World

Donald Trump and the Nature of Mass Movements

Why are Indians – who are most certainly not on the list of Trump’s favourite people – expressing their support for one of the most obnoxious US presidential candidates ever?

Donald Trump. Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Donald Trump. Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

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 a growing number of people from a country as far away as India are now starting to consider him a great leader.

Here I refer not just to the men at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi, who grabbed international headlines recently by holding a public puja for Trump to win the American elections and rid the world of Islamic terror. I am also talking about educated, middle and upper class Indians who seem to feel that the Republican candidate holds out a new hope with his straight-talking, no-nonsense approach, never mind his xenophobic rabble rousing and blatant narcissism. One is starting to see more and more acceptability for Trump on Facebook and other social media. (As an American NRI friend of mine wryly quipped, “I’m not sure if India is getting Trumped or if the United States is getting Modified.”)

If you, like me, are wondering how megalomaniacs like Trump could possibly manage to rise to power with their simplistic rhetoric, you may find the work of social philosopher Eric Hoffer insightful. And if you are also wondering how one-time pariahs can become heads of nations, consider the following excerpts from his critically acclaimed book, The True Believer – Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, written in 1951, and decide for yourself whether these manage to explain some of the most perplexing rises to power in recent times.

In his book, 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.”

One would be hard pressed to find a more fitting description of Trump.

Hoffer 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 or infallible leader … they have access to a source of irresistible power.”

In an eerily prescient echo of Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ campaign, 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.”

Hoffer also 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; 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.”

And right there lies a clue to this strange phenomenon of support for a confirmed xenophobe. Perhaps the most fascinating part of Hoffer’s theory is that at the heart of a mass movement lies a deep insecurity and sense of dysfunction within the hearts of its adherents and admirers. Hoffer says:

“Every extreme attitude is a flight from the self.”

Hoffer postulates that it is invariably those who feel deep down that their lives are meaningless and worthless and lacking positive identity who end up identifying so completely with an authoritarian leader:

“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.”

And when this identification is taken too far…

“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.”

A rather fitting description of the bhakts in both countries.

I am not the only one who has had to face uncomfortable silences or unpleasant diatribes at dinner parties because my political views did not match those of the other guests. My friends in the US are complaining of a similar polarisation in their society and we often finding ourselves despairing over WhatsApp about the ever- widening rips in the fabric of our respective societies.

Perhaps we in India who find ourselves cheering Trump need to check our own hearts. Why would we – who are most certainly not on the list of Trump’s favourite people – express our support for one of the most obnoxious US presidential candidates ever?

Could it be that Trump’s divisive rhetoric distantly echoes some of our own? Could it be that his promise to ban Muslims from entering the US resonates with some of our own deep prejudices? Could it also be that deep down, we do not think much of the institutions of democracy because we feel they have failed us and we are now ready to sign over our fundamental freedoms and rights in exchange for safety, security and ‘greatness’? Does our tolerance for Trump in some way signify our own tolerance for the intolerable and unconscionable?

One sincerely hopes not.

Hoffer’s words of warning apply not just to the citizens of the US but to us here in India as well:

“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.”

It is easy to demonise and vilify the other, especially when egged on by a hysterical, majoritarian news media. But instead of watching with fascination as a real estate mogul with a dangerous worldview comes closer and closer to sitting in the White House, we would perhaps do well to sound an alarm to our American friends for we have seen only too clearly over the last couple of years what happens when prejudice becomes legitimised:

“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.”

The US was built on the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. India was built on the promise of a socialist, secular, democratic republic. Hoffer’s words hold out a timely warning to both countries:

“Those who would transform a nation or the world cannot do so by breeding and captaining discontent … 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.”

Rohit Kumar is an educator who conducts community-building workshops for high school students and teachers.