Cult of Personality
I sell the things you need to be
—Living Colour, "Cult of Personality"
A Cult of Personality arises when mass media, propaganda, or other methods are used by or on the behalf of an individual, usually a leader, to create an idealized, heroic, and at times worshipful image of them, often through unquestioning flattery and praise. A Cult of Personality is similar in some ways to A God Am I, except that it is established in the minds of others, usually by a state to empower its leader, especially in Totalitarian (and sometimes Authoritarian) governments. (And its subject rarely possesses the powers of a god, although he will in many cases make claims to them anyway -- see some of the more outlandish stories circulated about the Kim family of North Korea.)
A Cult of Personality is often a deliberate attempt to invoke the old and discredited concept of the Divine Right of Kings for modern rulers, by painting them as greater-than-human figures who can make no mistakes and do no wrong. They are generally perpetrated to give a nation or people a focus during a period of trouble or transition by turning their subject into a benevolent "guide" who will bring them into a new, better era by way of a revolutionary transformation that could not happen without his unique oversight and all-embracing love for the common people. The process usually paints them as some variety of larger-than-life Memetic Badass in Charge along the way as well.
It helps a great deal if the leader in question has some measure of charisma, but if he lets the press do all the speaking for him and limits himself to posing for inspiring photographs and paintings, it won't matter if he doesn't.
Anywhere in fiction and Real Life where you see people fanatically devoted to a leader rather than an ideology or a cause, you're probably looking at a Cult of Personality. This is a common tool of the Glorious Leader and The Generalissimo, and the effort to start up (or expand) a Cult of Personality is almost always one of the first priorities after a Tyrant Takes the Helm. Magnetic Heroes and Villains often inspire these, sometimes unintentionally. And if the subject of the Cult is a leader working it for all it's worth, expect to see an Egopolis or two.
It bears mentioning that this does not have to be inherently evil, or even evil at all. It is entirely possible for this trope to be used for relatively benign or even beneficial purposes, especially if the figure being lionized in such a manner lived a life of virtue that the Cult of Personality was established to propagate and emulate. This doesn't prevent the trope from being perverted for less than honorable ends later on, but Cult of Personality is not an "evil" trope by default.
While the phrase has been in use since the early 19th century, it was first applied in a political sense by Karl Marx in 1877; it was further popularized by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956, in a speech he gave criticizing the near-deification of Josef Stalin.
Although we won't turn down Real World examples, why bother? Wikipedia already has a very comprehensive and detailed list of real-world cults of personality.
See also Glorious Leader, The Generalissimo. Compare Propaganda Machine, Villain with Good Publicity, Magnetic Hero. A Politically-Motivated Teacher is a common vehicle for indoctrinating the young into a Cult of Personality.
Anime and Manga
- Light Yagami from Death Note. The devotion he inspires is so strong that he gets three other people (four if we count Higuchi) to commit mass murder on his behalf. He gains Rem's loyalty as well despite the fact that she hates him ( because his motives are more pure than Higuchi's).
- R'as al Ghul in Batman Begins has a literal cult built up around him.
- In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Party has built up a cult of personality around Big Brother -- although less as a figure of cultural salvation than as a figure of omniscience and omnipotence. The end result is the same -- the people are led into loving Big Brother, and through him the Party.
- Napoleon in Animal Farm, as evidenced by Boxer's motto "If Comrade Napoleon says it, it must be right."
- The Wizard in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has a Cult of Personality that extends to the far reaches of Oz, and even takes in the very real witches from whom he hides. Whether this cult is an intentional tactic or grew around him on its own is hard to say for sure, given the later Oz books' rather sketchy grasp of continuity. However, given how The Land of Oz (the second book) describes him kidnapping and hiding the legitimate heir to the throne of Oz, it seems likely the cult of the Wizard was orchestrated and cultivated.
- Marko Ramius is accused of developing one in The Hunt for Red October, but generally got away with it because he appeared so loyal to the Soviet Union. In fairness to his critics, they turned out to be right, but given what said personality cult does and how they are portrayed in the story, it could be argued as a heroic example of the trope.
- Harry Potter: Although they are allegedly an ideological organization, the Death Eaters are really a Voldemort cult. He gives them a justification for violence and terrorism, and with few exceptions, they give themselves totally to him, suffering his worst excesses without complaint, serving him for generations, and never rejecting him for being an over-the-top lunatic who's tainting the cause they supposedly follow.
- Depending on how you look at it, Dumbledore has one of his own that stretches across all of Wizarding Britain, plus a devoted cadre in the Order of the Phoenix.
