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The “Hollow Men” and United States Democracy



Authors as Published

As I have been considering the larger arc in our nation’s governance as a part of our work here at the Institute, I have been thinking of T. S. Eliot’s post-World War I masterpiece, “The Hollow Men.” I believe it serves as an apt metaphor for what is occurring in Republican Party politics today. Here is the poem for reference.

The Hollow Men

T.S. Eliot

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Shape without form shade without colour,
Paralyzed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes to death's other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.


Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death's dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There is a tree swinging

And voices are
In the wind's singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star
Let me be no nearer
In death's dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat's coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer—

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom.


This is the dead land
this is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man's hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death's other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone


The eyes are not here
There are no eye here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms.

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river.

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death's twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.


Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o'clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm

Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For thine is the

This is the way the way the world ends
This is the way the way the world ends
This is the way the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.1

        This poem is an appropriate descriptor for what is occurring in the Republican Party in multiple ways. First, Donald Trump, as the GOP’s putative leader, continues to lie and to demand that his followers agree to those lies, however absurd. In so doing, he is demanding not fealty to the law or nation or to our country’s ideals, but to him as an individual, however fantastical, outrageous or cruel his assertions. More, his rhetoric has become fanatically ruthless and hate-filled and his lies, already wildly egregious, still more extreme, as the nation’s election season has begun in earnest. He has, for example, in recent months adopted and doubled down in his tirades on using speech borrowed directly from Adolf Hitler, calling millions of Americans “vermin” who might dare disagree with his lies. Every element of the following passage from Trump is not only false, but malignantly so:

‘We pledge to you that we will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country that lie and steal and cheat on elections,’ Trump said toward the end of his speech, repeating his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. ‘They’ll do anything, whether legally or illegally, to destroy America and to destroy the American Dream.’2

        There is no evidence of stolen elections and none in Trump’s 2020 defeat and Trump has never produced any. There is also no evidence of anyone working to “destroy the American Dream” and few fascists or neo-fascists, except those whom he is leading and whom he marshaled to invade the U.S. Capitol in an effort to prevent the peaceful transfer of power on January 6, 2021. To date, more than 1,000 of those “patriots” whom Trump indicates he will pardon if he is reelected, have been sentenced for their crimes on that day. All of those legal outcomes are also, in Trump’s terms, the result of a grand, but apparently very well-hidden, conspiracy against him. Likewise, I can find little evidence of any large Marxist movement or radical left thugs terrorizing anyone except in Trump’s fetid imagination. There is, however, much and increasing evidence of his supporters turning to intimidation.3

        That is precisely the point. Trump has identified abstract categories of populations, including huge swathes of American citizens, as villainous and demanded that his followers accept his assertions concerning them alongside a long list of lies concerning their alleged behaviors, while dehumanizing those targeted. He routinely describes millions of Americans in such terms and tells his supporters that he will summarily execute those who disagree with him, wreak vengeance on thousands whom he alleges have failed to support him sufficiently in his whims and that immigrants (again employing Hitler’s rhetoric) are “poisoning the blood of our country.”4 This is all nonsensical, but nonetheless exceedingly dangerous for human and civil rights and freedom. It is dangerous precisely because it is unhinged from reality and because it scapegoats innocents and demands their “punishment” or excoriates imagined enemies and justifies wild deprivations of liberty in the name of addressing their supposed excesses—all without evidence.

        In short, this sort of fascist blood-and-soil nationalism built on lies and demonization of targeted Americans and others represents a direct assault on the rule of law and on the basic freedoms for which this nation stands. Nonetheless, the so-called Trump base, the largest phalanx in today’s GOP, has fallen lockstep behind even his most outlandish claims and today 41 percent of his supporters indicate they would “support violence to save our country” though from what exactly except Trump’s cruel imagination is not clear since the nation is leading the world in economic terms, has successfully managed a pandemic (despite Trump’s personal efforts to attack that initiative) and has also seen rapidly falling crime rates across the last year.5

        The upshot is that a minority of this nation’s population is likely to make Trump the Republican Party nominee for President of the United States once more without a platform except for the lies and hate for which he relentlessly proselytizes. The most pressing and still unresolved question facing our polity is how and why many otherwise decent people are rationalizing their choice of hatred and emptiness. What is much clearer is what their willingness to vote for this would-be strongman implies for the survival of the United States as a democratic republic and what it means for their own moral degradation.  

        The population supporting Trump is today’s version of Eliot’s Hollow Men, increasingly devoid of any real purpose or pursuit of meaning, but ruthlessly animated nonetheless by undisciplined hatred and a willingness to rationalize anything to justify that animus. This is a population awash in its hollowness and bereft of any moral compass apart from the hatred their nominal leader spews daily and which they have shown a willingness repeatedly to accept and even glorify. This is a group apparently so lost in moral terms that its members are willing to believe anything and to derive meaning from hating their fellow citizens on no ground other than their different beliefs or backgrounds.

        As Pope Francis remarked in his 2022 Christmas homily, this population represents a share of a larger one worldwide ever willing to victimize the weak and vulnerable in its quest to fill its own aching barrenness, “And in how many places, even today, are human dignity and freedom treated with contempt! As always, the principal victims of this human greed are the weak and the vulnerable.”6 While it is now abundantly clear Trump desires unfettered power and holds all, including his followers, in contempt as he pursues the same, it is also clear that those who are choosing to accept his lies are examples of Eliot’s Hollow Men:

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes to death's other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.7

        In their search for meaning in hatred, blood lust and cruelty, this population has lost itself and is risking the future of the nation. While the academy is today under attack by Trump and many others in his Party as a part of a larger effort to intimidate would-be opponents into silence, the Institute exists to examine our nation’s governance and to uphold its democratic aspirations. It is therefore our duty to call out attacks on those foundations while constantly standing ready to have an open and sincere dialogue with any and all concerning alternate ways those aims might legitimately be attained. What we cannot do is remain silent as the sinews of the country are attacked or pretend that that onslaught is merely partisan. Hatred and animus for their own sake are uniquely poisoning. Weaponizing them against groups within the American population and against the nation’s most sacred ideals is a travesty that has already resulted in destruction and death here and abroad. One can and should stand willing to discuss policy questions, but the freedom and sovereignty of the people writ large and the rule of law on which our nation is predicated must be held sacrosanct against the present Trump-led effort to ensure their destruction.


1 Eliot, T.S. “The Hollow Men,” University of Minnesota-Duluth,, Accessed January 14, 2024.

2 LeVine, Marianne. “Trump Calls Political Enemies ‘Vermin,” Echoing Dictators Hitler and Mussolini,” The Washington Post, November 13, 2023,,  Accessed January 15, 2024.

3 Borter, Gabriella, Joseph Ax and Joseph Tanfani. “School Boards get death threats amid rage over race, gender, mask policies,” Reuters Special Report, February 15, 2022,,in%20a%20sampling%20of%20districts, Accessed January 15, 2024.

4 Gabriel, Trip. “Trump Escalates Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric With ‘Poisoning the Blood’ Comment, The New York Times, October 5, 2023,, Accessed January 15, 2024. 

5 Elliott, Philip. “Startling New Poll Finds Political Violence Finding a Mainstream Foothold,” The D.C. Brief, October 25, 2023,, Accessed January 15, 2023. 

6 Pope Francis, “Pope Francis Homily for Christmas,” Vatican Communications Office, December 25, 2022,, Accessed January 15, 2024. 

7 Eliot, T.S. “The Hollow Men.”

Publication Date

January 1, 2024