True Believers

A look at personality types behind mass movements


"…that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion." — Abraham Lincoln, 1863


We all want to find people — customers, employees, friends — who are so devoted to our cause that they stand with us, even through the worst imaginable experiences.

Such is the nature of devotion.

You'll recognize the quote above from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address — appropriate not only because the Battle of Gettysburg was concluded exactly 157 years ago today, but because of the extreme commitment to the cause that the Union and the rebels exhibited. The last full measure of their devotion was death.

Can you imagine having followers who are willing to follow your cause until death?

Earlier this week, I wrote about some positive attributes that leaders display to build a movement: they go first, create hope, and focus on their people. There's another side, though.


"Absolute faith corrupts as much as absolute power." — Eric Hoffer, 1951


In the mid-1950s Dwight Eisenhower was inspired by a book called The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer. Hoffer was a longshoreman who initially studied the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, but went beyond those controversial extreme figures to look at broader patterns, because he realized that every generation has plenty of similar personality types who don't come to power.

His underlying question was: Why does a population adhere to people like this and boost them to a position of power?

Hoffer discovered there were distinct phases to this process. The first was to take a population that has been destabilized in some way — religiously, culturally or politically, made to feel that they are no longer as significant as they were in the past — and convince them that they should be important again. Make them feel not that the world has moved on without them because they haven't changed, but rather make them feel as if somebody has stolen that significance from them.

This is done partially by romanticizing the past while denigrating the present:

On the other hand, there is no more potent dwarfing of the present than by viewing it as a mere link between a glorious past and a glorious future. Thus, though a mass movement at first turns its back on the past, it eventually develops a vivid awareness, often specious, of a distant glorious past. Religious movements go back to the day of creation; social revolutions tell of a golden age when men were free, equal, and independent; nationalist movements revive or invent memories of past greatness.”

Hoffer calls this receptive audience the "new poor." They're most likely to be receptive to this thinking because had wealth or status, but believe they have lost it. But it's not just the new poor, it's also a group of what he calls "misfits": the chronically bored, the physically disabled or perpetually ill, the talentless, and criminals or sinners; and "the inordinately selfish."

Once you have that audience, you have to find someone to blame for the loss of their significance. Hoffer said who that person is or who those people are doesn't matter at all. You just have to have somebody to hate. That's how you create this tribe of people who are banded together for a common cause.

Once they have someone to hate, then the leader has to promise that to fix it — to restore the disaffected people to power. With that hatred comes abuse: the leader demonstrates how to abuse those others to  marginalize them — and to model how to treat those people badly. Hoffer wrote, “Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents.”

Psychologically, the ability to hate and abuse others is an important development in understanding these kinds of movements, because it gives the affected group permission to act this way. In other words, they feel completely justified in displaying anti-social behavior. "It's not that I did something wrong," they reason. "It's that the other person deserved it."

When such a leader gets people to buy in at this level, you're at the point of no return. They've surrendered their "distinct self"  Now it's difficult for them to see their behavior as wrong because then they have to admit that they're complicit. That group of true believers can almost never be swayed.

In the final section of his book, Hoffer writes that there are three personality types that drive mass movements: men of words, fanatics, and practical men of action. Men of words try to “discredit the prevailing creeds” and create a “hunger for faith” which is then fed by “doctrines and slogans of the new faith.”

Fanatics don’t find comfort or inspiration in literature, philosophy, or art. They're defined by viciousness, the urge to destroy, and the perpetual struggle for power. But after mass movements transform the social order, their followers' need for significance is still not met. At this point, the practical men of action take over and try to lead the new order by further controlling their followers.

The sad truth to mass movements like this is they bring about a social order worse than the previous one. And their most staunch adherents will not change.

Are the leaders you follow peddling in hope or hate? Do their speeches make you inspired or angry? Are they helping you to see a new reality or an old fantasy?

Something to think about on this Independence Day.

Thanks, and I’ll see you on the Internet.

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