Trump cults — ‘pro-Trump’ and ‘anti-Trump’ — are not created equal
All charismatic leaders generate cults. Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton all had (or have) more than a little cult-like following. If you don’t think there is a cult surrounding Barack Obama, you are either delusional or part of the cult. Charisma in politics also generates intense jealousy and dislike. The charismatic leader will necessarily represent ideas anathema to many. A cult of opposition — and even hatred — forms.
So it is with Trump. The President has generated both cult-like support and cult-like hatred. If you regularly watch CNN, you might think every Trump supporter is a cult member. But when you dig into the polling numbers, the haters cult is what seems to dominate.
Figuring out the extent of any political (or other) cult is not easy. Nobody is going to admit being in a cult. It’s all quite reasonable to their thinking. In politics, both political parties tend to collect around their presidential nominee and oppose the opponent — so the ballot test and general favorability ratings are not much use. The only option is to dig in on the various issue and character questions.
Joe Biden helps — he is an ideal counterpoint to Trump. Nobody thinks there is a cult of personality around Biden. An old-school retail politician of shifting policy positions and serial verbal gaffes, Biden is an amiable people-pleaser with a “kindly uncle” vibe. As the Democratic nominee, he is the plug-in candidate who won based on winnability against Trump. Anodyne is an asset.
So how would a pro-Trump and an anti-Trump cult look? Cults feature unquestioning members contracting out their thinking to the leader who can do no wrong (or, in the case of the haters, automatic and unquestioning revulsion). A Trump cult should show universal and extreme approval for Trump regardless of the question. To parse this out, I considered how self-identified Republicans and Democrats answered questions in the most recent YouGov benchmark.
In most issue and personal questions respondents were asked to rate their opinions along a more detailed scale than a simple “Yes” or “No.” For example, on policy issues, respondents were asked if they “strongly approve, somewhat approve, somewhat disapprove, or strongly disapprove” of Trump. Cult members would tend to fall into the “strongly” category.
It should be noted that just because a given person “strongly” approves or disapproves of Trump (or Biden), that does not indicate cult membership. But, as the percentage of people in these extreme categories increases, the likelihood of cult membership likely goes up.
The bottom line: the anti-Trump cult looks larger than the pro-Trump cult.
On practically every personal and issue dimension the Trump haters poll higher than Trump supporters among their respective co-partisans. In the ten issue areas polled, Democrats “strongly disapprove” Trump by higher percentages than Republicans “strongly approve” with averages of 66.5 percent of Democrats (6.62 standard deviation) and 50.9 percent of Republicans (standard deviation 10.34). Only in the economy and terrorism are the supporters’ strong approval greater than the haters disapproval.
In addition, GOP voters are not as uniform in their support as the Democrats are in their dislike (as shown by the higher standard deviation). The Republicans range from 67 percent strong support on the economy to 38 percent on the environment, while Democrats outside of the economy (52 percent strong disapproval) range from 62 percent strongly disapprove on spending and taxes to 75 percent strongly disapprove on health care.
Trump does better with Republicans on personal traits, but Democrats still dislike him disproportionately. The haters are way ahead on whether Trump is honest (“No,” 87 percent Democrat; “Yes,” 69 percent Republican), “cares about you” (“not at all,” 80 percent Democrat; “cares a lot,” 54 percent Republican), and how likeable (“dislike a lot,” 75 percent Democrat; “like a lot,” 35 percent Republican). Not many cults have unlikeable Leaders.
Biden actually scores generally higher in personal traits, 49 percent of Democrats like Biden “a lot,” 83 percent say he is honest, and 52 percent say he cares “a lot.” Only in the “strong leader” category does Biden fail (and spectacularly): Just 35 percent of Democrats think Biden is a strong leader, yet 68 percent of Republicans consider Trump a strong leader.
Where the gap is widest between Trump and Biden is voter enthusiasm. But that may well be due to the bland nature of Biden. Sixty-nine percent of Republicans are “enthusiastic” about voting for Trump (80 percent of Democrats are “upset”), while just 50 percent of Democrats are “enthusiastic” for Biden (65 percent of Republicans are “upset”). A whopping 82 percent of Republicans say they are voting “For” Trump but just 47 percent of Democrats are voting “For” Biden — and 51 percent of Democrats claim they are voting against Trump.
Figuring out the exact size of each respective cult likely isn’t possible, but if cult membership is defined as having across-the-board strong approval (or strong disapproval), then the cult would be no larger than the lowest percentage expressing agreement with a superlative statement. That measure puts the maximum size of the Trump cult at 35 percent, the percentage of Republicans who like Trump “a lot.” At the same time, the Trump haters cult would be no larger than 52 percent – the percentage of Democrats who strongly disagree with Trump on the economy.
This dynamic has created two problems for the Democrats. By lazily lumping most if not all Republicans into a “Trump cult,” they failed to make any attempt to peel off GOP voters. The Trump coalition is much more diverse than their stereotypes and was potentially open for poaching. Instead, Democrats settled for a collection of bitter Republican elites who have not moved the polling needle at all.
The second problem is the reflexive gainsay opposition to Trump. Biden and other Democratic candidates are expected to oppose anything Trump says. Every off-color and provocative utterance from Trump results in a frenzied panic. If Trump could control his own predilection to pander to his own cult, Biden would be in real trouble.
The pro-Trump cult is very real, but so is the anti-Trump cult.
The only open question is which cult hurts its own candidate more.
Keith Naughton, Ph.D., co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, is a public affairs consultant who specialized in Pennsylvania judicial elections. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.