Personality cult

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A choir performance in East Germany.
♫I'm the smiling face on your TV

♫I'm the cult of personality
♫I exploit you, still you love me

♫I tell you one and one makes three
—Living Colour, "Cult of Personality"[1]
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A personality cult or cult of personality is a system in which the political legitimacy of an organization is the function of the leader. Often such leaders are able to control a group of people through the sheer force of their personality. In extreme cases the leader can be portrayed as a god-like figure.

Where the personality cult forms around a head of state, criticising that person is generally prohibited and/or dangerous — with threats or actions made against the critics by supporters of the head of state. Where the head of state has attained strong or complete control of state-sponsored media, they have often used this to spread propaganda to ensure that the masses receive a consistent positive picture of the head of state. Propaganda will typically depict the leader as being a great leader (or even called "Great Leader" as in Kim Il Sung), a genius prophet or a god-like figure, able to relate to ordinary people and upholding their interests, always in command — shown in propaganda with commanding appearance and never shown in submission to anyone. Frequently, personality-cult leaders claim to be devoted to a mission as the embodiment of the will of the people or of the nation. Leaders promoting personality cults will frequently tie their own image to various national heroes (personality cults of yore) as a means of legitimating themselves and their policies (think of Roman Emperor Augustus making his great-uncle the Roman dictator Julius Caesar a deity and dedicating monuments to him, or of Soviet posters showing the faces of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao).

Various monarchies claimed some form of divine sanction, but that doesn't necessarily make them personality cults in the modern sense, as the phenomenon is most commonly associated with post-19th-century mass-media.

New surfaces may be produced for no other reason than to present that image, as satirized with the balloon bearing Joseph Stalin's image in an empty field in the 1994 Russian film Burnt by the Sun.[2][note 1]

Personality cults are often found in strongly authoritarian societies like absolute monarchies with no democracy in them, but they can also develop in authoritarian semi-democratic societies like those of Julius Caesar and Augustus, or in totalitarian societies like Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler or like the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. Although it is very rare to see them in strongly-democratic countries, they do occur from time to time.


Current and former heads of state[edit]

("Invincible Marxism-Leninism, long live Mao Zedong Thought!")
l-to-r: Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao)

Other political figures[edit]

Guevara: the personality cult pose. Find it on a t-shirt near you!
  • Stepan Bandera (Ukraine): After being suppressed for decades by the USSR, Bandera's Ukrainian Insurgent Army is officially commemorated by the current Ukrainian government, despite being responsible for collaboration with the Nazis and massacring PolesWikipedia.
  • Rachel Corrie (USA): A rare posthumous example — she is practically treated like a goddess by the more loonier pro-Palestinian activists as well as quite a few anti-Semites (as well as the Iranian government, to the point of having a street in Tehran named after her).
  • Lei Feng (China): Supposedly a soldier from the People's Liberation ArmyWikipedia who lived from 1940 to 1962, he has been used for various CCP propaganda campaigns, with a well known slogan being "follow the example of Comrade Lei Feng" (向雷锋同志学习). His personality cult was mainly used to prop up Mao's, as the most famous potrait of him depicted him carrying Mao's "Little Red Book".
  • Che Guevara (Argentina/Cuba)
  • Meir Kahane (USA/Israel): Founder of the Jewish Defense League, considered a terrorist group in both Israel and the USA. Fellow JDL member Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Palestinians, is similarly regarded by extremist Zionists.
  • Joseph Kony (Uganda): leader of the Lord's Resistance Army[54]
  • René Lévesque (Quebec): practically a god to Québécois independence activists (despite having been born in Campbellton, New Brunswick) and supporters of Quebec Bill 101 (the Charter of the French Language) (even if René was more moderate on language than some of the PQ, and would have resigned as leader rather than eliminate English-language public schools as some party members proposed), and one of the main streets in Montreal is named for him. Camille Laurin, creator of Bill 101, is similarly regarded, though nowhere to the extent compared to Mon cher René.
  • Ingrid Newkirk and other PETA activists such as Dan Mathews (mostly USA)[55]
  • Ayn Rand and her Randroids (USA)
  • Rafael del Riego (Spain): one of the old Spanish national anthemsWikipedia was dedicated to him
  • Maximilien Robespierre (France)

Religious and anti-religious personalities[edit]

Asahara: "Rise above! We're gonna rise above!"



