Duke University’s great historian of thought and Hayek scholar Bruce Caldwell sent the following e-mail to me, which I share here with Bruce’s kind permission (link added):
Has anyone in the blogosphere noticed the chilling similarity between Hayek’s description in the Road To Serfdom (in the chapter titled “Why the Worst Get on Top“) of how a dictator comes to power and the Trump campaign? First, aim at the least educated individuals; they are more likely to have more primitive and common instincts. Next, attract the docile and gullible, who have no strong convictions of their own but will join up. Identify a common enemy to build solidarity and blame for one’s present problems. Then add in a dose of nationalism. The relevant pages are pp. 160-161 of the Collected Works edition.
It works in a way for Bernie Sanders too of course. But the Il Duce jaw and mannerisms of Trump makes the comparison to him easier. (Though when Bernie is shouting about capitalist corruption it does remind one of the later stages of Hitler’s standard speech, when he starts screaming about the fatherland.)
As you will doubtless say, a pox on both their houses. And I would quickly agree.
I do agree. And I agree also that Trump’s manner and look – and, of course, his bleats and screeches – combine to make him eerily like a classic political strongman. Central casting could have done no better than to produce Trump for such a role.
Here’s the passage from Hayek’s Road to Serfdom that Bruce has in mind:
There are three main reasons why such a numerous and strong group with fairly homogeneous views is not likely to be formed by the best but rather by the worst elements of any society. By our standards the principles on which such a group would be selected will be almost entirely negative.
In the first instance, it is probably true that in general the higher the education and intelligence of individuals becomes, the more their views and tastes are differentiated and the less likely they are to agree on a particular hierarchy of values. It is a corollary of this that if we wish to find a high degree of uniformity and similarity of outlook, we have to descend to the regions of lower moral and intellectual standards where the more primitive and “common” instincts and tastes prevail. This does not mean that the majority of people have low moral standards; it merely means that the largest group of people whose values are very similar are the people with low standards. It is, as it were, the lowest common denominator which unites the largest number of people. If a numerous group is needed, strong enough to impose their views on the values of life on all the rest, it will never be those with highly differentiated and developed tastes it will be those who form the “mass” in the derogatory sense of the term, the least original and independent, who will be able to put the weight of their numbers behind their particular ideals.
If, however, a potential dictator had to rely entirely on those whose uncomplicated and primitive instincts happen to be very similar, their number would scarcely give sufficient weight to their endeavors. He will have to increase their numbers by converting more to the same simple creed.
Here comes in the second negative principle of selection: he will be able to obtain the support of all the docile and gullible, who have no strong convictions of their own but are prepared to accept a ready-made system of values if it is only drummed into their ears sufficiently loudly and frequently. It will be those whose vague and imperfectly formed ideas are easily swayed and whose passions and emotions are readily aroused who will thus swell the ranks of the totalitarian party.
It is in connection with the deliberate effort of the skilful demagogue to weld together a closely coherent and homogeneous body of supporters that the third and perhaps most important negative element of selection enters. It seems to be almost a law of human nature that it is easier for people to agree on a negative programme, on the hatred of an enemy, on the envy of those better off, than on any positive task. The contrast between the “we” and the “they”, the common fight against those outside the group, seems to be an essential ingredient in any creed which will solidly knit together a group for common action. It is consequently always employed by those who seek, not merely support of a policy, but the unreserved allegiance of huge masses. From their point of view it has the great advantage of leaving them greater freedom of action than almost any positive programme. The enemy, whether he be internal like the “Jew” or the “Kulak”, or external, seems to be an indispensable requisite in the armoury of a totalitarian leader.
That in Germany it was the Jew who became the enemy till his place was taken by the “plutocracies” was no less a result of the anti-capitalist resentment on which the whole movement was based than the selection of the Kulak in Russia. In Germany and Austria the Jew had come to be regarded as the representative of capitalism because a traditional dislike of large classes of the population for commercial pursuits had left these more readily accessible to a group that was practically excluded from the more highly esteemed occupations. It is the old story ofthe alien race being admitted only to the less respected trades and then being hated still more for practising them. The fact that German anti-semitism and anti-capitalism spring from the same root is of great importance for the understanding of what has happened there, but this is rarely grasped by foreign observers.