Trumpism and Hannah Arendt’s reflections on totalitarianism

In a recent post I considered Hannah Arendt’s reflections on what she termed the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Her observations in The Origins of Totalitarianism amount to less than a developed theory of a political system, and more of a case study of two unusual political regimes that did their ugliest work at roughly the same time in history. Are there any themes in Arendt’s observations that seem relevant to the current day, and the political experience of the last four years of the presidency of Donald Trump?

Plainly the United States did not become a dictatorship during the Trump years; it did not witness mass violence against “potential enemies of the state”; it did not result in the wholesale transformation of Federal police agencies into the private secret police of the Leader. The term “totalitarian” cannot be applied to the United States in 2020. The rule of law was repeatedly flouted by Trump and his administration, but in the end Trump did not prevail in his most authoritarian impulses.

And yet there are a number of worrisome parallels between Arendt’s diagnosis of the workings of the National Socialist and Soviet regimes and the political developments we have witnessed in the United States since 2017. Here are several that seem salient.

Orientation of politics towards an all-encompassing ideology or world-view, often involving racism and social division. It is Arendt’s view that totalitarianism is defined by ideology, whether left or right, secular or religious, coherent or incoherent. Hitler’s commitment to world hegemony and his profound program of anti-Semitism constituted an ideological system which governed virtually all actions of the Nazi regime, according to Arendt. Likewise, the Soviet Union was guided by a mish-mash theory of communism that it pursued at all costs. It is plain that Trumpism possesses an ideology and a worldview, and that this ideology has substantial components of racism, division, and hate. Moreover, Trump’s coterie has included ideologues like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller who actively worked within the administration to turn the details of that ideology into policies and actions. It hasn’t seemed to matter that the premises of this worldview are odious to the majority of Americans, or that the policies that emanate from this worldview are objectively harmful to US economic and international interests; the ideology drives the actions of this administration. And it is quite clear that Trump’s base of supporters — perhaps 40% of voters — have bought into the ideology, thanks to the persistent propaganda offered by right-wing social media, YouTube conspiracy videos, Fox News, and Trump’s own Twitter feed. 

Consistent and sustained efforts at destroying liberal political institutions. Arendt documents the consistent strategies used by Hitler and Stalin to destroy institutional and legal obstacles to their will. Trump’s obvious and continuing contempt for the institutions of law, the processes of elections, and the judiciary makes plain his desire to cripple or destroy the institutions and practices of liberal democracy that interfere with his exercise of personal will. His willingness to assault the judiciary when it fails to support him and his relentless attacks on the press illustrate the same impulse.

Use of violence-prone paramilitaries to further political objectives. Arendt documents the crucial role that violent paramilitary organizations played in the rise of Hitler to power, and to his continuing exercise of power. This appeal to illegal violent actions was subsequently incorporated into the workings of elite secret police groups like the SS. Trump’s unwillingness to denounce the violent behavior of white supremacist groups who use violence and the threat of violence to press for Trump-ideology policies is well known. It seems evident that he welcomes threatening demonstrations by armed groups like the Proud Boys in support of his groundless claims of “election fraud”. And his administration’s appalling use of armed and anonymous Federal officers in unmarked vans to quell protests during the months of Black Lives Matter protests is very reminiscent of both Germany and the USSR during the worst times.

Fundamental deference to the Leader. Arendt argues that the totalitarian regimes of Germany and the USSR differed from other dictatorships in the extreme power and voice they created for the Leader — Hitler or Stalin. In Arendt’s view, both Hitler and Stalin were highly adept at preventing the emergence of possible coalitions of policy-makers, generals, or bureaucrats who could oppose their will; instead, the ultimate authority was in the hands of the Leader, and subordinates were subject to constant suspicion and threat of dismissal, arrest, or death. Trump hasn’t locked up his subordinates for perceived disloyalty; but he has taken consistent steps to take away the power of agencies (EPA, CDC, State Department, Interior, Voice of America), to appoint loyalists in every possible position, and to remove subordinates who failed to show the required level of deference to his Twitter preferences. His plain view is that he is “the decider” and that every office of government needs to follow his will.

Persistent use of lies and fabrications. Arendt refers to the worldview of the Nazis or the Stalinists as a false reality, a fake world, and the whole force of the propaganda tools of the party and state is devoted to making people believe the false narrative rather than the obvious truth. This is highly resonant with the experience of politics under Trump’s direction over the past four years. How many lies have Trump and his many spokespersons and advocates told since January 2017, beginning with lies about the size of the Inauguration crowd? The number is astounding. Some of the lies are laughable — crowd size, for example; and others are seriously dangerous to our democracy — lies about fraud in the 2020 election. Lying and fabrication are regarded as perfectly legitimate political tools by the Trumpist party, and the lies are believed by “true-believer” followers.

