The Cult of Trump

Planting a flag.

As has become our recent tradition, the family headed down to the Outer Banks of North Carolina the weekend after the kids got out of school. Because I’m invariably the first one up (often by several hours), I head down pretty early to reserve a spot at the beach,* making the transition much easier for the rest of the gang.

Yesterday, when the family went down, someone had set up two tents right next to us with a flag like the one pictured atop the post planted by them. That struck us as, to say the least, odd.

First and foremost, who brings a flag or any other advertisement for their favored presidential candidate to the beach? I’m more interested in politics than the next guy and it would simply never occur to me. (Then again, I’m not really a yard sign, bumper sticker, or t-shirt guy, either.) It seems a weird intrusion into a peaceful retreat. Even more so when the candidate is so wildly polarizing.

Second, while I fully understand why someone would vote for Donald Trump in our binary system, the image of him depicted on the flag is beyond comical. The man has never served in the military; why is he riding a tank and holding an M-16? (And why is the tank rolling out of the ocean onto the beach?)

My first impression was that these people must be Grade-A assholes, as the flag struck me as intentionally provocative. At least judging from their behavior for those few hours, they seemed like perfectly nice folks. But their Trump flag was the last thing they packed up, furling it carefully around the pole.


*While frowned upon in some places, it’s standard practice at this particular location, as is the setting up of various beach tents for shade. The latter are banned at some North Carolina beaches but ubiquitous here.

FILED UNDER: 2024 Election, US Politics, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Argon says:

    I don’t mind people enjoying their own lifestyles but do they need to shove it in everyone’s faces all the time?

    31
  2. Not the IT Dept. says:

    What gets me about their flag is the eagle in the background firing a gun. Could solve a whole lot of endangered species issues if animals can be trained to fire back.

    13
  3. MarkedMan says:

    There is a frankly disturbing and bizarre quality to a significant number of Trump’s supporters that really does venture into cult territory. The exaltation of a single individual to an unhealthy degree, raising him in their mind to an almost supernatural level, and the need to constantly display fealty and demonstrate support, the willingness to send him their hard earned money, the refusal to credit anything negative said about him. There is a certain type of person that craves certainty above all things, and cedes their independence willing to authority figures. I’ve long contended that a charlatan suits that purpose better than anyone else. A charlatan can be certain and authoritative about literally everything and anything while a sincere person would have doubts about at least some things, and areas they will acknowledge are beyond their area of expertise.

    15
  4. Jen says:

    It seems a weird intrusion into a peaceful retreat.

    That’s the point.

    19
  5. Mikey says:

    Second, while I fully understand why someone would vote for Donald Trump in our binary system, the image of him depicted on the flag is beyond comical.

    All the cultist artists do this with him. They paint him as fit and virile, rather than as the 300 pounds of chewed bubblegum he actually resembles.

    Also that’s not an M-16, it’s a Barrett M82A2 .50 caliber sniper rifle, a weapon Trump could not even shoulder, let alone fire. But the MAGA crowd loves it because it makes a large boom.

    13
  6. gVOR10 says:

    Not as bad as the flags with Trump’s head stuck on an exaggeration of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bare torso. Usually firing an RPG from the barrel of an M60. I mean, have they ever seen an actual photo of him? Here I haven’t noticed flags on the beach, and there have been surprisingly few of the usual six flags over a pickup truck.

    First and foremost, who brings a flag or any other advertisement for their favored presidential candidate to the beach? I’m more interested in politics than the next guy and it would simply never occur to me.

    You hold your views as a matter of reason. Were they a matter of faith you might, as they do, feel a compulsion to express your faith.

    6
  7. JKB says:

    @Argon:

    I assume you are saying that unironically….during Pride Month.

    0
  8. Gavin says:

    It doesn’t occur to Trump cult members that other people exist. Or, if they do, these Others only exist for the cult member’s pleasure — enjoyment at watching a triggered reaction, buying whatever product they make, etc.

    They aren’t now and never have been interested in a community —- because them acquiescing to the concept of community means they’d have to suppress short-term ego gratification, and how dare you, sir.

