Posted by: postit | Oct 31, 2004 3:05:08 PM

To all you lefties:

W graduated from Yale with a higher grade average than Kerry.

W is our first President with a Master of Business Administration degree.

Why don't you all get off his "limited abilities"! The only "limited abilities" I see are all of your inabilities to forget he beat you in 2000 - no it wasn't the Supreme Court - it was the United States Electoral Process which you decided to take to the courts! Remember!!

Posted by: Noodles | Oct 31, 2004 3:38:17 PM

While certainly Bush has a large core of zealots than most, many fail to realize the degree of manufacture involved in a Bush event. Much of the hype and fan reaction is carefully culled via extra-campaign event theatrics, and then carefullly recorded and transmitted for maximum effect.

Bush's arrogance has come from starting to drink from his own cool-aid at these events, much like the average newly minted rock star assumes they are as important as their image would suggest. Look at the Madonna phenomena for some anologies. She made truth or dare at the height of her media bubble.

The handlers around Bush have created an American Idolish world at which the president has been the focus. This is grossly innapropriate given the amount of real power inherent in the office. It's not a religous thing, it the effect of out of control marketing and PR. While Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have lived these kind of experience, they at no time have been responsible for the powers of the presidency. Bush "cult" reflects much more the inherent trapping of power enjoyed by the modern non-government CEO. Truly this must be checked both in and out of the whitehouse.

Posted by: patience | Oct 31, 2004 3:47:09 PM

cult of personality? who else was a mediocre man, not impressive in any way, but got a nation to assume he was infallible? who else made blind onedience and faith in the dear leader's moral guidance a replacement for the role of oppressive parents?

if you don't know, read Alice Miller's For Your Own Good. it's brilliant and at over 20 years old, is remarkably prescient.

Posted by: we're almost finished | Oct 31, 2004 4:01:35 PM

deserter. invader. torturer. nothing else matters.

Posted by: slightlyPissed | Oct 31, 2004 4:17:33 PM

I've only heard the term Cult of Personality applied to Bush by the left. It seems to me that this is essentially an unintended compliment.

I'm just waiting and wondering when the left in America will move on from their reactionary stance and attempt to formulate progressive policies of their own...

Posted by: Finnpundit | Oct 31, 2004 4:21:02 PM

As Syme observed of Octavian and his crew - all governments are in fact run by an oligarchy, regardless of their nominal constitution. Is it fair to consider Bush the "head of the Republican Party?" I suspect that the heads of the Republican party chose Bush for the same reason that the Texas Rangers investors chose Bush - they believed that he'd be a good face for their shared interests. You don't have to believe that Bush is brilliant or stupid. You just have to realize that by attributing a singular authority to him you obfiscate the interests of various Republican constituencies who have chosen to use him as their front man.

Posted by: Pudentilla | Oct 31, 2004 4:21:24 PM

I've only heard the term Cult of Personality applied to Bush by the left. It seems to me that this is essentially an unintended compliment.

I'm just waiting and wondering when the left in America will move on from their reactionary stance and attempt to formulate progressive policies of their own...

Posted by: Finnpundit | Oct 31, 2004 4:21:31 PM

W graduated from Yale with a higher grade average than Kerry.

Really? Can you prove it? I've done some google searching and I've only seen Freeper speculation on this topic...

Posted by: heh | Oct 31, 2004 4:24:23 PM

Uh, Noodles?? That's the point of an election, to consider the limited abilities of the candidates. Your candidate "doesn't do nuance" and ridicules "book learnin'" and "intellectuals" as, you know, tantamount to homosexuality, which according to him is bad. You either think that's a limit, or you don't. The opposite, the idea that the president is a man of "unlimited abilities," and that he and his true-believers actually believe that (pipeline to God and all) is what frightens a lot of people, even many religious people who would otherwise vote for him.

One other thing, Noodles. This isn't a sporting event. "You" didn't "beat" "us" in 2000. The voters of this country participated in the process of electing this guy to be president; the some of the process's flaws came to light in an election that close; some voters (most, I think) were not aware how important the election was going to be, or, in Bush's case, what kind of president he would become (i.e. not the kind he said he would). On Tuesday, the voters get to choose again, given what we know now about Bush, and what we know about the world that we didn't know way back in 2000 (everything changed, etc.). And the "we" that will elect Kerry will undoubtedly comprise some of the "you" of 2000 (free-agency and all!). And "we" will be electing Kerry because "we" believe the country will benefit. Including you.

I am a dem in a family of life-long republicans, including my 90-year old grandmother, who has never voted for anything but a republican in her life. They're all voting for Kerry and they're even fund-raising for Kerry. Why? Because Bush scares the shit out of them, that's why. It couldn't be more germaine that he's a literally irresponsible nasty silver-spoon-fed self-entitled dumb-ass who MAKES UP REALITY AS HE GOES ALONG and never changes his mind.

Posted by: quisp | Oct 31, 2004 4:27:21 PM

This thread seems a bit laughable. Are there hardcore Republicans who would vote for Bush even if he sprouted straight oily hair and a tiny mustache? Sure. But there is also the portion of the populace who would vote for Kerry even if he started reading out of a little red book at his campaign stops.

If you don't think there are supporters on both sides of this election who are basically ignorant reactionaries who project their own thoughts, feelings, and aspirations on the candidate of their choice, you haven't been reading enough of the comments on blogs around the sphere.

Posted by: Gedanken | Oct 31, 2004 4:45:00 PM

Gedanken

Ah, but you miss the essential difference, the projection by Dems is 'Anybody But Bush'.

Posted by: postit | Oct 31, 2004 4:48:50 PM

I recited the Bush Pledge at the Mass Rally; the President is doubleplusgood.

Posted by: Kimmitt | Oct 31, 2004 4:59:24 PM

Gedanken:

You are sampling on the dependent variable.

Posted by: quisp | Oct 31, 2004 5:03:58 PM

Finnpundit

I've only heard the term Cult of Personality applied to Bush by the left.

Well duh!

Posted by: postit | Oct 31, 2004 5:05:17 PM

"Ah, but you miss the essential difference, the projection by Dems is 'Anybody But Bush'."

I don't think the projection by Dems is 'Anybody But Bush.' It's 'Anybody But a Republican.' Would you be any happier voting for Cheney, DeLay, Ashcroft, or Frist? Of course not. Republicans are no different. They aren't supporting Bush out of any particular enthusiasm for Bush. They just want 'Anybody But a Democrat.'

I haven't seen much evidence of this cult of personality supporting Bush. From what I've seen, most Bush supporters aren't much more enthusiastic about their candidate than Kerry supporters.

Posted by: Xavier | Oct 31, 2004 5:08:47 PM

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