Cult films are cool. They’re dumb films, often intentionally absurd, often intentionally ironic. The “cult” is in on the joke. They watch these things over and over and shout out the lines along with the actors on screen, or sing along if there’s a musical number. The Rocky Picture Horror Show is one of those. The Princess Bride is another. These films never go away. They provide what many crave, that feeling of smug knowing irony – a sense of cultural superiority. They’re in on the joke. Even the original cheesy Star Trek series will do. That’s available on cable here and there. That’s so bad it’s good.
Real cults aren’t good. There was Jim Jones and that Kool-Aid and all the dead people. There was Charles Manson. Nothing was slyly ironic in either case – and political cults, built around a purposely nasty strong leader, are dangerous. Mussolini did Italy no good. Hitler did no one any good – millions died. That will never happen again. Everyone knows better now. Everyone is in on that joke. The next Hitler will be laughed off the world stage. Knowing irony will take care of that.
No, it won’t. Smugness won’t help either. Donald Trump has reached cult status. The Washington Post’s David Weigel and Robert Costa report this:
Fiercely and undeniably, the Republican Party this week confirmed its rebranding as the party of Trump.
Buoyed by a late Tuesday presidential tweet, voters in South Carolina cast out Rep. Mark Sanford, a firmly conservative member of Congress who had survived earlier scandal, in favor of a state legislator who had condemned Sanford for publicly criticizing the president. In Virginia, Republicans nominated for senator a Trump-like candidate with a history of embracing, as the president has, Confederate symbols and white nationalists.
Confederate symbols and white nationalism are warning signs to some, those who remember Hitler and the Jews and those guys with torches in Charlottesville shouting “Jews will not replace us!” Donald Trump said “some of them” were fine people, but it’s more than that:
The week was marked by continued deference to Trump on the part of congressional leaders who have swallowed the president’s upending of long-standing party views on several major issues. Legislative efforts by some in the party to wrest trade authority back from Trump and rewrite the nation’s immigration laws in ways he has opposed both fell in defeat.
Meanwhile, many in the party who in the past have opposed talks with North Korea’s leader this week praised Trump for his summit with Kim Jong-Un.
As a result, the Republican Party appears united now not by fealty to ideas or policies but to a man, one who defied the odds to win the presidency and who has magnetically drawn the party’s power bases to himself.
Some have noticed that:
“It’s becoming a cultish thing, isn’t it?” Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee told reporters Wednesday morning. “It’s not a good place for any party to end up with a cult-like situation as it relates to a president that happens to be of – purportedly – of the same party.”
Bob Corker is late to the party. He hasn’t noticed what else Trump has been doing:
His social media habits have commanded the airwaves and obliterated any efforts by Republicans or Democrats alike to change the subject.
His hotel, down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, has become the requisite gathering place for Republican groups, political donors and foreign visitors, a visual and, for the president, financially rewarding symbol of demonstrated loyalty.
Driving it all has been the sentiment of Republican voters, who have swiftly adopted the president’s issue positions and looked the other way at a progression of missteps and conflicts that would have doomed prior presidents.
Despite misgivings about Trump’s behavior, Republican voters have rewarded him with support unmatched by a Republican president since George W. Bush’s tenure in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. And they have rained down punishment on those who disagree with Trump.
That’s a cult and Corker is out of luck:
Earlier this week, after Trump threatened a trade war with Canada, one of the nation’s strongest allies, Corker had been pushing the legislation to reduce the president’s power to set tariffs.
Its defeat, along with that of the immigration legislation pushed by moderate Republicans, reflected the sentiment of voters: They want the party to stand by the president, and it is pointless to resist.
But there’s this:
Trump’s Tuesday afternoon endorsement of Katie Arrington, a U.S. House candidate in South Carolina, may have contributed to her victory over Sanford, a longtime Trump nemesis. But his endorsement of other candidates – such as Alabama’s appointed Sen. Luther Strange or Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie – did little to improve their standing and may have contributed to their defeats.
Republicans face a conflict in five months because most of the races that will determine control of the House are being fought in suburban districts, filled with women and independent voters who have been less in thrall to Trump than have elected officials and strongly Republican voters.