    Flying a big trump flag isn’t weird if you fundamentally don’t think other people have a right to any sort of consideration.
    And because it’s a family blog, we’ll simply not discuss the constant Republican culture war refrain “shoving it down our throats”

    9
  9. gVOR10 says:

    @Not the IT Dept.: Birds Aren’t Real. It would be a small thing to arm their surveillance drones.

  10. Mister Bluster says:

    The man has never served in the military.

    As sorry as it was…does Commander in Chief count?

    1
  11. Chip Daniels says:

    I’m listening to a podcast called “Pack One Bag”, about the history of a Franco Mogdiliani, a Nobel Prize wining economist who escaped from Italy as Mussolini came to power.

    Reflecting on the rise of fascism in Europe, what occurred to me is how freakish and strange fascism was, compared to the cultures that it sprang from, and how people just became inured and desensitized to its strangeness.

    Anti-Semitism and intolerance was always present in Europe of course, but as fascism arose, it grew in intensity and virulence, and new laws were needed to sharpen it, and the level of rhetoric grew in its violence.

    I see that now, where Trumpists have become almost comic-book like in their violent rhetoric and embrace a level of cruelty almost absurd in its depth.

    This isn’t normal, and even 20 years ago would have been hard to imagine, but here we are. One of the lessons from people experiencing a loss of democracy is to never accept that it is inevitable or normal.

    14
  12. CSK says:

    I think the tank-rolling-out-of-the-ocean imagery might be a dopey allusion to D-Day, the Normandy landing–Trump bringing light and victory to the oppressed.

    Also, this might be intended as a flag specifically to take to the beach, so the ocean setting would be appropriate.

    7
  13. DeD says:

    @Gavin:

    . . . if you fundamentally don’t think other people have a right to any sort of consideration.

    . . . and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect;

    Your astute observation sounds ominously like the 1857 Dredd Scott decision. 1857. It’s just never gonna end, is it?

    12
  14. Pete S says:

    Last August when we headed for Cape Hatteras it seems to me that by the time we got on the 158 there were a large number of Trump flags (and a couple of Confederate flags) flying in yards. Most but not all were well faded. Might have been some of these folks headed to the beach.

    3
  15. Joe says:

    First and foremost, who brings a flag or any other advertisement for their favored presidential candidate to the beach?
    . . .
    At least judging from their behavior for those few hours, they seemed like perfectly nice folks.

    You apparently got a different impression of the Alitos than their other neighbors got (and shouldn’t he have been at work?).

    9
  16. Jay L Gischer says:

    In a way, I think y’all are on to something. Many of these folks are mightily offended by the existence of trans people and same-sex couples. They have to look at them. They have to look at the Pride flag. They are mad about it. They want to give some back.

    This is exactly what Martha Alito said. She saw the flying of a Pride flag as an aggressive intrusion. And it wasn’t even next door.

    20
  17. Kathy says:

    Is this the same guy who couldn’t get his bodyguards to take him to the Capitol?

    8
  18. Kingdaddy says:

    It’s really not surprising. As the saying goes, fanatics are people who can neither change their minds nor the subject.

    9
  19. just nutha says:

    @Not the IT Dept.: Sure. But does the Constitution have provisions to arm bears?

    4
  20. Gustopher says:

    I think there are at least three different things going on with the Trump Flag people:

    1) Simple troll culture. Trigger the libs type stuff. Just a low level horrible person.

    This is best exemplified by the “Fuck Joe Biden” folks.

    2) Fandom, specifically cosplay. Treating Trump the way some other people treat Harry Potter, Star Wars or Marvel. There was a trend a while back for people to dress like Deadpool (minor marvel character) and get photos in normal spots (Deadpool at the deli, etc).

    It’s performative, so there is an element of enjoying the reactions, but it’s still largely for the sake of the performance itself, and they want the smiling reactions from other people in the fandom more than any negative reaction.

    The over the top Trump on a tank with the eagle firing the gun flags really point towards that. It’s silly and fun. And they love their Trump.

    It’s lazier than cosplay, in that they aren’t spending hundreds of hours designing a costume and making clothing or armor to look like Link from the Zelda games, but there are a few people who really hit cosplay levels with their trucks.