  • Steve Jobs (USA): co-founder of Apple Computers known for his showmanship and obnoxiously perfectionist behavior[57]
  • Elon Musk (USA): (in)famous businessman and engineer known for his batshit insane approach to new technologies. Hyperloop anyone?[58] Musk declared himself 'technoking' in 2021.[59]

In pop culture[edit]

For various reasons, the idea of a personality cult is entering pop culture spheres, sometimes as just another set piece (such as in "Cult of Personality" by Living Colour in 1988), but sometimes it's a major element of a movie. An example is the German film The Wave (originally made in 1981 and remade in 2008). The movie was based on the social experiment called "Third Wave" created by Ron Jones,Wikipedia and is about a German teacher who attempts to show his high school students what fascism is. As a result, he accidentally creates a personality cult that leads to large amounts of vandalism, an attempted murder, and a suicide when the instructor (Wenger) tells his students that the experiment is over. The 2001 German thriller film Das Experiment is somewhat similar. The Emperor of Mankind is also a fine example.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. New surfaces created solely to present advertising, on the other hand, are perfectly fine.
  2. A portion of people reading this article will be probably thinking "Why not Obama?" Simple: looking back from today, it was a very short one. The most important element of a personality cult is the usage of authority to perpetuate artificial 'apotheosis'; you don't want videos such as these lying around.[37][38][39][40][41] American society has an unusual tendency to mythologize Presidents (ironically, even worse than today's constitutional monarchies), and over time ignore the very things which make them human, e.g., JFK.[42][43] But who knows what will happen in 50 years to the legacy of the first POTUS who transcended the barriers of race. (We'd like an objective account, thanks.)
  3. Thomas Jefferson in particular is practically a God to Libertarians who love quoting him whenever they need to explain their beliefs on certain subjects, and is the namesake of the free speech group the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, who run the Jefferson Muzzle Awards (think the Golden Raspberry Awards but for (what libertarians perceive as) violations of the First Amendment instead of bad movies, and not as racist and homophobic as the Razzies are)
  4. Christopher Hitchens seems to have survived this downfall, even despite his usual oddities. Dennet seems okay too, for now.


