I'm not sure which is more bewildering - the fact that Donald Trump is now the presumptive Republican candidate for President of the United States or that growing numbers of people from countries as far away as India now consider him a great leader!
I'm not just referring to the chaps at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi, who recently held a puja for him to win the American elections and rid the world of Islamic terror, I am talking about everyday, educated, middle and upper-class Indians who seem to feel that Trump now holds out a new hope with his straight-talking, no-nonsense approach, never mind the xenophobic rabble-rousing and blatant narcissism.
(As an American NRI friend wryly quipped, "I'm not sure if India is getting Trumped or if the United States is getting Modified.")
And if you, like me, have been wondering just how in the world Trump (and others in a similar mould) manage to rise to power, you may find The True Believer - Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by social philosopher Eric Hoffer particularly illuminating. In this critically acclaimed work, Hoffer lays bare the thoughts, emotions, and justifications that go through the minds of the masses who coalesce to make a movement. And if you are also wondering how one-time pariahs can become heads of nations, consider the following excerpts from The True Believer and decide for yourself whether or not they manage to explain some of the most perplexing rises to power in recent times.
Hoffer outlines the characteristics of those who lead mass movements:
"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."
He also makes a very interesting reference to their need for personal glory, often manifested in extreme narcissism:
"Glory is largely a theatrical concept. There is no striving for glory without a vivid awareness of an audience... The desire to escape or camouflage their unsatisfactory selves develops in the frustrated a facility for pretending -- for making a show -- and also a readiness to identify themselves wholly with an imposing spectacle."
He then goes on to talk about those who hunger for such a leader:
"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."
Hoffer talks about the essentially religious nature of movements. According to him, all mass movements are, to an extent, religious because they promote powerful, sometimes illogical doctrines that require a degree of faith, and they inspire almost blind devotion from believers. ('Bhakt' does mean 'true believer,' after all...)
"Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves."
"The facts on which the true believer bases his conclusions must not be derived from his experience or observation but from holy writ."
"Mass movements aggressively promote the use of doctrines that elevate faith over reason and serve as fact-proof screens between the faithful and the realities of the world."
Hoffer notes how mass movements tend to glorify the past and deprecate the present...
"The game of history is usually played by the best and the worst over the heads of the majority in the middle. The reason that the inferior elements of a nation can exert a marked influence on its course is that they are wholly without reverence toward the present. They see their lives and the present as spoiled beyond remedy and they are ready to waste and wreck both: hence their recklessness and their will to chaos and anarchy."
Hoffer then warns of the dangers of demonizing. Mass Movements always externalize the enemy:
"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 a belief in a devil."
"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."
"There is perhaps no surer way of infecting ourselves with virulent hatred toward a person than by doing him a grave injustice."
And perhaps most fascinating (and damning) of all is Hoffer's theory that at the heart of a mass movement lies a deep insecurity and sense of dysfunction within the hearts of its adherents.
"Every extreme attitude is a flight from the self."
"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."
"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 by remedying the difficulties and abuses which made their lives miserable, but by freeing them from their ineffectual selves--and it does this by enfolding and absorbing them into a closely knit and exultant corporate whole."
"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."
"It is perhaps true that the criminal who embraces a holy cause is more ready to risk his life and go to extremes in its defense than people who are awed by the sanctity of life and property."
... Which would explain the predominance of lumpen elements in such movements.
And finally Hoffer issues a warning to the nation in the throes of a mass movement:
"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. It is as if ivied maidens and garlanded youths were to herald the four horsemen of the apocalypse."
"Those who would transform a nation or the world cannot do so by breeding and captaining discontent or by demonstrating the reasonableness and desirability of the intended changes or by coercing people into a new way of life."
"Though hatred is a convenient instrument for mobilizing a community for defense, it does not, in the long run, come cheap. We pay for it by losing all or many of the values we have set out to defend."
Perhaps the best way to oppose dangerous mass movements is to encourage individualism, independent thinking and a disinclination to follow blindly the teachings of any leaders, no matter how benign they may seem.
"To wrong those we hate is to add fuel to our hatred. Conversely, to treat an enemy with magnanimity is to blunt our hatred for him"
If there is any hope left, it is in those words. We cannot afford to demonize, exclude, objectify and hate, and we cannot afford leaders who do the same.
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