Category Archives: Politics – Tyranny

Summary of Eric Hoffer’s, The True Believer


Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents … Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.” ~ Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.

Eric Hoffer (1898 – 1983) was an American moral and social philosopher who worked for more than twenty years as a longshoremen in San Francisco. The author of ten books, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983. His first book, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), is a work in social psychology which discusses the psychological causes of fanaticism. It is widely considered a classic.


The first lines of Hoffer’s book clearly state its purpose:

This book deals with some peculiarities common to all mass movements, be they religious movements, social revolutions or nationalist movements. It does not maintain that all movements are identical, but that they share certain essential characteristics which give them a family likeness.

All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and single-hearted allegiance …

The assumption that mass movements have many traits in common does not imply that all movements are equally beneficent or poisonous. The book passes no judgments, and expresses no preferences. It merely tries to explain… (pp. xi-xiii)

Part 1 – The Appeal of Mass Movements

Hoffer says that mass movements begin when discontented, powerless people lose faith in existing institutions and demand change.

Starting out from the fact that the frustrated predominate among the early adherents of all mass movements … it is assumed: 1) that frustration of itself, without any proselytizing prompting from the outside, can generate most of the peculiar characteristics of the true believer; 2) that an effective technique of conversion consists basically in the inculcation and fixation of proclivities and responses indigenous to the frustrated mind. (p. xii)

Feeling hopeless, such people participate in movements that allow them to become part of a larger collective. “ . . . a mass movement … appeals not to those intent on bolstering and advancing a cherished self, but to those who crave to be rid of an unwanted self because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation.” (p. 12)

Put another way, Hoffer says: ““Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the loss of faith in ourselves.” (p. 14) Leaders inspire these movements, but the seeds of mass movements must already exist for the leaders to be successful. And while mass movements typically blend nationalist, political and religious ideas, they all compete for angry and/or marginalized people.

Part 2 – The Potential Converts

The destitute are not usually converts to mass movements; they are too busy trying to survive to become engaged. But what Hoffer calls the “new poor,” those who previously had wealth or status but who believe they have now lost it, are potential converts. Such people are resentful and blame others for their problems.

Mass movements also attract the partially assimilated—those who feel alienated from mainstream culture. Others include misfits, outcasts, adolescents, and sinners, as well as the ambitious, selfish, impotent and bored. What all converts all share is the feeling that their lives are meaningless and worthless.

A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine and promises but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness, and meaninglessness of an individual existence. It cures the poignantly frustrated not by conferring on them an absolute truth or remedying the difficulties and abuses which made their lives miserable, but by freeing them from their ineffectual selves—and it does this by enfolding and absorbing them into a closely knit and exultant corporate whole. (p. 41)

Hoffer emphasizes that creative people—those who experience creative flow—aren’t usually attracted to mass movements. Creativity provides inner joy which both acts as an antidote to the frustrations with external hardships. Creativity also relieves boredom, one of the main causes of mass movements:

There is perhaps no more reliable indicator of a society’s ripeness for a mass movement than the prevalence of unrelieved boredom. In almost all the descriptions of the periods preceding the rise of mass movements there is reference to vast ennui; and in their earliest stages mass movements are more likely to find sympathizers and
support among the bored than among the exploited and oppressed. To a deliberate fomenter of mass upheavals, the report that people are bored still should be at least as encouraging as that they are suffering from intolerable economic or political abuses. (p. 51-52)

Part 3 – United Action and Self-Sacrifice

Mass movements demand of their followers a “total surrender of a distinct self.” (p. 117) Thus a follower identifies as “a member of a certain tribe or family.” (p. 62) Furthermore, mass movements denigrate and “loath the present.” (p. 74) By regarding the modern world as worthless, the movement inspires a battle against it.

