Spot the True Believer

A view of MAGA and Social Justice through the lens of Eric Hoffer

(this article originally appeared June 27th 2020 on Medium.com, during the third week of the Floyd protests)

In 1951, Eric Hoffer penned the book “The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.” Everyone should read this book immediately, because it perfectly describes the confusing things going on around us right now.

Though there are obvious differences between the fanatical Christian, the fanatical Mohammedan, the fanatical nationalist, the fanatical Communist and the fanatical Nazi, it is yet true that the fanaticism which animates them may be viewed and treated as one. The same is true of the force which drives them on to expansion and world dominion. There is a certain uniformity in all types of dedication, of faith, of pursuit of power, of unity and of self-sacrifice. There are vast differences in the contents of holy causes and doctrines, but a certain uniformity in the factors which make them effective. He who, like Pascal, finds precise reasons for the effectiveness of Christian doctrine has also found the reasons for the effectiveness of Communist, Nazi and nationalist doctrine. However different the holy causes people die for, they perhaps die basically for the same thing.

Hoffer was a hardcase genius. Lost both parents when young, spent his youth temporarily blind, lived on skid row for a bit, spent time as a migrant worker. In the 1950s he worked as a longshoreman, spending all day thinking about moral and social philosophy while he loaded and unloaded boxes from boats. True Believer was his first book of ten, a body of work which would eventually earn him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He wrote it in a world reeling from World War Two, which was dusting off the coffins, hosing down the blood, and trying to figure out what just happened. Nazis. Communists. Fascists. Nationalists. Global organized murder on a scale simply unfathomable since. His explanation centered on the moral psychology of people, who then form mobs. “Mass Movements.”

If you spend time googling news articles that mention this book, you will find innumerable pieces from the left using it to explain MAGA. You will also find innumerable pieces from conservative sources, or liberal-yet-rationalist ones, using it to explain Social Justice. If you dig deeply enough, you’ll even find instances of Hillary Clinton circulating the book among her friends to try and explain her supposedly inexplicable presidential loss.

But one thing I haven’t seen yet, is a writer use it to explain them all. Nor to explain the overall phase United States as a whole is going through. And that saddens me because it seems like a missed opportunity. I think if Hoffer were alive today, he wouldn’t be applying this theory to one tribe, in support of another tribe. He’d be frantically writing everything down for his Post-Civil-War-Two book, so he had a clean look at how it happened from the inside, provided he survived the conflict.

Excerpts from Part 1

It is a truism that many who join a rising revolutionary movement are attracted by the prospect of sudden and spectacular change in their conditions of life. A revolutionary movement is a conspicuous instrument of change. Not so obvious is the fact that religious and nationalist movements too can be vehicles of change. Some kind of widespread enthusiasm or excitement is apparently needed for the realization of vast and rapid change, and it does not seem to matter whether the exhilaration is derived from an expectation of untold riches or is generated by an active mass movement. In this country the spectacular changes since the Civil War were enacted in an atmosphere charged with the enthusiasm born of fabulous opportunities for self-advancement. Where self-advancement cannot, or is not allowed to, serve as a driving force, other sources of enthusiasm have to be found if momentous changes, such as the awakening and renovation of a stagnant society or radical reforms in the character and pattern of life of a community, are to be realized and perpetuated. Religious, revolutionary and nationalist movements are such generating plants of general enthusiasm.

Countries become ripe for mass movements when the opportunities for self-advancement are not apparent. Whether the current United States is in fact a country with ample opportunities for self-advancement does not matter. What matters is whether the sorts of people who would adopt a mass movement think it is. If they think it is not, they seek another route of enthusiasm. And as we’ve discussed before, social media echo chambers act as tools to reinforce opinions, not to challenge them.

There is in us a tendency to locate the shaping forces of our existence outside ourselves. Success and failure are unavoidably related in our minds with the state of things around us. Hence it is that people with a sense of fulfillment think it a good world and would like to conserve it as it is, while the frustrated favor radical change. The tendency to look for all causes outside ourselves persists even when it is clear that our state of being is the product of personal qualities such as ability, character, appearance, health and so on. “If anything ail a man,” says Thoreau, “so that he does not perform his functions, if he have a pain in his bowels even … he forthwith sets about reforming the world.”

