The True Believer

A long time ago I had a high school history and government teacher who probably forever changed the way I think about the power of identity, especially group identity, in affecting human behavior. In my senior year of high school, in the early 1990s, he taught a section on Nazi propaganda that I’m sure these days would be posted to social media in a hot minute, for good or ill; I’ve begun to wonder recently if on some level he hoped through this course to inoculate his students against the kind of groupthink that characterizes movements like Nazism.

In addition to having us watch and analyze Nazi propaganda videos to learn about a) the power of dehumanization along with b) the lure of group identity and belonging, one of the books he assigned to us was Eric Hoffer’s 1951 classic The True Believer.

Hoffer, for those who haven’t heard of him, was a lot of things. Born, he said, in 1902 in the Bronx to German immigrants who died young, he worked as a migrant farm laborer and spent time on Los Angeles’s Skid Row before ending up working as a longshoreman after being rejected from Army enlistment in 1940 due to a hernia.

All of this information comes from Hoffer himself, and there remain some interesting questions bordering on controversy about how much of his early life is true and what he might have fabricated.

He definitely did write ten books, however, and spent a few years as an adjunct professor at Berkeley. The True Believer became a bestseller after President Dwight D. Eisenhower mentioned it in a press conference and it remains Hoffer’s most well-known and widely read book.

The True Believer has cropped up here and there over the past several years in mass media mentions of seemingly inexplicable or out-of-nowhere mass movements and political forces. One of the intriguing things about the book is that, like the main character in the TV show Ted Lasso appealing equally to hardline political conservatives and progressives, each thinking “the other side” isn’t in on the jokes or messaging, one’s interpretation of who constitutes a “true believer” can be bent according to one’s perspective or ideology. But no matter how readily its characterizations are construed to serve any political interpretation, the main messages regarding the appeal of mass movements remain the same. They’re lessons that have vaguely stuck with me for nearly 30 years. 

Mass movements are more, and less, than what we think they are. Fostered and promoted by what Hoffer calls “men of words” (Tucker Carlson immediately came to mind—Hoffer’s “men of words” are people who prime the populace for radical change through language, but who are not leaders of change themselves [Bernie Sanders might be a crossover between the two]), these movements rely on charismatic leaders with little need for truth or integrity, but who have, among other qualities:

“. . . audacity and joy in defiance; a fanatical conviction that he is in possession of the one and only truth; faith in his destiny and luck; a capacity for passionate hatred; contempt for the present; unbounded brazenness which finds expression in a disregard of consistency and fairness; . . .”

along with

“a capacity for winning and holding the utmost loyalty of a group of able lieutenants. . . . The uncanny powers of a leader manifest themselves not so much in the hold he has on the masses as in his ability to dominate and almost bewitch a small group of able men.”

All of which sounds awfully familiar.

Mass movements, when presented with the right kind of leader, catch fire with a populace that is bored and somewhat self-disgusted, possibly angry but not completely downtrodden. Pointing to examples like the French Revolution, Hoffer posits that mass movements are far more likely to occur when people have seen small improvements in their life conditions than when they have very little and expectations of less. These movements also rely heavily on “inventing memories of past greatness” to persuade true believers that the present is a miserable state of existence. The movement must then go beyond the mirage to “make a misery of the present” in order to keep followers fixed on a prize that is always just a little out of reach.

To get there, though, mass movements need to rely on unifying forces and unifying messages. Hatred is the obvious choice, “the most accessible and comprehensible of all unifying agents.”  

“Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil.”

There is nothing so easy as shared hatred unless it is shared contempt.

Hoffer has a lot to say on the subject of hatred. Reading his assessment struck me in particular because I recently had conversations relating to our state’s most recent legislative session in which the characterization “mean” was mentioned more than once. Never, I’ve heard both privately and publicly, have people seen a group of lawmakers so bent on cruelty, so eager to use their power to punish those they deem an enemy, or just plain abhorrent. Never so desirous of finding an outlet for an emotion that gets as close to hatred as you can without saying it out loud.

Yet where, Hoffer asks, does this hatred come from? My own thoughts had landed on a general fear of and resistance to change, but Hoffer’s ideas are perhaps ahead of his time, a kind of gut-thrust into the human psyche:

“They are an expression of a desperate effort to suppress an awareness of our inadequacy, worthlessness, guilt, and other shortcomings of the self. Self-contempt is here transmuted into hatred of others—and there is a most determined and persistent effort to mask this switch. . . . Even in the case of a just grievance, our hatred comes less from a wrong done to us than from the consciousness of our helplessness, inadequacy and cowardice.”

