The Cult of Personality
The cult of Personality is a classic example of Secret 3: Everything from the margin moves to the center.
The cult of personality is defined as: “a quantitatively exaggerated and qualitatively extravagant public demonstration.”
In an article on January 15, 2016, Ruth Ben-Ghlat[i], wrote about the cult of personality as: “The leader has to embody the people but also stand above them. He must appear ordinary, to allow people to relate to him. And yet he must also be seen as extraordinary so that people will permit him to be the arbiter of their individual and national destiny”[ii].
The industrial revolution of the nineteenth century had a very significant impact on human lives. The extra time generated in human life was one of the byproducts of industrialization. There have always been individuals with the personality cult in human history; however, I will focus on the cult of personality since the industrialization of the nineteenth century.
The term “Cult of Personality” was used as a “Cult of genius” between 1800 and 1850. In 1877, Karl Max[iii] was the first person to use the term cult of personality politically in his letter to a German politician named Wilhelm Blos. In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev, a Russian politician, used the term Cult of Personality during his speech to criticize one of his contemporaries[iv].
The purpose of creating the cult of personality is to expand the business and to take control of resources, including human resources. I think it is a sort of yellow journalism as the emotions and feelings of the audience is manipulated by the media owners and advertisers to gain financial benefits.
The Creation of Cult of Personality:
The legacy media looks for a central character[v] in a story that their target audience will accept. Once a central character is identified, the media links sensationalism[vi] to it, and the character becomes more significant than the story itself. This central figure sometimes develops into “the Cult of Personality” for a targeted audience.
The effect of an individual with the cult of personality on a targeted audience is both attitudinal[vii] and psychological[viii]. The media and the other stakeholders bank on these attitudinal and psychological effects on the audience to do their business. Some moral and ethical compromises are usually acceptable as a business expense.
Some important news may be omitted by the media because the media owners and the stakeholders may deem that news report to be unfit for their business. The omitted story is considered unsuitable not because it lacks importance, but because it does not fit with the cult of personality that has been created. This news can remain excluded from the legacy media until a new individual with the unique cult of personality matching with the story is found.
A recent example is the last Friday’s terrorist attack attempt that many of us did not even hear. Asheville Regional Airport staff narrowly thwarted an attempted terrorist attack by a White Nationalist in NC. This attempt to attack an American airport went unnoticed by most of the media, including Trump’s Twitter account[ix].
On the other hand, the cult of personality President Donald Trump continues to capture the imagination of the nation despite giving wrong statements about Puerto Rico and calling NFL players SOBs for exercising their constitutional rights.
The symbolic interactionism[x] of the cult of personality viewers with their peers and co-workers usually results in a magnified target audience. Once a minimum desirable size of the initial target audience[xi] is achieved, the situation is tailor-made for media owners, product manufacturers, and the advertisers to set the future agenda[xii]. The Psychological Effects[xiii] of the cult of personality on an audience allow media to deliver their business message and “The medium (becomes) the message” or, in other words, the cult of personality becomes the message. The cult of a personality leads us to buy unnecessary products as Kevin Palmer said: “(we) pay homage to them while throwing them (our) hard-earned dollars.”
In the world of social media and with no Main Stream Media (Secret 2), the “quantitatively exaggerated and qualitatively extravagant public demonstration of praise” has become easier, cheaper, and quicker. The cult of a personality may be short-lived, but the consequences on the lives of people are long term.
The Cult of Personality Examples:
According to the FBI and 382 police agencies, the White Nationalism had been on the rise for a very long time in America[xiv]. Trump recognized this rise and its possible impact during the elections. He devised a strategy and a message that complied with the mood of White Nationalists. The legacy media was aware of this trend as well and identified Trump as a candidate with the cult of personality. Trump became the medium, and therefore the message that media owners and other stakeholders wanted to sell. The message was well-received, or in other words, Trump was well-received, as evident from the 2016 election results.
