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Beyond the Origins of Totalitarianism

Although the United States was a beacon of hope for Hannah Arendt, she saw vulnerabilities in American-style democracy.

Saul Loeb / Getty Images

Racism, lying by officials, cracks in the edifice of civil society, widespread stupidity, and the lure of authority—these are among the issues that plagued Hannah Arendt during her years in the United States. Jewish, middle-aged, and displaced from her homeland, the German-born political theorist tried to fathom the collapse of the democracy that had formed her and the dangers within the one she now lived in. Today, her words resonate like never before.

In the early 1950s, when she wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism, you could already feel the sadness and dismay that would engulf her for the remaining decades of her life. Describing the rise of anti-Semitic racism, imperialism, and modern day totalitarianism, she explored the ways in which the “subterranean” dark side of Western culture had “finally come to the surface” in Europe and had turned the mores and laws of Western civilization on their head and “destroyed all social, legal and political traditions of Germany.”

Her concerns are clearly present before us, now, in the United States. Public displays of racism and xenophobia are on the rise. The White House has issued yet another Muslim ban alongside a refugee ban. Anti-Semitic incidents are skyrocketing around the country. Imperialism as well is an unmistakable part of the language of Trump and his administration: “America First,” has become the administration’s policy mantra, along with an escalation in drone strikes, a willingness to alienate long-standing allies including the UK, Germany, Australia and Sweden, and a drum roll to war with North Korea, and maybe Syria. The instability of the nation-state as we know it alongside the rise of transnational groups are eroding political institutions in America, much like the erosion Arendt saw in Germany. 

Likely for these reasons, Origins sold out on Amazon and hit bestseller lists the week after Donald Trump was elected. Like Orwell’s 1984 and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, Arendt’s searing portrayal of Germany’s descent into fascism has captured the attention of Americans, worried as many are these days about the sudden brazen, apparently long-suppressed racism and xenophobia rampant in the United States, and the prospect of a revitalized militarized, anti-civil libertarian state under Trump’s leadership.

Although the United States stood out for Arendt as a beacon of hope, she saw vulnerabilities in American-style democracy as well, many of them apparent at the moment of birth. Chief among them was the possibility of an alienated citizenry. In the early years of the new republic, the public space for political dialogue was centralized in the federal government; instead of within the connection to community politics, the new citizens ceded the conversations to their representatives in government. “Isolation may be the beginning of terror,” she wrote in her 1953 essay, “Ideology and Terror”(which she later added as the last chapter of Origins.) “It certainly is its most fertile ground; it always is its result.” While the American Revolution had ensured the freedom of the people, she later wrote, it “failed to provide a space where this freedom could be exercised.” 

The conditions for a decline in the democratic order were essentially in place in the moments after the country’s birth. But the tipping point occurs when “the tyrannical state of lawlessness, arbitrariness and fear” takes hold. In this context, the stabilizing effect of the lawful state is eradicated, and alienation from the society and from the law deepens, as it is doing today in the wake of Trump’s election. The cold-hearted attempt to remove safety nets such as health insurance, the proliferation of causes for fear at the border and inside the country, the embrace of hate-speech, the use of statecraft to fill the pockets of the president’s family and friends, and the disrespect for the courts—all of these fit into Arendt’s paradigm of democratic dissolution.

In fact, Arendt came to see the fall into fascism and terror as the result not just of ideology but of the loss of a sense of belonging on the part of the populace. Totalitarianism “presses masses of isolated men together and supports them in a world which has become a wilderness for them.” Donald Trump ran on the platform of the “forgotten man,” the disenfranchised, the alienated, the ones without a voice anymore, by which he meant the white middle class. Alienation, Arendt argued, had enveloped a generation of individuals in Europe, much like it has done in the United States today. Disconnected, they felt invisible; feeling dehumanized themselves it was a small step towards the willingness to dehumanize others. With both victim and perpetrator dehumanized, moral choices disappeared.

Of all the “crippling consequences of obscurity” Arendt outlined in On Revolution, one stood out above the rest: the inability of a populace, and of its leaders, to think, to distinguish fact from fiction, a condition Arendt labeled “thoughtlessness” but best understood as unthinkingness, the incapacity to think. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, and in her correspondence surrounding its writing, Arendt most clearly lays out her concept of societies besieged by this inability to think. For Arendt, the creation of an unthinking population was critical to the success of totalitarian rule.

