The fall issue will feature a very good essay on tyranny by contributor Deborah Johnstone. In it, she cites a book by Eric Hoffer, The True Believer, which I happened to be reading when she pitched me her piece. Toward the end of Hoffer’s treatise on the nature of mass movements, he writes, “The danger of the fanatic to the development of a movement is that he cannot settle down.”
Hoffer, who published his book in 1951, used Hitler as his main example of a fanatic who could rally the masses to action but lacked practical leadership abilities. His Nazi government was destined to collapse spectacularly: Instead of hardening the movement’s gains “in organs of vigilance and administration,” Hitler invaded Russia. To perpetuate itself, a victorious mass movement requires a practical “man of action [to save] the movement from the suicidal dissensions and the recklessness of the fanatics.”
Most of Hoffer’s observations still hold nearly 70 years later. And if you’re rooting for the demise of Nicolas Maduro’s emerging dictatorship or the demagogic presidency of Donald Trump, that may be a good thing. Here’s why:
Hugo Chavez made a critical error when he entrusted his revolution to a fanatic instead of a bureaucrat. When the 2014 plunge in oil prices sent Venezuela into economic depression, Maduro instituted none of the major reforms economists said could have alleviated the situation. Instead, he simply doubled down on anti-capitalist rhetoric, apparently to energize his base (i.e. retain power).
Likewise, the fanatical Trump was adept at unifying frustrated Americans behind his nationalist movement, but now that he’s in office he has presided over one of the most poorly managed White Houses in history. His erratic behavior helped to sabotage his party’s central policy proposal, and his approval rating is 37 percent and slipping. A Hoffer reading of the Trump phenomenon would predict some kind of deluded overextension — perhaps a crime committed or an irrational decree that prompts internal revolt (Pence is said to be campaigning already).
Venezuela has long gone off the rails. Maduro lacks a mandate for the near-absolute power he now wields. Overnight, a small group of soldiers in Valencia staged a doomed revolt that may be the first of others. Maduro could choose to continue on the path to absolute dictatorship, or he could call elections and flee to Cuba. In either case, the Bolivarian Revolution will end because its fanatical leaders failed to take practical measures to ensure its economic program would be sustainable.
As other mass movements around the world reach maturity, they’ll all be faced with a choice: consolidate and govern or overextend and fizzle.
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