Jones: Trumpian Totalitarianism

Reading Trump’s Rise Through Arendt’s Classic.

by Tanner Jones | 3/1/19 2:10am

In Jan. 2017, just days after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism” sold out on Amazon. Written when Trump was just five years old, “Origins” details the emergence of 20th century totalitarian movements in the context of the histories of antisemitism, imperialism and the complex notion of the nation-state. Deemed by some as a partisan overreaction, Arendt’s posthumous popularity signals a growing anxiety among the American public, a population that has historically believed its constitutional principles too strong for totalitarianism to ever get a foothold. These concerns are neither an overreaction nor unfounded. American politics today are in a desperate state of disarray — established norms are disappearing and the most dangerous voices are the loudest.

In Arendt’s characterization, totalitarianism begins to take shape when the political realm wields the apolitical masses. The masses, she explains, “exist in every country and form the majority of those large numbers of neutral, politically indifferent people who never join a party and hardly ever go to the polls.” Seen as unimportant by traditional political forces, totalitarians activate the apathetic to seize victory by the majority under the ostensibly incorruptible democratic system. To do so, all the totalitarian must do is offer a consistent vision that is uncontestable by the established politician who operates in the complex and nuanced world of scientific fact: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses...would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. [the] audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd,” she claims. 

Trump’s success is eerily similar under both criteria. The Trump electorate, the same group that so earnestly attends his rallies, is certainly considered, in Arendt’s words, “too apathetic or too stupid” by the Democratic establishment. In the traditional politician’s eyes, they are what’s worst and most forgettable about America. Hillary Clinton even went as far as to dub them a “basket of deplorables.” As for the second component, Trump’s narrative of an imminent invasion, complete with the vivid imagery of a marching caravan and encroaching terrorism just beyond our frontiers, is both disputed by the realm of facts and wholeheartedly believed, to the point of obsession, by the masses. 

Most importantly, though, is Trump’s use of the politics of identity as a rallying cry to his supporters. Arendt writes, “anti-Semites who called themselves patriots introduced that new species of national feeling which consists primarily in a complete whitewash of one’s own people and a sweeping condemnation of all others.” This story, that one’s way of life is under attack and can only be saved through removal of difference, undergirds Trump’s entire creed, from his periodic attacks against notable persons of color to his anthemic calls for a border wall and a Muslim ban. Most menacingly, Trump needs no facts to make this story compelling. “What convinces masses are not facts, not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably a part,” Arendt notes. In other words, as long as Trump venerates his story consistently, the masses will write off criticism as fake news and will accept those alternative facts that fit a coherent narrative. To be clear, it is not the specific lies and anecdotes that compel Trump supporters, but rather his overarching, totalitarian story of a society under attack and in desperate need of salvation.

The totalitarian characteristics seen in American politics today are not tantamount to those of Hitler or Stalin, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be taken seriously. Republics immediately preceded both the Bolshevik revolution and the Nazi takeover (albeit only briefly in Russia). While America has a long tradition of democratic principles derived directly from the Enlightenment, it shouldn’t be considered immune to totalitarianism. That, indeed, is the precise illusion that allows totalitarians to take hold. President Trump sympathizes with the world’s authoritarians and exhibits undeniable totalitarian characteristics, specifically in his relationship to the masses. Frighteningly, the politics of exclusion by identity drives his support.

There is reason to be worried, and it is only sensible that Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism” has a revived popularity. The murderous totalitarian regimes of the past must never be repeated. In response to encroaching totalitarianism, Americans must reject divisive tribalism and endorse an institutional framework rooted in individual rights. Federalist checks and balances, and America’s long history of strong, independent courts and press, come from a robust philosophical tradition and provide an invaluable constraint on tyranny. Americans must recommit themselves to democratic institutions and the politics of equality and human dignity to reject tribalist totalitarianism.