The unifying force of the mass movement, then, realizes itself eventually in its vilification of the present, mirages of past and future greatness, shared hatred of a manufactured enemy, and, finally, a leader’s ability to control the movement, its members, and its loyalties.

A few years ago a leader in my state’s legislature published an editorial complaining about members of what at the time was called the Common Sense Caucus—a group of a particular party, say Party A, of legislators willing to vote with the other party, Party B, over what they saw as common sense legislation that benefited Montanans. I wish I could remember what the exact wording of the letter was, but it boiled down to the idea that Party A members were not doing their job unless they voted in lockstep with the nationwide Party A’s priorities. Nevermind what legislators’ local constituents wanted of them; what mattered was following the Party line.*

The merging of individual identity with Party identity—and a subsequent leader’s control over that group identity—is an early characteristic of mass movements: 

“Stalin succeeded in turning proud and brave men into cringing cowards by depriving them of any possibility of identification with the party they had served all their lives and with the Russian masses. These old Bolsheviks had long ago cut themselves off from humanity outside Russia. . . . There was for them neither past nor future, neither memory nor glory outside the confines of holy Russia and the Communist party—and both these were now wholly and irrevocably in Stalin’s hands.” (Emphasis added.)

The submersion of an individual’s identity into the mass, into a group identity, is the main thrust of Hoffer’s thesis. He repeatedly makes the point that people do not turn to mass movements because they are inspired or because they are stupid, but because they are both bored and searching for a way to exist that allows them to escape an unsatisfactory or unfulfilling “self”—to escape themselves. The particular ideology doesn’t matter much—Hoffer points out that there was plenty of ship-jumping between Nazism and communism during World War II, a common theme among adherents to hardline or extremist ideologies that is no less true today. It’s not the movement itself but the sense of belonging that matters.

In other words, truly any of us could fall in with a mass movement, an understanding that I believe was the purpose of my high school teacher’s lesson on Nazi propaganda. The attraction of escaping yourself and being part of something bigger, grander, could lure anyone, given the right time of life or right circumstances. Interestingly, Hoffer also makes the repeated but less emphasized point that creative people—fulfilled creative people; Hitler was not alone among Nazi leadership in being a failed, frustrated artist—are less prone to subsume themselves in mass movements. Not because fulfilled creative people are smarter or more successful or wiser, but because they have a way of being secure with themselves and their work that negates the need for finding an outside identity. Sadly, he doesn’t provide a method of cultivating this kind of groundedness among the greater populace.**

Once someone has fallen in with a mass movement, facts cease to become persuasive, if they ever were in the first place. It is the certainty of belief that matters, never reality:

“The effectiveness of doctrine should not be judged by its profundity, sublimity or the validity of the truths it embodies, but by how thoroughly it insulates the individual from his self and the world as it is. . . . the effectiveness of a doctrine does not come from its meaning but from its certitude.”

In an effective mass movement, the true believer’s yearning for identity finds a place, a sense of belonging is fulfilled, and individual responsibility is then taken out of one’s hands. The movement, and its leader, decide what’s right and wrong. All one needs to do is stay with the movement and the whole gnawing issue of what is the point of this life; what am I doing here? is lifted blissfully off of one’s shoulders.

That’s what I got from those long-ago lessons on Nazi propaganda, anyway. The lure is powerful, and belonging and hatred are in fact equally easy if you release your own moral responsibility.

Though the last sections of the book talk a bit about Gandhi and Lincoln and other mass movement leaders who managed to channel the energy of true believers into change for good, The True Believer spends more time on Nazism and Soviet communism (fairly enough, as it was published only a few years after World War II ended) and isn’t what I’d call a hopeful book. I was left feeling that there is little anyone can do to stop a mass movement once it has gathered enough true believers, even if the movement hasn’t yet reached a point of no return. The minds are locked away and there’s little anyone can do but try to survive it.

I really don’t want to live that way, much less think that way.

