The Lonely Crowd
Robert Zaretsky, citing a 19th century Frenchman but taking on a tradition that goes as far back as Aristotle, wonders whether there really is such a thing as mob rule in the age of Trump, or at any other time:
“For those who have followed Le Donald’s rise to power, the crowd again seems to be rearing its massive head. It is the crowd, it appears, that swells Trump’s campaign events where the candidate praises the torture of terrorism suspects and justifies the violence of aides and followers. It is the crowd, one might believe, that shouts as he brands his political opponents as criminals, and promises to deport entire ethnic groups and deny entry to religious groups because of the alleged danger they present to the republic. It is the crowd, so it seems, that encourages Chris Christie’s call and answer to lock up Hillary Clinton and cheers Ben Carson’s suggestion that Clinton is a Lucifer’s apprentice. It is the crowd — this late-19th-century creature theorized by [Gustave] Le Bon, then ridden by the likes of Mussolini and Hitler (both of whom read the Frenchman’s work) — that Trump has apparently resurrected.
But here’s the rub: “le crowd” is, in part, a mythical creature. As contemporary sociologists and psychologists like Stephen Reicher, a professor of psychology at the University of St. Andrews, argue, the crowd is less a feature of the modern political landscape than a creature of Le Bon’s private nightscape. Rather than surrendering their identity or losing themselves in the crowd, as Le Bon argued, individuals who join the group instead embrace a collective identity, one usually hedged by limits and informed by rules. In his work on riots in 18th-century England, the historian E.P. Thompson revealed how these so-called mobs were, in fact, governed by what he called a “moral economy.” Similarly, in his landmark work on crowds in the French Revolution, the historian George Rudé showed how the “mob” that took the Bastille was not bestial and base, but instead shaped by the actions of literate artisans…
Despite the correctives offered by social scientists, however, Le Bon’s vision remains very powerful. In part, this is because at times it does reveal telling traits to both crowds and those who seek to lead them. Yet, Le Bon’s vision also persists because it reveals truths about our own fears and resistances. Those of us who identify with America’s humane and liberal traditions are rightly horrified by Trump’s racist, violent worldview. But, ironically, Democrats risk committing the very same error that Trump has made his stock in trade: seeing his supporters in terms of abstractions, not particulars; groups, not individuals. When they see Trump’s supporters as a crowd, Trump’s opponents relieve themselves of the task of seeing them as men and women driven by an array of motives. The challenge is to defeat not just Trump, but the all-too-human tendency to turn the world into us versus them.”
Zaretsky and Reicher argue that social science shows that the crowd is more normal than one might think. The effort to normalize, rationalize, and thus to explain away what is unique and meaningful in a social phenomenon is a central effort of social science. By studying the behavior of large numbers of people, social science creates a bell curve in which most people act normally and only the outliers on the fringe are abnormal. By the law of large numbers, nearly all behavior is normalized and action — a surprising and exceptional act that can change and impact the course of the world — is excluded, in all but the most exceptional circumstances. Reichert’s argument that the modern mob is really rational may be true, but, as Zaretsky concedes, such a sociological reduction also doesn’t deal adequately with the power of the mob today. How then are we to understand the rise of the mob that is so consequent around the world?
Hannah Arendt argued that one distinctive feature of totalitarian movements is what she saw to be the transformation of the mob, the crowd, into a mass. Confronted with something new, like the 20th century totalitarian mass movements in Germany and the Soviet Union, Arendt insisted we understand what was new and extraordinary about them. In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt distinguishes the mob from the mass in ways that are deeply instructive for our contemporary politics.
