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.