What surprises one, when listening to the frustrated as the decry the present and all its works, is the enormous joy they derive from doing so. Such delight cannot come from the mere venting of a grievance. There must be something more—and there is. By expiating upon the incurable baseness and vileness of the times, the frustrated soften their feeling of failure and isolation … (p. 75)

Mass movements also “promote the use of doctrines that elevate faith over reason and serve as “fact-proof screens between the faithful and the realities of the world. (p. 79)

The effectiveness of a doctrine does not come from its meaning but from its certitude…presented as the embodiment of the one and only truth. If a doctrine is not unintelligible, it has to be vague; and if neither unintelligible nor vague, it has to be unverifiable. One has to get to heaven or the distant future to determine the truth of an effective doctrine….simple words are made pregnant with meaning and made to look like symbols in a secret message. There is thus an illiterate air about the most literate true believer. (pp. 80-81).

So believers ignore truths that contradict their fervent beliefs, but this hides the fact that,

The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure. He cannot generate self-assurance out of his individual sources … but finds it only by clinging passionately to whatever support he happens to embrace. The passionate attachment is the essence of his blind devotion and religiosity, and he sees in it the sources of all virtue and strength … He sacrifices his life to prove his worth … The fanatic cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to reason or his moral sense. He fears compromise and cannot be persuaded to qualify the certitude and righteousness of his holy cause.” (p. 85).

Thus the doctrines of the mass movement must not be questioned—they are regarded with certitude—and they are spread through “persuasion, coercion, and proselytization.” Persuasion works best on those already sympathetic to the doctrines, but it must be vague enough to allow “the frustrated to… hear the echo of their own musings in … impassioned double talk.” (p. 106)  Hoffer quotes Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels: “a sharp sword must always stand behind propaganda if it is to be really effective.” (p. 106) The urge to proselytize comes not from a deeply held belief in the truth of doctrine but from an urge of the fanatic to “strengthen his own faith by converting others.” (p. 110)

Moreover, mass movements need an object of hate which unifies believers, and “the ideal devil is a foreigner.” (p. 93) Mass movements need a devil. But in reality the “hatred of a true believer is actually a disguised self-loathing …” and “the fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure.” (p. 85) Through their fanatical action and personal sacrifice, the fanatic tries to give their life meaning.

Part 4 – Beginning and End

Hoffer states that three personality types typically lead mass movements: “men of words”, “fanatics”, and “practical men of action.” In the beginning: “men of words” lead the movements. (Regarding the radical positions of the Republicans and Trumpism in the USA think of the late William F. Buckley.) Men of words try to “discredit the prevailing creeds” and creates a “hunger for faith” which is then fed by “doctrines and slogans of the new faith.” (p. 140) Slowly followers emerge.

Then fanatics take over. (In the USA think the Koch brothers, Murdoch, Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Hannity, etc.) Fanatics don’t find solace in literature, philosophy or art. Instead they are characterized by viciousness, the urge to destroy, and the perpetual struggle for power. But after mass movements transform the social order, the insecurity of their followers is not ameliorated. At this point the “practical men of action” take over and try to lead the new order. Now the leaders try to control their former followers.

In the end mass movements that succeed often bring about a social order worse than the previous one. (This was one of Will Durant’s findings in The Lessons of History.) As Hoffer puts it near the end of his work: “All mass movements … irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred, and intolerance.” (p. 141)


Comey’s Firing: Do We Live in a Kleptocracy?

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, May 17, 2017.)

Every time I sit down to write about something I want to write about—like how to find meaning in a secular age, or the significance of the imminent birth of my new granddaughter—I find my reverie interrupted by the political turmoil surrounding me.

Yesterday’s firing of FBI director James Comey, the most important law enforcement official investigating the Trump White House not appointed by that administration, is more than deeply disturbing. For if no truly independent investigation is forthcoming, then we will never know the extent of the current regime’s crimes. With control of the White House, both branches of Congress, law enforcement, increasing control of the judiciary and law enforcement, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and all the rest, we may really be moving to the unthinkable—a banana republic with one party rule, show trials, and kangaroo courts. And don’t say it can’t happen here; that America is exceptional. It can and America is not.

