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Creating Mass Movements — Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

By Ernest Kearney  —  In these turbulent and twisting times that find so many bewildered and baffled, suckered punched by the events of the last two years, I find myself in this punishing period for our nation oddly consoled by a soothing sense of déjà-vu.

Yes, Trump’s victory via that Three-Card Monte constitutional encumbrance called the Electoral College left me as bumfuzzled as a hoe-wacked goose, as his election was about as unexpected and unpleasant as finding a spitting cobra inside a box of Cracker Jacks as your secret prize.

However, in the days that followed, I felt a curious calmness creep over me, and it struck me that I recognized the dynamics at play.

Not that I’ve had prior experience of a long-established democratic system rending itself apart, or of a society being sucked down into the toxic swill of the most recidivistic and repugnant aspects of its national character.

I had watched as Trump infected the body politic, from the GOP convention to the November election, like a particularly viral strain of the French Pox. I had watched as his malevolent, blustering, vainglorious and clownish campaign bloated up into a “crass-roots” crusade fueled by his rabble-rousing duplicity and squalor and constant mudslinging in 140 character smears.  And while I had never beheld such an excremental engine as the Trump candidacy, I had studied the blueprints that built it.

I had read Eric Hoffer.

As far as foreseeing what the future holds, Jean Dixon, Criswell of “Plan Nine” fame and Nostradamus were a pack of third-rate wankers.

Eric Hoffer was the real deal, and his first work, a thin volume published in 1951, should be mandatory reading today.

The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, runs just over 150 pages, and consists of 125 brief commentaries distributed into 18 short chapters.

It’s a book one can read in an afternoon; it’s a book that explains why individuals would fly airliners into our buildings and how an inadequate, Pecksniffian nonentity finds himself in the White House.

When Hoffer died in 1983 at the age of 84, America lost one of its few native son philosophers and the world lost one of its most original and prescient thinkers.

How Hoffer came to that station is a narrative hued with the tincture of classic American mythos.

Much of Hoffer’s life story derives from his own reports, particulars of which over the years have been challenged by biographers and historians.

But when one lives up to the myths woven around oneself, then they transubstantiate into “history” and, whatever myths Hoffer cloaked about himself, his life excelled them all.

His birth date is uncertain and the tales he told of himself over the decades often conflict, but certain details are constant in each retelling.

He was born in the Bronx.

His parents were recent immigrants from the Kaiser’s imperial Germany.

He was orphaned at an early age.

Still, it is even possible that none of that is true and that, rather than having been born here, Hoffer came, illegally, into this country some time before the Great Depression.  This would account for attitudes towards and treatment of immigrants being a recurring theme in his work as well as explaining why he spoke with a distinct German accent throughout his life.

Eric Hoffer the Longshoreman Philosopher

Hoffer told how he used the $300 insurance money from his father’s death to travel to Los Angeles, where he said he spent the next 10 years on Skid Row: reading, occasionally writing, and working at odd jobs; including as a migrant field hand in California’s central valley.

He acquired a library card and spent countless hours in both the Downtown and Hollywood libraries.   His claim that he taught himself Hebrew, botany and chemistry could be dismissed in someone of lesser stature.  But his recounting of reading Michel de Montaigne’s Essays and the world they opened up to him seems validated in his adoption of Montaigne’s personal, pithy and aphoristic heavy style as his own.

Also, like Montaigne, Hoffer’s study was that of man.

Hoffer’s life emerges from the mists of self mythology in 1934.

His internment that year in a federal transient camp, set up by California where any jobless drifters who crossed into the sunshine state were detained and put to work on state projects, is documented, and his own account of that period is included in his book The Ordeal of Change which is arguably the strongest narrative writing of his career.

It is of interest to note that in the enormous amount of unpublished writings and notebooks, Hoffer left at his death, there is nothing that predates his arrival in California in 1934.

