Understanding Trump’s Base
Congressional Democrats are about to wrap up their investigation into President Trump’s foreign policy dealings with Ukraine and the possibility he withheld needed military aid approved by Congress in an effort to pressure the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and the dealings of his son, Hunter, in that country.
Trump, of course, is doubling-down and denying everything even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary.
It is a foregone conclusion that the Democrats will vote to impeach the president. But the impeachment trial will take place in the Senate, where 20 Republican senators would have to vote to convict in order for the president to be removed from office.
Is impeachment just a big show by the Democrats put on in the hope it will diminish Trump’s popularity enough for them to win the presidential election next November? If so, they do not understand the nature of the president’s supporters. Trump once famously said: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?” In other words, Trump was telling us his supporters are what Eric Hoffer described as “true believers.”
Before explaining what is meant by a “true believer,” let me first explain a bit about Hoffer himself. Born in 1902, he was a German immigrant to America who was orphaned at a young age. He spent much of the Great Depression riding the rails in search of work, harvesting crops and doing manual labor.
But Hoffer was an incessant reader and writer. He put down on paper his observations about the plight of the working man every chance he could.
In 1943, he took a job as a longshoreman on the docks of San Francisco. Over the next 10 years, he worked on a book titled The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.
When The True Believer was published in 1951, it was generally seen as an explanation of the rise of Nazism and the other fascist movements that plagued the first half of the 20th century. The book was widely acclaimed and people began calling Hoffer a great philosopher with insight into the mentality of the working man (although Hoffer always referred to himself simply as a longshoreman). In 1982, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for authoring his book.
But Hoffer was not just writing about why the German working man followed Adolph Hitler and his Nazi movement so passionately; he sought to explain mass movements in general. As Hoffer explained, some mass movements have very positive results. For example, I consider Billy Graham to have been a great man; he filled stadiums with people whom he led to accept Christ as their personal savior and find purpose in their lives. But in Hoffer’s analysis, Graham was the leader of a mass movement and all mass movements have certain characteristics in common. Hoffer was interested in explaining what drew people to these mass movements, surrendering their self-identity and subscribing to their doctrine in order to become part of something greater than themselves.
Hoffer believed that mass movements progressed through three stages. In the first stage there emerged a widespread desire for change in the existing culture or traditions over which people, as individuals, felt they have no control. This sense of despair was then galvanized by “men of words” who painted a glowing picture of the future that will come about if one follows the right path.
In stage two, followers are swept up in the movement for change. They are unlikely to be the poor — the poor are too busy trying to make a living — nor are they the successful and self-fulfilled, for they are content with the status quo.
The bulk of these new recruits are drawn from the “new poor” (that is, those who have lost status, power or wealth and blame forces beyond their control for their personal demise) or they come from the young or prosperous who are bored and seeking to find purpose in life.
In the third stage, a leader emerges. But for the leader to find any success, the seeds of the mass movement must already exist in people’s hearts. The leader will generally idealize the past and glorify the future, while denigrating the present and aggressively promoting the use of doctrines that elevate faith over reason and serve as “fact-proof screens between the faithful and the realities of the world.” In this stage, the doctrine of the movement must not be questioned and anyone who does question it becomes an enemy.
If you recognize “Trumpism” in Hoffer’s writing, it is not because Trump is trying to mimic Adolph Hitler any more than he is trying to mimic Billy Graham. It is because Donald Trump is the leader of a full-fledged mass movement. Where this movement is going to take us, I don’t know. But if Eric Hoffer is right, attacking Trump is unlikely to dissuade his true-believing followers; it will only cause them to rally around their leader, who they feel is under attack by the forces of evil.
Meanwhile, the Democrats are wallowing around with no leader in sight. Four years ago, Bernie Sanders thought he could build a mass movement with bored youths and prosperous liberals, but that fizzled out. The current slate of Democrat candidates is now trying to appeal to the poor by promising them free stuff paid for by the wealthy. But according to Hoffer, the poor are unlikely to get swept up in a mass movement. All mass movements need an enemy to fight — both traitors within and forces outside. But all the Democrats have is global warming and fear of rising sea levels, which is not motivating many people to ride bikes to work, take to the streets to protest or head to the voting booth. The Trump administration recently informed the United Nations that the U.S. is withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on climate change; the story barely made the news and was totally eclipsed by talk and more talk about the impeachment investigation.
One may disagree with Hoffer’s analysis. But few would deny that Donald Trump is at the helm of a mass movement unlike anything we’ve seen before in the United States. To be sure, not all Trump supporters are true believers; many are marching in his parade simply because they were headed in that direction anyway. But do not try to tell a true believer that you saw Trump shoot the man lying dead in street. If you do, he will tell you it’s a lie; the smoking gun in his hand was planted there by the conspiracy against him; and will label you an enemy of the movement.