    3) Sheer fucking insanity. These are the people who seriously believe that Trump was on a tank, holding a rifle, with a trained eagle firing a gun.

    People being what people are, it’s often a mix within the same person. Our typical MAGA commenters are a mix of 1 and 3, as they seem utterly devoid of any element of fun beyond trolling.

    But the fandom/cosplay element comes up elsewhere, and explains a lot of the cult-ish behavior from normal people. It’s still icky, and it’s dangerous that it’s tied to a politician, but it’s more about community with the other MAGA than anything else. It’s silly and fun (and a bit hateful). And it’s also why I think Trumpism whither once the man finally dies.

    If the Alitos were flying a flag of a super-buff, shirtless Trump riding a giant eagle into Gondor or something, it would still be concerning, but a lot less so.

    ETA: The cosplay element of Trumpism is a lot like drag queens. An over the top performance carried to ridiculous levels of camp.

    8
  21. Tony W says:

    @Gavin: Nah, they like community just fine when they need something like flood relief or blue-state money.

    It’s just selfishness, which is *mostly* incompatible with the idea of Community.

    8
  22. Tony W says:

    Generally, what we are seeing here is a manifestation of one of the negative downstream effects of rampant capitalism – to wit, “education exists solely to help one make money in their career”.

    When I was coming of age in the 1970s my parents emphasized that a liberal arts college degree was imperative to making somebody a well-rounded person. Yes, you’ll learn a skill like engineering, etc. but you’ll also study art and humanities and music and poetry and literature and history.

    When your ideas are held up to scrutiny, you quickly dismiss those that are not defensible.

    In short, you become impossible to manipulate.

    This is why colleges have become so hated in MAGA-land and its predecessors. It’s why the poorly educated are so revered in right-wing circles.

    It’s not that they are stupid, they are just ignorant of the expertise that exists, and the level of rigor required to have an opinion worth sharing.

    This also makes them incapable of respecting both the information itself, and the sort of person who prides themselves on being reliable and consistent in their logic and arguments.

    15
  23. Michael Reynolds says:

    So I take it we are all admitting that yes, this is a cult?

    13
  24. MarkedMan says:

    @Gustopher: Good points. I guess at its most fundamental, people are attracted to Trump (or anyone else) because he fills a need they have. I said above that a good portion of trumpers are drawn to him because they need an authority figure who projects certainty. But there are other needs. For instance, Trump is racist as f* and yet seems successful and famous. Not only does he legitimize racism but he makes it easier for random racists to find and validate each other. Trump has been found liable for sex offenses he committed, yet remains free, seemingly beyond the reach of the law. For a certain type of person, Trump is a shining example of getting away with the things they do or want to do.

    5
  25. Kurtz says:

    @MarkedMan:

    A charlatan can be certain and authoritative about literally everything and anything while a sincere person would have doubts about at least some things, and areas they will acknowledge are beyond their area of expertise.

    We have a couple of people here who approach that line.

    The US seems to have a lot of people like this. One expects this out of say, talented adolescents, but should expect, or at least hope, that individuals would grow out of it as they age.

    This also presents an issue in terms of politics. It functions as a road map for politicians. It may not be unique to the American system, but I think it is made worse by a binary result.

    4
  26. MarkedMan says:

    @Kurtz:

    We have a couple of people here who approach that line

    Here?

  27. wr says:

    @JKB: “I assume you are saying that unironically….during Pride Month.”

    Oh, poor JKB. Did some mean gay person hurt your little feelings by continuing to exist this month? There should be laws against that.

    12
  28. wr says:

    @CSK: “Also, this might be intended as a flag specifically to take to the beach”

    What a horrifying concept — that these people have giant Trump fantasy flags for every occasion…

    2
  29. al Ameda says:

    @JKB:

    I assume you are saying that unironically….during Pride Month.

    I understand your point, but, as I recall the Pride Flag was not flown on the grounds and in the halls of the Capitol Building on January 6th 2021. I did however see the Confederate Flag.

    10
  30. Gustopher says:

    @Kurtz: Having worked at some of the top tech companies, I can say that it is a rare person who does not believe that because they are very good at X they must be able to do Y as well. People don’t age out of it unless and until they fail spectacularly in a way where they cannot blame anyone else.