In 1941, Hoffer moved to San Francisco where he would remain the rest of his life.  There, he took work on the docks as a longshoreman and began writing his first book.

Ten years later Margaret Anderson, a New York editor with Harper & Row, received an unsolicited manuscript by an author neither she nor anyone else, at that time, had ever heard of.

The work bore the sober title of Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.

Anderson expected to read the first page and set it aside.

By the second paragraph she knew she wasn’t setting it aside.

Hoffer pronounced his theme in the opening preface:

 

“All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and single hearted allegiance.   All movements, however different in doctrine and aspiration, draw their early adherents from the same types of humanity; they all appeal to the same types of mind.”

 

It would be Anderson, while working as the book’s editor, who suggested the addition of “The True Believer” to the title.  Hoffer accepted the suggestion and dedicated the book to her.

 

At its publication in 1951, Hoffer lived by himself in a single room he rented in the Chinatown section of San Francisco.  His room held a few articles of clothing, a bed, two chairs and writing supplies.  There was no telephone, no radio, no television.  It would remain that way until his death.

 

Seemingly overnight the unknown, barrel-chested, balding longshoreman was hailed for the staggering insights of his book and stamped by the media as “the Longshoreman Philosopher.”

But Hoffer’s impact reached beyond the hype.

In Britain, Bertrand Russell praised Hoffer, and in America the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in speaking of The True Believer said, “This brilliant and original inquiry into the nature of mass movements is a genuine contribution to our social thought.”

Hoffer continued to work as a longshoreman even after the success of his work.  When he left the docks, it was to accept an adjunct professorship at the University of California, Berkeley.

In 1959, it was divulged that Hoffer had another admirer of note.

Two years before the farewell address where he aired his concerns of the threat the “military-industrial complex” posed to our democracy, President Dwight D. Eisenhower (Ike) gave voice to another warning for our nation, in a letter to a dying veteran.

Terminally ill Robert Biggs, who had served in World War II, wrote to Eisenhower venting his concerns, admitting,

 

I felt from your recent speeches the feeling of hedging and a little uncertainty.”

 

He longed for the firm leadership of command that he’d known during the war, the lack of which he found disturbing.

He closed his letter with a confession,

 

We wait for someone to speak for us and back him completely if the statement is made in truth.”

            Today Biggs would receive a standard White House form response like hundreds of others that are mailed off daily, consisting of a “thank you” and the president’s automated signature.

But Eisenhower sat down and composed a reply.

A reply which reflected the turmoil of his term: Joseph McCarthy had paralyzed the country with his claims of Communist sympathizers at all levels of the government and had infiltrated the nation’s schools and industries, and the John Birch Society had branded Ike a tool of the Soviets, all the while making inroads into the Republican party.

 

To Biggs, Eisenhower wrote:

 

I doubt that citizens like yourself could ever, under our democratic system, be provided with the universal degree of certainty, the confidence in their understanding of our problems, and the clear guidance from higher authority that you believe needed.   Such unity is not only logical but indeed indispensable in a successful military organization, but in a democracy debate is the breath of life.

 

Eisenhower recommended The True Believer to Biggs, then goes on to explain that the book:

 

… points out that dictatorial systems make one contribution to their people which leads them to tend to support such systems — freedom from the necessity of informing themselves and making up their own minds concerning these tremendous complex and difficult questions.”

 

In warning Biggs of the danger in wishing “for someone to speak for us,” perhaps Eisenhower was recalling this passage from Hoffer’s book:

 

“Unless a man has the talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden. Of what avail is freedom to choose if the self be ineffectual? We join a mass movement to escape individual responsibility, or, in the words of the ardent young Nazi, ‘to be free from freedom.’ It was not sheer hypocrisy when the rank-and-file Nazis declared themselves not guilty of all the enormities they had committed. They considered themselves cheated and maligned when made to shoulder responsibility for obeying orders. Had they not joined the Nazi movement in order to be free from responsibility?”

