The Cult of Trump
In 2023, despite his central role in American political and social life for eight years, there remains a lack of coherent understanding of the Cult of Trump.
While willing to criticize Donald Trump, the establishment media and political classes often refrain from directly criticizing Trump supporters who actively ignore reality and instead choose to live in a self-constructed unreality. This civility politics approach coddles the Trump cult and its members instead of confronting them directly.
I believe, if directly confronted, a large element within the Cult of Trump can be convinced to exit stage left and rejoin reality. Specifically, members of the Trump Cult who have chosen and continue choosing to engage with reality like it’s a WWE storyline or an Alternate Reality Game (ARG).
These individuals have decided to become spectators to reality, to yield their power to media figures (or superstars) to battle it out on a grand stage—rallies, debates, commercials, conventions, and so on. Cult members are surrounded by narratives and stories that explain global events and predict future actions. It's a semi-scripted self-fulfilling experience for the masses.
Unlike establishment Democrats, the far right understands that the chaos of our present moment can be better understood, or at least becomes more digestible, if there is a reason or rationale behind it. So they actively seek to craft narratives and storylines which explain the average American citizens’ suffering.
While I would suggest that our present moment and suffering can be traced to wealth inequality and the consolidation of power among a small ruling class, the far right would have you believe this crisis was brought about by DEI initiatives, trans people, and M&M candies. In a vacuum where only one of the two major political parties is offering a compelling (or, at least, an entertaining!) narrative or storyline for present suffering, this uninspired far right pablum can take hold.
The best the Democrats can counter with, it often seems, is a tried and tired tagline like “Vote to Save Democracy!” The establishment left stops short of explaining how we got here and instead relies on voters to bail them out in a pinch (in the same way Democrats bail out the banks—zing!).
But it doesn’t have to be this way. The left can offer a compelling counter-narrative to the right, so long as they are willing to look inward, engage in dialogue, and pursue bold solutions to our present problems.
2000s: You're Fired
Donald Trump was one of my first heroes.
In middle school, around the same time I started watching The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, I was watching The Apprentice. Every week I watched episodes that felt both entertaining and informative. I dreamed of appearing on his show, in a suit and tie, to pitch my million dollar business idea. I watched as Donald Trump would cut straight to the point, finding the winners and losers of the episode, and take appropriate action (see: firing them). The episodes were of course edited to present this obvious narrative, but that didn’t matter to me.
To this day, I remember an episode of The Apprentice where Donald Trump fired an entire losing team at once (four or five people!) because of how poorly they performed in that week’s challenge. I couldn't believe it. I was maybe thirteen years old and I laughed with delight as the losing team walked out of the boardroom. Trump had done it again. It’s fun watching people in suits get fired, after all!
My opinion of Donald Trump was so favorable that I wrote to him, thanking him for his inspiration, and he sent back an autographed book.
2000s: World Wrestling Entertainment
If the building blocks for the foundation of the Cult of Trump were laid with his television persona as a successful businessman, despite his constant and repeated failures, then they were further cemented through his mid-2000s appearances in World Wrestling Entertainment.
Understanding Trump's time in the WWE, as well as the framing of Trump as a successful businessman on television, is central to understanding the myth of Donald Trump which has been embraced by millions of people in the United States.
Some Americans embrace this myth knowingly, in the same way that many watch WWE knowing fully it is fake, while others are suckered, and are swept up in the emotions of the production. Some, maybe even most of his supporters, know that he’s playing a character.
As a teenager, I tuned in week-after-week watching Donald Trump face down Vince McMahon, culminating in a Wrestlemania showdown that even featured my favorite wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin. It didn't matter to me then that both the WWE and Donald Trump’s business successes were fake. All that mattered was that I was entertained.
Here were larger-than-life characters from the WWE crossing paths with a larger-than-life businessman. It was the perfect storyline. The truth didn't matter, the entertainment did.
