By Nathan Eckstrand
Several dystopian classics became bestsellers—1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and The Handmaid’s Tale—following Donald Trump’s election, presumably by people who wished to compare the disturbing visions of those authors to the present. At the same time, Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism attracted many readers who wanted to know the parallels between the rise of Nazi Germany and the resurgence of far-right groups in the USA.
Many authors who studied Nazism and the contemporary far-right agreed that there are parallels between Europe in the 1930s and America today but resisted the idea that we are witnessing the rebirth of totalitarianism. After all, one said, Arendt was discussing the origins of totalitarianism, not explaining its causes. We should read Arendt but confront the today’s problems rather than relive the problems of the past.
This claim is clearly correct. It is also true that Arendt discussed totalitarianism in specific circumstances, not in the abstract. Nevertheless, there are two reasons to reconsider how Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism applies in our own era.
First, most of these articles rejecting a parallel with the phenomena Arendt described were written around the time of Trump’s inauguration; we now have a year of evidence to sort through.
Second, while Arendt was focused on her place and time, she was explicit that totalitarianism was not so limited. If we can track how totalitarianism develops, she said, then it is clear that “it will no more disappear with the death of Stalin than it disappeared with the fall of Nazi Germany.” Just as dangerous as only seeking answers in the past is to blind ourselves with our uniqueness.
It is time to reexamine the question of totalitarianism in our time. We must realize that conservatism today—to be distinguished from the Republican Party—bears a striking resemblance to totalitarian movements of the past.
Arendt begins her discussion of totalitarianism with an analysis of ‘the mob,’ which she distinguishes from ‘the people.’ The people revolt for representation in government and against elitism and corruption of those in power. The mob, who are composed of “the residue of all classes,” seeks strong men who can punish the society from which the mob feels excluded. In Nazi Germany, this feeling of exclusion came from the mob’s despair following World War I. Traditional practices seemed absurd in the wake of an event which shattered normal social rules. As Arendt puts it, the mob yearned “for anonymity, for being just a number and functioning as a cog, [and for a transformation] which would wipe out the spurious identifications with…predetermined functions within society.”
Totalitarian leaders reproduce both the mob’s despair and the individuals’ desire to cease being individuals and to be part of a larger movement. Leaders’ advocacy of violence was embraced as a way of bringing the mob to power and overturning bourgeoisie morality. Cruelty was a way of thumbing one’s nose at the humanitarians whose doctrines had been exposed as impotent. Similarly, when the bourgeoisie declared devotion to principles of fairness and compassion but practiced the opposite, the mob saw disregard of human values as revolutionary in repudiating duplicity. Leaders like Hitler were welcomed because they provided individuals an authentic existence as part of a larger, homogenous whole.
The demographics of Trump voters match this description. Income was not a significant factor; according to one poll 33% of those who supported Trump in the election made less than $50K, 39% made between $50K and $100K, and 28% made more than $100K. More significant were factors like race (91% white) and ideology (82% of Trump voters supported his ban on Muslims entering the US, compared with 54% of Republicans). One poll reported that voters who agreed with the statement “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does” were 86.5% more likely to prefer Trump to his Republican rivals. Political scientist Matthew McWilliams wrote that the best predictor of Trump support was authoritarianism, or the worldview that “value[s] conformity and order, protect[s] social norms, and [is] wary of outsiders.” Trump voters felt ostracized from society and wanted to return to a closed world where they could feel at home.
Similarly, violence and cruelty were—and still are—their tools of choice. Prominent Alt-right leaders and vocal Trump supporters advocate abandoning the humanitarianism and liberalism of the past in favor of ethno-centrism and domination. Richard Spencer said in 2013 “Our dream is a new society, an ethno-state that would be a gathering point for all Europeans. It would be a new society based on very different ideals than, say, the Declaration of Independence.” Augustus Sol Invictus claimed “[The Federal government] has abandoned its eugenics programs and elitist mindset in favor of a decadent ideology that rejects the beauty of strength and demands the exponential growth of the weakest.”
While these quotes use more explicit language, they are not fundamentally different from claims Trump often makes. In his February 22 CPAC speech, Trump emphasized Americanism over liberalism, saying “We celebrate our history and our heroes and we believe young Americans should be taught to love their country, and to respect its traditions” and that we must “protect our heritage [and] promote our culture.” Multiple times he emphasized how conservatism is at war, saying “we have ended the war on American energy [which is] very important for our defense,” and “We’re fighting a lot of forces. There are forces that are doing the wrong thing” before praising his advocates as “warriors, warriors all.” Democrats were called “crazed.” Immigrants were compared to snakes, irreducibly evil and incapable of change. The message was clear: we must be tough soldiers to protect the ‘true’ America from both the outside enemies and establishment threats.
