The Cult of The Wall
(Originally published in May 2016)
If a presidential candidate were hoping, absent any reasoned case for his candidacy, to lure the weary and despondent into a personality cult that would follow him to the ends of the Earth without reason, he could do no better than invoke “the wall” as his campaign’s defining idea, and to repeat that idea, endlessly, as his cult’s hypnotic mantra.
Dare to explain to that faction of former liberty-loving Trumpsters how their candidate embodies everything they once opposed. Any substantive reply will be sure to mention “the wall,” as in, “He promises to build a wall, and that’s good enough for me.”
Trump dug his campaign’s foundation early with this promise to build “a beautiful wall.” And build it he has! “Trump Wall”—let’s give it a name in keeping with the neon egotism of its builder – is more solid than bricks and steel, and to pass through its “big beautiful door” is to become impervious to the many foreign disturbances and aggravating discomforts of the outside world—that is, to rational arguments and facts.
“The wall” is the perfect psychic image of Trump’s appeal. He has built a following among those who feel marginalized by “the system,” by pretending to be a larger than life bully who will stand up against this system on their behalf. In a sense, the wall is really “Mr. Trump” himself, shielding his hapless dependents (as he sees them and as they see themselves) from that enemy they label The Establishment—which, typically of cultists, encompasses absolutely everyone who is not a member of their cult.
A genuine cult requires a leader whose presence is seen as a superior man’s condescending gift, and followers who are never permitted to perceive themselves as the leader’s equals. Consider Trump’s constant boasts of his greatness, and his promises to “take care of everybody.” Consider his decision to conduct his campaign by means of large rallies staged in arenas—venues cut off from the natural light of the outside world—rather than in open discussions with individuals and small groups.
Try to recall an image of Trump, during this campaign, conversing with fellow citizens face-to-face—not signing autographs for a mob, or hobnobbing with other (usually fawning) media celebrities, but actually engaged in political dialogue with concerned individuals, i.e., with his equals. You probably can’t. The reason is that Trump is not running a presidential campaign, but building a seductive cult. Against which assessment his followers defend their (understandably) sensitive pride by shouting “But he will build a wall!”
Wrong; he has already built one.
“The wall” is the Trump cult’s talisman against persistent opponents, uncomfortable facts, and their candidate’s dearth of political and moral substance. Above all, “the wall” protects Trump’s best followers from themselves, i.e., from their own former beliefs and the common sense that used to guide their critical judgment and patriotism before it was displaced by the dangerous combination of immoderate anger and idol worship.
Having fundamentally transformed his psyche, a cultist’s equilibrium demands that he delegitimize, and as far as possible erase, his own past life, alliances, and aspirations. The chief means to this psychologically necessary self-erasure is the strictly enforced shielding of his present idolatry from the world his mind used to occupy. “The wall.”
Behind “the wall,” Trumpsters convince themselves that it is everyone else who has changed, rather than they, and that they, the Washington establishment’s prize puppets this year, are actually the last rampart of anti-establishmentarianism. Thus, desperate patriots who have lost the will to fight their civilizational war have fallen into the self-contradiction of worshipping a progressive populist demagogue as their savior. They have joined a political suicide cult.
Let us admire the effectiveness of the self-erasure reflex triggered by “the wall.”
Since Trump’s political donation history began to tilt Republican, by far his three biggest beneficiaries have been Karl Rove, John Boehner, and Mitch McConnell, through their respective Super PACs American Crossroads, the Congressional Leadership Fund, and Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, all of which were formed in an effort to “crush” (McConnell’s word) the Tea Party and constitutionalism in general in favor of business-as-usual progressive cronyism.
Trump also contributed heavily to McConnell’s own 2014 reelection campaign against Tea Party candidate Matt Bevin, and publicly endorsed him for Senate Majority Leader. For months, Trump has accused Ted Cruz of being “mean” to McConnell, while praising McConnell as “a good man.” Boehner, meanwhile, has branded Cruz “Lucifer in the flesh,” while calling Trump his texting and golf buddy.
What do the Trumpsters make of this? Thanks to the psychic shield of “the wall,” they simply reassure themselves that Trump’s long and continued complicity with Rove, Boehner, and McConnell is evidence of his anti-establishmentarianism, and that these leading figures’ disdain for Cruz proves that Cruz was the establishment candidate.
Congressman Raul Labrador answered Boehner’s attack on Cruz this way:
He was probably the worst Speaker of the House in history…. Those kinds of things that he’s saying about Ted Cruz are the kinds of things John Boehner has been saying about conservatives in Washington D.C. for the last five years. He hates us. He hates people who disagree with him, and he hates people that do not help him just have a good afternoon with his wine and his golf clubs.
The Trumpsters, who eight months ago would have cheered any Republican who laid into Boehner this way, must now scoff at him or pretend he never spoke. Why? “The wall.”
If you point out that Congressman Labrador is a member of the House Freedom Caucus, the majority of whose members to have endorsed a presidential candidate supported Cruz, the Trumpsters will dismiss this Tea Party-friendly minority as The Establishment. How can they believe such nonsense? “The wall.”
When, before Iowa, the establishment’s old guard—Orrin Hatch, Bob Dole, et al—leapt into the fray to support Trump over Cruz, lobbyist Richard Hohlt explained the insiders’ preference for Trump most straightforwardly:
Do they all love Trump? No. But there’s a feeling that he is not going to layer over the party or install his own person. Whereas Cruz will have his own people there. [Emphasis added.]
To paraphrase: Trump pragmatic insider, Cruz principled outsider. From which Trumpsters immediately drew this conclusion: Cruz pragmatic insider, Trump principled outsider. “The wall.”
Where might Washington lobbyists get the idea that Trump will be a good company man? Might it be from his choice of a chief campaign strategist, Roger Stone, an infamously amoral establishment smear-monger? Or Paul Manafort, a pragmatic Washington lobbyist?
Might it be from his frequently declared “good relationships” with Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and, until he decided to run for president, Hillary Clinton? From his history of supporting politicians of any stripe from whom he might gain personal advantage? From his own and his surrogates’ frequent promises that the protester-punching, KKK-teasing face he is presenting now is merely a performance aimed at winning the support of “the poorly educated,” but that he will become a cynical New York progressive deal-maker (i.e., himself) for the general election?
To all such suggestions, Trumpsters have an easy answer: “the wall.”
Trump Wall symbolizes a genuine American tragedy in the making. Many Trump followers are clearly reality TV junkies who never cared about politics until a super-famous TV star was running for office. Some are unprincipled media operators looking to gain a piece of the action. Others are progressive “New York values” Republicans who approve of Trump’s disdain for so-called social conservatism, or kooks titillated by a candidate who retweets posts from white supremacists.
But many Trumpsters are people who once truly believed in their country’s heritage, founding principles, and moral underpinning. Theirs is the saddest story of this year. They have succumbed to the demeaning appeal of “the wall,” rejecting their own minds for the dream that a blustering tough guy, their better, might do what in truth only they and their equals might have done—if they hadn’t lost their heart for the fight. The space where their dignity once resided has been rented out to a cult leader who promises to make it all go away.
What they fail to understand is that all Trump will make go away is the last remnants of the country they loved, and the life they proudly lived.
They will not be reached by arguments or facts; “the wall” protects them. Unfortunately, it does not protect their country from the likely effects of their cult.