Who is the audience for arrogance?

Thus far in this study of arrogance I’ve concentrated on the characteristics of the arrogant person and the climate of wealth, publicity and the disintegration of civility in behavior that has enhanced the amount of arrogance in our society. Eric Hoffer, the “longshoreman philosopher” of the 1950s to the 1970s, would have tut-tutted me — his biographer — for not earlier making clear that arrogance does not exclusively exist because of an arrogant person; it fundamentally arises because of other people’s willingness to be the audience for and the followers of the arrogant.   

In “The True Believer,” published in 1951, Hoffer convincingly demonstrated that the followers of Nazism, Communism, nativism, nationalism and religious extremism were all basically alike. While many scholars of the period were busy locating the horrific excesses of Nazism and Communism in the minds of Hitler and Stalin, Hoffer found that the essence of those mass movements had as much to do with their followers’ willingness to acquiesce and to participate.  “All mass movements,” Hoffer wrote, “irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance.” 

The more fanatic and enthusiastic followers of our hugely arrogant president, Donald J. Trump, fit Hoffer’s “true believer” mold; and so to understand what Trump has been able to do in a year in office, we need to look at his true believers.  

Of course, not all those who voted for Trump are fanatics or are willing to follow him blindly no matter what he does. If polls can be believed, more and more of those who voted for him in 2016 are regretting their votes and deserting his ranks — but there are enough loyalists to provide him with a “base” of many tens of millions of, um, followers, on Twitter.  

Trump has tried to position his campaign as a holy cause.  Hoffer told us how that affects the followers:  “Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.”  Trump’s “base” seems to have lost faith not only in themselves but in an America they thought was theirs by birthright and believe has been taken from them.      

Lord Acton famously wrote that “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Hoffer contended that weakness corrupts just as surely: “Power corrupts the few, while weakness corrupts the many. Hatred, malice, rudeness, intolerance and suspicion are the faults of weakness. The resentment of the weak does not spring from any injustice done to them but from their sense of inadequacy and impotence.”  

Hatred, malice, rudeness, intolerance and suspicion are the themes of a great many of President Trump’s frequent tweets.  Time and again he finds ways to restate these themes in regard to the topic of the day — tweets that (traffic volume shows) generate the largest response from his followers. That alone should help us realize that extreme arrogance in a leader of a democratic nation requires an audience of followers who respond positively and regularly to the leader’s displays of arrogance.

“Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents,” Hoffer wrote of what unites followers. “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.”  

The devils repeatedly identified by the Trump “true believer” mass movement are dark-skinned, Hispanics, Africans, Arabs or other Muslims, recent illegal or quasi-legal immigrants, who, he alleges, have stolen jobs and welfare funds from native-born white Christian Americans. To keep future immigrants out we must build a wall across America’s southern border — I am reminded of Qin Shi Huang, who in the second century B.C. built China’s Great Wall, for the specific purpose of keeping out the barbarians; it failed to do so, and actually encouraged the barbarians to find ways around it and to conquer China. 

Evidently to the delight of Trump’s base, the United States government’s resources are being directed to hound immigrant adults who have been in this country for 20 and 30 years and have been contributing to our communities and our tax rolls, in order to weed out a relative handful of bad actors; and our country’s treasure and personnel resources are being used to be ready to kick out 700,000 children who have never known another existence but as Americans — although no legitimate economist or social scientist can find anything that these evictions and harassments might accomplish that would be an undeniable positive for the United States as a country or for the rest of America’s population. 

Studies of Trump voters have shown, first, that their most characteristic trait is a belief in authoritarianism, and second, that they agree with Trump’s denunciations of legal as well as illegal immigrants and of non-Caucasians, and support his arrogant exclusionary tactics.  The current majorities in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives by their votes have made clear that they, too, are followers of an arrogant leader whose basic message is one of hatred, blame, and exclusion.  

So long as Trump’s followers continue to dominate our political culture and to enable his excesses, America as a whole will be the loser.




Tom Shachtman is the author of more than a dozen American and world histories and of documentaries seen on all the major networks. He lives in Salisbury.