Already in Virginia, outside fundraising groups have backed away from embracing the controversial new U.S. Senate nominee, Corey A. Stewart. But Stewart, strongly supported by Trump, remains on the ballot, and his presence there threatens to diminish the turnout levels Republicans need to hit to hold on to several suburban House seats amid rampant Democratic enthusiasm.
In short, the cult wins the primaries and loses in the general election, unless this is all nonsense:
Trump’s closest allies have largely dismissed the “cult” commentary, as Corker put it, as evidence of cultural and class tension inside the Beltway.
“They keep saying the cult stuff because they don’t like the disruption and change,” said former White House communications director and financier Anthony Scaramucci. “He doesn’t speak with an elitist vocabulary and the savoir faire that Washingtonians are used to,” referring to Trump.
Perhaps so, but there’s this:
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, whose primary campaign highlighted his alliance with Trump, was forced into a runoff with a business executive who ran as an outsider. Turnout in that race was down by about 25 percent from 2010, the last time the state’s Republicans had a contested gubernatorial primary.
Similar signs of disinterest bedeviled Republicans in other primary states. In Maine, while just 90 percent of precincts had been counted, Republicans were likely to fall roughly 30,000 votes short of their 2010 turnout. In Nevada, roughly 30,000 fewer Republicans voted than in 2010; Adam Laxalt, who tied himself more closely to Trump than to the state’s outgoing Republican governor, had gotten a last-minute Trump endorsement in the gubernatorial race.
In Virginia, Republican turnout was lower than it had been for 2017’s gubernatorial primary; Stewart, who had lost that race with 155,780 votes, won Tuesday’s Senate primary with 136,410 votes.
Those are bad signs for the cult, but there’s this too:
In Michigan, two Republican candidates have spent weeks squabbling over how one of them abandoned Trump after the pre-election release of a recording of Trump bragging about sexual assault.
In Minnesota, former governor Tim Pawlenty is seeking a comeback by running against benefits for undocumented immigrants and recanting the criticism he made of Trump after the tape’s release.
“It set my wife off,” Pawlenty told a radio interviewer after entering the race. “I needed to speak to that, and I did. But since then, as he’s been president, he’s outlined policy positions that I agree with – most of them, not all of them.”
Tim Pawlenty won’t listen to his wife any longer – he swears. He’s all-in for Trump now, and that’s that:
Longtime Republican consultant Mike Murphy, a Trump critic who led the super PAC supporting former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential bid, said the GOP may have to “wait for the election” this fall to finally loosen the president’s grip on the party’s voters and leadership.
“Trump is king, and the party has a suicide pact,” Murphy said. “You would hope we could see it coming, that there is enough evidence with polling and the special election results, or with him coddling dictators. But it’s clear primary voters disagree.”
This can’t be fixed, so this was inevitable:
In Nevada, brothel owner Dennis Hof, the star of a TV show about prostitution and the author of “The Art of the Pimp,” blew past a Republican incumbent to win the nomination for a seat in the state legislature. In an interview, Hof said that Trump “blazed the trail” for him.
“He gave me the confidence that I could do this – I could be a reality TV star, an author and a brothel owner and then be elected to serve,” said Hof. “I want to keep the stuff that the president’s got going.”
Dennis Hof sees no irony here, even if others do, but Paul Waldman is not surprised by any of this:
People like Corker or his colleague Jeff Flake – both of whom opted to retire when faced with at least the possibility that their occasional criticisms of President Trump could subject them to a successful primary challenge from a Trump loyalist – have come to believe that their party has been twisted into a cult of personality. But the truth is that what we’re seeing now is just a new manifestation of forces and tendencies that have been present in the GOP for some time…
Republican primary voters don’t really care about how their representatives voted, because the measure of fealty to the cause has shifted. A few years ago, it was how vigorous you were in opposing Barack Obama. Did you support shutting down the government? Was your criticism of him sufficiently angry and personal? If a policy issue came up in those contests, it was likely to be immigration, which was really about tribal loyalty. If you weren’t devoted enough to keeping out foreigners (especially the non-white ones), then you could lose your seat, as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor found out in 2014.
