True Believers

By diderot

April 14, 2018

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ric Hoffer was shaped like a chunk of coal, all crags and girth.  The rugged planes of his face were struck by a genetic chisel.  But behind his pedestrian façade hummed a mind as clear and sharp and finely-polished as a diamond.     

Hoffer was entirely self-educated; an inhabitant of whatever public library was available nearby.  His ‘career’ consisted of jobs as an itinerant laborer, a crop picker, a gold panner and a longshoreman.  Not only did he refuse to call himself an intellectual, he reviled those who did so themselves.  His published work was the simple, continuous product of research and reflection. That was it; in fact, that was his life.  His most famous work, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, was a staple of required reading lists for decades across a variety of college disciplines. It was published in 1951, when memories of Hitler and Mussolini were still fresh, and as Stalin’s stronghold on Russia was tightening.  Hoffer was writing about tyrants in real time. 

Recently, outlets from the Daily Beast to the Wall Street Journal judged that Hoffer’s work ‘predicted’ Donald Trump.  And this is true as far as it considers the prototypical egotist that Hoffer described…

“…a joy in defiance, an iron will, a fanatical conviction that he is in possession of the one and only truth, a capacity for passionate hatred, contempt for the present, a delight in symbols, spectacles and ceremony, a disregard of consistency and fairness…”

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eric hoffer

Yes--all too resonant with you-know-who.  But alone, these personal traits do not guarantee the creation of a mass movement.  It must first find its primordial soup:

“…there is no doubt the leader cannot create the conditions which make the rise of a movement possible.  He cannot conjure a movement out of the void.  There has to be an eagerness to follow and obey, and an intense dissatisfaction with things as they are.”

 Where does such dissatisfaction come from? And how does that turn into mindless devotion?  Much analysis has been done on ‘the Trump voter’, and I don’t want to belabor the point here.  But I do want to view these voters from a different perspective—through the convex lens that was Eric Hoffer.


The Prerequisites

Consider the most essential of time lines: past to present to future.  It’s a cliché.  But within it lies the breeding ground for building a social, cultural or religious mass movement. In Hoffer’s words:

“The prime objective…preached by most movements is to breed contempt for the present.  The radical and the reactionary loath the present. They see it as an aberration and a deformity.  Where a mass movement finds the organizing pattern of family, tribe or country in a state of disruption and decay, it moves in for the harvest.  Fanatics can move in and take charge only after the prevailing order has been discredited and has lost the allegiance of the masses.”

And, even more tellingly,

“Not only does a mass movement depict the present as mean and miserable, it deliberately makes it so.”

This may send images and words swirling through your head.  Warnings about the ‘absolute disasters’ of the U.S. military; the VA; unemployment; trade agreements; immigrants; the Iran deal; drug gangs; Obamacare, etc.  It’s fair to ask, are things really that bad—or did someone just make us believe they are?  (By the way, this trick is nothing new. Ronald Reagan ranted about a‘welfare queen driving a Cadillac on the south side of Chicago--who never existed.  George W. Bush sent young men marching to their deaths in search of weapons of mass destruction—that weren’t there). Nevertheless, if you’re convinced that an apocalypse is closing in, assuredly you’d want to drain that swamp.  And, above all, to ‘Make America Great Again’.  So, here we are.

Of course, not all 300 million Americans are going to see the country in the same way.  Many believe the nation, as a whole, is always improving, and is now better than it’s ever been (present federal leadership notwithstanding).  But this belief does not hold true for the core of Trump supporters.  As Hoffer demonstrated in the case of previous mass movements, it’s not the very poorest…those at the very edges of subsistence…who first raise the banner.  Instead, the true believers are those who feel overwhelming ‘disruption and decay’.  As if they’re moving backwards; that something has been taken from them.  Hoffer says, “the memory of better things is a fire in their veins.  They are the disinherited and dispossessed.”

And evidence is there, no question.  Some things ARE being taken away.  The raise.  The bonus.  The union.  The pension.  The healthcare.  The health.  The job.  The hope.  In a country where every generation saw its successor as doing better, to many that no longer seems plausible.

Author Arlie Russell Hochschild spent five years in the deep south talking to the people who would become ardent Trump supporters.  To these people, the world works like this: “you are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits.  But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you.”  In their eyes—with GOP urging--those ‘cutters’ are minorities, immigrants, anyone on government assistance.  The more people cut in, the further back you’re pushed. 

And then the mass movement comes to harvest.


The Appeal

To me, the most intriguing aspect of Hoffer’s book is his depiction of true believer as simply giving up the fight—surrendering to a strong leader:

“A rising mass movement attracts and holds…not by its doctrine and promises, but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, unfairness and meaninglessness of an individual existence.  To the frustrated, freedom from responsibility is more attractive than freedom from restraint.  They are eager to barter their independence for relief from the burdens of willing, deciding and being responsible for inevitable failure.  They willingly abdicate the directing of their lives to those who want to plan, command and shoulder all responsibility.”

But who do you trust to do that?  Who do you feel safe in planning and shouldering the responsibility for you?

Hoffer says that person must possess key ingredients.  First, certitude.  In his words, one who “possesses the one and only truth.”  And second, one with, “boundless self-confidence, which promotes the leader to give full rein to his preposterous ideas.”

Again, this sounds concretely contemporary.  But it was written more than 65 years ago. 