I watched excitedly as two of my childhood heroes shaved Vince McMahon's hair clean off his scalp. Vince McMahon represented the boss, one of the most hated characters in WWE, while Stone Cold represented the anti-boss, the working class fans of the WWE, standing side-by-side with Donald Trump to shave McMahon’s hair off.
There is no doubt in my mind that Donald Trump, who more than anything is a showman, understands the power of a storyline.
Understanding the power of a storyline is central to understanding how Trump and his far right supporters approach politics. Trump is the central character of their political world, their political narrative, and they work to create storylines for their followers around that reality.
QAnon is not a fluke. QAnon is a story. QAnon is a tool.
2010s: Alternate Reality Game
The best storyline is interactive. The audience plays a role and can even influence the outcome.
The far right, primarily through QAnon and related conspiracy-based endeavors, has created a detailed narrative for their audience to follow and engage with. This narrative plays out both online and in reality.
In a past life, I founded MovieViral.com which followed Alternate Reality Games developed to advertise films such as Cloverfield and District 9. Through this experience, I learned the tactics used by game creators and advertisers to create marketing tools which seek to immerse audiences in the world for the product being advertised. These games can create another layer of engagement for audiences, heightening their participation, and furthering their emotional investment in the product.
However, unlike QAnon, the games we followed on MovieViral.com were never believed to be true. Players always knew they were playing a game. The goal was never to mislead them, to corrupt their reality, and influence them in any way. It was entertainment.
In an article on QAnon’s similarities with ARG campaigns, Reed Berkowitz wrote for the Washington Post:
You can’t play a game if you don’t know you’re playing one. Play requires an agreement to play. Otherwise, it’s just manipulation — which describes Q perfectly. And it couldn’t have worked if it hadn’t been surrounded by a much larger right-wing media and social media disinformation campaign that calls into question the very nature of reality.
The central concept to track here is the right’s efforts to gamify politics.
It's no longer enough to engage the voter every two or four years, instead the right believes we must always be engaging with them, telling them a story, selling them a narrative, keeping them on the hunt, and so on.
This is a piece of the Trump phenomenon that I don't think many fully appreciate.
There are some who call these efforts “psychological operations,” and while there may be some elements which rise to that label, it may be giving too much credit to what is just a disjointed narrative sold by grifters and hucksters.
That is, the vast majority of Americans who find themselves playing the QAnon games are often finding patterns and clues where none actually appear. They are often chasing their own tails. Or buying Mike Lindell’s pillows. Participating in QAnon may be the same as participating in a Sunday Sudoku puzzle, except instead of being challenged to find actual answers, you’re rewarded regardless of what connection or solution you find. In that regard, there are no wrong answers in QAnon.
Meanwhile the gamemasters (most likely the Russians aided by the likes of Steve Bannon and his fascist network of saboteurs, but I digress) adjust accordingly.
Whatever the players find, they adapt and amplify. They move the narrative forward. Sure, if you pay attention closely the goalposts keep moving and no story is ever told, but the goalposts moving doesn’t negate the entertainment derived from the chase! And of course Americans love cliffhangers, sequels, and remakes!
Trump himself has fueled this ARG-approach to politics by dropping references to QAnon and other far right conspiracies into his speeches. These loose references to the “game” being played are often missed or ignored by the mainstream media, but serve as the top of a funnel seeking to capture players and future members of the cult.
2016: American Carnage
So the story is set: the country is under attack from the far left and the only thing we can do to stop it is elect Donald Trump.
Trump, you see, is uniquely positioned to take on these forces. He knows how the game is played. In fact, he's played it so well that at times he's been embraced by the system, but now he's on our side! Now he represents us.
And then the speeches start.
Large, active, and engaged crowds. Stadiums filled with patriotic music accented with giant American flags. And then the rallies start turning violent. But don’t worry, he won’t win. And suddenly there are people wearing khakis, covering their faces, and carrying torches while chanting “the Jews will not replace us.”