Former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum caputured the fundamental issue in, “This Is Not A Drill,” published in The Atlantic. Frum wonders if the integrity of our government is being fatally undermined: “If this firing stands—and if Trump dares to announce a pliable replacement—the rule of law begins to shake and break. The law will answer to the president, not the president to the law.” So which will it be? If it is the former, if the rule of law is null and void, then there is nothing left to protect any of us from the autocratic whims of the President and his apparatchiks.

And in The New York Times Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who served in the previous three Republican administrations, pleaded with his fellow Republicans in “Don’t Be Complicit:”

A powerful, independent person Mr. Trump did not appoint and whose investigation he clearly feared has been summarily fired. Given his volatility and vindictiveness, his Nietzschean ethic and his overpowering narcissism, this is exactly what one would expect of Mr. Trump.

The fear many Trump critics have had is that he is, as I put it just after the inauguration, a transgressive personality and a man of illiberal tendencies who was unlikely to be contained by norms and customs. He would not use power benevolently but unwisely, recklessly, and in ways that would undermine our democratic institutions and faith in our government.

I desperately hope a few Republicans will heed Mr. Wehner’s pleas, but I’m skeptical. No doubt many congressional Republicans despise Trump, but they all want to be reelected too. Unfortunately to do so they need the support of Trump’s devoted and delusional fan base, so almost all future candidates will probably continue to follow the party line. (Notice that no congressional Republicans have yet called for an independent prosecutor, and only a handful have expressed even the mildest concerns.) I seriously doubt that they will do anything that would be harmful to the Republican brand.

On the other hand, perhaps congressional Republicans will let an independent prosecutor be appointed in the hope that Trump might resign before being impeached. Then Pence would become President, something that many of them would undoubtedly prefer.

Still I doubt that too. With the goal of near complete control of government within their grasp, powerful Republicans will not suddenly retreat. Those attracted to power rarely let principle intervene when on power’s doorstep. The Republicans find their newfound power exhilarating, and all they want to do is use it. Orwell taught us this years ago:

Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.

As for negative public reaction, I don’t think the Republicans care. The public is pretty much disenfranchised anyway—by gerrymandering, voter suppression, big money in politics, and 24/7 propaganda. I hate to say it, and I’m sorry that some of my predictions seem to be coming true, but we are now live in a kleptocracy. In the meantime the wealthiest will get their tax cuts, ordinary citizens will be denied health-care, the poor will still be incarcerated in high-tech dungeons, the environment will get more polluted and the climate more extreme, the mentally ill and the unlucky will continue to live on the streets, and more wars will be fought and bombs dropped.

With moral and intellectual excellence denigrated, with power and hyper masculinity praised, the nation itself, like so many of its desperately suffering citizens, is increasingly psychotic.

The USA Overthrows Democracies Abroad, Will They Overthrow Their Own?

Augusto Pinochet foto oficial.jpg

All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage—torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians—which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side.
~ George Orwell

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 15, 2017.)

Augusto Pinochet Ugarte (1915 – 2006), pictured above, was President of Chile between 1973 and 1990 and Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean Army from 1973 to 1998. His rule of Chile was a dictatorship.[3][4] Pinochet assumed power in Chile following a United States-backed coup d’état on 11 September 1973 that overthrew the democratically elected socialist Unidad Popular government of President Salvador Allende and ended civilian rule. Several academics have stated that the support of the United States was crucial to the coup and the consolidation of power afterward.[5][6][7] During the period of Pinochet’s rule, various investigations have identified the murder of 1,200 to 3,200 people with up to 80,000 people forcibly interned and as many as 30,000 tortured.[11][12][13]

Of course it is no secret that the USA has attempted to suppress democracy many times around the world since the end of WWII, and they have been successful in: Syria in 1949, Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, the Congo in 1960, Greece in 1961, Brazil in 1964, The Dominican Republic in 1965, Italy in 1970, Chile in 1973, and others. In fact, the involvement of the USA in regime change around the world since the mid 19th century—both successful and unsuccessful involvement against all kinds of governments—forms a list too long to detail here.