There are a few things to consider here that make me feel a little less hopeless. One is research I did a couple of years ago for an essay on riots in Aeon magazine. I suspect, though I don’t know for certain, that Hoffer did take some understanding about human nature from late-1800s theories about common people, riots, and the thought that people (commoners, that is) lose their individuality when in a crowd, acting as a destructive mass. More recent scholarship (much of which is in the essay) undermines a lot of this understanding. Even when I asked one of the researchers in Britain about the phenomenon of football hooliganism, he pushed back—alcohol and euphoria are at play there, but also many football riots have been found to have outside actors prodding violence. Where the line is between manufactured violence and “real” violence I don’t know, but much of what we believe about crowd groupthink is both incorrect—this is backed by research going back decades—and seemingly intractable.

So while lacking or despising one’s sense of self, and the unifying force of hatred, certainly ring true as foundation stones for mass movements—the early-1990s genocide in Rwanda comes to mind—I don’t know that the inevitability of them is as certain as the book left me feeling. Maybe that’s just me; maybe it’s part of my belief that we have to change the narratives of what we think humans are capable of in order to change our societies and our future, but I remain persuaded that humanity is capable of more, and better, even if we don’t yet know how.

One of the essays I share and recommend more than just about any other is also from Aeon, on echo chambers and epistemic bubbles by philosophy professor C Thi Nguyen. I keep returning to it because it gives me an in-depth understanding of epistemic bubbles and echo chambers—and the differences between them—but also of what works and what doesn’t in escaping them, or trying to help someone else escape them. “We can pop an epistemic bubble simply by exposing its members to the information and arguments that they’ve missed,” wrote Nguyen. “But echo chambers are a far more pernicious and robust phenomenon.”

“Does a community’s belief system actively undermine the trustworthiness of any outsiders who don’t subscribe to its central dogmas? Then it’s probably an echo chamber. . . . Epistemic bubbles are rather ramshackle; they go up easily, and they collapse easily, too. Echo chambers are far more pernicious and far more robust. They can start to seem almost like living things. Their belief systems provide structural integrity, resilience and active responses to outside attacks.”

These needn’t be purely socio-political-religious phenomena. It’s helpful that Nguyen uses Crossfit exercise devotees and adherents to the Paleo diet as brief examples—at least, it was helpful to me because I know a perhaps abnormally high percentage of people who swear by these two activities as cure-alls for just about any ailment (Peloton cycling could probably be thrown in with an updated essay). But the researchers he discussed also use the late talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh as an example of an incredibly effective echo chamber:

“Limbaugh uses methods to actively transfigure whom his listeners trust. His constant attacks on the ‘mainstream media’ are attempts to discredit all other sources of knowledge. He systematically undermines the integrity of anybody who expresses any kind of contrary view. And outsiders are not simply mistaken—they are malicious, manipulative and actively working to destroy Limbaugh and his followers.  . . . The result is a rather striking parallel to the techniques of emotional isolation typically practised in cult indoctrination.”

As with Hoffer’s description of mass movements, facts cease to matter. What matters is what the echo chamber or movement’s leaders make of those facts. Unlike an epistemic bubble, “an echo chamber doesn’t destroy their members’ interest in the truth,” wrote Nguyen; “it merely manipulates whom they trust and changes whom they accept as trustworthy sources and institutions.” 

That sounds a lot like the kind of mass movement that Hoffer detailed. And while Nguyen doesn’t offer a cure or a fix for these phenomena, there are at least ways to think about them that might be helpful. 

The main method is through what Nguyen describes as a “social-epistemic reboot”: Whether you’re following René Descartes’s arguments in Meditations on First Philosophy or imagining a “hapless teenager” who’s grown up in a cult, what’s required is abandoning what they believe about pretty much everything and starting from scratch. Which honestly sounds terrifying for the average person and is probably why these positions are so hard for people to shift out of.

(It sounds terrifying for a society, actually, and writing that down just gave me some insight into the strength of resistance to change that seems to create upheaval in what many see as a “natural” order of things. Like, say, traditional hierarchies when you can’t fathom an orderly or peaceful society existing without them.)

What makes the difference is having at least one person outside of the echo chamber whom you can trust. Nguyen brings in the example of Derek Black, who was raised by a neo-Nazi family to be a neo-Nazi leader. He wasn’t looking for a way out of his indoctrination—he was in fact hosting a neo-Nazi radio show while in college—but a way found him in the form of a Jewish student at his undergraduate college who began inviting Black over for Shabbat dinners.

