The two kinds of presidential primary personality cults

One of the unpleasant features of presidential primary campaign season is the personality cults that surround candidates. Anyone who has been involved in arguments about primaries in this or other years, especially online, has seen this dynamic in action. It’s un-republican (in the small-r sense of the word) as well as contributing to the incivility of a lot of debate. On the other hand, it’s also both inevitable and necessary — no candidate gets elected without inspiring some excesses of devotion, and all of us are in some ways prey to these idealizations and rationalizations. Yet some candidates seem to inspire a disproportionate amount of it.

There are really two different species of personality cult: what we might call the Cult of the Ideal and the Cult of the Strongman. They may seem similar, but there are important differences.

The Cult of the Ideal arises when supporters want a candidate who is a pure champion of some set of ideas. Having found a person who seems to embody those ideas, supporters then dismiss all evidence that the candidate has made real-world compromises or deviations from them. The ideal may be a political ideology, it may be a concept of good government or ethical purity, or it may be an idealized concept of the candidate’s biography; it doesn’t matter. Highly ideological candidates like Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders, or Ron Paul are those most likely to inspire the Cult of the Ideal, but we see it in other ways, like the idea that Donald Trump embodies success in business or that Barack Obama or Bill Bradley embodied political reform, or that Mike Bloomberg is the ideal of non-ideology.