There will always be many willing to pay allegiance to a man who says, “I alone can fix it.”


The Essential Tool

There’s one more standard trick up the evil magician’s sleeve.  Once you’ve convinced your audience that the country is a disaster…that they are, indeed, getting screwed…and that there’s only one person who can save them…then you are ready to wield the sword that will secure your power:

“All mass movements strive to impose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world.  It is the believer’s ability to shut his eyes and stop his ears to facts that do not deserve to be either seen nor heard which the source of his unequaled fortitude and consistency.  He can not be…disheartened by obstacles nor baffled by contradictions because he denies their existence.  There is thus an illiterate air about the most literate true believer. The inability or unwillingness to see things as they are promotes both gullibility and charlatism.”

To such people, ‘fake news’ is not a feint; it is a fact.  “Don’t try to tell me otherwise, because I know what I believe, and I don’t want to hear it.”  Hoffer states, “the devout are always urged to see the absolute truth with their hearts, not their minds.”

But come on, we can’t be dealing with an absolute monolith, right?  Some of them must harbor some concerns…some disagreements.  So why don’t they speak up?

“When the frustrated congregate in a mass movement, the air is heavily laden with suspicion.  There is crying and spying, tense watching and intense awareness of being watched.  The surprising thing is that this pathological mistrust within the ranks leads not to dissension but to strict conformity.  Knowing themselves continually watched, the faithful strive to escape suspicion by adhering zealously to proscribed behavior and opinion.  Strict orthodoxy is much the result of mutual suspicion.”

The picture this paints is a castle of ignorance, whose walls are impregnable.  You can’t reason with these people, so why even bother?

But I believe there's a crack in that wall--one that we may be able to exploit to help end this malignancy.


id you know this: a higher percentage of self-identified evangelicals voted for Donald Trump than for either Bush, or even Reagan? That seems pretty hard to square with Trump’s lifelong boasting of sexual conquest, along with his constant mortal sins of lying, theft, and false idolatry.  How do evangelicals explain that?  After all, across the wide swath of Christian belief, evangelicals hold themselves as strict adherents to the inerrant word of the Bible. But no evangelical kids himself that Trump is a paragon of biblical demeanor.    

So, what gives?

Some pundits assert that this comes from logic. Live with the sins in order to achieve greater goals, like reversing Roe v. Wade, and assuring an endless migration of Jesus judges to the federal bench.  Sure, you give up quite a lot—but you realize an even greater return.  Not the devil's bargain.  Just pragmatism.  

But I think the stronger reason for evangelical support is that Trump voters and evangelicals share the same DNA of surrender as those in any other mass movement.  Consider similar characteristics among evangelicals: 

· Demonizing the present: White evangelicals believe they face more discrimination in America than do Muslims.  GOP voters claim Christians suffer more discrimination than immigrants, blacks or LGBTQ citizens. Current evangelical prince Franklin Graham says society, “has taken a nosedive off of the moral diving board into the cesspool of humanity.” The President helpfully adds, “we haven’t seen anything like this, the carnage all over the world.”  Wow.  Is there any hope for these people?  Of course there is!  The Rapture is the ultimate ‘get-out-of-this-hellish-jail-free’ card.  Feel no obligation to the present, since everything will turn out alright in the end—and that end could be any day now. Keep the faith.

· Abdicating the burden of directing your own life: Franklin’s more famous father, Billy Graham, made his living bestowing halos of respectability on various world leaders.  But he wasn’t exactly a moderate.  He didn’t think ‘born again’ was quite enough.  He commanded “a total surrender to God.” And do it now—or you burn in hell.

· Certitude: "He that believeth in me hath everlasting life.”  You simply cannot make a better closing argument than that.  How do you turn down that kind of offer?

· Fact-proof screen: Evangelicals, with the help of Fox News and online cesspools, are providing not just a screen, but a mighty wall of myth.  If you accept that God’s law supersedes all human law (as do many of our lawmakers), and if this faith thus contradicts facts…well, so be it.  God is the ultimate trump card.  (Yes, that was intended). 

If you believe all of this is coincidence—that Trump voters and evangelicals only coincidentally share the birth marks of classic mass movements--let me throw out one more fact.  In 2016, more than a third of voters in nine different states described themselves as evangelicals.

Trump took all nine.


ou may have evangelical friends or associates.  They may support Donald Trump.  You may think there’s no talking to them.

But there is.  Just do it.

This is the way to widen that crack in the impregnable wall.  Simply appeal to them, not on political grounds, but on religious ones.  Isn’t it the obligation of a good Christian to help another who has lost his way?  Thus, is it permissible for a Christian…to call out another Christian?  Or do you believe that any Christian denomination merits total immunity from persecution?

Ask this: how do they square their religion with support for the current GOP?  Where do Trump’s actions intersect with their spiritual beliefs?  Be polite: but ask anyway.  And then wait for a response—even though you probably won’t get one.

There will not be instant, open conversions.  People will probably disengage quickly.  But inside some, you will have sown the seed of private reflection. 

And they don’t have to ever give voice to those reflections.  They never have to confess that you were right…and that maybe they agree with you.  No need. 

All they need to do in November is to stay home; register their internal protest by NOT voting.  Don’t get out their vote.  Get it neutered. 

And when they do nothing, the wall of ignorance will begin to fall.

And somewhere Eric Hoffer will be smiling, because this latest mass movement will crumble, just as have all that have preceded it.