The Books of Jacob, and Trumpism

In her phenomenal work The Books of Jacob, on the life of Jacob Frank, Olga Tokarczuk captures the obscure twists and turns of Frankism. The Frankist movement started in Poland in the 18th century and passed through the Ottoman world and eastern Europe only to end with the death of Jacob Frank in 1791 in Offenbach. Tokarczuk brilliantly describes the energy within such a sect, and how a hostile but charismatic Jacob ultimately becomes the Lord that stands above all and every one of his ‘true believers’.

Frankism is radical and ascends religion, which in that era was the main pillar of one’s identity. Jacob Frank manages to seize specific socio-economic energy that was building up among the Jews of Poland, Lithuania and Ruthenia in the 18th century, and to malform it into a mystic ideology that transgressed every boundary. Although the irrationalities are clear from the offset for an outsider (and for the reader), for ‘true believers’ in Frankism the ideological structure is internally coherent and rational. This strengthens them together and polarizes society around them by creating a sharp divide between those who know the Truth and those who don’t.

Even though Olga Tokarczuk wrote the book for the largest part in the years 2007 – 2014, the reader cannot ignore the parallel to our current day. With its farcical leader Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States of America, the Trumpist movement managed to capture unrest and polarization in American society, whose roots started decades ago. This tree has grown and grown, and only recently have we seen the poisonous fruits hanging on full display. Reading Tokarczuk creates a paradoxical understanding: any external argument that pinpoints the flaws of such an ideology increases the internal coherence of this ideology. Any irrationality seen from the outside becomes rational when viewed from within.

This self-fulfilling loop can only be broken by two things, as we experience in The Books of Jacob: Either you stop believing, which means giving up on something that you’ve fully made into your identity, and will cause you to be ostracized by your former friends and family. Or, the movement can no longer sustain itself due to the decay of its leader, at which point the incoherences of the system become so blatant that it is close to impossible to find a next leader that can recover the fragile and rotting tree.

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