Anyone can ride a train, only a wise man knows when to get off.~Eric Hoffer (1902-1983)
It has been 70 years since Eric Hoffer’s brilliant little book, The True Believer, first appeared. Hoffer was the son of immigrants born in the Bronx. His insights into the social psychology of mass movements were based on hard personal experience, including two decades working as a longshoreman on the docks of San Francisco from 1943 to 1964.
In a chapter entitled “Men of Words”, Hoffer quotes Napoleon:
Vanity made the revolution; liberty was only a pretext.
In an earlier chapter, Hoffer expanded on the personality traits of mass-movement leaders. “Exceptional intelligence, noble character and originality seem to be neither indispensable nor perhaps desirable,” he wrote, adding these “requirements”:
…audacity and a joy in defiance…faith in his destiny and luck; a capacity for passionate hatred…a delight in symbols…a disregard for consistency and fairness…a capacity for winning and holding the loyalty of a group of able lieutenants.
Hoffer’s book was published in 1951. It was a turbulent time in America. Anti-Communist hysteria after the Maoist takeover in China made the country ripe for demagoguery. An obscure U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, stepped into the limelight. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Fast-forward to 2020. Imagine a real-life super-villain like Lex Luther (Superman’s evil arch-rival), the Joker in the “Batman” series, or Harry Potter’s nemesis, Lord Voldemort. How would we recognize an authoritarian personality posing as a populist and pulling the wool over the eyes of the little people who want to believe he’s a savior in disguise? Are there any telltale clues?
If Eric Hoffer were observing the political scene today, he’d most likely make up a whole new list of traits and behaviors manifested by a whacked-out wannabe dictator with 89 million Twitter followers, and it might look something like this:
1) He exhibits contempt for constraints, including the US Constitution.
2) He displays disdain for traditions, norms, and laws.
3) He spreads lies and provokes the most violent elements in society.
4) He raises the level of anger and deepens the divisions in society to a level just short of open incitement to violence.
5) He encourages white supremacists, neo-fascists, conspiracy pushers, and QAnon.
6) He gives credence to disinformation in social media and helps it go viral.
7) He vilifies the opposition and belittles his critics
8) He calls the press “the true enemy of the people.”
9) He fires staff members who don’t meet his expectations for abject loyalty.
10) He loses an election but refuses to concede defeat.
11) He uses the power of his high office to destabilize the government and undermine national security.
12) He is associated with dark rumors of a coup.
13) He does not spike such rumors.
14) He shows no compassion for children and separates babies from parents at our southern border.
15) He refuses to wear a mask and discredits medical science in a public health crisis.
16) His narcissism (aka, self-love) is the stuff of legends.
The most dangerous man in America is not a deep-cover agent or terrorist or mass murderer. He Who Cannot Be Named is a former reality TV star famous for saying “You’re fired!” The rest of the world has known it all along. How is it possible that nearly half of all Americans who voted in the 2020 presidential election have still not figured it out?
If you got on the train by mistake honestly believing it was going in the right direction, that’s okay—to err is human. But the country is heading for a train wreck. People really need to get off. Now. Before it’s too late.