    Failing out of college taught me more than college itself did. (Do not schedule your classes to have five day weekends…)

    I know this doesn’t explain the people who don’t have anything they are good at, but maybe they’re like my brother who believes he is good at things despite all evidence to the contrary.

    4
  31. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds: KingDaddy wrote a post a while back arguing that there’s a cult of personality, which is not the same as an actual cult, around Trump and I think that’s right. I don’t think it’s most Trump voters—we’ve been coming here four years now and five plus weeks total thus far and this is the first Trump flag I’ve seen at the beach despite what I’m sure are a lot of Trump voters—but we didn’t see this with Obama, Clinton, or Reagan despite their charisma

    3
  32. Gustopher says:

    @Tony W: They like community just fine. You’re just not part of the community.

    2
  33. CSK says:

    @wr:

    Why, sure they do. This may be my total fave:

    http://www.rebelnationok.com/product/donald-trump-rambo-flag/

  34. Gustopher says:

    I think it’s important to remember that the alt-right really started gaining traction with GamerGate, an organized harassment campaign of women in the video game industry. Or “ethics in video game journalism.” Dig into that and you find folks like Steve Bannon and Milo Yiannopolis or whatever his name is, and a lot of the early Trumpers.

    And that started with complaints about video games that were either completely designed for someone else (why would anyone want a depression simulator game), or a desire to be able to play as characters that resembled them (not all women are over-sexualized creatures designed for men). Not even manly-men being forced to see other people, but other people also having options that make them able to enjoy things.

    And then it got into the online game companies wanting to expand their market to women and trying to reduce the casual sexism in player interactions.

    The behaviors of the right have at least as much in common with toxic fandom as with any normal political movements. There are no political positions to MAGA other than “everything must be for us.”

    And I think this is why the Off-White White Supremacists are accepted. They are willing to play the game as it is set up, rather than wanting any changes to accommodate anyone other than white men.

    9
  35. Scott F. says:

    At least judging from their behavior for those few hours, they seemed like perfectly nice folks.

    Displaying the flag as a provocation, then packing it up last, were part of their behavior for those few hours. The fact that they didn’t also fart loudly, or punch weaklings, or scream obscene bigotries all the while the flag was flying doesn’t make them perfectly nice folks. The flag was doing all their Grade-A assholery for them.

    6
  36. Jc says:

    Another reason to like the space afforded to you on the beaches of OBX. If I walked down to set up, would definitely distance myself from that guy lol. You would think standing on that tank would irritate his bone spurs….? Go figure.

    1
  37. Michael Reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:
    I saw that. I did of course refer to it as a cult of personality early on, but that’s a lot to type over and over again.

    There’s the cult of personality, and then there are those intimidated by the cult, ie; every Republican in Congress. Rather like Scientology in that if you can avoid trouble with the cult, you do. It’s taken decades for Hollywood to grow enough spine to push back on Scientology – though not on Tom Cruise.

    I posed this fanciful question a couple days ago: If Trump demanded a Republican Congressperson strip their spouse naked and hold them down for Trump to abuse, what percentage would agree. My guess: 95%. They’re as cowed and compliant as a 2007 era Hollywood producer when asked what happened to David Miscavige’s wife, Shelley.

    Has there ever been a more cowardly group of humans than the GOP Congress? I had an episode when I was in 6th grade that I cringe at to this day, because it was a cowardly act. 58 years and it still bothers me. I don’t know how any of these men (and they are mostly men) can consider themselves men. I don’t know how you live a life on your belly and still look at yourself in the mirror.

    3
  38. Kurtz says:

    @MarkedMan:

    OTB commenters.

    1
  39. steve says:

    It’s at least a cult of personality. You must display your affiliation wherever you go. I think I mentioned there was an end of the year festival for the local elementary school which I attended with the grandkids. Had a couple of people in Trump regalia with one fully decked out in hat, shirt and pants. What? You didnt know about Trump pants?

    Steve

    1
  40. Kazzy says:

    @Jen:

    I’d go even further. It’s what the young people these days call “a flex.” Either you…

    1.) Challenge them on the absurdity of it all and give them the opportunity to fight (verbally, physically, however) that they are clearly desirous of, the result of which would only serve to affirm their sense of superiority (were they to win) or their sense of victimhood (were they to lose).

