I’m a huge believer in the usefulness of social science, especially studies that use comparisons across time and space to shed light on our current situation. So when political scientist Henry Farrell suggested that I look at his field’s literature on cults of personality, I followed his advice. He recommended one paper in particular, by New Zealand-based researcher Xavier Márquez; I found it revelatory.
“The Mechanisms of Cult Production” compares the behavior of political elites across a wide range of dictatorial regimes, from Caligula’s Rome to the Kim family’s North Korea, and finds striking similarities. Despite vast differences in culture and material circumstances, elites in all such regimes engage in pretty much the same behavior, especially what the paper dubs “loyalty signaling” and “flattery inflation.”
Signaling is a concept originally drawn from economics; it says that people sometimes engage in costly, seemingly pointless behavior as a way to prove that they have attributes others value. For example, new hires at investment banks may work insanely long hours, not because the extra hours are actually productive, but to demonstrate their commitment to feeding the money machine.
In the context of dictatorial regimes, signaling typically involves making absurd claims on behalf of the Leader and his agenda, often including “nauseating displays of loyalty.” If the claims are obvious nonsense and destructive in their effects, if making those claims humiliates the person who makes them, these are features, not bugs. I mean, how does the Leader know if you’re truly loyal unless you’re willing to demonstrate your loyalty by inflicting harm both on others and on your own reputation?
And once this kind of signaling becomes the norm, those trying to prove their loyalty have to go to ever greater extremes to differentiate themselves from the pack. Hence “flattery inflation”: The Leader isn’t just brave and wise, he’s a perfect physical specimen, a brilliant health expert, a Nobel-level economic analyst and more. The fact that he’s obviously none of these things only enhances the effectiveness of the flattery as a demonstration of loyalty.
Does all of this sound familiar? Of course it does, at least to anyone who has been tracking Fox News or the utterances of political figures like Lindsey Graham or Kevin McCarthy.
Many people, myself included, have declared for years that the GOP is no longer a normal political party. It doesn’t look anything like, say, Dwight Eisenhower’s Republican Party or Germany’s Christian Democrats. But it bears a growing resemblance to the ruling parties of autocratic regimes.
The only unusual thing about the GOP’s wholesale adoption of the Leader Principle is that the party doesn’t have a monopoly on power; in fact, it controls neither Congress nor the White House. Politicians suspected of insufficient loyalty to Donald Trump and Trumpism in general aren’t sent to the gulag. At most, they stand to lose intraparty offices and, possibly, future primaries. Yet such is the timidity of Republican politicians that these mild threats are apparently enough to make many of them behave like Caligula’s courtiers.
Unfortunately, all this loyalty signaling is putting the whole nation at risk. In fact, it will almost surely kill large numbers of Americans in the next few months.
The stalling of America’s initially successful vaccination drive isn’t entirely driven by partisanship — some people, especially members of minority groups, are failing to get vaccinated for reasons having little to do with current politics.
But politics is nonetheless clearly a key factor: Republican politicians and Republican-oriented influencers have driven much of the opposition to COVID-19 vaccines, in some cases engaging in what amounts to outright sabotage. And there is a stunning negative correlation between Trump’s share of a county’s vote in 2020 and its current vaccination rate.
How did lifesaving vaccines become politicized? As Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein suggests, today’s Republicans are always looking for ways to show that they’re more committed to the cause than their colleagues are — and given how far down the rabbit hole the party has already gone, the only way to do that is “nonsense and nihilism,” advocating crazy and destructive policies, like opposing vaccines.
That is, hostility to vaccines has become a form of loyalty signaling.
None of this should be taken to imply that Republicans are the root of all evil or that their opponents are saints; Democrats are by no means immune to the power of special interests or the lure of the revolving door.
But the GOP has become something different, with, as far as I know, no precedent in American history although with many precedents abroad. Republicans have created for themselves a political realm in which costly demonstrations of loyalty transcend considerations of good policy or even basic logic. And all of us may pay the price.