Ever since reading The True Believer in college I have admired its author, Eric Hoffer, and truly believed in the political philosophies he espoused. The True Believer is a short book, but a book you may read more than once. This morning I discovered an article by Tom Snachtman in The Daily Beast which effectively suggests that Hoffer predicted the rise of Donald Trump 65 years ago.
HATRED TRUMPS HOPE
The uncanny insights (and incredible life) of the American longshoreman and political prophet.
Whether or not Donald Trump knows it, he’s running his presidential campaign out of Eric Hoffer’s playbook.
That would be The True Believer, published 65 years ago this spring, a book about mass movements. Hoffer’s big insight was that the followers of Nazism and Communism were essentially the same sort of true believers, the most zealous acolytes of religious, nationalist, and other mass movements throughout history. In 1951, it was stunning to Americans to be told that ultra-right-wing Nazis and ultra-left-wing Communists—their recent enemies of World War II and current enemies in the Cold War—were, according to Hoffer, cut from the same cloth.
“All mass movements,” he explained, “irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred, and intolerance.”
Hatred and hope were the most important lures, Hoffer contended, hatred much more than hope: “Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil.”
Trump’s followers have responded most enthusiastically to the candidate’s diatribes against such devils as Mexicans and other “illegal immigrants,” Muslims of any stripe, unattractive or pushy women, clueless policy-makers, “loser” opposing candidates, and reporters who ask him other than softball questions.
The pollsters tell us that Trump’s followers share a decided affinity for authoritarianism, as well as beliefs that government causes more problems than it solves and that immigrants (and people with darker skins, and women) have stolen their jobs and their futures.
More: Trumpsters have little regard for facts that contradict their stances. Hoffer could have predicted this. “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 obstacle nor baffled by contradictions because he denies their existence.”
Hoffer described in detail who the true believers were: the frustrated, the disaffected, the dissatisfied with the status quo, those who put their faith in a leader promising simple yet radical solutions to their and society’s problems. “We join a mass movement,” Hoffer wrote, “to escape individual responsibility, or, in the words of the young Nazi, ‘to be free from freedom.’
“Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the loss of faith in ourselves.
“All mass movements deprecate the present,” wrote Hoffer, “and there is no more potent dwarfing of the present than by viewing it as a mere link between a glorious past and a glorious future.” That’s what Trump is doing when he vows to “make America great again”—celebrating what was and will be, while denigrating what is.
Trumpsters are predominantly white, native-born American males who do not have college degrees, and are economically in the lower middle class rather than among the very poorest. Actually, in these ways they are more like Eric Hoffer than many other Americans. In a 1964 article, Hoffer identified himself and his fellow longshoremen as white men from poor backgrounds, with little education and no skills except for their willingness to do backbreaking manual labor, who “do not feel that the world owes us anything, or that we owe anybody—white, black, or yellow—a damn thing.”
Schachtman proceeds to discuss the “incredible” life of Eric Hoffer. Refer to the original article for the complete story but it is important to known that, like Wallace Stevens, Eric Hoffer had a day job that was quite far removed from writing. I watched an interview with Hoffer back in the 60s: he was an impressive speaker and an amazing thinker. The one thing that stands out about his views was that he had a very low regard for John Kennedy but was impressed by Lyndon Johnson. I was in full agreement, but Hoffer suggested a test to decide who was best for the country.
Simply count the number of times the politician has crossed the Atlantic versus the number of times they crossed the American continent.
Good advice then. Today, with a more global economy and numerous geo-political alignments, there may be a need to rethink the criteria … but maybe not.