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True Believers and the U.S. Election

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One thing that Donald Trump has done is brought the U.S. version of “true believer” to the political forefront. This group of people was best described by Eric Hoffer (1898-1983). Hoffer was a largely self-educated, working-class, American social philosopher. His best-known work was entitled The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, published in1951.

Hoffer made the following points about true believers:

— They consider the social conditions under which they live hopelessly corrupt and alienating.

— They feel that these social conditions rob them of self-esteem and render their lives worthless.

— Only by submerging themselves in a larger movement demanding radical change can they regain self-worth.

According to Hoffer, being part of a mass on the move is more important to such individuals than the goals of a particular movement. This means that the movements that attract them are interchangeable. That is why they can be Nazis or communists, fanatical devotees of a religion, or part of an aggressive movement to, supposedly, redeem U.S. greatness.

Mr. Trump’s True Believers

Donald Trump has recruited this demographic element for his campaign to become president. Indeed, it appears to be his core constituency.

Thomas Donlan, writing in Barrons, puts it this way:

“Trump voters … are angry about being losers in the modern economy. It’s harder than ever to make their way forward without the advanced education or skills that are in demand. … They blame elites and the establishment for casting them loose. … Trump has taken their cause to the political stump and set himself up as their winner.”

To get an even better sense of the emotional drive behind Trump’s true believers one should read Dana Milbank’s piece entitled “A Day with Trump’s True Believers,” which appeared in the Washington Post on 14 March 2016.

“I watched Sunday night’s rally here [Boca Raton, Florida] …  up front, in the crush of the crowd. … Once Trump arrived, they [the crowd] became ominously transfixed and aggressive. They pumped their fists, flashed thumbs up, mouthed ‘Thank you,’ chanted ‘Trump! Trump! Trump!’ and hung on the candidate’s every word — often with looks of ecstasy and some visibly trembling.

“Trump captivated them with words that were alternately desperate and violent: “Our country is going to hell. . . . We’re sitting on a very big, fat, ugly, bubble. . . . We’re like the lap dog for the world. . . . Drugs are pouring across. . . . They’re chopping off heads. . . . You see so many people being killed. . . . The jobs are being sucked out. . . . We’re losing with everybody.

“Twice he said that in a Trump presidency they could “relax” while he defeated the Islamic State and beat the world in trade. ‘We’re gonna become rich again,’ he promised. ‘We’re gonna become great again.’ From the passionate cheers sounding around me, I knew they believed him.”

Allied Groups

The true believers are not the only people who will vote for Donald Trump. There will be some Republicans who will vote that party ticket not really knowing or caring who is representing it. They are “knee-jerk” party loyalists whose family and friends have been Republicans for generations and vote that way, literally out of habit (the Democrats have their own version of this phenomenon). There are allied constituencies of fanatics such as fundamentalist Christians who hate alleged Democratic atheists and there are neo-anarchists who hate the federal government. And then there are those who are just confused. They have their complaints that seem never to be addressed, they witness repetitive scandals and corruption, and all of this tempts them to vote for the candidate who promises to bring “real” change. All of these allied groups will vote for Mr. Trump.

However, Trump himself seems most bonded to his true believer supporters, and this makes him all the more dangerous. Perhaps the source of that bond is the fact that the true believers don’t care about constitutional protections and the rule of law, and one gets the sense that neither do Mr. Trump and his close advisers.

Will all these discontented people be enough to get Mr. Trump elected? Perhaps. The probability goes up or down to the extent that the Democrats do or don’t manage to turn out a sufficient number of their own supporters on election day. In other words, the contest is Hillary Clinton’s to lose.

Consequences

There is the question of just how much damage can Trump (and his followers) do regardless of whether he is elected. If he is elected he may be able to enact his destructive policies or he may be hemmed in by a Congress that will be less radical and by governors who are more cautious.

If he is not elected, how much of a reaction will there be? There will certainly be accusations that the election was stolen from him, that the fix was in and the Democrats cheated. The true believers will truly believe this. They will grumble and maybe take to the streets in a scattered, uncoordinated way. There might be some intermingling here with supporters of Bernie Sanders, some of whom can also qualify as disappointed true believers. But then, most likely, the true believers will retreat back into the fringes of society to await the next charismatic leader who can rally them. And, given both traditional parties’ (Republicans and Democrats) historical inability to reform the country’s capitalist, imperialist and racist ways of doing things, that next time is bound to come.

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Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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