Today’s short story selection, Michael Noonan‘s “The Personality Cult,” comes from Terror House Magazine, an alternative online literary journal that publishes some excellent works from newer authors (although, it should be cautioned, they publish anything, including pieces that are borderline smut; browse with care). Indeed, two of my Inspector Gerard stories will appear there later this month. I’ve been reading Terror House Magazine for a couple of years now, and have been impressed with the gems they publish. “The Personality Cult” is one such precious stone.
The premise of the story is straightforward: the god-like dictator of an unnamed (but clearly Slavic) country falls from his horse; although he sustains no injuries, the experience changes him. No longer he is the paranoid, hard, overbearing tyrant, arresting his own servants on trumped-up treason charges; he is now kind and solicitous.
His own ministers view this change with understandable suspicion. Is the President (the only name Noonan gives us in the story) merely testing his ministers, setting an elaborate trap for them? Or has he sincerely experienced a change of heart? The President’s servants, Anna and Thomas, are similarly uncertain—why is the head of a sinister cult of personality suddenly taking an interest in their well-being, and that of our their families?
Soon, the President is ordering busts and paintings of himself removed from the presidential palace, and announces his plans to do the same throughout the country. He calls a meeting of his generals and ministers, giving them one week to develop reforms that will liberalize the country, starting with the dismantling of the cult of personality he himself built.
His ministers are shocked, and realize that gutting the cult of personality—a quasi-religion that underpins and lends legitimacy to the entire moribund system of oppression—will destroy the country, as well as their cushy positions near the top of its hierarchy.
They plot among themselves, and after the week is over, meet with the President. Their solution: to riddle the reform-minded President with bullets.
While I’ve given away all the major plot points, the story is worth reading (and is only slightly longer than my synopsis). The sense of paranoia among the servants and government officials is palpable. The sense of bureaucratic self-preservation is recognizable, sadly, in our own age, and suggests the supreme difficulty of enacting reforms.
Before his untimely assassination, the President expresses shock that his ministers—always faithful—have turned on him. The irony, of course, is it was the very cult of personality and strong-arm tactics that coerced fidelity from his ministers. With his announced intention of doing away with both, the President has sealed his fate, and sacrificed the power necessary to implement his sweeping reforms from above.
In other words, his power only existed so long as he was willing to use it ruthlessly in the preservation of his own power. Having sacrificed that power, the administrative layer that enforced it on his behalf is all-too-eager to take it up to preserve their own privileges.
It’s a discouraging moral, then, that Noonan presents in this little tale: one man at the top can’t change the whole system, even one he created, without the support of the people around him. It’s certainly a lesson from the Trump Administration—a far less dictatorial example—and one for various dictatorships around the globe. Every time there is a change in regime in, say, North Korea, the media fawns over the new dictator, pointing out his “Western education” and love of rap or some other bit of American popular culture as evidence that he will rule differently, or will introduce liberalizing reforms. It rarely happens, for precisely the reasons highlighted in “The Cult of Personality.”
It’s also a lesson for us here in ostensibly free nations. Hopes were high among conservatives that President Trump would institute the sweeping reforms that would save the Republic. Instead, President Trump was stymied at every turn by Establishment Republicans, the Deep State, and even his own inability to focus on important areas of reform. Even in spite of those obstacles, President Trump accomplished much, but with Biden the Usurper in office, those reforms appear to be fleeting in nature—a brief reprieve from progressive insanity, not a full-scale replacement of the system as such.