Intimidation and cooptation of legislators and political leaders. What about the other powerful actors in society — in the Weimar Republic during Hitler’s rise, or within the Communist Party before Stalin’s absolute hegemony was established? These independent sources of political power could not be tolerated by the Leader — Hitler or Stalin. They needed to be coopted, or they needed to be eliminated. Hitler and Stalin used both strategies. Trump has only needed the strategy of cooptation and intimidation; he has succeeded in threatening, intimidating, and coopting the members of his party to provide almost unconditional support for his most outrageous demands. This has been most evident during the period since November 3, when any honest observer will recognize that a fair election took place and Trump lost; whereas the vast majority of GOP legislators and other leaders have fallen in step behind Trump’s groundless claims about election fraud. (Here is an earlier discussion of the phenomenon of “collective abdication” in times of political crisis; link.)

Fellow-traveler organizations. Arendt maintains that Nazi and Soviet dictatorships differed from other forms of authoritarian states in their efforts to cultivate and convey power through “fellow traveler” organizations — social and political organizations that were not part of the Nazi Party or the Communist Party, that were not visibly committed to the most extreme ideological positions of the party, and yet that were supportive of its ideological goals and positions. Arendt believes that this was a key mechanism through which these parties gained mass following — even when their actions were contrary to the interests of many of the men and women who supported the “fellow-traveler” organizations. This feature seems relevant to our current circumstances when one considers the common view, “I don’t support all of the President’s wildest views, but I like his style.”

So it turns out that Arendt’s analysis of the totalitarianism of the 1930s and 1940s highlights a number of important features that are familiar from the political strategies of Trumpism. Trump’s presidency has involved a mass-based movement mobilized around a unified ideology that isprofoundly contemptuous of existing political institutions and that embraces the symbols and reality of political violence. Further, this movement is organized around a provocative and boundary-smashing Leader who promotes lies and fabrications as basic tools of political advancement, and who makes racist antagonism against a part of the population a central theme of mobilization. And we have the phenomenon of moral abdication by other leaders and political power-holders in the face of the Leader’s will — perverse and anti-democratic as it may be. Thus Arendt’s inventory of totalitarian methods shines a bright light on the perils Donald Trump has created for our democratic institutions, practices, and values. Donald Trump did not create a totalitarian state in America. But he and his collaborators embodied many of the techniques and practices that resulted in anti-democratic, authoritarian regimes in other countries in the last century, and they have created genuine risks for the future of our own institutions of liberal democracy. 

Hannah Arendt was writing about other countries, and she wrote over fifty years ago about events that took place as long as eighty years ago. So maybe her observations are historically irrelevant to the politics of the present day. But recall Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s contemporary fears for the trajectory and fate of American democracy in How Democracies Die:

But now we find ourselves turning to our own country. Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States—but that we recognize as having been the precursors of democratic crisis in other places. We feel dread, as do so many other Americans, even as we try to reassure ourselves that things can’t really be that bad here. After all, even though we know democracies are always fragile, the one in which we live has somehow managed to defy gravity. Our Constitution, our national creed of freedom and equality, our historically robust middle class, our high levels of wealth and education, and our large, diversified private sector—all these should inoculate us from the kind of democratic breakdown that has occurred elsewhere. 

Yet, we worry. American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press, and threaten to reject the results of elections. They try to weaken the institutional buffers of our democracy, including the courts, intelligence services, and ethics offices. American states, which were once praised by the great jurist Louis Brandeis as “laboratories of democracy,” are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies, and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose. And in 2016, for the first time in U.S. history, a man with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies was elected president. (1)

Here is Robert Paxton’s definition of fascism in his very good book on the origin and dynamics of twentieth-century fascism, The Anatomy of Fascism:

A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion. (218)

Paxton’s analysis is drawn from the history of Italian and German dictatorships; but the terms of this definition are disturbingly contemporary. Only the goal of “external expansion” finds no real counterpart in Trumpism; it is replaced by an aggressive doctrine of “America First!” as the keystone of international policy.

Now is a good time to re-read Tim Snyder’s observations and advice in On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Here are five observations from On Tyranny that seem especially pertinent.

1 Do not obey in advance. Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.

2 Defend institutions. It is institutions that help us to preserve decency. They need our help as well. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning. So choose an institution you care about—a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union—and take its side.

3 Beware the one-party state. The parties that remade states and suppressed rivals were not omnipotent from the start. They exploited a historic moment to make political life impossible for their opponents. So support the multi-party system and defend the rules of democratic elections. Vote in local and state elections while you can. Consider running for office.

6 Be wary of paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching with torches and pictures of a leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the end has come.

20 Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.

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