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Religious Tolerance logo

True Believers in the United States of Hate

By Susan Humphreys, Contributing editor


President Trump

President Donald Trump (Image from

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Two recent articles on the Alternet website caught my attention:

  • "A United States of Hate Has Exploded under Trump" by Steven Rosenfeld.

    He says: "Donald Trump's campaign and presidential election has brought racism in America out of the shadows in a manner not seen in decades..."
  • The second article on the Alternet site is "Can Journalists Debunk Trump's Lies Without Amplifying Them? It's Challenging but Not Impossible," by Amanda Marcotte/Salon. She opens with a discussion about the fabricated "Bowling Green Massacre" and then asks "How can so many people be so gullible?"

There have been many other articles since the election trying to figure out and justify why so many people voted for Trump and why there is such a great divide between urban and rural areas of the U.S., and between Conservatives, Liberals and Progressives.

Answers to some of the questions can be found in a 1951 book written by Eric Hoffer "The True Believer, Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements". His thoughts are as powerful and true today as they were then. If we want to solve the problems in the Middle East, gang problems in our cities,the violence in Chicago, understand tea party movements, the cause of the rise in hate crimes, why so many are so gullible and accept "fake" news without asking any questions, and why so many people voted for Trump, this book should be on everyone's reading list.

I want to make it clear, this book applies to all kinds of mass movements: Religious Groups of all kinds, the Ku Klux Klan, Militia Groups, some Environmental Groups, Political Parties, Youth Gangs, Islamic Terrorist Groups and homegrown Terrorists. Some groups are more benign than others, some are extremely dangerous. Some groups are closely knit, some are loose affiliates of individuals. This information also applies to the leaders of groups as well as to their followers.

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On page 1, Hoffer says

"It is a truism that many who join a rising revolutionary movement are attracted by the prospect of sudden and spectacular change in their conditions of life."

It is interesting to note that so many Trump voters has told reporters that the promise of change was a prime motivating factor for them.

Movements die when they fail to deliver on that promise of change. They also die when the leadership takes the movement in too extreme of a direction and the moderates stop dropping out leaving behind only the extremists and fanatics. We are seeing this begin to happen with some Trump voters as they realize that his promises will have adverse affects on them, such as the repeal of the Affordable Care Act without having anything to replace it.

Why do some people think (hope?) that the movement will deliver more than what was actually promised? Why do people see the leaders of movements as messiahs and saviors rather than as manipulators or conmen? Why do movements insist that their truth is the one and only absolute TRUTH and all other positions/beliefs are lies? Why do they see the followers of other positions/beliefs as un-American and a danger to "real" Americans? Hoffer has some answers.

On page 14:

"Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves."

When told often enough, people come to believe that they are sinners, worthless, powerless, without hope. When circumstances seem to be working against them, people look for someone other than themselves to blame for the mess they are in. The holy cause restores their hope and their sense of power and offers a scapegoat; an easily identifiable enemy to blame for their problems. IF that is, they will only believe fervently enough.

On Page 82:

"To be in possession of an absolute truth is to have a net of familiarity spread over the whole of eternity. All questions have already been answered, all decisions made, all eventualities foreseen."

The True Believer doesn't have to think for his/her self, the thinking has already been done. It isn't any wonder that leaders of such groups attempt to manipulate the media so it presents only the information they want spread. Or, alternately, they attack the news media for spreading "fake news".

Leaders often discourage people from asking questions. Otherwise, they would discover that all the questions haven't been answered and the answers they received were lies.

Hoffer continues:

"The true believer is emboldened to attempt the unprecedented and the impossible not only because his doctrine gives him a sense of omnipotence but also because it gives him unqualified confidence in the future."

For the perpetrator of hate crimes, the movement provides justification, sanctification and glorification of their action. Membership in a movement gives the True Believer license to act. Action relieves their frustration and sense of impotence.


On page 83, Hoffer writes:

"There is apparently some connection between dissatisfaction with oneself and a proneness to credulity. The rule seems to be that those who find no difficulty in deceiving themselves are easily deceived by others. They are easily persuaded and led."

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Several philosophers over the years have realized this:

  • Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) commented:

    "People never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction."

  • Voltaire (1694-1778) said

    "Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities."

  • Steven Weinberg, a modern day physicist, said:

    "With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil--that takes religion."

Also on Page 83:

"The inability or unwillingness to see things as they are promotes both gullibility and charlatanism."

Some define Charlatan as a 'quack', a crazy person. A Charlatan is really a con-artist, a person who pretends to have more knowledge, skill or power than he actually does and is very good at what he does, manipulating and deceiving people. The Charlatan makes sure everyone knows he is smarter than everyone else, that he alone has all the answers, only he can get things done. All you have to do is believe him! AND give him your unconditional support! If he fails to deliver on his promises it will be his supporters fault or the media's fault, never his own fault."