    OR

    2.) You say nothing which they assume means either A) you agree with them or B) you’re kowtowed because you’re a cuck and they’re the personification of machismo and virility.

    It’s heads they win, tails you lose. And of course, what really happens in most of reality — people snickering to themselves about how stupid they look and writing posts like this — never penetrate their bubble.

    6
  41. SenyorDave says:

    @steve: I think the sweats are actually a form of birth control. Wear them and you definitely will not be getting any in the near future.

    2
  42. DrDaveT says:

    At least judging from their behavior for those few hours, they seemed like perfectly nice folks.

    I urge you to test this by parking an obviously black, latino, gay, or muslim family next door to their enclave.

    8
  43. Tony W says:

    @wr: The other eleven months this year are just not enough for poor, wittle, JKB. The fact that somebody other than JKB is celebrated in any way is a problem.

    But Republicans are totally not narcissists.

    4
  44. MarkedMan says:

    @Gustopher:

    Having worked at some of the top tech companies, I can say that it is a rare person who does not believe that because they are very good at X they must be able to do Y as well.

    In defense of at least this high tech geek, while I’m good at system architecture and debugging, the list of things I’m not good at is… immense. Staggering, really.

    3
  45. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner:

    but we didn’t see this with Obama, Clinton, or Reagan despite their charisma

    I agree. This is materially different and is not normal by any stretch in US politics. The closest such in my memory were the Bernie Bros, but even that was an order of magnitude less deranged. Here’s the thing though – I think all these Trumpers who have flooded the Republican Party and are so enthusiastic will be much, much less so for any other Repub, once Trump is out of the picture. Trump has occupied a unique place in their lives and I suspect for the most part they will spend the rest of their lives imaging the glory days and despising the new kids trying to take his place.

    I’m not predicting this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this leads to a “new” party breaking off and the Trump infected Republican Party fading away.

    6
  46. MarkedMan says:

    @Scott F.: I don’t know if that is fair. They believe in this Trump guy and want people to know it. They probably believe, however irrationally, that it is a statement of morality and pride, and they want to show support.

    It’s June, so we’ve got a couple of pride flags flying on our house. Thursday night I’m going to the Orioles Pride game specifically to get the Pride Orioles jersey, and I’ll throw that in the mix of my regular Orioles wear. I put the flags and the jersey out there in public because I view it as a statement of morality, and I want to show support to my family, friends and random folk who are lesbian, gay, trans or whatever else is on that flag nowadays.

    5
  47. MarkedMan says:

    @Kurtz: I can only think of one. Or do you include the Trumpers?

  48. OzarkHillbilly says:

    The man has never served in the military; why is he riding a tank and holding an M-16? (And why is the tank rolling out of the ocean onto the beach?)

    I found the Huey flying over to be rather ahistorical. I mean, how many decades has it been since our armed forces last flew them? Than again, I have no idea how accurate or recent the tank is, so maybe I’m just not the target audience.

  49. DrDaveT says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    I found the Huey flying over to be rather ahistorical. I mean, how many decades has it been since our armed forces last flew them?

    Um, none? The current variant is the UH-1Y. There is also a current attack version, the AH-1Z.

  50. dazedandconfused says:

    Ruthlessness can be perceived as courage, and as Mel Gibson put it: “Men follow courage.”

    1
  51. Chip Daniels says:

    One of the underdiscussed aspects of Trumpist imagery is its pervasive themes of violence and warmaking, and even less commented on is who exactly they plan to make war upon.

    In the image above, who is he and his weaponry facing?

    Not Russia, or China, or Al-Queda or any foreign threat.

    Its clear from the rhetoric that the Trumpists intend to aim their weapons (figurative and literal) at their fellow Americans.

    8
  52. DK says:

    Let them fly their weird flag who cares? The weirdness is in the desperation to portray Convicted Felon Trump as a fit, trim military warrior — since he’s an unhealthily obese chickenhawk who sucks up to Putin and craps on fallen soldiers.

    Other than that, I don’t see the issue. I just wouldn’t care.

