In April 1956, Polish-Israeli journalist Viktor Grajewski handed Israeli intelligence one of its most important and famous achievements. Grajewski gave the representative of the Shin Bet in Warsaw a copy of the “Secret Speech” delivered by Nikita Khrushchev to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, which he secured from a friend who worked with the Secretary General of the Polish Communist Party. Israel gave the speech to the CIA, proving for the first time its worth as a prime intelligence partner of the United States.
The speech shocked the West just as it astounded the 1,400 delegates who were allowed to hear it two months earlier. Khrushchev blasted Joseph Stalin’s crimes against his own people and lambasted his deification as a leader above reproach. “Stalin acts for everybody, he does not reckon with anyone, he asks no one for advice,” Khrushchev mocked the hitherto infallible Communist leader. He quoted the “Short Biography” edited and essentially dictated by Stalin himself, which described him as “the greatest leader, sublime strategist of all time.” The startled audience laughed, some for the illusion of freedom that Khrushchev had suddenly instilled in them but others to cover up their own complicity. Many of those who heard Khrushchev’s four-hour, 26,000 word speech were full partners in glorifying Stalin as a man of steel and a sun unto the nations.
The title of Khrushchev’s speech “The Cult of Personality and its Consequences” enshrined the term “cult of personality” as an indicator in political science of leaders who are viewed as touched by divinity, never err and whose word is sacrosanct. On the eve of the Second World War, Stalin had purged his army of its talented commanders and officers, sabotaged Russia’s military industries, was hoodwinked by Adolf Hitler, refused to believe that Germany would attack even after being warned by Winston Churchill, ordered his army to allow the Wehrmacht to reach the outskirts of Leningrad and Moscow and inflicted on his people millions of superfluous casualties and untold suffering. By virtue of his ultimate victory and ability to dictate revisionist history, however, Stalin was absolved of his sins, which were depicted as strokes of genius.
After Stalin’s death, and with the demise of other 20th Century dictators such as Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Mao Zedong, the “cult of personality” was deemed to be waning, or at least restricted to third world countries such as Nasser’s Egypt, Mobutu’s Congo, Idi Amin’s Uganda and Kim Il Sung, his son Kim Jong Il - who was once described as the greatest living golf player - and his grandson Kim Jong Un’s North Korea. At the start of the 21st Century, it’s clear that reports of the end of personality cults were exaggerated: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China are showing signs of leader-worship that is reminiscent, if not identical in scope, to the blind reverence of Stalin and others of his ilk.
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Democratic countries were considered to be relatively immune to the totalitarian strain of cult of personality. Constitutional provisions, the checks and balances of democratic regimes and the existence of a free press were viewed as effective roadblocks to the inherent wishes of the masses to blindly follow their leaders. The election, tenure and conduct of Donald Trump, however, cast new doubt on this assumption. It was Vice President Mike Pence, after all, who seemingly cited Khrushchev’s sarcasm - in earnest, however - when he dubbed Trump “the greatest strategic thinker on national security” that he’d ever met in his life.
The very comparison between Trump and Stalin or Mussolini might be considered ludicrous, justifiably so. American democracy is still alive and kicking, the wheels of justice are still capable of grinding Trump and his advisers to a pulp and a Democratic victory in the upcoming Congressional elections could stop Trump in his tracks and hamper his ability to carry out his policies. Nonetheless, Trump displays many of the character traits of historic leaders who cultivate a cult of personality: He is a narcissist who thinks the world of himself and disdains others. Before becoming President, he built and licensed numerous hotels, casinos and resorts which all bear his name, proving a worthy rival to leaders such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Turkmenistan’s Saparmurat Niyazov, who both dispersed countless statues and monuments in their image throughout their lands. Trump has even adopted the term “enemy of the state”, which Stalin coined, using it this week when he described the media as “the biggest enemy” of the United States.
The praise that Trump habitually bestows on so-called strongmen is a clear sign of his yearning for a cult of personality. Angela Merkel may be “ruining Germany” and Canada’s Justin Trudeau is “weak” and “dishonest” but Putin is a “tough leader” who is “advancing Russia”, controversial Philippine chief Rodrigo Dutarte has “wonderful relations” with him and Kim Jong Un, previously known as “Rocket Man” is now a wise, talented and much beloved leader. His people “have such great fervor” for him, Trump said this week, with barely disguised envy.
