True believers in the USA of 2021

I recently finished Eric Hoffer’s THE TRUE BELIEVER, a 1951 book about fanatical mass movements.  I think most Americans see that the USA of 2021 is ripe for such movements.

Fanatics invaded municipal buildings and burned police stations in some U.S. cities during the Black Lives Matter protests last summer.  Fanatics invaded the Capitol a couple of weeks ago.

Some self-described conservatives see Donald Trump as a messianic figure sent by guide.  Some self-described progressives embrace an “anti-racism” ideology that considers “all lives matter” a racist statement.  People can become pariahs or lose their for a thoughtless comment on social media.

If you are an American, you probably think some of the things I mentioned are serious problems while others are blown out of proportion.  Whatever the case, something is going on.  What is it?

Eric Hoffer said fanatical mass movements arise when there are large numbers of people who are frustrated and lonely.

People don’t become fanatics when they are embedded in family, community and religion that give them security and meaning.  Neither do they become fanatics when they enjoy the satisfactions of creativity and achievement.

But in times when fewer and fewer are able to enjoy the security of a stable family, community and religious life, while the opportunities for individual achievement and self-determination narrow—that’s when you have to watch out.

That’s how things are in the USA today.  We live in a very unforgiving society, compared to the one I grew up in.

Economic inequality is increasing, but I think that what really worries people is the growth of economic insecurity. 

More and more workers are being pushed out of full-time work and into the gig economy, where they don’t know from week-to-week how many hours they’ll work or what they’ll earn.  Millions lack the resources to meet even a small emergency.

All this is in the name of a philosophy I and others call neoliberalism, which exalts economic efficiency above all else.  Neoliberals run the economy without any slack in the system, with all the risk off-loaded onto wage-earners, sub-contractors and the public. 

It’s not just wage workers who suffer.  Small-business owners with six-figure incomes worry about being able to compete with giant mega-corporation.  A number of billionaires are planning ahead for economic collapse, so they can retreat to secret strongholds in New Zealand or other remote place.

Unfortunately the USA is exporting instability through its economic and war policies, and through its cultural influence as well.

President Donald Trump made things worse.  He had a genius for keeping affairs in a constant state of turmoil.  Just having Trump in the news day after day was a strain.  I think some people voted for Joe Biden just because they were sick of seeing Trump on TV.

The partisan news companies keep Americans on edge.  Fox News was a pioneer in making money out of peddling fear to elderly white people.  Now, as Matt Taibbi has shown, the self-described progressives have adopted the same model.

Then there are Facebook and the other social media companies.  They have algorithms designed to feed people links to material designed to hold attention by appealing to fear and indignation. 

COVID-related lockdowns have destabilized society.  It is not just the economic impact on workers’ wages and small-business profits.  It is that people have been cut off from religious services and family gatherings, two of the main sources of consolation in times of uncertainty.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is real and deadly, and doesn’t care about anybody’s spiritual or psychological needs.  I’m an introvert who lives alone, and can afford to have groceries delivered, so I can tolerate the lockdowns better than most. 

But I can see how someone might be devastated by separation from loved ones and normal life and be willing to risk their lives rather than endure the separation.  A good many of the protests, including the invasion of the Michigan state capitol, were in opposition to the lockdown.

Eric Hoffer

Eric Hoffer pointed fact and evidence have little to do with acceptance of fanatic beliefs.  People believe what they believe because they need to believe it.

So there’s little point in arguing with people who believe that an anonymous whistle-blower named Q revealed Donald Trump’s secret struggle to bring to justice a ring of highly-placed Satanic pedophiles. 

Or people who believe that the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax orchestrated by Bill Gates to plant micro-chips in the populace.

Or people who think Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election because Russian intelligence services orchestrated the campaigns of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein and Tulsi Gabbard.

Anyhow, it’s not the content of your beliefs that defines you as a fanatic, or not.  I have gotten along just fine through a long life with people who believe things I think are outlandish, or who think my beliefs are outlandish.  What defines you as a fanatic is the need for a hated enemy and the inability to tolerate disagreement.

What’s needed is to change the social conditions that give rise to fanatic mass movements.  The ideal is a society in which there is, on the one hand, security for people who want to lead quiet lives in stable communities and, on the other, opportunity for ambitious and creative people who want to strike out on their own.

In other words, a society much like the USA of the 1950s and 1960s, but without prejudice against minorities, women and LGBTQ people.

The other thing needed is for us all to disconnect from all the things that are driving us crazy.  We need to appreciate our blessings and savor the good things in life.  Do creative and satisfying things.  Stay connected or re-connect with family and friends.  Above all, don’t let your self-esteem depend on things that others can take away from you.

But there’s a limit to how much can be done.  Pandemics are destabilizing, and the current pandemic is unlikely to be the last one.  Storms, floods, droughts and fires are destabilizing, and it’s unlikely that we’ve seen the worst of these.  We can expect a migration crisis out of the tropics because of global warming and climate change.

None of the fanatic mass movements in today’s USA offer a solution to any of this.  We’re going to need a constructive, non-fanatic mass movement—one that fights disease, hunger and homelessness and not each other.


The True Believer, Eric Hoffer and the Contemporary Left by Benjamin Studebaker.

The Religions of Woke and QAnon by Robert Rhinehart for Mostly Harmless.

Why has everyone gone crazy? by “Nikolai Vladivostok.”

How cults crumble by Mary Wakefield for The Spectator.

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One Response to “True believers in the USA of 2021”

  1. Nikolai Vladivostok Says:

    Your article makes me wonder if the decline in dating, marriage and childbirth might also be a factor in growing extremism. These tend to distract people from their obsessions.
    Good point on economic insecurity. I suppose many of the fanatics are young people with unpayable students debts or older people with no hope of a comfortable retirement.
    When I researched my book, I was astonished at how large our debts are and how many people could not cope with a $1,000 emergency. Even in 2019 a lot of people were on edge. 2020 tipped many over.


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