    @Chip Daniels: MAGA wants to invade Mexico because something something border crisis. Cray crazy.

  53. Michael Reynolds says:

    but we didn’t see this with Obama, Clinton, or Reagan despite their charisma

    Obama and Clinton did not have bases defined by evangelical Christians. Reagan had evangelical support, but in those days evangelicals still believed in Jesus. I believe the Trump cult of personality is a symptom of evangelical panic, he represents a loss of faith. In the Bible, when do the Hebrews make their golden calf? After concluding that Moses – their messiah in effect – was gone and not coming back. Panicked by being abandoned, the Hebrews built a Ba’al.

    Christianity in general has collapsed all across the developed, culturally Christian, world. Atheism is growing and becoming much more public in the US now, as well. They feel the sand shifting beneath their feet. They try to take their grandkids to church and their grandkids laugh at them.
    Jesus isn’t coming back, just as the Hebrews in the wilderness believed Moses wasn’t coming back. Another echo: the golden calf was made from gold surrendered to Aaron by the people.

    3
  54. just nutha says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I wouldn’t say all of us. I, for example, have grown fatigued with the question but will defend your right to drone on about it. Preferably in longer, more elaborate posts that it will be easier for me to skip over.

    1
  55. just nutha says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Yeah, like this one. As soon as I saw is was in response to Dr. Joyner’s last comment, I knew I could skip over it.

    1
  56. Scott F. says:

    @MarkedMan:
    I stand by my statement. Prideful support for Trump on moral grounds, after all that man has said and done to hurt your family, friends and random folk who are lesbian, gay, trans or whatever else, forfeits the “perfectly nice folks” label for such people.

    5
  57. Ken_L says:

    I came to the conclusion a while ago that most Trump supporters don’t care what Trump the man is like. They’ve fallen in love with a dream, a promise, an ideal; they would love an America where “old-fashioned values” have been restored, where minorities know their place, where the alphabet people are back in the closet, where America bestrides the world like a colossus and none dare defy its president; in short, a combination of the best of John Wayne and Our Miss Brooks. I doubt they believe, deep down, that Trump can really deliver it, but it’s the Utopia he passionately describes and promises. Consequently they love him and vote for him.

    4
  58. charontwo says:

    @Ken_L:

    Trump’s great talent is telling people exactly what they want to hear. He uses his rallies to test new material, see what gets the right response.

    4
  59. James Joyner says:

    @Jc: We set up around 8 and there was nobody anywhere close. These two tents were set up near us (but at a perfectly reasonable distance given the level of occupancy) when we came back down around 10.

    @DrDaveT:

    I urge you to test this by parking an obviously black, latino, gay, or muslim family next door to their enclave.

    Oddly, there were three couples, one of which was mixed race (Black man, White woman). Because there were initially two tents set up in close proximity and the flag in between them, I assumed that it must have belonged to the other tent. But they packed up early and these folks remained and furled the flag. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  60. Blue Galangal says:

    @charontwo: He’s increasingly incoherent. Like, it seems to make sense only in his head. I guess if you want to hear some coded Q message in this… sure?

    You ever try buying a new home and you turn on – you want to wash your hair or you want to wash your hands – you turn on the water and it goes drip, drip. The soap, you can’t get it off your hand. So you keep it running for about 10 times longer. The worst is your hair. I have this beautiful luxuriant hair and I put stuff on. I put it in, lather. I like lots of lather because I like it to come out extremely dry because it seems to be slightly thicker that way. And I lather up and then you turn on this crazy shower and the thing drip, drip and you say I’m gonna be here for 45 minutes. There’s so much water, you don’t know what to do with it. You know, it’s called rain. It rains a lot in certain places. There is a problem. They don’t want you to have any water. They want no water.

    1
  61. Grumpy realist says:

    @Blue Galangal: why are almost half of Americans wanting to elect as POTUS someone who sounds increasingly deranged?

    I suspect that outside the True Believers, there’s a lot of grifters and power-hungry people who are perfectly happy to ride in on Trump’s coattails. It’s like sending out Nigerian Prince spam with spelling errors— Trump has already filtered a population of the gullible, and every grifter around now wants the sweet sweet $$.

    1