Arendt’s discussion of Nazi propaganda also yields disturbing parallels with our own time. Propaganda was aimed at the not-yet-dominated – those who weren’t ready to accept the true aims of the movement. These individuals needed to be manipulated because they are part of the external, nontotalitarian world with which totalitarianism is at war. Such manipulation requires convincing the people of the external world’s threat, and the consequent need to embrace totalitarian solutions.
Propaganda does this in several ways. First, it appeals to prophecy, projecting the totalitarian movement as if it were bringing about something historic. Human development is painted in stark terms as heading towards a clear and desirable goal that totalitarianism will bring about. Those who stand in history’s way are targeted with veiled and indirect threats. The goal, which is often simple minded and unrealistically ideal, promises a world defined by community and harmony. Arendt describes the Nazi vision of “Volksgemeinschaft” as a vision of community developed to confront the Communist vision of classlessness. But whereas the Communists pictured a world where work was equally shared, Nazis pictured a world where Germans would never again have to work. This vision was embraced because it satisfied a human desire for consistency, even if, as in this case, it was conjured from pure fantasy.
Perhaps most important in Arendt’s discussion of propaganda is the reason for falsehoods. For totalitarian leaders, truth is simply a matter of power. She says, “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it,” concluding that propaganda “betrays [totalitarianism’s] ultimate goal of world conquest, since only in a world completely under his control could the totalitarian ruler possibly realize all his lies.”
More and more conservative rhetoric follows this pattern. This is clearest in portraying the external world as dangerous and the indirect warnings against those who oppose them. News outlets such as Fox News, Brietbart, and Infowars consistently attack groups that don’t fit into their vision of America and those who support them. African-American groups endanger our safety, immigrant populations are taking jobs and resources from Americans, the Muslim population is plotting to overthrow the government, and anyone speaking on their behalf is naïve, a bully, or a collaborator. Minimal fact-checking reveals that these claims are false.
Attacks against groups considered “un-American” are not new; what is new is the number of conspiracies leveled against them. There are too many to name, but they include implying the DNC or Clinton was behind the murder of Seth Rich, that the Democrats manufactured the violence in Charlottesville, that the Parkland, Fl shooter was motivated by Islam and the left, that Obama is a Muslim, that The Washington Post paid people to accuse Roy Moore, that the opioid crisis is due to immigrants, that a Black Lives Matter supporter is killing and freezing white peoples’ bodies, that Loretta Lynch called for “blood and death in the streets,” that Obama was born in another country, that Obama wiretapped Trump during the 2016 campaign, that immigrants are bringing Ebola into the country, and that Muslims in New Jersey cheered when the World Trade Center fell. These are not the work of minor conspiracy theorists on the edge of society; these falsehoods are being spread by major news sources, elected leaders, conservative luminaries, and the president himself. Large numbers of conservatives believe these conspiracies. For example, 43% of Republicans believe Obama is a Muslim, 51% believe he wasn’t born in the USA, and 58% believe global warming is a conspiracy. The numbers are even greater in polls focused on Trump supporters.
Does the rhetoric of conservatism today project a sense of prophecy, desire for consistency, and unrealistic ideal? A significant number of conservative commentators presented Trump’s victory in prophetic terms, saying that it was the inevitable outcome of failed liberal policies and global intervention. The desire for homogeneity and unrealistic ideals can be seen in their calls for a border wall that Mexico will pay for, a ban on immigration from predominantly Muslim countries, and massive job growth. Experts question the plausibility, not to mention the ethics, of each proposal. More and more conservatives want to return to a society with fewer minorities and more jobs—a vision of America that never really existed but has been advocated by the Right for generations—and are now proposing unworkable solutions to bring it about.
Finally, we should be disturbed by the similarities between totalitarian movements and ultra-conservatism. The totalitarian movements Arendt describes focused on a leader, who was portrayed as a visionary capable of bringing the movement’s lies into being out of sheer will. Subordinates become the leader’s representatives in all things, and every action was traced back to the leader. The totalitarian leader held “a monopoly of responsibility for everything which [was] being done.” This is a key distinction between totalitarianism and despotism. Whereas a tyrant may tolerate criticism of his subordinates, a totalitarian leader cannot, for a subordinate’s wrong actions reflect upon the leader. Flawed subordinates are not just bad employees, but “the impersonation of the leader by an imposter.”
Totalitarian movements are often brought to power by creating civil war conditions. Belief in the justness of law is condemned, while the virtue of the movement is praised. Fear of the society outside keeps people within the movement, as does the feeling of security that comes with “the organized violence [used to] protect the party members from the outside world.” The goal is to create a body of individuals more afraid of leaving the movement than participating in illegal violence on its behalf. While those inside the movement can see its inner workings, the movement engages the outside through front organizations that hide the its true nature. This allows the message of the totalitarian movement to be distilled and spread more easily than it would if first encountered in concentrated form. While the actions and truths of the front organizations may change as needed for tactical effect, the inner truths of the movement are believed like “sacred untouchable truths.”
