During Trump’s commencement address at Liberty University, he said to the graduating students, “America has always been the land of dreams because America is a nation of true believers.” But where does the term “true believers” come from? And what does that mean when applied to Trump supporters?
That’s what Ronald W. Pies, a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, explores in his recent Conversation op-ed. The term comes from a 1951 book called “The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements” by Eric Hoffer. Hoffer was just a longshoreman, not an academic, but his book—a reaction to the growing tide of facism—became a best-seller.
As Pies wrote:
“Hoffer shrewdly analyzed the forces that spark nationalist and totalitarian movements. The irony of Trump’s “true believers” remark probably escaped both the president and his audience.”
Donald Trump’s rhetoric seems to come straight from Hoffer’s book. “For men to plunge headlong into an undertaking of vast change, they must be intensely discontented yet not destitute,” Hoffer wrote. He added that they must also have “an extravagant conception of the prospects and potentialities of the future” and “be wholly ignorant of the difficulties involved in their vast undertaking. Experience is a handicap.”
By priding himself on being the “outsider” candidate, Trump manipulated his “true believers” into thinking that his lack of experience was a good thing. He made big promises that often contradicted each other—like promising a wall, a larger military, and that everyone will have health care, yet also promised lower taxes. He also played into the “true believers” need for “a new life – a rebirth – or, failing this, a chance to acquire new elements of pride, confidence, hope, a sense of purpose and worth by an identification with a holy cause,” with his slogan “make America great again.” He paired this message with Evangelical Christian appeals so often that, as Sarah Posner stated, “Trump effectively played to the religious right’s own roots in white supremacy.”
One of the most frighteningly relevant remarks of Hoffer’s “true believer” is their disregard for the truth. As Hoffer writes:
“It is futile to judge the viability of a new movement by the truth of its doctrine and the feasibility of its promises.”