In his letter, Eisenhower acknowledges this “irksome burden” but he is quick to point out its blessing; “But while this responsibility is a taxing one to a free people it is their great strength as well–from millions of individual free minds come new ideas, new adjustments to emerging problems, and tremendous vigor, vitality and progress.

Eisenhower closes his reply praising Biggs for

 

pondering these problems despite your deep personal adversity.”  ** writer's hand **

 

In the post war America, it was difficult to accept that the right-wing fascist and left-wing Marxist were interchangeable.

 

But Hoffer argued:

 

“All mass movements, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred, and intolerance… A mass movement attracts and holds a following not because it can satisfy the desire for self-advancement, but because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation.”

 

At the close of his life, Hoffer had ten more titles to his name including The Passionate State of Mind (1955), and The Ordeal of Change (1963), which he considered his best work.

But it is The True Believer for which he is best remembered, and 21st century readers can distinguish Hoffer’s paradigm in Islamic terrorists such as Hezbollah and al Qaeda, right-wing, evangelical fundamentalists groups such as the World Church of the Creator, Zionist militants such as the followers of Meir Kahane, organizations of both black and white supremacists and a host of other groups.

Citizens of today’s troubled America sitting down with the book would be stunned at how Hoffer’s words provoke a reverberation so precise in echoing both the roots and allure of Trumpism.

When placed beside Trump and his political movement, Hoffer’s commentary takes on the appearance of reversed engineered prophecy.

 

In the beginning there was Trump trumpeting the ridiculous allegation regarding Obama’s birth certificate:

I have people that have been studying [Obama’s birth certificate] and they cannot believe what they’re finding… I would like to have him show his birth certificate and, can I be honest with you, I hope he can. Because if he can’t—if he can’t, if he wasn’t born in this country, which is a real possibility…then he has pulled one of the great cons in the history of politics.

The fact is, if you’re not born in the United States, you cannot be president…

An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that Barack Obama’s birth certificate is a fraud.

You have Trump’s assault on any press media or news outlet refusing to kowtow to his public image or challenging his contrived assertions:

The press has become so dishonest that if we don’t talk about it, we are doing a tremendous disservice to the American people. We have to talk to find out what’s going on, because the press honestly is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control.

And I want you all to know that we are fighting the fake news. It’s fake, phony, fake. A few days ago, I called the fake news the ‘enemy of the people,’ and they are, they are the enemy of the people.

Hoffer would observe:

 

It is startling to realize how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible.”

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.

 

All active mass movements strive, therefore, to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world.

 

Trump “interpose[d] a fact-proof screen” as a masquerade of “alternative facts,” yet he raged at the media:

 

They shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name. Let their name be put out there. Let their name be put out.

 

A feature in the make-up of a “True Believer” is holding others to a higher code of conduct than they do themselves or their leader, so Trump never needs to identify his “extremely credible source” who denounced Obama’s birth certificate a “fraud.”

Trump lashed out unendingly at those forces plotting against him:

We have losers. We have people that don’t have it. We have people that are morally corrupt. We have people that are selling this country down the drain.

Our enemies are getting stronger and stronger by the way, and we as a country are getting weaker.

The election is absolutely being rigged by the dishonest and distorted media pushing Crooked Hillary – but also at many polling places: SAD.”

Hoffer would retort:

The enemy—the indispensable devil of every mass movement—is omnipresent. He plots both outside and inside the ranks of the faithful. It is his voice that speaks through the mouth of the dissenter, and the deviationists are his stooges. If anything goes wrong within the movement, it is his doing. It is the sacred duty of the true believer to be suspicious. He must be constantly on the lookout for saboteurs, spies and traitors.

Propaganda … serves more to justify ourselves than to convince others; and the more reason we have to feel guilty, the more fervent our propaganda.

Trump promised those who came to his rallies:

I think that I would be a great uniter. I think that I would have great diplomatic skills. I think that I would be able to get along with people very well. I’ve had a great success in my life. I think the world would unite if I were the leader of the United States.

