A 2-Year-Old Article About an 87-Year-Old Book, With New Relevance for the Here and Now

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
An old book with new relevance (Wikimedia)

A reader email arrived overnight, about a book I’d last read or thought about when I was in college many decades ago. The email said:

I am guessing that you might be aware of a book by Jose Ortega written in Spain in the 1930s and has never been out of print.

There he describes a movement that appeals to a cross-section non-intellectual people across class lines that seems to parallel Donald Trumps cross-cultural appeal. There it seemed to lead to Fascism.

Might you have an opinion about this relating to today's world?

Ah, it comes back to me now! This book would of course be The Revolt of the Masses, by Jose Ortega y Gasset, which I read as an 18-year-old while taking a class from the famous political scientist Samuel Beer on “Western Thought and Institutions.” So I looked around to see what had been written recently on it, and came across a very interesting Daily Beast post by Ted Gioia two years ago, called “The Smartest Book About Our Digital Age was Published in 1929.” My reason for writing now is to point you to Gioia’s piece.

His article was written before anyone except @realDonaldTrump dreamed that Trump might be a presidential nominee, but it has obvious additional relevance because of that development. It also bears on our difficulty in dealing with climate issues, the current paralysis of the national government, and related topics. Sample of Gioia’s case:

The key driver of change, as Ortega sees it, comes from a shocking attitude characteristic of the modern age—or, at least, Ortega was shocked. Put simply, the masses hate experts. If forced to choose between the advice of the learned and the vague impressions of other people just like themselves, the masses invariably turn to the latter. The upper elite still try to pronounce judgments and lead, but fewer and fewer of those down below pay attention.

Above all, the favorite source of wisdom for the masses, in Ortega’s schema, is their own strident opinions. “Why should he listen, when he has all the answers, everything he needs to know?” Ortega writes. “It is no longer the season to listen, but on the contrary, a time to pass judgment, to pronounce sentence, to issue proclamations.”

Ortega couldn’t have foreseen digital age culture, but he is describing it with precision. He would recognize the angry, assertive tone of comments on web articles as the exact same tendency he identified in 1929. He would understand why Yelp reviews have more influence than the considered judgments of restaurant reviewers. He would know why Amazon customer comments have more clout than critics in The New Yorker. He would attend an angry town hall meeting or listen to talk radio, and recognize the same tendencies he described in his book.

Jose Ortega y Gasset (Wikimedia)

I’ve assumed that Trump’s imperviousness to anything resembling “factual” disproof or refutation mainly reflected his own formidable pro-wrestling style performance skills. But the email from the reader, and the article by Gioia, are reminders that there may be other factors to consider. So just now I’ve ordered another copy of Ortega y Gasset’s book, to give it another look.

[Also, I’ve ordered a paperback version of the book, not the e-version, because of a recent resolution to read two books in printed form for each one I read on the screen. That’s a topic I’ve dealt with previously and will return to.]