It is understandable that those who fail should incline to blame the world for their failure. The remarkable thing is that the successful, too, however much they pride themselves on their foresight, fortitude, thrift and other “sterling qualities,” are at bottom convinced that their success is the result of a fortuitous combination of circumstances. The self-confidence of even the consistently successful is never absolute. They are never sure that they know all the ingredients which go into the making of their success. The outside world seems to them a precariously balanced mechanism, and so long as it ticks in their favor they are afraid to tinker with it. Thus the resistance to change and the ardent desire for it spring from the same conviction, and the one can be as vehement as the other.

This natural tendency to externalize the cause of someone’s life successes or failures breeds an allyship to the status quo in the well off, and revolution in the not-well-off. Red Tribers will read this passage and point at the blue haired, basement dwelling Social Justice Revolutionary and say “look, there she is!” Blue Tribers will read this passage and point at the trailer park resident, MAGA hat wearing, Cheetos eating Revolutionary and say the same thing. When I read this passage, I point at the United States itself, and say “woah boy, we sure are ripe for this stuff.”

Those who are awed by their surroundings do not think of change, no matter how miserable their condition. When our mode of life is so precarious as to make it patent that we cannot control the circumstances of our existence, we tend to stick to the proven and the familiar. We counteract a deep feeling of insecurity by making of our existence a fixed routine. We hereby acquire the illusion that we have tamed the unpredictable. Fisherfolk, nomads and farmers who have to contend with the willful elements, the creative worker who depends on inspiration, the savage awed by his surroundings — they all fear change. They face the world as they would an all-powerful jury. The abjectly poor, too, stand in awe of the world around them and are not hospitable to change. It is a dangerous life we live when hunger and cold are at our heels. There is thus a conservatism of the destitute as profound as the conservatism of the privileged, and the former is as much a factor in the perpetuation of a social order as the latter.

It is not the destitute poor who become revolutionaries, because they are too busy trying to make it to tomorrow. It is the bored, comfortable poor. I am generally a “pro-welfare” person, ideologically speaking, but I think it is an easily understood absolute fact that welfare programs which transmogrify safety nets into hammocks create a class of people who are permanently bored, permanently comfortable, poor. They create a petri dish for mass movements.

Offhand one would expect that the mere possession of power would automatically result in a cocky attitude toward the world and a receptivity to change. But it is not always so. The powerful can be as timid as the weak. What seems to count more than possession of instruments of power is faith in the future. Where power is not joined with faith in the future, it is used mainly to ward off the new and preserve the status quo. On the other hand, extravagant hope, even when not backed by actual power, is likely to generate a most reckless daring. For the hopeful can draw strength from the most ridiculous sources of power — a slogan, a word, a button. No faith is potent unless it is also faith in the future; unless it has a millennial component. So, too, an effective doctrine: as well as being a source of power, it must also claim to be a key to the book of the future.

“Make America Great Again.”

“The Future is Intersectional.”

For men to plunge headlong into an undertaking of vast change, they must be intensely discontented yet not destitute, and they must have the feeling that by the possession of some potent doctrine, infallible leader or some new technique they have access to a source of irresistible power. They must also have an extravagant conception of the prospects and potentialities of the future. Finally, they must be wholly ignorant of the difficulties involved in their vast undertaking. Experience is a handicap. The men who started the French Revolution were wholly without political experience. The same is true of the Bolsheviks, Nazis and the revolutionaries in Asia. The experienced man of affairs is a latecomer. He enters the movement when it is already a going concern.

In the Social Justice Tribe, we have the possession of a perceived potent doctrine. In MAGA, the infallible leader. In both, the ignorance of the difficulties, the lack of the handicap of experience, and non-destitute paramount discontent.

The problem, which Hoffer alludes to in a quote further down, is that once the petri dish is made, the mass movements are going to happen. If it were not MAGA and Social Justice, it would be something else.