Hoffer:

It is futile to judge the viability of a new movement by the truth of its doctrine and the feasibility of its promises. What has to be judged is its corporate organization for quick and total absorption of the frustrated. Where new creeds vie with each other for the allegiance of the populace, the one which comes with the most perfected collective framework wins.

 

Sadly,” Trump lamented, “the American dream is dead. But if I get elected president, I will bring it back bigger and better and stronger than ever before, and we will make America great again.

 

Hoffer:

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. Thus, though a mass movement at first turns its back on the past, it eventually develops a vivid awareness, often specious, of a distant glorious past. Religious movements go back to the day of creation; social revolutions tell of a golden age when men were free, equal, and independent; nationalist movements revive or invent memories of past greatness.

 

Trump positioned himself as able to fix all the wrongs of the country just by the force of his personality.

So I deal with foreign countries, and despite what you may read, I have unbelievable relationships with all of the foreign leaders. They like me. I like them. You know, it’s amazing.”

We’ll have companies pouring back into our nation. I mean, it’s going to be — you know, it’s going to be beautiful.

You know, I’ve had a lot of wins in my life, and I know where I’m coming from, and I know where I’ve been, and I know how to get the country to where people really want to see it.”

Hey, I’m a nationalist and a globalist. I’m both.

Other than the claim, “Only I can fix it,” Trump offered no detailed programs, but when he spoke to his base, where the rest of us heard words fluttering about as meaninglessly as cards flung in a child’s game of 52 pickup, his supporters found revelations and reassurance.

Hoffer diagnosed the difference:

Crude absurdities, trivial nonsense and sublime truths are equally potent in readying people for self-sacrifice if they are accepted as the sole, eternal truth. It is obvious, therefore, that in order to be effective a doctrine must not be understood, but has rather to be believed in. We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand.  If a doctrine is not unintelligible, it has to be vague; and if neither unintelligible nor vague, it has to be unverifiable.

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.

A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine and promises but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness, and meaninglessness of an individual existence. It cures the poignantly frustrated not by conferring on them an absolute truth or remedying the difficulties and abuses which made their lives miserable, but by freeing them from their ineffectual selves—

To those immune to Trump’s political paroxysm, his constant display of a fractured ego seeking to mask a glaring defectiveness of character beneath hyperbolic pronouncements were reminiscent of a cartoon coyote intoning of himself “Super genius.”

My IQ is one of the highest — and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure; it’s not your fault.”

I’m very smart. My life has proven that I’m smart. I mean, I’ve had a life of success and I’ve had a life of victory.

I’ve been winning all of my life. . . . My whole life is about winning. I always win. I win at golf….   My whole life is about winning. I don’t lose often. I almost never lose.”

To be blunt, people would vote for me. They just would. Why? Maybe because I’m so good looking.”

I’m the most successful person ever to run for the presidency, by far. Nobody’s ever been more successful than me. I’m the most successful person ever to run.”

I think I am actually humble. I think I’m much more humble than you would understand.”

 

It was difficult to understand how his supporters were so readily able to accept his self-aggrandizing when so ludicrously over the top, to the rest of us it seemed like dialogue plucked from Monty Python routines.

Hoffer had commented:

 

The quality of ideas seems to play a minor role in mass movement leadership. What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world.

The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.

The frustrated follow a leader less because of their faith that he is leading them to a promised land than because of their immediate feeling that he is leading them away from their unwanted selves….  The True Believer is eternally incomplete, eternally insecure.

 

The final question most asked of Trump’s devoted supporters is, ‘Why?’

