The ‘Longshoreman Philosopher’ Saw Trump Coming in 1970
Eric Hoffer, the famous writer, anticipated the tone and language of the 2016 campaign and the post-election hysteria.
This OP ED, by Reuven Brenner, appeared in the Wall Street Journal on February 27, 2017, shortly before Trump’s “best ever” first speech to Congress.
I paid close attention because my Thriller Novels have twice been finalists for the prestigious Eric Hoffer award. A thriller has never won this award, and to even be a finalist is a great honor.
Here is a link to my awards, here is link to the WSJ article, and here below is the text of the article.
“Scratch an intellectual, and you find a would-be aristocrat who loathes the sight, the sound and the smell of common folk.” Those words might have been written last year, as an explanation for Donald Trump’s rise or a rejoinder to Hillary Clinton’s denunciation of “deplorables.”
In fact they were published in November 1970 and written by Eric Hoffer, the “longshoreman philosopher,” who was best known for his slender 1951 classic, “The True Believer: Thoughts on the nature of Mass Movements.” The 1970 essay, under the headline “Whose Country Is America?,” eerily anticipated not only the political events of 2016 but the tone and language of last year’s campaign and the anti-Trump hysteria since Election Day.
Hoffer started his analysis with “the conspicuousness of the young”—that is, the baby boomers. “They have become more flamboyant, more demanding, more violent, more knowledgeable and more experienced,” he wrote. “The general impression is that nowadays the young act like the spoiled children of the rich.”
He attributed those developments to the “ordeal of affluence,” which threatened social stability. Wealth without work “creates a climate of disintegrating values with its fallout of anarchy.” Among the poor this takes the form of street crime; among the affluent, of “insolence on the campus”—both “sick forms of adolescent self-assertion.” As a result, “‘men of words’ and charismatic leaders—people who deal with magic—come into their own,” while “the middle class, lacking magic, is bungling the job” of maintaining social order.
The “phenomenal increase of the student population”—enrollment in colleges and universities would more than triple between 1958 and 1978—created a critical mass: “For the first time in America, there is a chance that alienated intellectuals, who see our way of life as an instrument of debasement and dehumanization, might shape a new generation in their own image.”
The problem for society is “that the alienated intellectual does not want to be left alone,” Hoffer wrote. “He wants to influence affairs, have a hand in making history, and feel important.” The country continued to be plagued by problems “like race relations, violence, drugs.” Common people, however, “know that at present money cannot cure crime, poverty, etc., whereas the social doctors go on prescribing an injection of so many billions for every social ailment.”
No historian, political scientist or journalist of the past 60 years has predicted the current moment with such accuracy. Others should have. Behind Hoffer’s analysis is a view of history that dates to ancient Greece, especially to the historian Polybius. It’s a warning that affluence condemns younger generations to political decline unless institutional checks and balances, combined with education for civic responsibility, are rigorously preserved.
The Founding Fathers were mindful of that danger. The checks and balances they devised were designed to avert long-term decline, not merely short-term abuses of power. John Adams devoted a chapter in “A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America” to Polybius’ discussion of the theme. During the Constitutional Convention, Alexander Hamilton drew on this view too. At one point Benjamin Franklin expressed frustration that the convention had diverted too much into debates about Greek classics.
What finally upset the delicate balance that the Founders had set? Polybius left a place in world affairs to Tyche, the goddess of chance. Not for the first time in history, demographic change played that role. Whether the shock of the Trump election will yield a rebalancing or a further unsettling, time will tell.
In the less stratified America of 1970, the combination of Hoffer’s erudition and his aversion to elitism was not as unusual as it seems today. Even John F. Kennedy had been skeptical of intellectuals. Arthur Schlesinger noted that JFK had “considerable respect for the experience of businessmen,” which “gave them clues to the operations of the American economy which his intellectuals, for all their facile theories, did not possess.”
Hoffer concluded: “We must deflate the pretensions of self-appointed elites. These elites will hate us no matter what we do, and it is legitimate for us to help dump them into the dustbin of history.” Most surprising today may be where this sentiment appeared—in the pages of the New York Times.
Mr. Brenner is a professor at McGill University and author of “History: The Human Gamble” (1983) and “The Force of Finance: Triumph of the Capital Markets” (2002).
More about Eric Hoffer, an interesting, exceptional American:
We studied the “True Believer” by Eric Hoffer, at Princeton. It was part of a course called Politics 312 – Public Opinion.
Of note, other people in the course were Don Roth, with whom I played lacrosse, who was Treasurer of World Bank. The other person who played lacrosse with us both was Bob Mueller (see attached – a personal letter) former head of the FBI. The other person who took the course with us was Bill Bradley, All-American basketball player, Rhodes Scholar, New York Knicks pro basketball player for 10 years, Senator from New Jersey, and presidential candidate.
The other book was LeBon’s The Crowd….very insightful.
WSJ — March 6, 2017
Reuven Brenner’s thoughtful “The ‘Longshoreman Philosopher’ Saw Trump Coming in 1970” (op-ed, Feb. 27) might say more on what it was that upset the Founding Fathers’ “delicate balance” of checks and balances, thereby leading to President Trump’s populist revolt.
Neither demographics nor mere chance, but the progressive movement itself was the cause. An American outgrowth of German philosophy, progressivism’s purpose, however disguised, was to repeal and replace limited government with an unlimited administrative state. For over a century, progressivism worked on this project. It was on the verge of completion when Donald Trump stepped in.
