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What to Make of Trump’s Cult-Like Following?

Does man make the times or do the times make the man?

Have Trump’s supporters drank the Kool-Aid? It seems so to me. His followers are loyal to a fault. His speeches seem to bring out the worst in supporters and detractors. Trump plays to the crowd with the real fear of rising violence before, during and after his speeches. This is a real concern going forward especially now that he has a comfortable lead in delegates. Still, let’s put that aside and look at the issues that attract the cult-like following.

Indulge me as I share my knowledge of ancient philosophy. You've heard the phrase "if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it's a duck" haven't you? Legend has it that the "if it looks like a duck" phrase was said by people in the 18th century and referred to a certain mechanical duck. And they were being very serious. That mechanical duck was built to astound audiences, by quacking, moving its head to eat some grain which the mechanical marvel seemingly digested and then after a short time, the machine would round things off by plopping out a dollop, what has been described as, foul smelling sh*t. [I apologize for the language, but it's necessary to make my point].

The "looks like a duck" phrase is now thought of as a mildly amusing philosophical argument but back in the 18th century would certainly have been more akin to the way the Turing Test challenges artificial intelligence systems to fool the assessor into believing the system is a real human and not a computer.

I read these stories a while back and couldn’t get out of my mind that it sounded ominously like Donald Trump’s campaign tactics. Now before you attack me let me add that ample reason exists for the cult-like following Trump has managed to attract. A ‘huge’ number of people are upset with just about everything – and who can blame them. Trumps' issues resonate with the masses, including immigration, trade, corporate inversions, and ISIS. The immigration problem dates back to the Reagan administration. We’re talking about over 30 years trying to solve a problem.

What about our trade policies that undeniably favor exporters to the U.S. to the detriment of U.S. exporters? How can we ever compete on a level playing field? This problem has persisted since 1994, over 20 years, since the Clinton administration signed the NAFTA agreement and Congress approved. CAFTA was passed in 2005 during the Bush administration with Congresses' support. And now we have the Trans-Pacific-Partnership (TPP) supported by President Obama that, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the goal of the agreement is to level the playing field for American workers & American businesses.

Critics of TPP claim there will be a net loss of U.S. jobs. Estimates are that NAFTA has already displaced nearly five million manufacturing jobs. Since China was allowed to join the World Trade Organization, 2.7 million jobs were lost or displaced in just over ten years since 2001. It's no wonder the American people distrust their politicians.

Trump talks about corporate inversions, an issue I have addressed in past blogs. Large companies are setting up headquarters overseas after being “purchased” by a foreign, often smaller entity, for the sole reasons of maximizing profit (lower wages) and minimizing taxes (profits are tax-free until repatriated to the U.S.). Trump promises to end these practices. Like most things he doesn’t explain the ‘how.’

Then there is the rise of ISIS. Are we looking at it as a long-term struggle with an enemy that aims to rule the world under Sharia law? Or, as I suspect, are our future leaders content to “contain ISIS” as President Obama stated in November 2015. Defenders say he meant to apply it only to the geographic expansion of ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Well that makes me feel better.

Should we “bomb, encircle, and take the oil” from ISIS, as Trump has stated? Taking the oil seems a bit over-the-top to me and highly unethical. Besides, we can never totally eliminate ISIS, its off-shoots, or the radical Islamic threat to our country. I hate to say it but we are in World War III. A different kind of war to be sure, but an all-out war nonetheless – a clash of civilizations so to speak.

Let me return to Trump’s cult-like following. Webster defines a cult as “a situation in which people admire and care about something or someone very much or too much” and “a small group of very devoted supporters or fans.” This seems to explain the followers of Trump quite well.

Trump has hit a nerve in the American psyche. Supporters contend, as does Trump, that we never win anymore. We are losing in the battle against illegal immigration; trade with other countries; corporations leaving the U.S. for more profitable foreign lands and jobs going with them; and, perhaps, the battle against ISIS. Add to that the government has done little to improve the well-being of the middle class; reduce and eliminate poverty; improve our crumbling infrastructure (how long has the dysfunctional Congress talked about this one?); and generally regain our moral leadership in the world.

It has been said that Trump’s rise is a phenomenon illustrative of a “cult of personality.” There is an old saying; “Does man make the times or do the times make the man?” I think we would all agree the man made the times with respect to the effect of President’s such as JFK and Reagan. However, with Trump the times make the man. People are angry and many want change…any change…without thinking through the possible long-term consequences to our nation.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on March 16, 2016. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at:

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