- Potter Fan Works often dial these cults Up to Eleven, until both sides are effectively militant religions with demigod leaders who can do no wrong in the eyes of their followers, who will undertake any task and suffer any torment for them.
- The song "Cult of Personality" by Living Colour explores the phenomenon from the point of view of the subject of such a cult, but includes comments that are subversive of the purpose of a Cult of Personality, encouraging the listener to break free from the groupthink in which they're trapped.
- Tommy, from the Rock Opera of the same name by The Who, seems to accidentally inspire a Cult of Personality around himself while he is unware of the world at large. Ultimately this is a subversion, though, because when he regains his senses and tries to actually direct and use his cult following, they turn on him.
Oral Tradition, Folklore, Myths and Legends
- David had one build up around him in The Bible, to the jealousy of Saul, who attempted to kill David because he feared David would use said personality cult as a pretext to a popular revolt against him, a fear that proved groundless.
- David's own son Absalom had one which he encouraged so he could usurp his father. It backfired on him and fell apart after his death.
- "Trust the Computer! The Computer is your friend!" Among all the other things included the 24-hour propaganda in Paranoia's Alpha Complex is a heavy dose of personality cult centered on the Computer.
- One of the motivations driving Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar is his belief that Jesus is building a Cult of Personality around himself that will inevitably grow so large and loud that it will draw the Romans down on their heads -- and possibly on the heads of the rest of Judea.
- In The Salvation War, Yahweh and Satan have discouraged technological growth because advanced underlings are dangerous underlings, and instead built cults of personality around themselves that resulted in societies of fanatical devotion to egomaniacal despots. This is mostly the reason why the humans utterly crushed them both.
- Jet's little gang in Avatar: The Last Airbender may be small, but it's a cult of personality nonetheless.
- Practically every dictator or other authoritarian head of state in the last century or so has at least attempted to grow a Cult of Personality around themselves; many, like Nicolae Ceaușescu and Josip Broz Tito were successful, at least in the relative short run. However, the two most prominent examples have to be Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. It's hard to decide which of them is the Trope Codifier, although both qualify for the role; perhaps they both are, collectively.
- The Kim family, rulers of North Korea. The state-owned press in North Korea is effusive in its unending praise when it comes to covering them, to the point that to outsiders it seems almost like an embarrassing parody. For instance, despite the Communist rejection of religion all the Kims are and have been painted as semi-divine, "a great person born of heaven". The latest Kim, Kim Jong-un, is a case in point. Everything good that happens is because of him; everything bad that is even reported is a defiance of the natural order because it flies in the face of Kim's intentions for the land and people.
- In a benign version of this trope, Christianity is in large part a Cult of Personality centered around Jesus, as those who bear the name of "Christian" consider him the apex of morality to which they should adhere and attempt to emulate at all times, and since, according to the Christian faith he was a man who was also God, the divine aspects often given a figure at the center of a Cult apply by default to him. It's worth mentioning this doesn't prevent him from being misinterpreted or outright perverted for the use of madmen, cult leaders, or any other figure who wishes to use the Cult of Personality of Jesus to justify their own actions or shield themselves from criticism while invoking it, but this sort of thing is actually frowned on by the mainstream of the Christian Cult of Personality, as Jesus' own commentary on this very possibility lampshaded his name would be used by those who did not truly represent what he stood for.
- Conquerors tend to have this and it works better then many versions because often they really are warriors as well as propaganda experts. Before modern technology, a commander had to take as many risks as his men if he wished to be successful. Often they were different risks : typically in an army above fairly primitive levels a general would be ridding along the line to make decisions at critical points rather then taking a personal part in the fighting but that still required enduring enough peril to see what was going on, often more then the average soldier as a general had to spend more time in the more critical and thus more dangerous places. When one reflects on such things one can see why Alexanders and Caesars were worshipped by their men; rather then being bureaucrats, they were larger then life versions of themselves.
- Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of modern day Turkey, has an officially sanctioned version of this trope. For starters, his last name means "Father of the Turks" and is officially forbidden as a surname to anyone else in Turkey. The main reason he is so highly regarded dates back to the post-World War I era, where he brought Turkey back to greatness from the ashes of the former Ottoman Empire, and due to initiating many reforms, including raising the quality of education nationwide, giving women equal rights, and being the go-to example for Turks as a secular Reasonable Authority Figure, and it's not hard to understand why, even in modern day, his name carries incredibly high regard in his homeland. He even has some fans in other nations, Australia especially, where his establishing a memorial to honor the Australians who died while enemies of his country during WWI resulted in a memorial paying tribute to his goodwill towards his former enemies.
- ↑ However, that (as the saying goes) is usually the way to bet.