But surely this will pass. Surely civility politics will prevail!
While these extreme far right tactics break from civility politics, they also break to the top of every news cycle on every major network. Those of us who exist in the liberal media ecosystem assume an extreme display of far right violence is one that will be met with strong bipartisan condemnation …until it isn’t.
This is important.
The far right sees these accelerationist efforts differently. Instead of being worried by these public displays of White supremacy, they embrace these sudden bursts of astroturf action. Slowly, over time, these events become normalized. Have you noticed that?
Finally, they cheer, someone is airing our collective grievances!
Finally someone is talking about what we have all been feeling: that our lives are difficult, that America is on the ropes, and that we have to do something about it! Finally someone is explaining why we feel this way. The working class of America has been left behind as the managerial and wealthy classes have increasingly isolated themselves from our suffering.
"I alone can fix it!” Trump 2016. Make America Great Again.
He would fix a broken nation that had turned its back on the working class. He was running against another character in the story, Hillary Clinton, who represented the political establishment. Crooked Hillary. It’s all entertainment. Unfortunately Hillary Clinton never shaved Vince McMahon's hair off with Stone Cold Steve Austin. But modern Democrats aren’t in control of the narrative, so she never really had a chance.
45: President Trump
Despite losing the popular vote, Donald Trump became the president of the United States.
We should spend some time considering this as we move forward and as we seek to create a more just, democratic system of government. George W. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 and Trump lost it in 2016, but somehow they both had the chance to take office and battle one another for the title of “Worst President in American History.”
This rapid succession of conservative presidents unpopularly elected will surely make the work of historians easier as they try to decipher the downfall of the American experiment. However, despite the results of the Electoral College, it is this writer's obligation to remind historians of the contemporary popular disapproval of both of these failed presidents. We did our best.
Trump was, of course, impeached twice. First for withholding defensive weapons from Ukraine in exchange for dirt on Joe Biden, and second for sending a lynch mob to hang his Vice President and stop the certification of the 2020 election.
Roger Stone, long-time Trump advisor and noted piece of shit, has said that it’s better being infamous than not being known at all. Which sounds cool as a bumper sticker, but in the context of undermining a democratic nation's ability to protect itself and in an attempt to kill your own Vice President and steal an election, is notably less cool.
Unless you're into that kind of thing. And it’s important to note, many Americans appear to be into that kind of thing.
45: The Big Lie
Does it matter if they believe the election is stolen? Does it matter if they believe WWE is real?
While I'm sure there's a fair amount of people who think the WWE is real, I am not interested in spending my time convincing them that it isn't. But most people know it isn't real. And most Trump supporters probably know the election wasn't stolen (or they don't really care one way or another). The story of the election being stolen matters more than reality, because it explains other elements of the storyline the far right is selling. It is part of a broader narrative. It’s less what is true, more what feels right.
At a certain point, regardless of whether you believe wrestling is "real" or not, you still spend money on it. You still attend shows. You still watch Wrestlemania. Because the truth doesn't matter, the entertainment matters.
In order to break the followers of this far right narrative free, the left must offer a more compelling storyline to win them back. A narrative based in reality which seeks to level the playing field between the super rich, the rich, the middle class, and the poor.
Franklin D. Roosevelt did it once before and we can do it again.
45: The Loser
On election night 2020, Donald Trump declared victory. If you had followed his political sideshow since 2015, there was never a doubt he would challenge the election and call for violence if necessary. Throughout the 2016 campaign his rallies often turned violent, and in June 2020 he used law enforcement and military officials to violently attack peaceful protestors outside of the White House to stage a photo op.
This is political theater, a topic we will return to shortly, and it is central to understanding the Cult of Trump, the WWE-ification of the Republican party, and the present crisis we face.
Despite going on to proliferate the Big Lie, on election night 2020 Donald Trump was (in reality) a loser. Months later, his angry supporters stormed the Capitol to no avail and now they are spending time in prison on his behalf.