The mob, as distinguished from what Arendt calls the totalitarian masses, is distinguished by its desire for power at all costs. “What the mob wanted, and what Goebbels expressed with great precision, was access to history even at the price of destruction.” The mob is “charmed by the ‘radiant power of fame’ (Stefan Zweig)” and delights in the transgression and destruction of all traditional social and moral standards. The mob is never afraid of using force or even crime to pursue its goals: “The attraction of evil and crime for the mob mentality is nothing new. It has always been true that the mob will greet ‘deeds of violence with the admiring remark: it may be mean but it is very clever.’” But the mob, unlike the mass, still employs violence for its selfish and political ends (whereas “the disturbing factor in the success of totalitarianism is rather the true selflessness of its adherents). Associated with the criminal elements of the lower and working classes in a class society, the mob unites to acquire power and pursue its common interests, often through radical and uncivil means. Moral truths and social conventions suppress the mob and therefore are attacked and exposed as bourgeois morality.
So long as the mob’s attack on moral and societal standards is limited to the specific classes, it is constrained by traditional concerns of power. The working classes can support a mob and they can support mob rule or mob domination, but they are motivated by a limited desire — they desire the power or privileges that the bourgeois or wealthy classes now have. Class warfare can be unruly and dangerous and can aim to weaken moral conventions that have come to protect bourgeois privilege, but such attacks by the mob function within the bounds of politics. Bound by interests and the common goals of a class, the mob, like the wealthy, are connected to each other. They are committed to a greater society, one in which they take power and influence that has been denied to them. Their political activity is still aimed at a public and a common purpose.
The masses begin to replace the mob when class society and class distinctions break down. This happens in two ways. First, amidst economic dislocations the defined classes break apart. In the 1920s and 1930s, the depression collapsed the distinctions between laborers and the middle classes. The class system had separated individuals from politics insofar as classes were politically represented by parties and party leaders. But as classes were blurred, so too were interests and the parties “became more and more psychological and ideological in their propaganda,” focusing less on specific interests than on a nostalgia for a return to their old social status. Arendt writes:
“The fall of protecting class walls transformed the slumbering majorities behind all parties into one great unorganized, structureless mass of furious individuals who had nothing in common except that their vague apprehension that the hopes of party members were doomed, that consequently, the most respected, articulate and representative members of the community were fools and that all the powers that be were not so much evil as they were equally stupid and fraudulent. It was of no great consequence for the birth of this new terrifying negative solidarity that the unemployed worker hated the status quo and the powers that be in the form of the Social Democratic Party, the expropriated small property owner in the form of a centrist or rightest party, and former members of the middle and upper classes in the form of the traditional extreme right. The number of this mass of generally dissatisfied and desperate men increased rapidly in Germany and Austria after the first World War…”
Amidst this “breakdown of class society the psychology of the European mass man developed.” Key to this mass man in opposition to the mob is the idea of selflessness. “Selflessness in the sense that oneself does not matter, the feeling of being expendable, was no longer the expression of individual idealism but a mass phenomenon.” Here Arendt is seconded by Eric Hoffer who wrote in “The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements” that “The vigor of a mass movement stems from the propensity of its followers for united action and self-sacrifice.” For Arendt, this superfluous and selfless mass man could even lose interest in his own life or, rather, come to see that the only way to make his life meaningful was to subsume his personal, economic, and social interests to the overriding interests of a great movement. It is from the ranks of these masses that Heinrich Himmler recruited those SS-men who knew they were working “for a great task which occurs but once in 2,000 years.”
If one path from the mob to the masses follows the economic and political breakdown of classes and interest-based political parties, the second stems from the intellectual corruption of the elite. The elite can easily come to be disgusted with the false pretenses of bourgeois morality, the way moral and legal standards are perverted to justify greed and oppression. We should never “overlook how justified disgust can be in a society wholly permeated with the ideological outlook and moral standards of the bourgeoisie,” Arendt writes. And yet this justified disgust led many intellectuals to “desire to see the ruin of this whole world of fake security, fake culture, and fake life.” It became easy for intellectuals to justify the same selflessness of the masses, to believe that the only way to find meaning in a meaningless existence caught in the trappings of a fake society was to submit to a movement that would destroy that society. Terrorism is thus justified as revolutionary political expression. And the elite too easily laughs whenever the mob or the masses violently and rhetorically exploded the ideological deceptions and pious banalities of good society. “Vulgarity with its cynical dismissal of respected standards and accepted theories carried with it a frank admission of the worst and a disregard for all pretenses which were easily mistaken for courage and a new style of life.” It was too easy, Arendt argues, for the elite to move from disgust to cynicism to, finally, an embrace of radicalism as such — at which point there can be no standards left from which to oppose the content or aim of totalitarian movements.