Now here’s my question. If the military and covert forces of the USA are willing to overthrow (especially) democratic/populist governments around the world, is it much of a stretch to think that authoritarian forces won’t continue to use any means possible to suppress democracy in their own country? Voter suppression, gerrymandering, misinformation, propaganda, and all the rest may just be the beginning. It is but a short step from the above to using anything, including violence, to get your way. Especially when you are fanatical ideologues, power seeking plutocrats, or profit obsessed corporatists. And the job is made even easier with the cooperation of the coercive organizations of governmental agencies like the CIA, FBI, and the Justice department.

I fear for the Republic.

Douthat’s “How Populism Stumbles” and Frum’s “How To Build An Autocracy”

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 13, 2017.)

If it is the function of the public realm to throw light on the affairs of men by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better and worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished by ‘credibility gaps’ and ‘invisible government,’ by speech that does not disclose what is but sweeps it under the carpet, by exhortations, moral and otherwise, that under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality. ~ Hannah Arendt

In today’s New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat penned, “How Populism Stumbles.” Douthat argues that movements like Trump’s fail because of bigotry, extremism and, especially, hubris. With this in mind Douthat dismisses my worries about authoritarianism:

The great fear among Trump-fearers is that he will deal with this elite opposition by effectively crushing it—purging the deep state, taming the media, remaking the judiciary as his pawn, and routing or co-opting the Democrats. This is the scenario where a surging populism, its progress balked through normal channels, turns authoritarian and dictatorial …

Douthat tries to assuage our fears of autocracy noting that “nothing about Trumpian populism to date suggests that it has either the political skill or the popularity required to grind its opposition down.” This theme echoes those of another conservative New York Times columnist, David Brooks. In “The Internal Invasion,” he says, “Some on the left worry that we are seeing the rise of fascism, a new authoritarian age. That gets things exactly backward. The real fear in the Trump era should be that everything will become disorganized, chaotic, degenerate, clownish and incompetent.”

I hope that Douthat and Brooks are right—that we should worry more about incompetence than autocracy, although I have argued the opposite in multiple essays. I’m no expert on the competence necessary for the successful implementation of autocratic rule, but I doubt that it takes much. With power, and compliant, fearful subordinates, descent into all manners of fascism and violence is plausible—history books and nightly television provide ample evidence for this claim. Moreover, incompetence and authoritarian rule aren’t mutually exclusive. 

Now, in the latest issue of The Atlantic, former President George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum describes a dark future in his essay, “How To Build An Autocracy.” Frum, a conservative, writes one of the most perceptive pieces I’ve read about our frightening times. He points out, among other things, that constitutional government “is founded upon the shared belief that the most fundamental commitment of the political system is to the rules.” That’s why Clinton conceded despite winning millions more votes, and California accepts the outcome despite rejecting Trump “by an almost two-to-one margin.”

Frum asks conservative ideologues, who are tempted to disregard the rule of the law in order to pursue their self-interest, to temper their enthusiasm for their newfound power. In a powerful paragraph that distills the essence of the situation that Republicans find themselves in, he tries to awaken their conscience:

Perhaps the words of a founding father of modern conservatism, Barry Goldwater, offer guidance. “If I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents’ ‘interests,’ ” Goldwater wrote in, The Conscience of a Conservative, “I shall reply that I was informed their main interest is liberty and that in that cause I am doing the very best I can.” These words should be kept in mind by those conservatives who think a tax cut or health-care reform a sufficient reward for enabling the slow rot of constitutional government.

