Friday, August 14, 2015

Revolutionary Hope and Donald Trump

Trying to understand the Donald Trump phenomenon, Rod Dreher reached for this quotation from Eric Hoffer's The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature of Mass Movements (1951):
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. They must know how to kindle and fan an extravagant hope. It matters not whether it be hope of a heavenly kingdom, of heaven on earth, of plunder and untold riches, of fabulous achievement or world dominion.

… 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. The men who started the French Revolution were wholly without political experience. The same is true of the Bolsheviks, Nazis and the revolutionaries in Asia.
I have to say that this sort of hope is entirely foreign to me. For two reasons: I don't believe in radical change, and I have no trust in leaders. It took me decades of studying history to wrap my head around this way of thinking, and its impact. There is in many people a longing for some sort of apocalypse, something that will "change everything." This longing leads people to adopt ideologies that promise sweeping change -- anarchism, communism -- or to become the followers of Great Leaders. There is in many a longing to trust that the answer has been found, in either a doctrine or a man. In a democracy like ours these beliefs are tepid compared to a real revolution, but shades of this outlook crop up repeatedly, for example in the hopes many leftists seem to have invested in the very moderate and professorial Barack Obama.

Partly, I suspect, my bafflement at all of this is an ego thing; I can't even imagine becoming a follower of some great man because I have never known anyone I thought was that much better than me. Obama has certainly been a better president than I would have been, and FDR was a really great one, but that doesn't put them in some special category of human. All leaders have terrible flaws, among them the desire for power, which is one of the worst anyone can have. There is also a matter of intellectual style. I study history and archaeology rather than philosophy or mathematics because I like messy realities better than abstractions. The sort of beautiful theorizing that so impresses followers of Marx or Ayn Rand leaves me cold, and I always ask, "But how would that work in practice?" (David Hume: "A rule, which, in speculation, may seem the most advantageous to society, may yet be found, in practice, totally pernicious and destructive.") Besides, is life really that bad? Sometimes I suppose it is, as with the lives of slaves in the colonial Caribbean. But for us? There are things I dislike about our time, and things I would like to change, but on the whole we have it pretty good and it is foolish to think otherwise.

But let's get back to Donald Trump and Rod Dreher, who sees contemporary politics like this:
What accounts for the appeal of a Trump figure, I think, is exhaustion with the dispiriting trench warfare of national politics. Both parties spend fortunes on tectonic efforts to gain territory, but little happens. Sometimes there’s a significant victory for one side — Obamacare, for example — but it comes at such a cost, and it is so far from what its backers hoped for, that it doesn’t seem like much of a triumph. So things go back and forth, uninspiringly, and folks get frustrated. This is completely understandable, even moreso when you consider that neither party offers a compelling governing vision, in the sense that Roosevelt and his heirs did for the Left, and Reagan and his heirs did for the Right. We seem to be in a miserable Nixon-Carter period, in which the best we can do is to muddle through.
Which I absolutely get. Right now America is so closely divided between incompatible political visions that hardly anything can happen at all, beyond sending out the Social Security checks and constantly raising the defense budget. But to think that the solution might be Donald Trump suggests to me a very strange cast of mind.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

"But to think that the solution might be Donald Trump suggests to me a very strange cast of mind."

Some people, such you and I, view the world rationally, pragmatically, and analytically. Such people want to understand the world, and to think through our various problems to find the best available solutions. We can accept that the world is imperfect, humanity doubly so, and that ideals must often give way to compromise.

But others view the world rhetorically, symbolically, emotionally, and absolutely. They don't want to think about things that are complex and unpleasant - they just want someone else to hand them simple answers and reassuring fables. They want to be told that although the world is imperfect, it can be made perfect through bold action and right thinking - through conformity to a grand plan delivered from on high from some greater being, be it a god, a king, or a "hero".

The Fascists rose to power because the masses were spurred by leaders who could make bold statements without regard to the restraints of logic and reason. They didn't deliver unpopular truths about a complicated world, but simplistic fabrications and fables which painted the world in absolute terms.

They didn't respond to people's vague discontent in life with level headed, practical explanations of why things are more complicated and unactionable than the average person wants to believe - they whipped the mob into a frenzy, claiming that the cause of all their problems was simple and identifiable, and likewise was the solution. And boy were the people in luck! Because they just so happened to know what that simple solution was, and they'd not only tell them the solution but even personally lead them to it if only they would obey their every command!

Ultimately it boils down to whether people are willing to take responsibility and think for themselves, or refuse independent thought and instead simply follow whichever leader seems most superficially convincing.