Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds – the Trump case

A day hardly goes by without new revelations about Mr. Trump’s crookedness. His activities as a large scale tax dodger, a bigot, fraudulent businessman, liar, unethical and paranoid personality have been exposed and yet his popularity among American voters remains high.

So, the question must be raised whether the explanation lies in Trump or in his followers. Possibly, it applies to both. For those interested in the hypothesis that he is cunningly using the media and his speeches to manipulate public opinion I recommend The Mass Psychology of Fascism, a 1933 book by Wilhelm Reich, but the reader must replace his theory on sexual repression by its reversal the libertinage and anti-political correctness.

Here I will explore the second hypothesis, which was sublimely examined in Charles Mackay (1852) on his classic book on mania with the title that I used in this post. I read the book many years ago, but decided to check it again to see if the Trump story fits well among its celebrated cases. It turns out that it fits well in at least two chapters.

The book examines the folly of crowds in relation to financial schemes, fortune tellers, witch mania, haunted houses, duels, relics and other episodes of collective madness. I will examine just two, where the Trump story would fits well – the belief in alchemists and the popular admiration of great thieves.

The idea behind alchemy is that it is possible to transform any cheap metal into gold. The equivalent in Mr. Trump is that he may achieve anything through “deals”. Based on his business experience, he believes that by exploiting loopholes in the tax and bankruptcy codes one may get rich by destroying businesses and leaving the losses to the creditors.

He blatantly ignores that such schemes will only enrich a few at the expense of millions while destroying wealth.

And God forbid, should Mr. Trump be elected on such policies, his history would fit well next to that of the reckless extravagance of Marechal de Rays in 1420 or that of Avicenna whom the Sultan Magdal Douleth asked to try his powers in the great science of government. Preferably the later because it only ended showing that “he could not rule his own passions, but gave himself up to wine and women, and led a life of shameless debauchery”.

The popular admiration for great thieves is common to all countries where the “multitude, feeling the pangs of poverty, sympathise with the daring and ingenious depredators”. Again, Mr. Trump’s business practices place him well in this chapter.

He cannot be listed next to Robin Hood, unless one wants to describe him as an anti-Robin Hood type, because his tax proposals are to take from the poor to give the rich and his treatment of women is not one of gallantry and respect.

He would sit best next to Jack Sheppard, an XVIII century brutal ruffian, who managed to become a folk hero for his escape from Newgate. Trump is also admired for the way he escaped for so many years without paying taxes and by telling all types of idiocies and lies without being contested. Or, to describe him in the words of a lady admirer: “he is dangerous, but is the only one with balls”.

For those who might think that this was true in the past, but is now impossible because the American people is more educated and has access to more information through social media, please note that these phenomena have taken place since antiquity and increased after the appearance of the printed press. Moreover, remember that Nazism was born in a well-educated Germany and that social media shares many features of the pamphlets used in the 19th century.

Let us hope that history does not repeat itself.

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