Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Eric Hoffer and Donald Trump

As you know, if you've been with me for any length of time, I am a great fan of Eric Hoffer, the writer and thinker known as "The Longshoreman Philosopher." And my favorite of Hoffer's works is his marvelous short book The True Believer - a brief but insightful look at the nature of mass movements and fanaticism, and what stirs people to action.

I've thought more and more about Hoffer's ideas on mass movements as I watch the spectacle of Donald Trump's America and wonder why such an unqualified con artist has been able to attract so much support among people you'd think would know better, especially after a year of shining examples of his negative and dispiriting leadership. I think that some of Hoffer's thoughts in The True Believer may help to explain why so many people continue to support Trump. For instance, Hoffer writes:

"It is the true believer's ability to 'shut his eyes and stop his ears' to facts that do not deserve to be either seen or heard which is the source of his unequaled fortitude and constancy. He cannot be frightened by danger nor disheartened by obstacles nor baffled by contradictions because he denies their existence ... it is the certitude of his infallible doctrine that renders the true believer impervious to the uncertainties, surprises, and the unpleasant realities of the world around him."

Hoffer goes on to theorize that the doctrine which defines a mass movement (and Trumpism is nothing if not a mass movement) must not be understood, but simply believed in. It must be vague and unverifiable, to allow for maximum intellectual flexibility in the face of contrary information. Ask yourself: what does Donald Trump really stand for, other than being the polar opposite of everything Obama? What does he believe in, other than his own absolute superiority over all other humans? He can't be understood like most traditional political figures ... his followers simply and fervently believe in his pronouncements, no matter how bizarre and how often proven false.

A mass movement, in Hoffer's view, also uses what he calls "unifying agents" to bind its adherents together. Hoffer lists seven of these unifying agents, of which two are clearly present in those who follow Trump.

The first is hatred, which unifies the true believers against a despised other. For Nazi Germany, it was hatred of Jews. For Donald Trump and his followers, it's hatred of immigrants. In the minds of Trump's true believers, immigrants steal jobs from Americans, rape and murder innocent Americans with impunity, and soak up resources that could be used for the legitimate needs of American citizens. While illegal immigration is certainly a problem, focusing on immigrants as a class - not just illegals - demonstrates the unifying effect of hatred.

The second unifying agent is suspicion. As Hoffer writes,

"The awareness of their individual blemishes and shortcomings inclines the frustrated to detect ill will and meanness in their fellow men. Self-contempt, however vague, sharpens our eyes for the imperfections of others."

Casting suspicion on enemies, real or imagined, strengthens the belief of true believers. You can't trust the mainstream media, because everything is fake news. The government doesn't serve the needs of real Americans because of the machinations of the deep state. The FBI and the Justice Department are corrupt. We need to drain the swamp to restore American greatness ... although whatever swamp existed before has demonstrably grown far larger under the Trump administration.

I encourage you to find a copy of The True Believer and read it carefully. It's a short read, but it's packed with powerful concepts and observations that will help you understand the forces that brought Donald Trump to office and keep him there.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


1 comment:

Mike said...

Sarah Kendzior wrote a book predicting the rise of a trump. Watch the Seth Meyers interview from last night...