A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business. This minding of other people’s business expresses itself in gossip, snooping and meddling, and also in feverish interest in communal, national and racial affairs. In running away from ourselves we either fall on our neighbor’s shoulder or fly at his throat.

The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft. What looks like giving a hand is often a holding on for dear life. Take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless. There is no doubt that in exchanging a self-centered for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless.

The second quoted paragraph here is an almost perfect description of some (but not all) of the people I know who are wrapped up in Social Justice today. The first quoted paragraph here might be a relatively accurate description of United States politics on all sides and fronts, going back decades. This is not a recent thing, this is a thing that has been brewing, and the stew pot is almost perfectly seasoned. We just needed some spice, such as unemployment.

One of the most potent attractions of a mass movement is its offering of a substitute for individual hope. This attraction is particularly effective in a society imbued with the idea of progress. For in the conception of progress, “tomorrow” looms large, and the frustration resulting from having nothing to look forward to is the more poignant. Hermann Rauschning says of pre-Hitlerian Germany that “The feeling of having come to the end of all things was one of the worst troubles we endured after that lost war.”2 In a modern society people can live without hope only when kept dazed and out of breath by incessant hustling. The despair brought by unemployment comes not only from the threat of destitution, but from the sudden view of a vast nothingness ahead. The unemployed are more likely to follow the peddlers of hope than the handers-out of relief.

Our national reaction to Covid-19 is the spice.

When our individual interests and prospects do not seem worth living for, we are in desperate need of something apart from us to live for. All forms of dedication, devotion, loyalty and self-surrender are in essence a desperate clinging to something which might give worth and meaning to our futile, spoiled lives. Hence the embracing of a substitute will necessarily be passionate and extreme. We can have qualified confidence in ourselves, but the faith we have in our nation, religion, race or holy cause has to be extravagant and uncompromising. A substitute embraced in moderation cannot supplant and efface the self we want to forget. We cannot be sure that we have something worth living for unless we are ready to die for it. This readiness to die is evidence to ourselves and others that what we had to take as a substitute for an irrevocably missed or spoiled first choice is indeed the best there ever was.

Amid the past year, some of the most interesting perspectives I’ve processed come from a close friend — a Vietnamese born lady, educated at Oxford, employed in Atlanta. She understands real poverty. Her family raised quail in their single bathroom of their apartment in Hanoi for the eggs. Her mother butchered her favorite pet dog for the meat. She’s now a well-paid accountant and HR manager for a local manufacturing company with ties to Europe, lives in a relatively ritzy suburb of Atlanta, and sang communist hymns when she was in grade school. She has a very hard time understanding why the police don’t just shoot the protesters, and why the protesters don’t just shut up and go home. I reveal to you her anecdote, not to say she is necessarily right about any of this, but rather to proffer a perspective from a foreign national on the idea that the United States may be brimming with people leading futile, meaningless, spoiled lives. The petri dish. The ripeness. Hoffer discusses this.

When people are ripe for a mass movement, they are usually ripe for any effective movement, and not solely for one with a particular doctrine or program. In pre-Hitlerian Germany it was often a toss up whether a restless youth would join the Communists or the Nazis. In the overcrowded pale of Czarist Russia the simmering Jewish population was ripe both for revolution and Zionism. In the same family, one member would join the revolutionaries and the other the Zionists. Dr. Chaim Weizmann quotes a saying of his mother in those days: “Whatever happens, I shall be well off. If Shemuel [the revolutionary son] is right, we shall all be happy in Russia; and if Chaim [the Zionist] is right, then I shall go to live in Palestine.”

The answer for them ended up being Palestine, where Weizmann served as the first president of Israel and also became the father of industrial fermentation. He held that political position at the time True Believer was published.

I have fielded many inquiries in the past month, from readers and friends asking what I think they should do, generally speaking, during all of this. I can’t say for sure. The lesson I take from this passage, however, is that the safest possible thing to do is ride the fence, don’t join a mass movement, and have a bug out plan.