He also points out that Trump wants to subvert precisely those institutions that “protect the electorate from its momentary impulses toward arbitrary action: the courts, the professional officer corps of the armed forces, the civil service, the Federal Reserve—and undergirding it all, the guarantees of the Constitution and especially the Bill of Rights.” To implement their plans, Trump and his team count on public indifference. (That’s why, for example, they believe they can get away with not releasing Trump’s tax returns.) This means that what happens in the coming years will depend on whether Trump is right about political apathy. Yet, if people care enough, “they can restrain him.” Given our situation Frum exhorts us to:

Press your senators to ensure that prosecutors and judges are chosen for their independence—and that their independence is protected. Support laws to require the Treasury to release presidential tax returns if the president fails to do so voluntarily. Urge new laws to clarify that the Emoluments Clause applies to the president’s immediate family, and that it refers not merely to direct gifts from governments but to payments from government-affiliated enterprises as well. Demand an independent investigation by qualified professionals of the role of foreign intelligence services in the 2016 election—and the contacts, if any, between those services and American citizens. Express your support and sympathy for journalists attacked by social-media trolls, especially women in journalism, so often the preferred targets. Honor civil servants who are fired or forced to resign because they defied improper orders. Keep close watch for signs of the rise of a culture of official impunity, in which friends and supporters of power-holders are allowed to flout rules that bind everyone else.

So Frum sees that the threat of totalitarianism is real, as do I. Perhaps conservatives like Brooks and Douthat dismiss the danger because it’s hard for them to admit that the side with which they’re partly allied has brought about such frightening results. Then, to maintain cognitive equilibrium, they tell themselves that things won’t really get that bad because of the incompetence of Trump and his minions. Surely it couldn’t be that the reactionary forces against modernity are the problem? Surely it couldn’t be that, independent of competence, the seeds are being sown for our future destruction? Surely it couldn’t be that Brooks and Douthat have been allied with the wrong side all along?

Of course, in Douthat’s and Brook’s defense, they have been ardent critics of Trump. For that they are to be praised. Still they are associated with a political party that is on the wrong side of history. (As is Frum, a conservative himself.) The way forward doesn’t demand the in-group loyalty and out-group hostility embedded in reptilian brains, nor does it necessitate a retreat to medieval institutions, social values, discredited economic theories, and a rejection of science. I’m not saying that Brooks and Douthat would disagree with what I’ve just said, but they often write as if they are enemies of the future.

Moreover, while the future is unknown, the vast majority of thinkers who have studied the issue agree with myself and Frum, the threat to the American republic is greater now than at any other time in our history, with the possible exception of the period leading up to and including the American civil war.

Frum concludes his essay with a keen description, a dire warning, and a call to action. We should consider his thoughts carefully, and then act appropriately:

Those citizens who fantasize about defying tyranny from within fortified compounds have never understood how liberty is actually threatened in a modern bureaucratic state: not by diktat and violence, but by the slow, demoralizing process of corruption and deceit. And the way that liberty must be defended is not with amateur firearms, but with an unwearying insistence upon the honesty, integrity, and professionalism of American institutions and those who lead them. We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you and me. Don’t be afraid. This moment of danger can also be your finest hour as a citizen and an American.

I would like to thank David Frum for his sagacious essay.

Yes, America Is Descending Into Totalitarianism

Hannah Arendt, stamp, Germany 2006

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, January 8, 2016, and in “syndax vuzz.”)

In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. … Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie … The totalitarian … leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that … one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism. Instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”
~ Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

For weeks now, I have been reading and blogging about dozens of articles from respected intellectuals from both the right and left who worry about the increasing authoritarian, totalitarian, and fascist trends in America. Interestingly, when I tried to escape my scholarly bubble by looking for voices arguing that we are NOT heading in this direction, I came up empty. I found partisans or apparatchiks who maintain that all is good, but I couldn’t find hardly any well-informed persons arguing that we have nothing to worry about. I know there must be such people, but if there are they must be a tiny minority.

Now I did find informed voices saying that, in the long run, things will be fine. That the arc of justice moves slowly forward, that we take 1 step back but then take 2 steps forward. Now thinking about things from a larger perspective resonates with me. I write about big history and believe there may be directionality to cosmic evolution. I’ve argued that the universe is becoming self-conscious through the emergence of conscious beings, and I’ve even hypothesized that humans may become post-humans by utilizing future technologies. So I can’t be accused of ignoring the big picture.

