Trump’s true believers
Part 1 of 2
In his classic 1951 book on mass movements, “The True Believer,” Eric Hoffer states that all such movements — be they religious, social or political — have numerous common features: “They all breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope and hatred.” Although the movement that put Donald Trump in the White House was not as transforming as the French and Russian revolutions, or the rise of Nazi Germany, it had all the mass movement features that Hoffer describes and uses them in the same way.
Widespread discontent is a necessary but not completely sufficient condition for the rise of a mass movement. A large segment of society can be deeply dissatisfied with the conditions of their existence but may be too physically and emotionally spent to engage in the arduous task of bringing about fundamental change. Hoffer states that for individuals “to plunge headlong into an undertaking of vast change, they must be intensely discontented yet not destitute.”
For Hoffer the “new poor” — individuals whose poverty is recent — are often the backbone of mass movements. In the 1930s, people from the “ruined middle class” were especially numerous in the Nazi and fascist movements in Germany and Italy.
In his analysis of the rise of Trump, political commentator Fareed Zakaria states that for most of American history, as the economy grew, so did wages and advancement opportunities for the middle class. However, in recent decades, the gap between rich and poor has increased dramatically, and middle-class families are struggling to make ends meet with many sinking into the lower class.
Hoffer states there is an important psychological aspect to workers losing good-paying jobs. He argues that in modern, capitalist societies, unemployment is experienced as a “degradation,” and the worker “sees himself as disinherited and injured by an unjust order of things.” Degraded individuals are especially open to mass-movement leaders calling for and promising dramatic political and social change.
In one of the most important sections of “The True Believer,” Hoffer states the principle “unifying agent” of a mass movement is hatred: “Mass movements can rise and spread without a belief in God but never without the belief in a devil.” One or more institutions and/or groups must be demonized to solidify group members and motivate them to action. When Hitler was asked if all Jews should be destroyed, he stated: “No … We should then have to invent him. It is essential to have a tangible enemy, not an abstract one.”
For Hoffer, the ideal enemy of a mass movement is a foreigner. While Trump has offered his supporters no shortage of domestic enemies — the fake news media, East and West Coast liberal elites, a corrupt and bloated federal government, intellectuals and Democrats (especially Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama) — his hatred is at a fever pitch when directed at overseas Muslims and, closer to home, Mexicans.
Daryl Johnson, a former counter-terrorism expert with the Department of Homeland Security, stated, “The anti-immigration xenophobia is rising … the wall, the travel ban, mass deportations … These were ideas … on white supremacist message boards. Now they’re being put forth as policy.” Prior to the August white supremacist rally in Virginia, former KKK leader David Duke stated, “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.”
Widespread discontent and a hate-spewing leader are flip sides of the mass movement coin. No discontent, and there is no anger for a potential leader to harness; no impassioned leader, and the discontent of the masses is never channeled into a potentially society-transforming movement.
According to Hoffer, exceptional intelligence, a noble character and originality are neither “indispensable nor perhaps desirable” qualities of an mass-movement leader. The most important requisites are “audacity, a joy of defiance, an iron will, a fanatical conviction that he is in possession of the one and only truth, faith in destiny and luck, a capacity for passionate hatred.” Although written 66 years ago, these words are a near-perfect description of Donald Trump.
Another important trait of mass movement leaders is some degree of “charlatanism.” For Hoffer there can be no successful mass movement “without some deliberate misinterpretation of the facts” on the part of the leader. According to Washington Post fact-checkers, in the first six months of his presidency, Trump made 836 false and misleading statements, an average of 4.6 less than truthful or blatant lies a day. For true believers, the nonstop lies do not diminish the faith and trust they have in Trump. To the contrary, any critique of the president’s honesty and character is proof positive the “fake news” liberal media is out to get him.
Hoffer states that one of the most striking traits of mass-movement leaders is their willingness to imitate past and present mass-movement leaders, “both friend and foe.” This is clearly evident in Trump, who has routinely expressed his admiration for Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. Other authoritarian leaders Trump has spoken favorably about include Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, China’s Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
Most chilling (and revealing) is Trump’s praise for Duterte. In an April phone conversation, Trump told the Philippine president, “I just wanted to congratulate you because I’m hearing of your unbelievable job on the drug problem.” Duterte’s death squads have killed an estimated 7,000 individuals — many of them children — suspected (not convicted) of using and distributing drugs. He boasted that journalists are “not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son-of-a-bitch.” Duterte also threatened to “whack” mayors who stand in his way and called Pope Francis the “son of a whore.”
At a campaign rally in January 2016, Trump stated that “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose a vote.” Although a typical Trump exaggeration, there is a disturbing truth in this assertion. No matter how many lies he tells, no matter how bizarre, callous and disgusting his behavior, Trump’s hardcore supporters will remain loyal. After seven months of a chaotic, three-ring-circus presidency, a Gallup poll found that nationally, 89 percent of conservative Republicans approve of Trump’s job performance.
A Monmouth University poll asked Trump supporters the following question: “Can you think of anything that Trump could do, or fail to do, in his term as president that would make you disapprove of the job he is doing, or not?” Sixty-one percent of respondents answered “No.”
These are Trump’s true believers, and it’s difficult to imagine their support for him eroding substantially — even if he does shoot someone in midtown Manhattan.
George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale and is retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego. A list of sources will appear with part 2 of this commentary tomorrow.