  1. Living Colour Lyrics "Cult Of Personality"
  2. Burnt by the Sun IMDb.
  3. Tunisia’s Ben Ali: A cult of personality ends by Bouazza ben Bouazza & Angela Doland ( Jan. 14, 2011 12:24 PM PT) AP via The San Diago Union-Tribune.
  4. Romanians cherish memories of their genocidal dictator: Cult of the wartime pro-Nazi leader casts doubt on Bucharest's faith in democracy by Tony Barber (22 August 1994 23:02) The Independent.
  5. See the Wikipedia article on Atatürk's cult of personality.
  6. Myanmar: Aung San Suu Kyi and the Cult of Personality: Aung San Suu Kyi’s cult of personality is continuously projected within Myanmar even while it expires internationally. by David I. Steinberg (July 14, 2018) The Diplomat.
  7. IntelBrief: Protests in Sudan: Is Change Finally on the Horizon? (January 3, 2019) The Soufan Center.
  8. Berlusconi lecture delves into the cult of personality (February 8, 2012) Berkeley News.
  9. Conscripted into the emperor's private orchestra by Inna Lazareva (January 10, 2021) The Week.
  10. See the Wikipedia article on Nicolae Ceaușescu's cult of personality.
  11. See the Wikipedia article on Carol II of Romania's cult of personality.
  12. Is Castro's battle to avoid a personality cult destined to fail? by Joseph Bamat (Issued on: 05/12/2016 - 08:09Modified: 05/12/2016 - 22:14) France 24.
  13. See the Wikipedia article on Hugo Chávez's cult of personality.
  14. The Production of the Chiang Kai-Shek Personality Cult, 1929-1975 by Jeremy E. Taylor (2006) The China Quarterly 185:96-110.
  15. A cult of personality: Duterte’s popularity remains high despite disagreements on foreign policy by Zachary Frye (February 5, 2020) ASEAN Today.
  16. The Death and Legacy of Papa Doc Duvalier (Jan. 17, 2011 ) Time.
  17. A cult of personality dashes Turkey’s democratic dreams (October 31, 2016) The Washington Post.
  18. When Photographers Created a Cult of Personality Around General Franco: Like Trump, Spanish dictator's appearance was not that of a majestic ruler. He had a team who studied propaganda methods and traveled to see posters, exhibitions, and ceremonies first hand. by Miriam Basilio (October 25, 2020) Hyperallergic.
  19. See the Wikipedia article on Fujimorism.
  20. Muammar Gaddafi's cult of personality has finally crumbled by Daniel Kawczynski (23 Feb 2011 10.28 EST) The Guardian.
  21. See the Wikipedia article on Adolf Hitler's cult of personality.
  22. A Horthy-kultusz, 1919-1944 by Dávid Turbucz (2015) Történettudományi Intézet. ISBN 9634160115. Reviewed in A Horthy-kultusz 1919–1944 [The Horthy cult 1919–1944 by Turbucz Dávid (2017) The Hungarian Historical Review 6(3):695-698.
  23. Enver Hoxha’s personality cult lives on in today’s Albania: Albania is changing fast in the 21st century. At the same time a dictator’s ghost seems near impossible to get rid of. by Bardhyl Selimi (October 5, 2018) New Eastern Europe.
  24. Saddam Hussein's Ba'th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime by Joseph Sassoon (2012) Cambridge University Press. ISBN 052119301X. Chapter 6: The Personality Cult of Saddam Hussein.
  25. The personality cult of Ruhollah Khomeini by Tony Duheaume (Published: 11 May, 2017: 12:00 AM GST; Updated: 20 May, 2020: 10:51 AM GST) Alarabiya News.
  26. "Xi Jinping: the growing cult of China's 'Big Daddy Xi'" by Tom Phillips (8 December 2014) Daily Telegraph.
  27. See the Wikipedia article on Xi Jinping's cult of personality.
  28. See the Wikipedia article on Ferdinand Marcos's cult of personality.
  29. India, the world’s largest democracy, is now powered by a cult of personality: How Prime Minister Narendra Modi refashioned his governing party. by Kapil Komireddi (March 18, 2021 at 12:09 p.m. PDT) The Washington Post.
  30. Muriel Mirak-Weissbach (1 May 2012). Madmen at the Helm: Pathology and Politics in the Arab Spring. Garnet Publishing Ltd. p. 2. ISBN 978-0-86372-457-2. 
  31. Neville Teller (28 September 2014). The Search for Détente:: Israel and Palestine 2012-2014. Troubador Publishing Ltd. p. 315. ISBN 978-1-78306-592-9. 
  32. Niyazov's Cult of Personality Grips Turkmenistan by Kristen Gillespie (August 9, 200712:00 AM ET) NPR.
  33. Turkmenistan: My Personality Cult Is Better Than Yours by Farangis Najibullah (February 13, 2012 12:44 GMT) Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
  34. The Occult of Personality: Korea’s CandlelightProtests and the Impeachment of Park Geun-hye by Jamie Doucette (2017) The Journal of Asian Studies 76(4):851–860. doi:10.1017/S0021911817000821.
  35. From Verdun to Vichy: Maréchal Petain and his Social Revolution The Wolfsonian-FIU Library.
  36. See the Wikipedia article on Józef Piłsudski's cult of personality.
  38. Obama Takes One Last Look At Inauguration Crowd "I'm Not Going To See This Again" by TPM TV (Jan 21, 2013) YouTube.
  39. Some Guy Filmed President Obama Working Out In a Polish Gym by Aleksander Chan, Gawker (archived from 7 Jun 2014 23:17:13 UTC).
  40. [Marshmallow Launch at the White House Science Fair by The Obama White House (Feb 7, 2012) YouTube.
  41. Obama Jokes: 'Jedi Mind Meld' Not an Option During Sequester Negotiations by The New York Times (Mar 1, 2013) YouTube.
  42. [The Cuban missile crisis almost ended the world. Was it Kennedy’s fault? by Max Fisher( November 22, 2013 at 1:12 p.m. PST) The Washington Post.
  43. The man, the myth: In public, JFK was the emblem of a shining new age. In private, he was a drug-taking philanderer with Mob links by Mark White (17 November 2013 01:00) The Independent.
  44. Ali Abdullah Saleh, Strongman Who Helped Unite Yemen, and Divide It, Dies at 75 by Scott Shane (Dec. 4, 2017) The New York Times.
  45. Anatomy of an Autocracy: Mobutu's 32-Year Reign by Howard W. French (May 17, 1997) The New York Times.
  46. See the Wikipedia article on Zairean zaire.
  47. Alfredo Stroessner by Adam Bernstein (August 17, 2006) The Washington Post.
  48. Indonesia ABRI: Country Studies.
  49. Succession and the Charismatic Leader in Yugoslavia by Milorad M. Drachkovitch (1964) Journal of International Affairs 18(1):54-66.
  50. Personality vs. Party by Jonah Goldberg *July 18, 2017 4:05 PM) National Review.
  51. Republicans have built a cult of personality around Trump that glosses over his disgraced presidency by John Haltiwanger (Mar 4, 2021, 2:00 PM) Business Insider.
  52. Uribe Checks Out: Washington's most reliable ally in Latin America, the Colombian president, is on his way out. That's a good thing. by Adam Isacson (March 4, 2010, 7:39 PM) Foreign Policy.
  53. "I Choose This Means to Be With You Always": Getúlio Vargas's Carta Testamento by Thomas D. Rogers (2006). In: Vargas and Brazil: New Perspectives, edited by Jens R. Hentschke. Pages 227-255. ISBN 9780230601758.
  54. Q&A: Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army: Former choirboy from Uganda leads a militia with an unparalleled reputation for brutality who pillage, rape and mutilate by Julian Borger (8 Mar 2012 13.21 EST) The Guardian.
  55. I Am An Animal: The Story Of Ingrid Newkirk And PETA by Nathan Rabin (1/22/08 11:01PM) AV Club.
  56. Charles Manson: The Cult of Personality Surrounding a Killer by Raj Persaud & Peter Bruggen (Nov 20, 2017) Psychology Today.
  57. The cult of Steve Jobs by Kate Dailey (7 October 2011) BBC News.
  58. Elon Musk: The Cult of the Controversial Businessman: Is the SpaceX and Tesla entrepreneur really a visionary, or is it all modern-day myth-making? by Ian Nordin (February 15, 2020) Study Break.
  59. Elon Musk is now 'Technoking' of Tesla. Seriously by Chris Isidore (6:34 PM ET, Mon March 15, 2021) CNN.