The reactions of Republican leaders, and of the right wing media that adores Trump, to his Singapore summit with Kim this week carried all the characteristics of a personality cult. Even when one asserts that the meeting was an important milestone for world peace and even if one concedes the possibility that Kim has undergone a “Sadatization” similar to the Egyptian leader’s historic reconciliation with Israel, and will indeed denuclearize in the future, one cannot deny the willingness of Republican leaders and right wing pundits to glorify supposed achievements that for now exist only in Trump’s words and tweets.
Sean Hannity, Fox News’ popular broadcaster who doubles as Trump’s main adviser, said that Barack Obama’s willingness to meet dictators made him “the Neville Chamberlain of our era” but Trump’s similar steps “strengthen America” and indicate Ronald Reagan-style leadership. Newt Gingrich, hitherto an aggressive hawk, tweeted “POTUS once again proved his strength as a leader on the world stage. He's been president for 18 months, and he's already accomplished more with North Korea than Clinton, Bush, and Obama combined.” GOP Senator Tom Cotton, one of the greatest hawks on Capitol Hill, proved himself a master contortionist, saying that Trump was right to meet with Kim because he has nuclear weapons, but meetings with leaders of Iran or Cuba are verboten, because they don’t. At least Tehran and Havana now know what they need to do in order to attract Trump’s attention.
Trump’s admirers show no hesitation in ignoring proven facts, bending logic till it breaks and inventing gains where there are none. The skinny document signed by Trump and Kim is transformed into a tougher agreement than the detailed accords signed by Kim’s forefathers, which included stringent stipulations on getting rid of his nuclear weapons. The four general clauses in the Trump-Kim document are somehow deemed superior by far to the 159-page Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which obligated Iran to decommission scores of centrifuges, get rid of enriched uranium and agree to a one of the most stringent supervision and verification regimes in the history of non-proliferation. Even Trump’s patently ridiculous statement upon returning from Singapore about the removal of the threat posed by a nuclear North Korea was endorsed and cheered by his fervent followers.
Trump’s cult of personality is enabled by his mastery of social media and by the echo chamber of right wing media, which has turned Trump’s constituency into a captive audience and makes the existence of a free press that exposes the public to differing viewpoints into an anachronism. It relies on genuine admiration for Trump’s personality and conduct but also on fear of his magic influence on the Republican base. Trump’s tweet against Mark Sanford on the eve of this week’s primaries in South Carolina provided further proof, after Sanford’s loss, that Trump is the GOP’s ultimate kingmaker and career-ender. Senator Bob Corker, who found courage after announcing he would no longer seek reelection, was the only one to call out Trump’s “cult-like grip” on his party members.
Trump’s Middle East policies have turned Israel into a local branch that cultivates the U.S. President’s cult of personality. Benjamin Netanyahu, who has already anointed Trump as Israel’s greatest friend ever, hailed his “historic meeting” with Kim, which was “an important step” towards denuclearization. Minister Gilad Erdan lauded Trump’s “tremendous achievement”, his colleague Tzahi Hanegbi said the summit is proof that Trump “won’t tolerate nuclear weapons” and even former Labor Party leader and current Member of Knesset Shelly Yechimovich was moved to “salute” Trump and to declare that “Obama received a Nobel Peace Prize for less.” All this, of course, despite the fact that North Korea has yet to get rid of a single bomb, open any installation to outside supervision or undertake even one concrete step.
Perhaps Israelis are simply used to it. After all, Netanyahu enjoys his own cadres of kowtowers and fawners, in the Knesset and the in the media, which automatically laud his every step and instinctively excuse his sins and misdemeanors as leftist concoctions. Just as with Trump, Netanyahu’s cult of personality among his fellow politicians is a mix of awe at his charisma and fear of his wrath, which can end political careers in a flash. Netanyahu signed a deal with the UN on refugees? Great. He nixed it a few hours later? Wonderful. When he shows restraint in Gaza he proves his statesmanship but when he attacks Hamas he proves his mettle. When Netanyahu tours Europe he shows that talk of Israel’s political isolation is hokum but when European leaders criticize him they display their inherent anti-Semitism.
The interesting question is how the disciples of Trump and Netanyahu will react if and when the U.S. administration submits its peace plan, a possibility that seems imminent. The willingness of GOP stalwarts to bend before Trump’s will should worry champions of the status quo - including Netanyahu - while the similar tendency of Likud politicians to bow to Netanyahu is a cause of concern for Jewish settlers and annexationists. For now, they are relying on the bad blood between Trump and the Palestinians to scuttle the deal at its inception, but if the Palestinians change their tune and decide to view Trump’s peace plan as a basis for negotiations, Israel’s right wing ideologues could find out that the cult of personality is a double-edged sword. When leaders are deemed infallible, their immunity is not limited to the Korean Peninsula.