What does it mean to be authoritarian? What is a cult? These are labels Democrats assign to the presumptive Republican candidate for president and to a significant part of his followers. Are these labels accurate, or are they just political rhetoric?

Authoritarianism refers to a style in which a person assumes and acts as if they have absolute rule — total power and immunity. They presume they can act like a king or dictator with supreme power. We accept Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin as authoritarians with that internal expectation.

Any deviation from their wishes can mean death or imprisonment. No exceptions are allowed to their dictates. Authoritarians ignore or attack decisions they oppose and punish their opposition to the best of their ability.

Many Democrats claim Donald Trump is cut from the same cloth as Xi and Putin. Is that true, or is it just political rhetoric against a candidate who received about 74 million votes in the 2020 presidential election?

Does Trump attack his enemies rather than argue policy? Does he work to punish and threaten his opponentsDoes he ignore laws or judgments not to his liking? Does he lie? Did the former president work to attain personal wealth through his office as other authoritarians have done? Does he scapegoat minorities and people with disabilities as Adolf Hitler did the Jews? If yes, and by those criteria, Trump is authoritarian.

Those with dictatorial beliefs offer quick answers to complex questions. They tend to rise to power when countries are in despair, with significant dissatisfaction and malaise, such as Putin and Hitler.

Authoritarian leaders suppress oppositional thought and create a strong megaphone of their own. Ingeniously, Trump embedded a belief in “false news” early in his ascent to power. Two impeachment trials and a Jan. 6th hearing made little dent in MAGA’s opinion. Few of his supporters followed the proceedings. The same is likely in the coming 91 indictments with evidence critical of the former president’s behavior.

All Trump voters are not cult members, but a significant portion fit the definition. Cult members are typically led by a self-appointed charismatic leader who requires absolute devotion and insists on total denial of information critical of their leader. The insistence on this alternative reality must be intact to qualify as a cult member.

Cult members maintain an unwavering belief in the wishes and thoughts of their leader. They deny and ignore oppositional thought and imbue unbounded admiration for the leader, bordering on religious faith.

Trump fosters a cult of personality in which he is the only one who can make America great again. It is a true sign of an authoritarian and, for those most devoted followers, religiously embedded.

As authoritarian power grows, so does its grandiosity. Recently, Trump posted a video on Truth Social touting the idea that God created him as a caretaker and “shepherd to mankind.” Posters of him in a pose with Jesus Christ are easily found at his rallies.

Trump rallies are settings of joy, if not rapture. Followers commonly wait hours for his arrival, interrupt his utterances with excitement, and laugh uproariously at his slurs and put-downs, enjoying the rude expressions he dares to say. They turn to their like-minded neighbor wrapped in a community addiction, joyful to be a part of this community.

Trump is not an ordinary politician. He is perceived to be a savior by many. Trump is fighting for them. He knows their grievances and frustrations. They have been waiting for him.

Devoted followers are so convinced of his righteousness that civil behaviors are bent. His direct and indirect support of violent behavior becomes acceptable, a telling measure of cult behavior if suggested by the leader. The most common rationalization in Germany after World War II was that “I followed orders. I don’t believe that I’m to blame.” Blind and unthinking commitment dominates over facts, discussion and rational thought.

Ultimately, however, authoritarians destroy democracies. They suppress their enemies and elevate their most loyal supplicants with power. They may deliver short-term satisfaction to some but ultimately long-term disaster to the masses.

Trump supporters, cult followers or otherwise, need the maturity to understand what they are buying is fool’s gold. They may enjoy short-term benefits. Their children and our democracy will not. There is substance in labeling Donald Trump as authoritarian, and some of his followers are accurately labeled as cult-followers.

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