In December 2020 I reviewed Hannah Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism in The Origins of Totalitarianism (link) to try to assess the damage and threats created for our democracy by Donald Trump’s conduct as president. There were very worrisome indications at that time of the slide towards an authoritarian political regime caused by Trump’s behavior and language.
Unhappily, the situation in the United States has worsened significantly since then. Less than a month after the post appeared the attempt to violently overturn the lawful election of President Joe Biden took place. Former president Trump continued to press his groundless lies about a stolen election. Republican members of Congress excused and justified the attempted insurrection of January 6. Violent militias and armed white supremacy groups have been encouraged by Trump and Republican politicians to make their presence known. Active calls to violence against “liberal Democrats” and RINOs have been featured by candidates in their advertising and social media campaigns. All of this sounds like a highly dangerous acceleration of the authoritarian, anti-democratic values of the GOP at almost all levels of leadership.
It is worthwhile to review the main tendencies that Arendt associated with the totalitarian impulse. These features are her observations of totalitarian regimes, based on her study of Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union. And they seem highly relevant to the political environment in the United States today, based on a sober assessment of GOP behavior throughout the country.
1. Orientation of politics towards an all-encompassing ideology or worldview, often involving racism and social division.
The racism, xenophobia, and gender-hostile content of Trumpism and GOP political ideology is apparent — most recently in the Texas GOP platform enacted in June 2022. This unifying right-wing extremist ideology, now becoming mainstream in the GOP, encompasses anti-LGBTQ values and policies, anti-immigrant language, and a deference to white supremacy and serves as a rallying call for the GOP.
2. Consistent and sustained efforts at destroying liberal political institutions.
The GOP from top to bottom, with a very small number of exceptions (e.g. Cheney, Kinzinger, Romney), demonstrates virulent antagonism to the values of a democracy (respect for electoral institutions, respect for one’s political adversaries, recognition that government represents all the people, not only one’s own supporters) and determined hostility to the institutions of democracy (racially designed rules for voter registration, locations of voting stations, rules governing absentee ballots, …). This list could be continued as a 20-page indictment. The anti-democratic idea of implementing “electoral college” systems in state elections (Colorado, Texas) is another instance of a profoundly racist attempt to minimize the votes of urban voters.
3. Use of violence-prone paramilitaries to further political objectives.
The alignment of Donald Trump and many GOP elected officials and leaders with violent organizations such as the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and many other violent militias and organizations has been documented by the House select committee investigation (link). The use of violent video and threats by GOP candidates in election ads is a frightening and rising phenomenon — for example, Missouri Senate candidate Eric Greiten’s campaign ad boasting open season on RINOs and featuring a special forces team invading a home (link). Many GOP candidates have used campaign images and videos featuring themselves with semi-automatic weapons — a deliberate linkage between politics and deadly violence. And the threats and acts of violent harassment reported by election officials in multiple states at the June 21 House January 6 committee meeting are thoroughly chilling. These actions by Trump supporters are reminiscent of violence in Berlin and Rome at the time of the rise of Hitler and Mussolini.
4. Fundamental deference to the Leader.
The cult of Donald Trump is legendary. What is astonishing and frightening is the almost absolute hold this cult leader has on his mass following and the elected Republican officials who crave his support and endorsement. “Deference to the Leader” has new meaning in American politics following the Trump phenomenon. “”I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?” Trump remarked at a campaign stop at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa. “It’s, like, incredible”” (link). Yes, it is incredible.
5. Persistent use of lies and fabrications.
Trump’s willingness to lie is legendary. The “Big Lie” about election fraud is the most egregious example, since it has created a dangerous and volatile social movement based on loyalty to Trump and willingness to adopt his lies. But lying is the fundamental mechanism of Trump’s political strategy. The Washington Post estimated that Trump had told 30,573 lies during his presidency (link). The movement mobilized by Trump has continued to use lies to further its activism — for example, about COVID, about vaccination safety, and about the many conspiracy theories promulgated by outlets like QAnon.
6. Intimidation and cooptation of legislators and political leaders.
Intimidation of non-compliant Republican office-holders has been apparent since Trump’s defeat in 2020. Physical threats of violence have occurred (most recently against Adam Kinzinger), but also against other Republican House members who voted for impeachment, such as Fred Upton and Peter Meijer. In addition to threats of physical violence, non-compliant Republican candidates have been bullied in public meetings and vilified as RINOs. Public independence from Trump by GOP candidates is generally seen as political suicide.
7. Fellow-traveler organizations.
White supremacist organizations have been very public in their support for Trumpism. Many evangelical churches and organizations are unquestioning in their support for Trump and Trumpism. Fox News commentators have provided powerful propaganda support for Trumpism.
If these are reasonable markers of the makings of a totalitarian regime, as Arendt argued they are, then the US democracy is in serious, grave jeopardy. Our political sphere — driven by the political worldview, motivations, and determination of the GOP throughout the country — has declined rapidly by these criteria since 2016, and the decline accelerated in 2020.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the form of government the GOP would like to see is an authoritarian sham democracy in which only their supporters have the ability to vote, and in which GOP majorities are free to carry out their ideological agenda: reduce reproductive rights, subordinate the courts to the status of ideological henchmen, empower ever-wider ownership and brandishing of semi-automatic weapons, place ideologically inspired restrictions on curriculum from kindergarten to graduate school in public institutions, and restrict freedom of thought and expression when it comes to GOP hot topics (gender, race, BLM, CRT, …).
What would it take for moderate conservatives with integrity and democratic values to regain their positions of influence and voice within the GOP? As for the leaders and elected officials who are taking their party down the road of unhinged extremism — history will regard you with shame and infamy.