Magic words and the madness of crowds


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The Trump spectacle, the rise of a transparently narcissistic buffoon who boasts of grabbing women by the genitals, is certainly unique in U.S. presidential politics.

But some aspects are familiar. The look on the faces of Trump’s followers is the same enthralled gaze I watched in 1976 when George Wallace gave a kickoff speech in Boston for his presidential campaign. It’s also the same wide-eyed look of Mao’s Red Guards purging the nation, and on the adoring faces cheering Hitler at Nuremberg.

The Trump spectacle, is not just another right-wing turn. It’s an expression of the power of crowds embracing and enfolding and freeing all it can touch and reach. We are witnessing a crowd phenomena unleashed by Trump mouthing the magic words, telling his audience “the truth” that explains their unhappiness and points fingers at those responsible.

Elias Canetti in “Crowds and Power” wrote that the crowd “is a mysterious and universal phenomenon … Suddenly everywhere is black with people and more come streaming from all sides as though streets had only one direction … they have a goal which is there before they can find words for it. This goal is the blackest spot where most people are gathered.”

This is what I saw at the Wallace rally. As Wallace told us about unfair advantages taken by nonprofit foundations and the rich, I saw an enthralled gleam in the eye of a middle-aged working class woman sitting alone in my row, nodding as Wallace spoke. The racist code words were there, but it was a sense of joy and relief on her face, not hate.

She was obviously beaten down by life. And here, finally, was a man taking her side, speaking what to her was the truth.

Trump, as the polls and electoral chances worsen, pumps up his deflating crowd by uttering the magic words of right-wing conspiracy theory, blaming international bankers and elites. Trump’s pals and conspiracy-obsessed handlers Stone and Bannon apparently believe by saying the magic words about the vast conspiracy and the evil Clintons they will suppress the anti-Trump vote and free the crowd to seize power.

Magic words certainly have power over true believers, if not over the world. It’s something I also experienced as an activist with the Clamshell Alliance opposing the Seabrook nuclear plant.

Organizing and working on the strategy and tactics for large nonviolent, disciplined mass actions had become a central focus of my life. It was strict nonviolent discipline and smart tactics that kept the nuclear industry and politics on the horns of a dilemma. Act violently against clearly nonviolent and communicative demonstrators and they are discredited. Fail to act, and we were at least provisionally successful in our occupation.

During a 20-year-long struggle, at one point, a planned mass civil disobedience action was transformed into a legal rally at the last-minute, leading to feelings of betrayal. Refusing to be hobbled, espousing belief in their version of nonviolent direct action and anarchism, what became the Coalition for Direct Action at Seabrook (CDAS) decided to conduct their own mass occupation.

Curious, I went to a CDAS organizing meeting in Boston. I went to the strategy room expecting to see the anarchist firebrands poring over maps. Instead, there was only me and another curious outsider. Apparently, what mattered most was saying the magic words, the manifesto for a proper anarchist action that spontaneously would lead many tens of thousands to converge on the nuclear plant and dismantle construction.

The actions of the Coalition for Direct Action at Seabrook did not end well. Cops beat demonstrators with impunity, and, politically, mass action was discredited. While non-violence could overcome the banality of steel, magic words could not. It was not until after the Chernobyl disaster, several years later, that we were able to conduct more large-scale nonviolent actions.

If we manage to avoid the catastrophic threat to our collective futures posed by the election of climate change denier Trump, who promises to unravel the global Paris climate accords, our work has just begun. The response to the rise of Trump must lead to real and positive change for all Americans or it will happen again, and this time led by a more disciplined striver. 

Roy Morrison’s latest book. “Sustainability Sutra,” will be published in March 2017 by Select Books in New York.

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