Donald Trump and the Myth of Mobocracy

How the dubious ideas of a 19th-century Frenchman reverberate in 2016

Donald Trump greets audience members at a campaign rally in Bangor, Maine, June 29, 2016. (Brian Snyder / Reuters )

Terrorist bombs shattering lives and buildings. Waves of immigrants stirring popular fears and anxieties. Corruption and scandal staining the reputation of politicians. Commerce and industry convulsing amid dizzying and divisive change. Ambitious men with no political experience casting themselves as providential leaders. The sense—elusive but real—that the people are morphing into the crowd, democracy mutating into mobocracy.

These trends would seem to characterize the current political season. Particularly striking have been the images of crowds at the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s campaign stops and at last week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where he nurtured and indulged a nightmare vision of an America overrun by immigrants and terrorized by the murderous Other. Time and again, a strong leader who praises acts of violence and scorns the rule of law has galvanized the crowds. “I am your voice,” Trump announced in Cleveland—a voice, it seems, that can meld the many into one, and people into a mob.

These same trends, however, also lead back to late 19th-century France. In fact, the “crowd”—the concept, more so than the reality—was born in fin-de-siècle Paris. Fittingly, 2016 marks the 175th anniversary of the birth of Gustave Le Bon, the French polymath who popularized this durable and dire idea. A prolific author, Le Bon is now known for authoring The Psychology of Crowds, a best-selling book whose quiet influence stretches to the present day. It is a work that, partly because it got so much wrong about the nature of crowds, reveals much about the age of Le Donald, no less than the age of Le Bon. In both cases, it appears, the fascination and fear of crowds obscures their reality and reach.

Published in 1895, The Psychology of Crowds captured the temper of the times. It was, Le Bon declared, “the age of the crowd.” With the growing density of urban life, the establishment of universal male suffrage, and the rise of the labor movement, pundits, politicians, academics, and dilettantes all turned their attention to “la foule,” or the crowd. Trained as a doctor, Le Bon identified what he claimed were the sources of this phenomenon: the millions of Frenchmen and -women who, caught up and spat out by the great churn of industrialization and urbanization, had been torn from their rural hierarchies, traditions, and values. Drawn to cities, they became the stuff of the “crowd”: a mass allegedly shaped by simple ideas, generally ones that conjured the specter of global conspiracies (usually involving Jews), the sway of an economic elite (France’s infamous “200 families” were the parallel to America’s own “1 percent”), and the threat of unchecked immigration (Italians and Poles, rather than Algerians and Tunisians), all indulged by the popular media. These ideas, he drily observed, circulate inside crowds just as microbes do inside a human body, infecting all within their reach. Against this new strain of microbes, the tools of reason and analysis offer only the flimsiest of defenses, Le Bon wrote.

The consequences of this contagion, as Le Bon described it, are catastrophic—something like a French remake of Max Brooks’s World War Z. If not quite the walking dead, the infected individuals in Le Bon’s schema are reduced to beasts. “By the mere fact that he forms part of an organized crowd,” Le Bon warned, “a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilization. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian—that is, a creature acting by instinct.” Unlike the freelancing zombies in World War Z, though, these particular creatures require a leader, a charismatic figure who, adept at modern public relations, seeks primitive ends: to win power for the sake of power—or, more prosaically, to maintain an elite of winners over the mass of losers.

However, as Le Bon observed, this goal is lost on his followers, who are consumed by a near-religious fervor. As with the fiercest religious sect, so too with the modern crowd: Its commonly held convictions “assume the characteristics of blind submission, fierce intolerance, and the need of violent propaganda,” Le Bon wrote. The crowd’s leader is “acclaimed as a veritable god,” holding sway over its imagination by “devising new formulas as devoid as possible of precise meaning,” thus taking on whatever meaning the follower invents. At the same time, this leader destroys his rivals with claims devoid of substance: “By dint of affirmation, repetition, and contagion” the crowd’s leader affirms that his opponent is “an arrant scoundrel, and that it is a matter of common knowledge that he has been guilty of several crimes.” Almost as an afterthought, Le Bon concluded: “It is, of course, useless to trouble about any semblance of proof.”

To his bourgeois readership, Le Bon seemed to offer a diagnosis, dispassionate and distanced, of the troubled state of France’s social and political health. This was a nation that had recently been wracked by a series of crises, beginning with the collapse of the major banks and stock market in 1882, stretching through the rise of nationalist, anti-Semitic, and anti-republican movements like the Boulanger Affair of the late 1880s. This was quickly followed by political conflagrations like the “Panama scandals” of 1892 and a rash of anarchist bombings and assassinations through the early 1890s, all of which were eclipsed by the Dreyfus Affair. Whether it was the tens of thousands who flocked to Georges Boulanger, a charismatic general who seemed on the verge of overthrowing the Republic, or the thousands howling for the death of “the Jew Dreyfus” during his public court martial, the age certainly appeared, as Le Bon declared, to belong to the crowd.

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 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.

Nor is it, as Reicher argues, that crowds are entities that exist outside of a specific social context. They are, instead, responses to specific events and shaped (and limited) by the various concerns of those who form a crowd. There is no social alchemy that creates a single or collective “mind,” but instead an aggregate of individuals who, to widely varying degrees, follow or ignore the leaders.

Consider the RNC. Even when its crowd reached its zenith of “crowdiness” during Chris Christie’s effort to cast them as the jury in his mock trial of Clinton, there were undoubtedly significant numbers of delegates who were taking selfies, texting friends, pricing souvenirs, chatting with friends, staring off into space, or perhaps even recoiling at the events unfolding before them. At their darkest, crowds can evoke the depiction of German rallies in Nazi propaganda films like Triumph of the Will. But there are also gorgeous crowds like the one depicted in Paolo Veronese’s painting “Wedding at Cana”—a crowd of individuals that, taken up by their personal concerns and activities, are mostly and gloriously indifferent to Christ’s turning of water into wine.

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.