Some of the White House’s personnel issues make sense in this light. Many people have left, been fired, or been attacked by Trump because of disloyalty or because they cast him in a bad light. James Comey was asked by Trump to pledge his loyalty and was fired after he refused. Sean Spicer left following a public disagreement about hiring Anthony Scaramucci, though Trump was reportedly looking to fire him for not being “tough” and because an SNL sketch made Spicer look “weak.” Reince Priebus was unexpectedly ousted—and given less than a day to leave—because the President thought he was too close to other Republicans like Paul Ryan (illustrated by Trump’s nickname for Priebus, “Ryan-ce”). Initially Trump placed great faith in his son-in-law and daughter, as illustrated by the huge tasks he gave them, but after Kushner lost his security clearance Trump reportedly asked Chief of Staff John Kelly to find a way to push them out. The one representative Trump accepts attacks on—in part because he participates in them—is Jeff Sessions, and this is because Sessions was not loyal to Trump when he recused himself from the Russia investigation. On March 16, Trump fired Andrew McCabe hours before his retirement, which simultaneously eliminated a person overseeing the Muller probe (and who was thus disloyal) while denying McCabe his retirement benefits. Trump clearly prizes loyalty and strength over expertise, and his statements indicate a concern for how he is perceived through his surrogates.
The bitter disagreements and hatreds in the US also fit Arendt’s analysis. Many have described Civil War-like conditions throughout the country, including the South, Washington, and Hollywood. In the midst of the 2016 election, history professor Steve Ross claimed “Donald Trump is certainly on the road to fascism,” saying that Trump’s rise is like a “Second Civil War.”
A growing group of conservatives are dedicated more to their movement than to the law. Cliven Bundy disputed federal authority by refusing to pay over $1 million in grazing fees. In the midst of protests over a Confederate statue, James Alex Fields Jr. ran a car into Heather Heyer. Edgar Welch shot up a pizza restaurant in Washington after reading false news stories about a Hillary Clinton-run child sex ring. In 2012 Craig Cobb tried to create a bastion of white supremacy in Leith, South Dakota before being arrested on seven counts of terrorizing others. The Southern Poverty Law Center counted 100 people killed or injured by people influenced by the “alt-right” since 2014, with the vast majority of the incidents occurring in 2017.
This is a great concern, especially because many conservatives seemed unconcerned with unlawful actions. Major elected leaders and presidential candidates supported Cliven Bundy, and polls indicated significant conservative sympathy with his position on the federal government. A majority of Republicans supported Trump’s comments on Charlottesville where he equated the violence of James Alex Fields with the left-wing protestors. 87% of Republicans support preserving Confederate monuments of leaders who sought to overthrow the U.S. government. Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz invited a fundraiser and activist for the alt-right to Trump’s 2018 State of the Union. Major conservative news outlets—Brietbart, Fox News, and Infowars among them—have voiced support for the alt-right movement. And the recent CPAC 2018 conference invited Marine Le-Pen, Sherriff David Clark Jr., and Michelle Malkin, who each have at times advocated Western supremacy and violence.
While it is a relief to see that major conservative figures and news organizations condemned the violence in Charlottesville, Washington, Leith, and elsewhere, this doesn’t disprove the totalitarian comparison. Conservatism looks a lot like the front organizations Arendt describes. Some of the politicians, groups, and media that defend the principles of more radical conservatives are acting—whether they realize it or not—as the public faces of a movement that has as its goal the creation of a totalitarian country.
While this article has avoided using Trump’s more exaggerated statements, such as his desire for a military parade, there is a recent one that needs to be brought in. During a fundraising event held at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, Trump praised China’s leader Xi Jinping for getting rid of term limits, saying “maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.” Though given in a speech described as ‘jokey,’ Trump has often praised strong men who are repressing their citizens. The statement was not introduced as a joke, nor has it been walked back since. Already commenters on right-wing news sites have embraced the comment as indicative of Trump’s superior trolling ability.
Taken on its own, the comment could be brushed off. But in the context laid out above, it indicates a disturbing move towards the society Arendt describes. Conservatives have eschewed the principles they used to follow (including individuals in the Republican Party who still hold them) in favor of an unrealistic vision that is perpetuated by their news, politicians, and organizers. Their pursuit of this utopia has already resulted in multiple deaths and destruction. The direction of this movement—totalitarianism—needs to be called out before their quest creates one of the greatest dystopias humans have ever seen.
Update (June 19): The recent news stories about the Trump Administration’s decision to separate immigrant children from their families is another similarity that should make us all take the claims of this article seriously. For those who think that moving the Jewish population to Ghettos and concentration camps is not the same as the detention facilities because the former were a “final solution” while the latter is temporary, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center documents how the Nazis initially said that taking the property of the Jews was a temporary measure and that the Ghetto process was just a prelude to deportation. We shouldn’t wait for the appearance of actual concentration camps to start worrying about these similarities.
Nathan Eckstrand is Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Fort Hays State University, and is the Associate Editor in charge of research and inclusivity/diversity at the Blog of the APA.