I decided to read Hoffer’s book after reading Andrew Sullivan’s excellent article on Donald Trump. Sullivan grapples with Trump’s astonishing rise and within that context he brings Hoffer to bear at strategic points of the argument. In the present essay, I will follow a strategy that is the mirror opposite of Sullivan’s; by sketching a skeletal version of Hoffer’s theory and illustrating it with key aspects of the rise of Donald Trump. The reason I want to proceed in this manner is because I mostly agree with Sullivan’s thesis.[*] And therefore, instead of regurgitating his argument, I hope to complement it.
Eric Hoffer (1898-1983) was a member of the now extinct species of American blue-collar intellectuals. He was a longshoremen (another extinct species) in San Francisco and an autodidact (merely threatened). Reading his treatise on the nature of mass-movements, The True Believer (1953), it quickly becomes obvious that Hoffer is a remarkably original thinker. What he lacks in rigor, he makes up for in profound insight. His style is old school—mid-century modern, as it were. He is plain-spoken to a fault, and writes without a trace of sophistry. He assumes that words and notions have their commonsensical meanings and he just sort of plows on. It makes for decidedly refreshing reading.
That being said, there are too many moving parts in his thesis. In the interests of parsimony, we will throw out everything unnecessary and strip his thesis down to its bare bones structure. Also, Hoffer’s too ambitious in his claim that his observations apply to all mass-movements, be they religious, social, or nationalist—and that they apply throughout history. He may or may not be right, but we shall claim far less. More precisely, we shall extract a theory of modern political mass–movements. By modern I mean after the advent of mass politics in the eighteenth century.[†] In what follows, I will use “mass-movement” with the understanding that what I am saying applies strictly only to modern political mass-movements.
Mass-movements arise endogenously from decaying political orders. Hoffer’s theory explains how and why they arise, and why they take the form they do.
What happens in a mass-movement is that differentiated individuals are marshalled by a demagogue into an undifferentiated, solid mass of identical particles, that is then deployed as a bludgeon to demolish a decaying political order.[‡]
The mechanics of mass-movements is brilliantly illustrated in the film “Fight Club.” Evil-genius Tyler Durden builds his army by annihilating the individuality of converts:
You have two black shirts? Two pair black trousers? One pair black boots? Two pair black socks? One black coat? Three hundred dollars personal burial money? Go inside…
You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We are all part of the same compost heap.
In an inversion of the normal order of things, the physics of mass-movements rests on mass psychology. The weakness of a decaying order swells the ranks of the frustrated who are willing, and indeed desperate, to submit. Who are the frustrated and why are they willing to submit? The frustrated are not the oppressed or the hungry. Those who are truly struggling to survive are too busy trying to put food on the table. Minorities of all sorts—religious, racial, ethnic—don’t feel entitled and are therefore not frustrated. In any event, desperate circumstances reinforce the compactness of the minority group.
No, one of Hoffer’s key insights is that the ranks of the frustrated come from those who feel entitled to a certain level of achievement and status, are almost within reach of it, but fall just short. In present day United States, the frustrated are blue-collar whites who have been screwed-over by the neoliberal order.[§] In and out of minimum wage jobs, low-income whites have watched their home—small town USA—devastated by deindustrialization, the hopes of their parents dashed, and their culture ridiculed on prime time television (“Honey Boo Boo”). They feel acutely the condensation of elites who see them as bigots and uncouth rednecks. Their despair is evident in the epidemic of self-destruction rampaging through the US hinterland uncovered by Case and Deaton.
But even dashed inter-generational expectations are not enough to generate a large cadre of frustrated individuals. The second critical ingredient is the condition of freedom which comes with individual responsibility. Modern market society differentiates individuals and isolates them for reward and punishment. The fairer the system the more acute the burden of failure. In a perfectly fair system, failure immediately reveals intrinsic inferiority. Astonishingly, three-quarters of those who do not finish high school think that “people get ahead by their own hard work,” compared to less than two-thirds of the college educated. (See Figure 1.)
The man who would become a true believer is one who cannot tolerate his individual station in life. More importantly, he cannot take responsibility for the verdict of the market on his differentiated individuality. He must suppress that knowledge. He therefore looks around to cast blame on the elite, foreigners, and traditional scapegoats. He sees the entire political order as rotten to the core. He is ready to burn it to the ground and start from scratch.
Hoffer notes that ideologies are remarkably interchangeable. But for an ideology to be suitable for a mass-movement it must provide a number of goods. First, a self-less goal that the potential true believer can righteously proclaim with pride. (“Make America Great Again.”) Second, an undifferentiated whole—party, nation, race, and so on—that annihilates his individuality and allows him to be a part of history in the making. (“Real Americans.”) Third, a corporate body of the like-minded united by shared delusions that offers an immediate sense of belonging. (The Trump rally “experience.”) Fourth, objects of hate. (Mexicans, Muslims, elites.)
That many of the claims of the ideology are delusional and nonsensical is the key to the whole thing: It is precisely the unreasonableness of the claims that makes them a potent glue. Agreeing on a reasonable set of claims provides no evidence of the annihilation of differentiated individuality. It is only the suspension of individuals’ faculty for reason that can flatten a differentiated set of individuals into an undifferentiated mass characterized by absolutely equality. (“They are rapists, murderers.” “Mexico will pay for the wall.” “There were Muslims celebrating in New Jersey on 9/11.” “Ban all Muslims from entering the USA.” “We’re going to start winning again!”)
No political mass-movement can exist without a demagogue. He is absolutely essential. But he does not conjure the movement into existence. His role is to articulate the mass frustration already manifest in the body-politic. Most critically, the demagouge’s role is to expose the weakness of the decaying political order. In order to do so, the demagogue bullies, insults, intimidates (“Knock the hell out of them. I promise you I will pay for the legal fees.”), and ridicules all political opposition (“Lyin’ Ted,” “Liddle Marco,” “Crooked Hillary,” “Pocahontas”). The threat of violence; and indeed, real violence, is very much part of the same strategy of delegitimization.
Could Trump ride the Great White Beast all the way to the Oval Office? Absolutely. Of the 125 million households in the United States, 100 million are white, roughly 80 percent of whom have seen no income gains in a generation. That’s 64 percent of US voters right there. Of course, not all of them can be persuaded to vote for Trump. But the 2016 election will be about turnout. And the candidate of the elites cannot compete on this turf with the leader of a mass-movement. We should all be very, very worried.
[*] Sullivan makes a grave mistake in calling Sanders a demagogue. That’s inaccurate because the Sanders diagnosis of what ails working America—the failure of the neoliberal model—is not that far off the mark.
[†] Mass politics began with the proliferation of newspapers and the emergence of a public sphere in the eighteenth century. The political revolutions of the late-eighteenth century and after were qualitatively different from all political upheavals that came before.
[‡] There is remarkable affinity between Hoffer’s thesis and that of René Girard’s in Violence and the Sacred. Both involve annihilation of all difference. Both require an attack on a defenseless victim. The slaughter of the sacrificial victim restores the unnanimity that had disappeared with the sacrifical crisis. The slaughter restores consensus because everyone partakes in the violence.
[§] The neoliberal counter-revolution began during the late-1970s’ stagflation crisis and was consolidated under Reagan. The neoliberal consensus spans deregulation, privatization, labor market flexibility, balanced budgets, stringent intellectual property rights and absence of financial repression. The Western financial crisis and the balance-sheet recessions that followed have dealt a potentially terminal blow to the neoliberal order. Much depends on this election.