The Devil is sometimes called the great deceiver. Nothing is more deceptive in my mind than convincing folks that by following you they will be doing God's will. Gullible people are easily deceived and easily find a Charlatan willing to deceive them. They mutually reinforce and strengthen each other.

Gullible people are what I call Literal thinkers as opposed to Abstract thinkers. Literal thinkers take everything at face value. The words in the Bible mean just what they say, no concept of metaphor, innuendo, irony. If something is broadcast on the news, the news doesn't lie, so it must be true. Also, they are careful to watch and listen and read only the news reports that tell them what they want to hear. To listen to some other news that disagrees with their beliefs is too unsettling for them.

If the President says he is going to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it than that is what will happen. They never stop to consider that what is being proposed might have adverse consequences. Abstract thinkers on the other hand do ask questions; they don't believe everything they hear. They look for other sources and evidence. They have the ability to imagine how a proposed action might affect them directly as well as what it might do to others or to the economy. Because of their abilities they aren't easily conned or controlled.

On Page 85:

"The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure. He cannot generate self-assurance out of his individual resources -- out of his rejected self -- but finds it only by clinging passionately to whatever support he happens to embrace."

Often members will cling to symbols and slogans. Owning and carrying guns for some is a symbol of "power". Chanting slogans in a mass rally "Make America Great Again" fills them and others with passion. They will often become Bullies, belittling, demeaning, verbally abusing those that disagree with them or those they see as weaker than they are. Practitioners of Yoga and Martial Arts teach us that true power comes from self-control. The Bullies' demonstration of "power" is a sign of his weakness and often doesn't bring him/her the respect he/she thinks he/she deserves. This makes him/her feel greater frustration and impotency and more prone to strike out violently.

Some might cling to titles whether earned or unearned. Examples are some men who claim the title of General or Colonel though they never served in the military. Some academics insist of being called Dr. at all times.

"The fanatic cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to his reason or moral sense. He fears compromise and cannot be persuaded to qualify the certitude and righteousness of his holy cause."

Often these folks see the world in dualistic, Black and White terms. Things are either good (what they believe), or EVIL (what others believe). Something is TRUE, or it is a Lie; there is no concept that it could simply be an error. Either you are with them and an American or against them and un-American. It is always their way or no way.

There is never a middle ground position. If there were than their position would be a Lie and that would leave them adrift without an anchor.

On Page 128:

"The true believer is eternally incomplete, eternally insecure. By elevating dogma above reason, the individual's intelligence is prevented from becoming self-reliant."

On Page 142:

"However, the freedom the masses crave is not the freedom of self-expression and self-realization, but the freedom from the intolerable burden of an autonomous existence."

True Believers want freedom from having to make decisions, and thus avoid having to take responsibility for their own actions.

So what is a society to do? How can suicide bombers and the charlatans that fill them with have and hope for an idyllic future in paradise be stopped? How can the Christian fundamentalist or Evangelical that persecutes, demeans, belittles the "other" -- the person that doesn't believe what they believe -- and the charismatic ministers and preachers that fill them with fear and hate be stopped? How can you teach tolerance and respect to people that refuse to tolerate or respect those that aren't just like them?

One thing I have discovered is that today, people can no longer hide from or ignore the realities of the real world. Society can help truth along.

Silence is complicity. Too many have been too silent for too long. Individuals need to speak up. Bigots, racists, charlatans, fanatics hide behind our American freedoms of religion and speech. They claim they have the right to say and do what they want because it is what they believe. It works both ways. Others have the right to say and do what they want, and when they do it to support the rights and freedoms of others, they are doing the right thing.

Most importantly we need to figure out how to teach and to encourage people to be strong self-sufficient, self-assured, self-motivated, self-controlled, self-disciplined, self-respecting, self-responsible abstract thinkers.

Self-assured people can resist the siren call of the Charlatan, the fiery sermon of the Charismatic Preacher, and the promises of the Politicians. Those who aren't can't!

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Webmaster's comment [Bias alert]:

I had read Eric Hoffer's book when it was first published decades ago. But I had not realize now how important it is, and how meaningful it is for the current situation in the U.S.

When I received this essay from Susan Humphreys, it was the last day of 2017-FEB. Tomorrow will be a new month, and time for me to post a "recommended book for the month." I think that I will feature Hoffer's book instead of the book originally scheduled.

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Related essays on this web site that you might find interesting:

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. cover image Eric Hoffer, "The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements," Harper Perennial Modern Classics (2010). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store Rated with 4.6 out of 5 stars by Amazon customers. Reviewer Richard Vazquez commented: "The far left and the far right can be indistinguishable from each other from the viewpoint of what it's like to live under them. ... The proof of the thesis lies in the fact that the book, written in the 1950's, was correct in it's predictions over the last sixty five years. This way of thinking helps to envision the results of today's decisions."

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Originally posted on: 2017-MAR-01
Susan Humphreys
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