Resolute Square

Why Is The GOP Still In Thrall To Trump? A Study In Authoritarian Cult Dynamics

Fear and fanaticism are part of it, explains Ruth Ben-Ghiat: "Accepting the leader's lies and violence ties them to him, making them partners in his crimes and thus vulnerable to being exposed."
Credit: Logan Cyrus/AFP via Getty Images.
Published:June 15, 2023
Published with the generous permission of Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Read all of her outstanding writing in her Lucid newsletter.

By Ruth Ben-Ghiat

"In the United States Senate, like in many spheres of life, fear does the business," Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown observed in Feb. 2020, noting his Republican peers' capitulation to pressure to acquit Trump during his first impeachment on charges of abuse of power and obstructing Congress.

As strongmen like Trump seduce political elites, promising them more power than they ever dreamed possible, they also corrupt them. Accepting the leader's lies and violence ties them to him, making them partners in his crimes and thus vulnerable to being exposed.

This is why each lawless action by Trump has made the GOP more, not less, faithful to him; in saving him, they think they are saving themselves. And so, after defending him through two impeachments, party elites obeyed Trump's commands to deny his defeat, try and overturn the 2020 election, and then become co-conspirators of a coup attempt on Jan. 6 designed to keep him in power illegally.

"If POTUS allows this to occur...we're driving a stake in the heart of the federal republic," Rep. Chip Roy texted Trump's Chief of Staff Mark Meadows five days before the Jan. 6 insurrection. It is because Roy became a co-author of the coup, along with Meadows and many other GOP lawmakers, that he is still serving his Leader, most recently calling on Congress to "act to restore norms" after the indictment.

Trump is an expert manipulator of people, and the GOP lawmakers who engage in public displays of fealty know that opposing him could mean the end of their political careers. While corruption often works through the promise of material gain, the threat of losing something --your reputation or position-- can be even more persuasive.

An air of desperation surrounds the statements of GOP lawmakers, each one competing to sound more loyal to Trump as they depict the indictment as a politically motivated travesty. "I, and every American who believes in the rule of law, stand with President Trump against this grave injustice," tweeted MAGA acolyte Kevin McCarthy, whose day job is Speaker of the House and whose real job is Keeper of the Trump Personality Cult Flame.

"These are the words and the look of someone whose world is crashing in," commented the legal scholar and former U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance of Rep. Jim Jordan, who insisted during a CNN interview, against all evidence, that his idol had declassified those documents he kept at Mar-a-Lago. Jordan is constantly performing for an audience of one, even creating a sham Subcommittee on the Weaponization of Government to neutralize anything that could harm his leader.

As for Senator Lindsay Graham's conversion from sharp-tongued Trump opponent to sycophant, his trajectory parallels the GOP's fate. Scholars use the term "hollowed out" to describe institutions that lose their independence in autocracies when they have been purged of anyone who is not loyal to the leader. This is what has happened to the GOP, which has become an appendage of an authoritarian whose legal and financial struggles are now its primary business. Already in 2020, the party had no real election platform other than supporting Trump and paid Trump's legal expenses after he left office, to the tune of $1.6 million.  

So happy to be of service to Leader: Sen. Lindsay Graham speaks to Trump supporters, Columbia, SC, Jan. 28, 2023. Logan Cyrus/AFP via Getty Images.

And this is what has happened to Graham, a former military lawyer and national security hawk (including on Russia) whose main cause and priority is now defending Trump —a Putin client— from enemies. His parroting of Trump cult mantras is one measure of his hollowed-out identity as a politician. "I think Donald Trump is stronger today politically than he was before," Graham told ABC in the wake of the indictment as he dismissed the federal charges as "ridiculous."
Yet fear and conformism are not enough to explain the GOP's behavior. Something else drives Graham and other GOP Trump devotees: the thrill of partnering with an amoral individual for whom there are no limits or restraints. Enablers of authoritarians always imagine the power they can wield when the rule of law has been vanquished. Jordan's beady eyes positively gleam with anticipation.

Trump says he will run for president even if he is convicted, and the most self-interested lawmakers may eventually rethink their commitment to him if he ever goes to jail. Some GOP elites may shift their allegiance to another extremist: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is positioning himself to be that person. Others, like Graham, will likely remain Trump loyalists immersed in their magical cult thinking, hoping against hope that their leader will return to the White House and never leave again.