“In Black’s telling, Stevenson was unfailingly kind, open and generous, and slowly earned Black’s trust. This was the seed, says Black, that led to a massive intellectual upheaval—a slow-dawning realisation of the depths to which he had been misled. Black went through a years-long personal transformation, and is now an anti-Nazi spokesperson. . . .

“Why is trust so important? Baier suggests one key facet: trust is unified. We don’t simply trust people as educated experts in a field—we rely on their goodwill. And this is why trust, rather than mere reliability, is the key concept. Reliability can be domain-specific. The fact, for example, that somebody is a reliable mechanic sheds no light on whether or not their political or economic beliefs are worth anything. But goodwill is a general feature of a person’s character. If I demonstrate goodwill in action, then you have some reason to think that I also have goodwill in matters of thought and knowledge.”

(Which reminded me of an interaction I had recently that started with a near-stranger buying me a beer and ended with her telling me about Don Miguel Ruiz’s Four Agreements and the notion of being impeccable with your word.)

At the end of reading The True Believer—throughout reading it, in fact—I kept thinking of Nguyen’s essay and a subsequent conversation I’d had with a local friend about it. Our conversation had related to both a local white supremacist who’s caused enormous harm in our community, and to a church pastor about an hour’s drive south of us who had indicated publicly that he thought inter-faith dialogue was undesirable.

There was nothing, I thought, that either of us could do in these cases to persuade the people in question to come to some different kind of opinion. All one can do is remain open to dialogue while protecting one’s own safety and psyche, and actively work toward being the kind of person that people can trust. People do leave cults and exit echo chambers, and although Hoffer didn’t talk in his book about what could prompt people to leave mass movements, I don’t think it’s impossible for a movement to dissolve for various reasons—whether members come to terms with the harm that’s being caused, or trusted family members or friends leave some room for welcome, or some other inexplicable tipping point is reached.

I don’t necessarily know how to do this.† I’m just as angry and frustrated and exhausted as anyone else, especially recently as a variety of forces and factors seem hell-bent on proving just how selfish humans can be, just how hell-bent an entire society can make itself on causing others suffering if enough people persuade themselves that there’s an enemy to defeat, even when that enemy is your neighbor or your family.

But I’ve got a lot of influences in my life, including my Russian grandparents who never relaxed their adherence to honesty and ethics even in the face of Stalin’s purges, to remind me that self-protection doesn’t have to be my only driving force.

And I had this teacher, close to three decades ago, whose parents had, if I remember correctly, been German scientists brought over to work for the U.S. government, and he used his life to teach adolescent minds what it looks like when a society becomes mindless.

That teacher, and writers like Eric Hoffer who see much (though not all) with clarity, and researchers and thinkers who continue to work on compassion and cognitive empathy, remind us, once again, that we are not alone. Our resources are strained, our compassion is constantly challenged, and yet as a species humanity has been through far, far worse and has still not given up trying to be human.

*As I have a father who grew up under Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union, you can imagine how much this kind of language combined with constant fearmongering about communism from the exact same people gets under my skin. Everyone has different experiences that inform their lives; a wariness of those who insist on Party loyalty über alles is one of mine.

**I thought a lot while reading The True Believer about the oft-mentioned failures of critical thinking evidenced by American society’s widespread inability to analyze information and make informed choices over the last year or more. Critical thinking has been promoted as a basic educational standard for as long as I’ve worked in textbook editing—over 20 years—but I’d argue that it’s rarely been taught. Being able to read a paragraph and identify its main idea and supporting details in order to pass a standardized test is not even remotely critical thinking, but it’s far too often accepted as such. More recent movements to incorporate social-emotional learning curricula in schools seem to me far more beneficial, as they can serve to both bolster children’s growing senses of self—rather than looking outside for affirmation and identity—and continue to foster respect of other people, an antidote to dehumanization. That might be one tool to help build a nation of citizens both compassionate and thoughtful. For critical thinking I’d skip much of the advised lessons and simply incorporate Lincoln-Douglas style debate in upper-grade classrooms. There is nothing like having to defend a topic from every possible angle for teaching you to think critically.

The places I’ve found most fruitful are ones where the “messy middle” are able to connect, and I think that there are more of them than we realize. They just don’t show up much on, say, Twitter.