All it took was a few successful primary challenges, like the ones that ousted Cantor, Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah (in 2010) or Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana (in 2012), to get the message across to incumbents. That was an important reason why the wall of opposition to Obama remained so unbroken: It wasn’t just a strategy to achieve Republicans’ collective goals; it was also, each of them knew, a way to avoid trouble from the right.
That may be the problem here:
This year, two incumbent Republicans have lost primaries: Rep. Robert Pittenger of North Carolina and now Sanford. A third, Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama, who in 2016 called for Trump to leave the race after the “Access Hollywood” tape came out, has been forced into a runoff she could well lose. Dating back to 2010, these races all show a similar pattern. A seemingly safe incumbent gets a challenge from a hard-right candidate claiming they aren’t faithful to the One True Cause. At first everyone assumes the incumbent will have no trouble fending it off – but then the challenge turns out to be stronger than anyone realized and the incumbent loses.
Democrats have had the occasional successful primary challenge from the left, and may have one or two this year. But the fact that Republican races are being defined by which candidate can claim the greatest loyalty to Donald Trump shows that this isn’t a phenomenon of opposition, in which the out-party’s voters respond to their exile from power by seeking ideological purity. It’s a phenomenon of the GOP. They do it when they’re out of power, and they do it when they’re in power.
And now they have their own Fearless Leader:
It’s hard to say exactly how this would manifest itself if there were an ordinary Republican sitting in the Oval Office right now. But this president not only promotes but demands a cult of personality, and his supporters are responding. What matters to him is much less where you stand than whether you display the proper level of devotion, praising his masterful decision-making, lauding his keen mind, and marveling at his gigantic hands. Do all that, and the Republican base won’t turn on you.
But if you stray, you’ll find yourself the next target in the endless search for apostates to purge.
And that, in turn, leaves no time for governance:
It’s important to remember that, having cut taxes but being (rationally) terrified to carry out the vivisection of the safety net that they fantasize about, Republicans have virtually no legislative agenda left. What gives the party meaning now is Trump, and little else. When Bob Corker says “It’s almost, it’s becoming a cultish thing, isn’t it?” the only thing he has wrong is the “almost.”
Waldman is right about that:
A State Department political appointee has been vetting career employees for their loyalty to President Trump, leading at least three to quit, according to a report in Foreign Policy.
Mari Stull, a senior advisor to the Bureau of International Organization Affairs (BIOA), is alleged to be combing the social media pages of diplomats and other State Department and UN workers looking for indications of their political views, investigating their work under previous administrations, and compiling lists of people she believes are not loyal to the Trump administration. Those viewed as suspicious have been excluded from meetings and briefings.
This is another search for apostates to purge:
Stull, a former food and beverage lobbyist who also blogged about wine under the pen name Vino Vixen, was hired in April to work with BIOA, the State Department office in charge of diplomatic relations with the United Nations and other international bodies.
Foreign Policy reports that Stoll’s practices have driven at least three senior career officials to quit the bureau. “I have in my entire federal career never experienced anything at this level of chaos and dysfunction,” one source told the magazine.
Say that again and the Vino Vixen will report you, and you’ll be gone, and Brian Stelter reports another aspect of this:
Hours after returning from a trip where he lavished praise on one of the world’s worst dictators, President Trump declared that America’s biggest enemy is “fake news.”
He singled out NBC and CNN in his angry tweet on Wednesday.
Trump frequently portrays the news media as one of his enemies, but rarely has he been this blunt about it. Wednesday’s tweet harkens back to February 2017, when he called several news outlets “the enemy of the American People!”
Trump just carried this forward. Kim is not the enemy. North Korea is not the enemy. America’s press is the enemy:
Wednesday’s tweet was apparently provoked by news coverage of Trump’s summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un.
“So funny to watch the Fake News, especially NBC and CNN,” he wrote. “They are fighting hard to downplay the deal with North Korea. 500 days ago they would have ‘begged’ for this deal – looked like war would break out. Our Country’s biggest enemy is the Fake News so easily promulgated by fools!”