However, at the moment, such concerns feel obtuse and esoteric. Yes, it may be true that life is getting better in many ways, as Steven Pinker recently noted. But such thoughts provide little consolation for the millions who suffer in the interim. When people lack health care and educational opportunities; when they are deported, tortured, falsely imprisoned, or killed in wars; when they live in abject poverty surrounded by gun violence, and suffer in a myriad of other ways, none of this is ameliorated by appeals to a far away future. Even if the world is better in a thousand years, that provides small consolation now.

What is almost self-evident is that America is now becoming more corrupt, and at a dangerously accelerating rate. In response we must resist becoming like those of whom Yeats said: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” So I state unequivocally that I agree with the vast majority of scholars and thinkers—recent trends reveal that the USA is becoming more authoritarian, totalitarian, and fascist. The very survival of the republic is now in doubt.

Of course I could be mistaken, as it’s hard to predict the future. Moreover, I am not a scholar of Italian history, totalitarianism, or the mob psychology that enables fascist movements. But I do know that all of us share a human genome; we are more alike than different. Humans are capable of racism, sexism, xenophobia, cruelty, violence, religious fanaticism, and more. We are modified monkey—in many ways we are a nasty species. As Mark Twain said: “Such is the human race … Often it does seem such a pity that Noah and his party did not miss the boat.”

Thus I resist the idea that fascism can happen in Germany, Italy or Russia, but not in America. It can happen here, and the signs point in an ominous direction. Furthermore, the United States was never a model of liberty or justice. The country was built on slave labor and genocide at home, and violent imperialism abroad. It is a first world outlier in terms of incarceration rates and gun violence; it is the only developed country in the world without national health and child care; it has outrageous levels of income inequality and little opportunity for social mobility; it ranks near the bottom of lists of social justice; it is one of the only countries in the world to condemn Article 25 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and it is consistently ranked as the greatest threat to world peace and the world’s most hated country.

Furthermore, signs of its dysfunction continue to grow. If authoritarian political forces don’t get their way, they shut down the government, threaten to default on the nation’s debt, fail to fill judicial vacancies, deny people health-care and family planning options, conduct congressional show trials, suppress voting, gerrymander congressional districts, support racism, xenophobia and sexism, and spread lies and propaganda. These aren’t signs of a stable society. As the late Princeton political theorist Sheldon Wolin put it:

The elements are in place [for a quasi-fascist takeover]: a weak legislative body, a legal system that is both compliant and repressive, a party system in which one party, whether in opposition or in the majority, is bent upon reconstituting the existing system so as to permanently favor a ruling class of the wealthy, the well-connected and the corporate, while leaving the poorer citizens with a sense of helplessness and political despair, and, at the same time, keeping the middle classes dangling between fear of unemployment and expectations of fantastic rewards once the new economy recovers. That scheme is abetted by a sycophantic and increasingly concentrated media; by the integration of universities with their corporate benefactors; by a propaganda machine institutionalized in well-funded think tanks and conservative foundations; by the increasingly closer cooperation between local police and national law enforcement agencies aimed at identifying terrorists, suspicious aliens and domestic dissidents.

Now with power in the hands of an odd mix of plutocrats, corporatists, theocrats, racists, sexists, egoists, psychopaths, sycophants, anti-modernists, and the scientifically illiterate, there is no reason to think that they will surrender their power without a fight. You might think that if income inequality grows, individual liberties are further constricted, or millions of people are killed at home or abroad, that people will reject those in power. But this assumes we live in a democracy. But a compliant and misinformed public can’t think, act or vote intelligently. If you control your citizens with sophisticated propaganda and mindless entertainment, you can persuade them to support anything. With better methods of controlling and distorting information will come more control over the population. And, as long the powerful believe they benefit from an increasingly totalitarian state, they will try to maintain it. Most people like to control others; they like to win.