We are quickly approaching the point of a cult where the only way out is through, meaning we are likely going to see an acceleration of these far right forces before we see any real curbing of extremism. Despite the reality that Donald Trump is a loser and will be remembered as a loser, those most devoted to his cause may lose sight of reality and turn toward isolation and violence.
But most of his followers know Donald Trump is a loser in the same way they know Hulk Hogan isn’t actually the strongest man on Earth. Despite knowing Donald Trump is a loser, they’re still willing to cheer for him, to buy his merchandise, and to proliferate his talking points because this is primarily entertainment for them. Trumpism has supplanted the daily dullness and suffering produced by neoliberalism and replaced it with an exciting, unbelievable, fast-moving, and interactive storyline which promises each participant their place in the history of the United States as a patriot.
Bored at your day job? You can Save America! Just hop on the computer when you get home, decipher these messages, and see what the Deep State is up to today! While you’re at it, make sure you buy this pillow and this gold commemorative coin. Patriots would buy this pillow and coin.
Disgraced Semi-Fascist: Retribution
And so, as every loser does, Donald Trump turned inward.
It's never good when a person like Donald Trump turns inward and seeks retribution for popular rejection. 81,000,000 people rejecting you has to sting.
As we confront this drift toward extremism and unreality in the Republican Party, we must remember that we stood together, as Americans, in long lines during a pandemic and gave Donald Trump the collective middle finger. He didn’t like this very much and so attempted the nation’s first serious attempt at insurrection. He failed. Classic loser!
When the diet coup failed, and after being impeached for a second time, he started playing the greatest hits again. He started it all over from the top. An ex-president who has been impeached twice is basically the same thing as a television businessman who shaved Vince McMahon’s hair off: an outsider.
Trump's central power is his ability to form an outsider narrative about himself and his movement.
Disgraced Semi-Fascist: Political Theater
There's a reason Donald Trump has his crowds arrive hours before he speaks, forced to listen to Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Mike “My” Pillow while sitting in the sun. This builds anticipation while putting the audience in a more susceptible state of mind, as they grow tired and the sun sets after a long day.
Every tarmac press conference is the same: Just as it seems like he might not show up, an hour after he was scheduled to speak, Trump Force One circles over head. It lands to dramatic music and taxis up to the golden staircase. American flags are waving in the foreground. The door opens. The audience, phones in hand and hats on head, wait for the arrival of the 45th President of the United States as “Hallelujah” plays on the speakers.
Then, like WWE entrance music, Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless The U.S.A.” starts playing.
Out walks Donald Trump.
Donald Trump understands political theater in the same way a televangelist understands the power of religious rhetoric delivered from the pulpit.
Donald Trump is producing political theater. Some of us watch Game of Thrones or The Bachelor, while the Cult of Trump follows the far right’s storyline. It's a daytime soap opera produced by Roger Stone. Occasionally, Trump will even make reference to the conspiracies central to the far right storyline, which further advances the QAnon unreality that so many are pretending to believe or find themselves playing along with.
Despite dealing with this chaos since 2015, Democrats continue to struggle to offer a compelling counter-narrative, as neoliberalism is central to the suffering of many Americans experience, and an alternate vision for the future of this country is scarcely entertained by the establishment left. The failures of neoliberalism and failures of the establishment class to respond appropriately remain central to Trump's success. Without a viable alternative, the United States will continue drifting toward an illiberal democracy.
We should not view the Trump supporter as a lost cause. Instead, we should seek to better understand the problems which contribute to their present condition and offer real solutions to improve their lives. Additionally, I believe strongly that we should make fun of the leaders of the far right in an attempt to bully them back into reality, or out of the public square, and restore an understanding among their followers of important values like meaningful community, hope, democracy, and so on. At this point, the leaders of the movement have really committed to the bit, so making fun of them is easy. Whether or not our pointed humor will win the day is yet to be seen.
There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1936