Progressivism challenged the Declaration of Independence’s “self-evident” truths that all human beings are created by God with equal rights and that government’s purpose, limited by popular consent, is “to secure these rights.” Progressivism embraced the opposite idea: Rights are disposed by history, not given by God or nature; an elite trained in social and natural sciences should rule the people who lack this knowledge through a bureaucratic or administrative state; popular consent retards progress in science’s endless transformation of America. Eric Hoffer, the “longshoreman philosopher,” discerned the developing disorder but perhaps didn’t see that progressivism is the true believers’ conspiracy against government by the people.
The hysteria of America’s college-trained elite at President Trump’s populist rebellion stems from its inexplicable violation of its quasi-religious faith in the inexorable, scientific laws of history. Hoffer’s vision of a free people will be vindicated if, by prudent statecraft, the Trump administration can begin to restore limited government under “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”
Noonan on Trump’s Rise — This column won a 2017 Pulitzer Prize.
There are the protected and the unprotected. The protected make public policy. The unprotected live in it. The unprotected are starting to push back, powerfully.
The protected are the accomplished, the secure, the successful—those who have power or access to it. They are protected from much of the roughness of the world. More to the point, they are protected from the world they have created. Again, they make public policy and have for some time.
I want to call them the elite to load the rhetorical dice, but let’s stick with the protected.
They are figures in government, politics and media. They live in nice neighborhoods, safe ones. Their families function, their kids go to good schools, they’ve got some money. All of these things tend to isolate them, or provide buffers. Some of them—in Washington it is important officials in the executive branch or on the Hill; in Brussels, significant figures in the European Union—literally have their own security details.
Because they are protected they feel they can do pretty much anything, impose any reality. They’re insulated from many of the effects of their own decisions.
One issue obviously roiling the U.S. and Western Europe is immigration. It is the issue of the moment, a real and concrete one but also a symbolic one: It stands for all the distance between governments and their citizens.
It is of course the issue that made Donald Trump.
Britain will probably leave the European Union over it. In truth immigration is one front in that battle, but it is the most salient because of the European refugee crisis and the failure of the protected class to address it realistically and in a way that offers safety to the unprotected.
If you are an unprotected American—one with limited resources and negligible access to power—you have absorbed some lessons from the past 20 years’ experience of illegal immigration. You know the Democrats won’t protect you and the Republicans won’t help you. Both parties refused to control the border. The Republicans were afraid of being called illiberal, racist, of losing a demographic for a generation. The Democrats wanted to keep the issue alive to use it as a wedge against the Republicans and to establish themselves as owners of the Hispanic vote.
Many Americans suffered from illegal immigration—its impact on labor markets, financial costs, crime, the sense that the rule of law was collapsing. But the protected did fine—more workers at lower wages. No effect of illegal immigration was likely to hurt them personally.
It was good for the protected. But the unprotected watched and saw. They realized the protected were not looking out for them, and they inferred that they were not looking out for the country, either.
The unprotected came to think they owed the establishment—another word for the protected—nothing, no particular loyalty, no old allegiance.
Mr. Trump came from that.
Similarly in Europe, citizens on the ground in member nations came to see the EU apparatus as a racket—an elite that operated in splendid isolation, looking after its own while looking down on the people.
In Germany the incident that tipped public opinion against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s liberal refugee policy happened on New Year’s Eve in the public square of Cologne. Packs of men said to be recent migrants groped and molested groups of young women. It was called a clash of cultures, and it was that, but it was also wholly predictable if any policy maker had cared to think about it. And it was not the protected who were the victims—not a daughter of EU officials or members of the Bundestag. It was middle- and working-class girls—the unprotected, who didn’t even immediately protest what had happened to them. They must have understood that in the general scheme of things they’re nobodies.
What marks this political moment, in Europe and the U.S., is the rise of the unprotected. It is the rise of people who don’t have all that much against those who’ve been given many blessings and seem to believe they have them not because they’re fortunate but because they’re better.
You see the dynamic in many spheres. In Hollywood, as we still call it, where they make our rough culture, they are careful to protect their own children from its ill effects. In places with failing schools, they choose not to help them through the school liberation movement—charter schools, choice, etc.—because they fear to go up against the most reactionary professional group in America, the teachers unions. They let the public schools flounder. But their children go to the best private schools.
This is a terrible feature of our age—that we are governed by protected people who don’t seem to care that much about their unprotected fellow citizens.
And a country really can’t continue this way.
In wise governments the top is attentive to the realities of the lives of normal people, and careful about their anxieties. That’s more or less how America used to be. There didn’t seem to be so much distance between the top and the bottom.
Now is seems the attitude of the top half is: You’re on your own. Get with the program, little racist.
Social philosophers are always saying the underclass must re-moralize. Maybe it is the overclass that must re-moralize.
I don’t know if the protected see how serious this moment is, or their role in it.
Appeared in the Feb. 27, 2016, print edition of Wall Street Journal
Well stated and my only critique would be this: in 1960 the media actually elected a President named Kennedy which marked the liberal media’s inauguration! I felt this shift in fifthe grade as my political “shoe-in” candidate Nixon was stunned by his unpredictable loss! That loss dealt by the ‘cowardly new world’ of television, I believe, was the real reason for Nivon’s paranoia! Kennedy perceived Nixon as a “man uneasy in his own skin”; but it was more likely that Richard couldn’t comprehend the rising influence of TV reporting and it’s incessant “sound bites” !!! Instead of declaring “I’m No Crook”; Richard should have pointed ,as Trump does, his crooked finger at the empowered media to expose their “protected class” power of the press-TV”!