This receptivity to all movements does not always cease even after the potential true believer has become the ardent convert of a specific movement. Where mass movements are in violent competition with each other, there are not infrequent instances of converts — even the most zealous — shifting their allegiance from one to the other. A Saul turning into Paul is neither a rarity nor a miracle. In our day, each proselytizing mass movement seems to regard the zealous adherents of its antagonist as its own potential converts. Hitler looked on the German Communists as potential National Socialists: “The petit bourgeois Social-Democrat and the trade-union boss will never make a National Socialist, but the Communist always will.”2 Captain Röhm boasted that he could turn the reddest Communist into a glowing nationalist in four weeks.3 On the other hand, Karl Radek looked on the Nazi Brown Shirts (S.A.) as a reserve for future Communist recruits.

The Nazis had all this figured out. This game of mass movements was the Nazi Game.

The Communists had all this figured out. This game of mass movements was the Communist Game.

Our major political players in the United States have all this figured out.

(Insert Parallelism Here)

Since all mass movements draw their adherents from the same types of humanity and appeal to the same types of mind, it follows: (a) all mass movements are competitive, and the gain of one in adherents is the loss of all the others; (b) all mass movements are interchangeable. One mass movement readily transforms itself into another. A religious movement may develop into a social revolution or a nationalist movement; a social revolution, into militant nationalism or a religious movement; a nationalist movement into a social revolution or a religious movement.

We must remember when looking at this, that the Nazi Party did not rise to power on a public platform of “gas the Jews.” The eastern bloc communists did not rise to power on a platform of Holodomor. The front face of a mass movement today does not show you at all where it will end up, because it doesn’t even know itself where it will end up.

The religious character of the Bolshevik and Nazi revolutions is generally recognized. The hammer and sickle and the swastika are in a class with the cross. The ceremonial of their parades is as the ceremonial of a religious procession. They have articles of faith, saints, martyrs and holy sepulchers. The Bolshevik and Nazi revolutions are also full-blown nationalist movements. The Nazi revolution had been so from the beginning, while the nationalism of the Bolsheviks was a late development. Zionism is a nationalist movement and a social revolution. To the orthodox Jew it is also a religious movement. Irish nationalism has a deep religious tinge. The present mass movements in Asia are both nationalist and revolutionary.

A lot of traffic in blue media spaces talks about how the Christian Right worships Donald Trump. HWFO has spoken at length about how Social Justice is functionally a secular crowdsourced religion. Certain atheist rationalist culture warriors such as James Lindsey take this realization as an excuse to troll the Social Justice Crowd on Twitter, perhaps because he perceives that such an approach by the atheist bloc worked against traditional religions in the past decades. Left wingers take the same approach to the MAGA crowd. But Hoffer sees these attempts as empty, because of the petri dish problem.

The problem of stopping a mass movement is often a matter of substituting one movement for another. A social revolution can be stopped by promoting a religious or nationalist movement. Thus in countries where Catholicism has recaptured its mass movement spirit, it counteracts the spread of communism. In Japan it was nationalism that canalized all movements of social protest. In our South, the movement of racial solidarity acts as a preventive of social upheaval. A similar situation may be observed among the French in Canada and the Boers in South Africa.

This method of stopping one movement by substituting another for it is not always without danger, and it does not usually come cheap. It is well for those who hug the present and want to preserve it as it is not to play with mass movements. For it always fares ill with the present when a genuine mass movement is on the march. In pre-war Italy and Germany practical businessmen acted in an entirely “logical” manner when they encouraged a Fascist and a Nazi movement in order to stop communism. But in doing so, these practical and logical people promoted their own liquidation.

The most important lesson for culture warriors sharpening their swords against one or another of our modern mass movements, is you cannot beat these things by fighting them ideologically. These things are not things of ideology. They are things of mass psychology. They must either be substituted, and the mob kited into parading in a direction less damaging, or they must be hijacked from the inside by benevolent forces which understand what’s going on. Nobody altruistic seems to understand what’s going on. The only people who do, and have power, are leveraging the movements for their own ends. The altruistic ones within these movements are moving with the mob.

I bring this article to a close here, despite there being immensely more to unpack, purely to not fail too much at brevity. The quotes above, and analysis, only cover Part I of the book — the first 13% of the material. The entire book is fundamentally descriptive.

Read this book.

Buy the author a beer