New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman translated the tweet this way: “Someone is unhappy with headlines reflecting what happened instead of what he wants to say happened.”
MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell asked: “What deal? There is no deal with North Korea.”
On Twitter (of course) there was some speculation that the presidential tweet was written by someone else, given the use of the word “promulgated.” Regardless, it came from his account. The tweet quickly became one of Trump’s most-shared posts of the day.
Some journalists expressed astonishment at Trump’s message. Others laughed it off.
The next Hitler will be laughed off the world stage, or not:
Journalism professor and entrepreneur Dan Gillmor used the occasion to tweet a message to the news industry.
“Dear journalists,” he wrote, “once again: When someone declares war on you and on freedom of expression, you have two options. 1) Surrender (what many have done already by normalizing this stuff). 2) Find allies and fight like hell to protect freedom of expression for everyone, not just you.”
That is the fight:
The tweet came in the wake of a wave of attacks launched on Jim Acosta, CNN’s chief White House correspondent. Trump officials and their allies in the media attacked Acosta for asking Kim and Trump questions during a signing ceremony at the Singapore nuclear summit. In plainer words, Acosta was assailed for doing his job.
Brad Parscale, the Trump 2020 campaign manager, said Acosta’s press credentials should be “immediately” suspended, calling the journalist an “absolute disgrace” on Twitter. In a Fox News appearance, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, responded to a question on Acosta, saying that there is a “time and a place” to ask questions, urging journalists to be a “polite house guest.”
Acosta responded on Twitter to the suggestion he have his press credentials revoked, tweeting, “Dictatorships take away press credentials. Not democracies.”
Maybe so, but Donald Trump has reached cult status. That’s the first step, and that leads to this sort of thing:
Questions about perceived gaps in the joint statement signed by President Trump and Kim Jong Un are “insulting and ridiculous and frankly ludicrous,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters Wednesday in Seoul, where he is briefing South Korea on Tuesday’s U.S.-North Korean summit in Singapore.
Asked specifically about verification of Pyongyang’s denuclearization and whether it will be irreversible – objectives outlined by Trump but unmentioned in the statement – Pompeo said: “The modalities are beginning to develop. There will be a great deal of work to do. There’s a long way to go. There’s much to think about.”
“But don’t say silly things,” he said. “No, don’t. It’s not productive.”
Don’t ask about the actual words in the joint statement and just trust Our Fearless Leader:
Pompeo said the statement’s reference to “complete” denuclearization “encompasses verifiable and irreversible.”
Everyone knows that, you fools:
“Not all of that work appeared in the final document,” Pompeo said. “But lots of other places where there were understandings reached, we couldn’t reduce them to writing.” That work, he said, was “beyond what was seen in the final document that will be in the place that we will begin when we return to our conversations.”
Kevin Drum is not amused:
Now that’s frankly ludicrous. If you can’t reduce it to writing, it’s meaningless and he knows it. So do all the rest of us. And so do the North Koreans.
At this point, I suppose there’s little reason to keep writing about the Singapore summit. It obviously accomplished nothing, no matter how much Donald Trump tweets otherwise, and there’s nothing left to do except see if Pompeo and his team make any concrete progress in upcoming negotiations – if they do then all kudos to them. But until then, stop insulting our intelligence.
The American Conservative’s Daniel Larison is not amused:
It is appropriate and indeed necessary for people to raise questions about what the government is doing, and it is not “silly” to point out flaws and omissions when they actually exist. If most observers are emphasizing that the statement released after Tuesday’s summit was weak and lacking in specifics, that is because the administration is trying to sell it as a major success.
It is the job of journalists and experts to question official claims and to challenge them when they are false. If Pompeo doesn’t like “insulting and ridiculous” questions, perhaps he and the president should not say ridiculous things that insult the intelligence of informed people.
Drum and Larison are right, but they inhabit the world of informed people, and they’re outnumbered. Everyone else is a member of the cult, shouting out the lines in unison with the guy on the big screen, or singing along if there’s a musical number. This is the Rocky Picture Horror Show, without the sly humor that made it all a joke. This is no joke. This did happen again. Everyone didn’t know better.