Arendt’s distinction between the mob and the masses matters today not because we can easily identify the rising masses of angry, cynical, atomized, and lonely people today with those of the 1930s. The distinction matters because it helps us see where and why the potential origins of a modern totalitarianism might emerge. But such similarities do not mean that we are currently in a totalitarian world or that we are about to enter such a world. We should not fall prey to simple equivalencies, to seeing our time as a mere repetition of the past. While it is true that history can instruct us, it is also the case that the present is always uniquely its own time.
The economic dislocations of globalization have very much scuttled the class distinctions and party identifications of the last 70 years. What the Brexit vote in England and the popularity of Donald Trump show is that traditional political affiliations are breaking down. We live in a time when the most meaningful political distinction may be between those who have embraced and benefit from a global and cosmopolitan world and those who have been left out of and fear such a world. In such a breakdown of classes there is a possibility that a new mass individual emerges, one characterized by loneliness, nostalgia, and a need to belong that supports the true selflessness of a mass man, one who seeks meaning in submitting oneself to a movement.
At the same time, it is not unimportant that the movements to which these potential masses are attaching themselves are nationalist movements. For Arendt, totalitarianism is importantly an internationalist movement, one rooted in imperialism and one fundamentally opposed to the limits of nationalism. Arendt saw racism and nationalism as enemies and she insisted that racists are rarely nationalists, for racists seek bonds that transcend the nation. Nationalism, she emphasizes, is always a limited movement and is rooted importantly in national interest rather than in totalizing and world-dominating ideologies such as racism or communism.
Donald Trump is undoubtedly boorish, mean, and brutal. He is happy to channel the disgust of the working man at fake bourgeois social values and do so in a way that would blow up the moral foundations of the bourgeois world. But Trump also is singularly non-ideological. There is no Mein Kampf; there is only The Art of the Deal. What Trump values above all is winning. Mostly he wants to win for himself and he has no compunction at swindling contractors or abusing illegal workers for advantage. Even amidst the low standards of some past American presidents, his complete disregard for moral structures would set a new low by a wide margin. But he is hardly an ideologue. While demagogues like Trump appeal to lonely, desperate, and angry people, they are not peddling totalitarian ideology so much as nationalist nostalgia. And at the least such nationalism is tied to national self-interest and thus limited by real political interests. Nationalism can be dangerous to non-nationals and even to minorities who are not sufficiently identified with the nation. Nationalism is not without risks. But nationalism, at least, is not totalitarian.
Does the non-ideological nature of Trumpism suggest it is not as dangerous as some suggest? Maybe. But it is also true that Trump has helped to mobilize masses who are in need of the kind of meaning that is usually satisfied easiest by psychological and ideological means. These masses exist not only in the U.S. but in Europe as well. And they are on both the left and the right, if such distinctions even hold much importance anymore. The point is that so long as Trump remains a nationalist focused on making America great again — as long as we continue to see a global resurgence of nationalism — the mobs that emerge are connected to interest and not totalitarian.
We must remain vigilant about the rise of new ideologies and the threat of totalitarianism; but for the moment, our fight is less with the selfless mass than with the power-hungry mob who is willing to justify violence and crime in the name of winning. The danger Trump represents is not totalitarianism. The danger he poses is that we embrace the art of the deal, the commitment to winning at all costs. The danger is that such a mean and pecuniary standard becomes the substance of American greatness.
To see the problem is also to see how one might respond. Rejecting nationalism and defending cosmopolitan internationalism is one avenue. But one might instead seek to think deeply about how nationalist discourse can be mobilized in a meaningful and dignified manner. We saw hints of this in the embrace of American principles at the Democratic convention. The articulation of an inclusive, democratic, and aspirational ideal of American nationalism is one way to respond to the dangers of the moment.
Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director, Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities, Bard College