Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: GOP devolving into a cult of personality

As part of their year-end review, the good folks at the Pew Research Center compiled a list of its 16 most striking poll findings in 2016. One of those top 16 is reprinted below in chart form:


As the chart illustrates, Republican and Democratic voters have historically been roughly equal in their support of free-trade agreements, and while that support has fluctuated, it has done so within a rather narrow range. In a Pew poll taken as recently as May of 2015, for example, 51 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters said free trade was a good thing for America; just 39 percent said it was a bad thing.

But in three successive Pew polls taken in 2016, as Donald Trump moved closer to winning the GOP nomination and then the presidency, support for free trade among Republicans collapsed. By October, 68 percent felt that free trade was bad for the country; a mere 24 percent still supported it.  (In the wake of Trump's November victory, I suspect that the next Pew poll will find that downward trend has accelerated.)

As Pew notes, that's a pretty stunning shift in opinion over a very short period of time, and it has all kinds of implications. For example, it suggests that Chamber of Commerce types and top Republicans in Washington who still believe that they can fend off Trump's demands for high tariffs against imports may be in a much weaker position with the GOP base than they realize should the president-elect press the case.

I'm also struck by the parallel between changing Republican attitudes toward trade and changing attitudes toward Vladimir Putin and Russia over the same time period. I've run this chart before, but will do so again for those who missed it:

In July of 2014 -- the findings in blue in the chart above -- just 9 percent of GOP voters reported a favorable view of Putin; 51 percent reported a very unfavorable view. By December of 2016 -- the numbers in orange -- a remarkable transformation had taken place. Suddenly 37 percent had a favorable view of the Russian dictator, a four-fold improvement. A mere 14 percent still viewed him very unfavorably.

That represents a startling repudiation of a century of Republican animosity and suspicion of Russia, dating back at least to the communist revolution of 1917., and it occurred within a span of just 16 months.  As with the poll numbers on free trade, there is only one plausible explanation for that change, and its name is Donald Trump.

Clearly, the Republican electorate is proving far more malleable than I for one thought possible. When challenged to choose between loyalty to longtime party positions and loyalty to Trump, an awful lot of Republican voters are abandoning previous positions to align themselves with Trump. Their loyalty is now to the man, rather than to the party or ideology.

That doesn't bode well for longtime movement conservatives and party traditionalists, who still hold out hope that their Grand Old Party can retain its identity and resist becoming the Party of Trump. It also suggests that party leaders such as Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have much less ability to rein in Trump's potential excesses and oversteps, particularly now that Fox News and the rest of the conservative media-entertainment complex have also enlisted in Trump's cult of personality. It's just hard to see how an effective "principled opposition" to Trump could be generated from within the party.

In fact, the GOP appears to be turning into a case study of what German theorist Max Weber called "charismatic authority." Writing a century ago, Weber observed that people who become disenchanted with traditional or constitutional forms of authority will often turn to a charismatic authority instead, someone "considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with superhuman, supernatural or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities."

" ... it is the duty of those subject to charismatic authority to recognize its genuineness and act accordingly," Weber wrote. "Psychologically, this recognition is a matter of complete personal devotion to the possessor of the quality, arising out of enthusiasm, or out of despair or hope."

Under charismatic authority, rules and tradition don't apply. In fact, the breaking of rules and tradition is kind of the whole point. Instead of consistency or ideology, "Formally concrete judgments are created from case to case, and are originally regarded as divine judgments or revelations," Weber writes. He didn't envision such revelations being communicated by Twitter, but other than that he pretty much nails it.

But as Weber also notes, charismatic authority is inherently unstable. It relies on the charismatic leader producing miracles, and in Trump's case, his unlikely winning of the GOP nomination and the presidency probably meet that qualification. However ...

"If proof and success elude the leader, if he appears deserted by his god or magical or heroic powers, above all, if his leadership fails to benefit his followers, it is likely that his charismatic authority will disappear."



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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.