I have recently been reading Eric Hoffer’s 1950 bestseller The True Believer, and it’s a fascinating book for this moment. It seems to me to offer a convincing analysis of the rise of Trump but also an indication of why his movement will fail.
For instance, these passages offer some real insight into the success Trump has had so far:
It would seem then that the most fertile ground for the propagation of a mass movement is a society with considerable freedom but lacking the palliatives of frustration […]
They who clamor loudest for freedom are often the ones least likely to be happy in a free society. The frustrated, oppressed by their shortcomings, blame their failure on existing restraints. Actually their innermost desire is for an end to the “free for all.” They want to eliminate free competition and the ruthless testing to which the individual is continually subjected in a free society. […]
The milieu most favorable for the rise and propagation of mass movements is one in which a once compact corporate structure is, for one reason or another, in a state of disintegration. […]
Such a “compact corporate structure” being the Stoic/Christian moral world of Appalachia, the collapse of which J. D. Vance describes in Hillbilly Elegy.
About the possibility of a dangerous mass movement in America, Hoffer offers these sobering words:
The Americans are poor haters in international affairs because of their innate feeling of superiority over all foreigners. An American’s hatred for a fellow American (for Hoover or Roosevelt) is far more virulent than any antipathy he can work up against foreigners. It is of interest that the backward South shows more xenophobia than the rest of the country. Should Americans begin to hate foreigners wholeheartedly, it will be an indication that they have lost confidence in their own way of life.
Is anything more universally true of Trump’s supporters than that they have lost confidence in the American way of life?
Here’s Hoffer’s description of the leader of such a mass movement:
It needs the iron will, daring and vision of an exceptional leader to concert and mobilize existing attitudes and impulses into the collective drive of a mass movement. The leader personifies the certitude of the creed and the defiance and grandeur of power. He articulates and justifies the resentment dammed up in the souls of the frustrated. He kindles the vision of a breathtaking future so as to justify the sacrifice of a transitory present. He stages the world of make-believe so indispensable for the realization of self-sacrifice and united action. He evokes the enthusiasm of communion — the sense of liberation from a petty and meaningless individual existence. What are the talents requisite for such a performance? Exceptional intelligence, noble character and originality seem neither indispensable nor perhaps desirable. The main requirements seem to be: audacity and a joy in defiance; an iron will; a fanatical conviction that he is in possession of the one and only truth; faith in his destiny and luck; a capacity for passionate hatred; contempt for the present; a cunning estimate of human nature; a delight in symbols (spectacles and ceremonials); unbounded brazenness which finds expression in a disregard of consistency and fairness; a recognition that the innermost craving of a following is for communion and that there can never be too much of it; a capacity for winning and holding the utmost loyalty of a group of able lieutenants.
Much of this is uncannily evocative of Trump’s appeal — though perhaps not all of it. For one thing, he does not call anyone to self-sacrifice: he tells his followers that (a) they are not to blame for anything bad that has happened to them and therefore need not change in any way, and (b) he will fix everything, all by himself. And I doubt whether he has the ability, over the long haul, to “hold the utmost loyalty” of lieutenants, except perhaps for some members of his family.
But in general, the portrait strikes me as uncomfortably accurate. And when I read it I think of a Twitter exchange from the other day:
@ayjay You, PC enforcers, have alienated us. We are now fused with him, because he’s spoken for us in the face of your distortions.
— Drew (@Hollin_Drew) July 31, 2016
“We are now fused with him.” Words worth pondering. But there is one last point that’s important to note:
Those who would transform a nation or the world cannot do so by breeding and captaining discontent or by demonstrating the reasonableness and desirability of the intended changes or by coercing people into a new way of life. They must know how to kindle and fan an extravagant hope.
This, it seems to me, Trump cannot do. It is rage and rage only that he kindles. Many of the people voting for him, by their own testimony, do not believe he will win and think that if he does win he is unlilely to be able to change anything. They just want to put the corrupt house of American politics to the torch, and then watch it burn.