 

Yes, both parties failed in fielding a candidate capable of communicating a vision or program that would inspire and unite a great people.  That accounts for what drew many to his standard at the outset.  But what is it now that binds his base to him despite a run of broken promises and failures:

 

  • Mexico is not paying for a wall that the country shouldn’t build.
  • He didn’t fully repeal and replace Obamacare with “something even better.”
  • He’s alienated our allies and emboldened our foes.
  • He didn’t enact new ethics reforms on special interests.
  • He didn’t make two and four year colleges more affordable but instead cut student aid.
  • He didn’t label China a currency manipulator but nearly plunged us into a trade war.
  • He didn’t ban Muslims from entering the country.
  • He didn’t expel Syrian refugees.
  • He didn’t expel the “Dreamers”; though he is still threatening to despite the country’s objections.
  • He didn’t sue the women accusing him of sexual misconduct.
  • He didn’t arrest Hillary.
  • He didn’t defeat Isis in a week.
  • He didn’t release his tax returns

 

And Trump just declares:

Eventually we’re going to get something done and it’s going to be really, really good.

 

Why?

Why would anyone see in that sad, arrogant little naffin, a leader?

 

Again, Hoffer has much to say on that topic.

It has often been said that power corrupts. But it is perhaps equally important to realize that weakness, too, corrupts. Power corrupts the few, while weakness corrupts the many. Hatred, malice, rudeness, intolerance, and suspicion are the faults of weakness. The resentment of the weak does not spring from any injustice done to them but from their sense of inadequacy and impotence.

The permanent misfits can find salvation only in a complete separation from the self; and they usually find it by losing themselves in the compact collectivity of a mass movement.

Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.

 

So much of Trump’s rhetoric and persona is rancid with racism and xenophobia, describing Mexicans as rapists, criminals, “bad hombres,” declaring at his rallies he doesn’t want Syrian refugees or Muslins coming “over here,” his obsession with building his wall.

There’s one aphorism in The True Believer that reflects on these attitudes that accounts for so much of Trump’s support, it is one of Hoffer’s insights that has the most troubling resonance for me.

 

Should Americans begin to hate foreigners wholeheartedly, it will be an indication that they have lost confidence in their own way of life.

 

There is little of optimism to be found in The True Believer, but then Hoffer was trying to Illuminate the interaction of individuals within a society that fosters insurrections, rebellions, Jacqueries, terrorism and dictatorships, not write fairy tales.

 

On the whole, Hoffer counsels caution with hope, writing in The True Believer:

 

When hopes and dreams are loose in the streets, it is well for the timid to lock doors, shutter windows and lie low until the wrath has passed. For there is often a monstrous incongruity between the hopes, however noble and tender, and the action which follows them.

 

In The Ordeal of Change, one of his later works, Hoffer still offers little in the way of hope.  But he does offer us reasons to at least have hope of “Hope.”

 

Hoffer lists the distinctly American virtues:

 

…a superb dynamism, an unprecedented diffusion of skills, a genius for organization and teamwork, a flexibility that makes possible an easy adjustment to the most drastic change, an ability to get things done with a minimum of tutelage and supervision, an unbounded capacity for fraternization.

 

Contrary to the fear mongering of Fox News and Trump’s dire cant, the

demise of most democracies are not a result of external enemies breaching their walls or the mongrelization of their culture by an influx of the “outsiders.”

 

The death of a democracy begins when its people forget their history.

 

And a people without a history cannot have a future.

 

There will be a cost to this nation for neglecting its institutions and people until conditions had deteriorated to where Trump’s candidacy was possible.  But Trump will eventually travel the same path as “the Know-Nothings,” Father Coughlin’s National Union for Social Justice, the Share the Wealth movement of Huey Long, and McCarthyism.

 

The challenge before us is not defeating Trump and his Crusade of Deplorables.  The challenge is for the people of this nation to recommit to those principles forged at its founding.

For in the end, America will fail when Americans have failed her.

 

♦     ♦     ♦

 

  

** writer's hand ** To read Eisenhower’s letter in full  click HERE.


 

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Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. After a wild and misspent youth, which lasted well into middle age, Kearney has settled down and is focusing on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. Ernest’s stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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