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The term "cult of personality" is usually derogatory, and refers to the glorification and adoration of a single person, typically a political figure. It is also usually focused on leaders of totalitarian regimes, with the underlying propaganda machinery that aims to nurture idolization through various forms of awe-inspiring symbolism. All of these techniques are necessary for legitimizing the all-encompassing rule of these authorities along with justifications of any repressive and surprising political decisions they might opt for.
It is Karl Marx who can be accredited for surfacing the term, as his image was the point of adoration and worship in various stages of history. Although Marx opted to critique the unfounded and superstitious glorification of one's perceived authority, not all leaders have followed suit.
If we peruse the historical data, it's easy to see that various leaders have purposefully orchestrated and maintained their cults of personality. Not only that, but it is possible to argue that it has been the preferred method of many, if not most, of ancient leaders like those in Egypt and China. The ideology of the divinity of rulers has a long and established track of keeping kings and czars in their royal seats. The ascension of these rulers to their thrones was not only a question of carefully organized propaganda but was an effect of the unquestionable belief that they are in fact, divine and god-like.
Personality Cults and Democracy
Although it might make sense to conclude that the rise of democratic practices has made it impossible for leaders to claim their roles as divine and unquestionable, the reality is quite different.
Democracy should, indeed, in theory, prevent ruling figures from manipulating their followers in such a way that enables them to promote and sustain their won cults of personality. However, with the rise of the modern era mass media and never-ending techniques of manipulating public decision making and perceptions, there are countless examples of contemporary power figures creating cults of personality of near-mythical proportions. Not all of them have perhaps intended to create such an aura around themselves, but it has nonetheless happened.
As stated, the term is predominantly used in reference to authoritarian leaders. However, it is sometimes used when talking about prominent historical figures central to various social movements. People like Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela have all been mentioned in the context of transformational leaders, whose legacy can be linked to cults of personality. Not only have they been focal points of politics and social movements, but their influence can also be clearly seen in all sorts of artistic expressions and heritage.
One of the most infamous and perhaps the most obvious example of a modern-day cult of personality is that of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
In many ways, the rule of North Korean leaders, in general, has been much like that of a self-proclaimed deity. He has risen to the position of absolute power through his bloodline. His father and grandfather have both been North Korean leaders whose cults of personality were an instrument for generating and sustaining the control over their country.
The perceived adoration and unparallel respect Kim Jong-un causes in his subordinate citizens are profoundly shaped, if not completely, by the fact that free speech isn't something that is practiced in North Korea. The countries repressive apparatus is so strong that it controls all venues of possible propaganda and shapes Kim Jong-un to be a supreme being capable of any accomplishment, regardless of their improbability. He is viewed as an ingenious military strategist, although he has no experience that would objectively indicate that level of proficiency. The public also sees him as having ultimate mountaineering capabilities in spite of the fact that he is undeniably in less than envious physical shape.
History saw Adolf Hitler build his cult of personality to such measures that it's the single most prominent example that pops into people's minds. His ability to influence and brainwash vast numbers of people is a powerful statement of how cults of personality have shaped human history in the darkest of ways.
Hitler was the epitome of what scholars would call a transformational leader, whose main characteristic would certainly be charisma. This, among other things, is what gave him the capacity to harness the support of people he needed to accomplish his dark goals. Adolf Hitler managed to influence and brainwash a vast number of ordinary people to do unthinkable things, so much so that he threw an entire country into a world war.
Whether generated by the power of media and social turmoil or deliberately engineered by those in power (usually a combination of everything), it is undeniable that cults of personality have long been the shaping factors of societal frameworks. It is also probable that the world will always witness these phenomenons, in one shape or another, simply due to our human tendencies to be drawn to these types of personalities. Hopefully, they will be much less ominous than those that we've already seen throughout history.