An outline of how we might quickly descend into madness was highlighted by David Frum, the conservative and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. Frum envisions the following scenario which is, I believe, as prescient as it is chilling:

1) …  I don’t imagine that Donald Trump will immediately set out to build an authoritarian state; 2) … his first priority will be to use the presidency to massively enrich himself; 3) That program of massive self-enrichment … will trigger media investigations and criticism by congressional Democrats; 4) ….Trump cannot tolerate criticism. He … always retaliating against perceived enemies, by means fair or foul; 5) … Trump’s advisers and aides share this belief [they] … live by gangster morality; 6) So the abuses will start as payback. With a compliant GOP majority in Congress, Trump admin can rewrite laws to enable payback; 7) The courts may be an obstacle. But w/ a compliant Senate, a president can change the courts … 8) … few [IRS] commissioners serve the full 5 years; 9) The FBI seems … pre-politicized in Trump’s favor … 10) Construction of the apparatus of revenge and repression will begin opportunistically & haphazardly. It will accelerate methodically …

Let me tell a personal story to help explain the cutthroat, no holds bar political world that is rapidly evolving in America today. Years ago I played high-stakes poker. It started out innocently, a few friends having a good time playing for pocket change. Slowly the stakes became bigger, forcing me to study poker if I didn’t want to lose money. My studies paid off, and I began to win consistently. Great.

Then I start playing with strangers, assuming my superior poker skills would prevail. But soon I started losing; finding out later that I was cheated. (I was being cold decked.) It turned out that my opponents played by a different rule—their rule was that I wasn’t leaving the game with any money. Then I discovered that some people will go further, robbing you at gunpoint of the money you had won. (This actually happened to me.) Once the gentleman’s rules of poker no longer applied, nothing was off-limits. Similarly, once the agreement to play by democratic rules is violated, all bets are off. For example, you begin to ignore the other parties Supreme Court nominees, or threaten to default on the nation’s debts, or ignore obstruction of justice in order to get your way. This is a sign that we have entered the world of mobsters and rogue nations, an immoral world. The logical end of this state of affairs is violence.

This describes the current political situation. The US Congress was once characterized by comity, but is so no longer. From the period after World War II to about 1980, the political parties in the USA generally compromised for the good of the nation. The radicalization of the Republican party began in the 1980s and by the mid 1990s, with Republican control of the House of Representatives, the situation dramatically deteriorated. One side was determined to get their way and wouldn’t compromise. It was now no holds barred.

In other words, American politics has entered a situation that game-theorists call the prisoner’s dilemma. A prisoner’s dilemma is an interactive situation in which it is better for all to cooperate rather than for no one to do so, yet it is best for each not to cooperate, regardless of what the others do. For example, we would have a better country if everyone paid their share of taxes, but it is best for any individual, say Donald Trump, not to pay taxes if he can get away with it. Put differently, you do best when you cheat at poker and don’t get caught, or control the situation if you do get caught. In politics this means you try to hide your crimes, but vilify the press or whistleblowers if you are exposed.

If successful in usurping power, you win in what the philosopher Thomas Hobbes called the state of nature. Hobbes said that in such a state the only values are force and fraud— you win if you dominate, enslave, incarcerate, or eviscerate your opponents. But the problem with this straightforward eogism, Hobbes thought, was that people were “relative power equals.” That is, people can form alliances to fight their oppressors. So while the what Hobbes’ called the right of nature tells you to use whatever means possible to achieve power over others, the law of nature paradoxically reveals that this will lead to continual warfare—to a state of nature. The realization of this paradox should led people to give up their quest for total domination and cooperate. They do so by signing a social contract in which they agree to, and abide by, social and political rules.

But if we live in a country where people are radically unequal in their power—Democrats vs. Republicans; unions vs. corporations; secularists vs theocrats; African-Americans vs. white nationalists—then those in power won’t compromise with the less powerful. When the powerful few are imbued with the idea that they are better people with better ideas, and when they are drunk with their power, you can bet that the rest of us will suffer.

In short, it is a centuries old story. People want power. They will do almost anything to attain it. When they have it they will try to keep it, and they will try to divide those who should join together to fight them, hence they promote racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc. In the end, a few seek wealth and power for themselves, others want a decent life for everyone. Right now the few are winning.