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The True Believer

The eponymous 1951 political philosophy classic by Eric Hoffer, a San Francisco longshoreman-turned-philosopher, does more to explain the nature of today’s political polarization than most current analyses. Hoffer described the growth of mass movements that frequently succeed in overthrowing societies and their adherents and leaders. To summarize his views, Hoffer states that mass movements attract the discontented who have suffered loss of status (not necessarily wealth) and believe their lives are "irredeemably spoiled.” They blame their current leaders, whom they believe no longer offer hope of change that will restore their proper place in society. Mass movements, he writes, recruit among the ‘new poor’ and ‘misfits’, people who can no longer find a place in their society. Hoffer’s ‘misfit’ category covers a broad swathe of definitions including the “chronically bored,” the talentless and religious, and ethnic minorities only partly assimilated, losing old traditions but not accepted by mainstream culture. The misfit may appear wealthy and successful to others – ‘misfit’ being a state of mind. In fact, Hoffer argues that the very poor are too busy simply trying to survive to do anything political.

Any ideology, whether communist, racial, anti-vaxxing, fascist, authoritarian, or anti-establishmentarian can hijack a mass movement. Charismatic leaders who identify with the cause can turn the discontent into fanaticism, producing a special mindset of total belief and total dedication to the cause, whatever it may be. Hence the title The True Believer.

Hoffer believed that the United States had fewer such mass movements than other countries because of a culture that provided opportunity in a ‘melting pot’ society that undermined rigid differences between traditions, religious sects, and cultures. Were he alive today, he would need to rethink his conclusions.

Hoffer argued that True Believers have many different causes but they display the same symptoms. Talking to True Believers of many tendencies has persuaded me that he was right. They all believe that their cause has a monopoly on justice, scientific knowledge, and the road forward for the salvation of humanity.

Take anti-vaxxers. Asking them to explain why they hold their views leads to multi-paragraph emails explaining how they have superior education and intellectual skills. When challenged they offer debate based only on the studies they cite, but no others. They point out that they do not read any mainstream publications. Generally, they refuse to read any publication that does not agree with their views. Sadly, the internet provides lots of other material with which they do agree. When asked why virtually every government on the face of the Earth, every national health service, and every major research University in the world supports vaccinations, they respond with a general condemnation of governments, public servants, and scientists, branding them as corrupted by Big Pharma, people of inferior qualifications and/or worse. They take a self-righteous stance on their views; they will save the world, you’ll see, when their predictions come true. Hoffer presents numerous examples of the same attitude among the fascists and communists he dissected 70 years ago.

Hoffer does not discuss another attitude making True Believers I have encountered in my interaction: an almost complete absence of empathy for those who suffer. Antivaxxers reject outright any suggestion that the unvaccinated bear responsibility for infecting others. One anti-vaxxer told me that it is better to be infected than to be vaccinated because only about one or two percent of those infected will die whereas at some indeterminate date in the future some unspecified malady will strike down the vaccinated.

Racists show the same lack of empathy for the consequences of 300 years of slavery, 100 years of Jim Crow, and continued economic deprivation on the American black community. Some, including a Republican congressional candidate in Virginia, campaigns on the theme that blacks are ungrateful for blood spilled to free them. Others describe civil rights legislation and affirmative action as ‘racist’ and anti-white. A brief sojourn into the internet finds literally scores of comments that the Obamas not only would not have gotten into ivy league schools without affirmative action but that Harvard elected Barack Obama President of the prestigious Harvard Law Review out of affirmative action.

Anti-immigration True Believers share with their racist co-believers disdain for poverty. When told that we need immigrants because American kids refuse to do stoop labor picking vegetables under a blazing southern sun or process chickens in freezing slaughterhouses, one anti-immigration True Believer told me, “take away all their smart phones and they will take any job.”

Antiabortion True Believers combine self-righteousness with a breathtaking lack of empathy. They claim they oppose abortion because it violates their Christian beliefs. If you really want to enrage them, ask if they will pay the taxes necessary to support a social safety net that will make abortion unnecessary.

Hoffer also points out that True Believers pursue their cause without caring a whit about any other cause. Trump, like others before him, made himself the leader of the True Believers by espousing each of their causes. Like the religious jihadist leaders with which my colleagues and I dealt over our careers, the Leader rarely needs to share the beliefs of their followers to keep them loyal; he just needs to tell them that he does.

Hoffer (and I agree) concludes that persuasion and argument will make no impression on the True Believer. It may require dramatic trauma, such as the death of a close relative to change an anti-vaxxer’s mind. Military defeat in the Civil War failed to change the South but World War II did transform Japan and Germany, probably because the victors did successfully ‘reconstruct’ the latter two countries. It is good to know with whom one is dealing and to educate the rest of the population about the dangers posed by True Believers. I strongly recommend you read the book, Eric Hoffer The True Believer, HarperCollins, 1951, available through all the normal channels.

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