The Right-Wing White Nationalists like David Duke, Steve Bannon, and many others joined Trump’s camp to promote his campaign, i.e., their own White Nationalists agenda. It was a win-win situation for the candidate Trump, media, and the targeted audience. According to GDLET[xv] , Trump received almost 50% of all the TV mentions during his campaign[xvi]. Social media amplified the legacy media message as well, and Trump became the darling of the entire American media. Referring to Trump during the U.S. Presidential elections of 2016, Wendy W. Moe[xvii] said: “during the 2016 Presidential primaries, the ‘cult of personality’ candidate, Trump, won the primary”[xviii].
Trump quantitatively exaggerated any news or any information that could support his propaganda. At the end of the 2016 elections, we had the “cult of personality” Trump as the president of the United States of America.
Silvio Berlusconi, the Prime Minister of Italy, is another cult of personality politician. At first, he compared himself with Napoleon, but he said he was only joking, and he is, in fact, “The Jesus Christ of Italian politics.” Italy is a home of a lot of Roman Catholics, and Jesus Christ is a revered figure in the country; Berlusconi, just like Trump recognized the sentiments and the feelings of people and channeled those feelings to his advantage. By calling himself Napoleon or Jesus Christ, he assigned himself as a National leader and therefore fulfilled one part of the definition of the cult of personality, i.e., “The leader has to embody the people but also stand above them.” The second part of the cult of personality is “He must appear ordinary, to allow people to relate to him. And yet he must also be seen as extraordinary so that people will permit him to be the arbiter of their individual and national destiny.” Berlusconi fulfilled the second part of the cult of personality as well as he said: “I am a patient victim.”
Despite tarnished background, sex scandals, and tax fraud convictions, I think it was the cult of his personality that kept Berlusconi as a Prime Minister of Italy for a very long time.
Has the media played any role in the creation of the cult of personality for Prime Minister Berlusconi? Yes, absolutely. Berlusconi owns three main commercial TV channels and its biggest advertising sales agency to promote himself as the cult of personality[xix].
Russian President Vladimir Putin is another cult of personality figure of the contemporary world. Putin being a Communist leader, controls the media of his country[xx]. This luxury of owning a media has made it easier for Putin to create himself as the cult of personality for Russians.
Some pictures[xxi] of Putin are shown so he could be related to an average person while some other images (e.g., Putin in a submarine, taking his opponent down in karate, etc.) are released to portray Putin as an extraordinary person. Putin, therefore, is permitted to be the arbiter of individual and national destiny of the people by the people. The cult of personality around Putin is, thus, created.
To ingrain the cult of personality in the next generation, Putin’s portrait appears on the walls of schools. To study Putin’s life story and his achievements are part of a school curriculum in Russia[xxii].
I think Putin is utilizing media better than any other leader of the world to promote his cult of personality.
The creation of the cult of personality is a great business idea, and economically speaking, the cult of personality creates a lot of jobs, but it has consequences as well. The cult of personality distracts the audience from the main story, and in recent times it has become harder to find any meaningful information from most of the news media.
- Education and effective communication to debunk false information.
- Replace the false information with the facts.
- I hate to use the word of the cult of personality for someone like Nelson Mandala or Mother Teresa, but these are the people who should be promoted in media and their messages.
[i] a NYU Historian, writes on wars, dictatorships, politics of images
[iii] A German philosopher, economist, political theorist, sociologist, journalist and revolutionary socialist
[iv] The final day of 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
[v] Individualism – Page 143
[vi] Sensationalism – Page 362
[vii] Page 33
[viii] Page 34
[x] Page 40
[xi] Page 388
[xii] Page 38
[xiii] Page 34
[xv] GDLET tracks all the coverage of the election by the major broadcast and cable news channels.
[xvi] Page 38 – Agenda Setting
[xvii] University of Maryland
[xviii] Donald Trump and the ‘Oxygen of Publicity’: Branding, Social Media, and Mass Media in the 2016 Presidential Primary Elections. Sarah Oates and Wendy W. Moe. American Political Science Association. 25 August 2016. p.21. Accessed 3 August 2017.
[xx] Communist Theory – Page 384
[xxii] JULIE A. CASSIDAY and EMILY D. JOHNSON – The Slavonic and East European Review Vol. 88, No. 4 (October 2010), pp. 681-707