What is real? What is not real? To Arendt, the danger comes when it no longer matters to the populace whether something is true or not, only whether it is useful. The result is that the inability to distinguish between values and to make judgments accordingly becomes obsolete, and in her view eventually disappears entirely. “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule,” she argued, “is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction…and the distinction between true and false no longer exists.”

From the vacuum of unthinkingness, it is a small step to the discourse of lies. Lying by political leaders, both to themselves and to the public is a further step away from the stability of democracy. Donald Trump has littered the airwaves with falsehoods from his allegations about a nonexistent terrorist attack in Sweden to his insistence that Barack Obama illegally wiretapped Trump Tower during the presidential campaign. His disrespect for truth extends beyond political exchanges with former and current leaders to a willingness to mislead the public. Without batting an eyelash, he told audiences that his administration had officially required a provision that American steel be used for building the pipelines. It was not true. 

For Arendt, these kinds of lies are further disastrous to the health of a democracy. “A people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind,” she observed toward the end of her life. “It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.” This is particularly harmful in today’s circumstances, which saw Donald Trump campaign by attacking the entitled attitude of the political establishment. From “‘contempt’ for things as they are” comes the conviction that “things must change—no matter how, anything is better than what we have.”

What better conditions could exist for fake news, a trend that has all the more power in a society saturated with media in all its forms, alongside an apparent love for expressing hatred and negativity online? President Trump has put a positive spin on the susceptibility of the public to the lie. For him, in his words, it is an enhancement to garnering attention. In his own words: “My idea is that whatever the reality of what you are describing, the fact that they are disputed makes them a more effective message…” The less educated people are, the more susceptible to lies, the better, he posits.

As Arendt points out in “Ideology and Terror,” “The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any.” Trump’s proposed budget calls for the bludgeoning of the public school system, and the defunding of PBS, perhaps the single most important educational program in the United States, available to rich and poor children alike. Together, the partnership between unthinkingness and lying create fertile conditions for a fickle public to whom almost anything can be sold, even ideas completely at odds with what existed before. “Totalitarian rulers organize this kind of mass sentiment,” she told an interviewer in 1973 “and by organizing it articulate it, and by articulating it make the people somehow love it. They were told before, thou shalt not kill; and they didn’t kill. Now they are told, thou shalt kill; and although they think it’s very difficult to kill, they do it because it’s now part of the code of behavior.”

With all of these ominous warning signs, it seems important to take a moment to reflect on what, if any, antidotes Arendt recommended. Some of this is obvious from her critique: Being able to distinguish fact from fiction is a form of resistance. Freedom of the press, and education overall, are also countermeasures to the totalitarian domination of the mind. And beyond this, there is active resistance. Arendt would have railed against Trump’s opposition to the press and his branding of the media as the “enemy of the people.” “The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen,” she said in the last interview she ever gave.

So, too, she underscores the value of popular protest and resistance. Not violent resistance, as she saw violence as often antithetical to gaining power, but civil disobedience. And not the resistance of the individual, but that of the group. Arendt understood effective disobedience as belonging to the many rather than the one. She extolled the virtue and power of the group, joined together “by common opinion, rather than by common interest,” dedicated to certain principles rather than to self-interest. These are the very forms of protest apparent today in the marches, the town halls, the overflow audiences assembled to protest the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and the direct conversations that Bernie Sanders has been holding in Trump states.

In her emphasis on group protest and “community interest,” Arendt recalls the lost “neighborliness” and “neighborly love” of the early Republic that she credits Thomas Jefferson with first understanding. She envisions a world of “neighborhood councils, professional councils, councils within factories, apartment houses, and so on.” The motivating idea of these councils, she explained, would be: “We want to participate, we want to debate, we want to make our voices heard in public, and we want to have a possibility to determine the political course of our country.”  This then, would be the opposite of a society full of alienated individuals, dissociated from the state and one another, dismissive of the importance of truth, and unconcerned about the eradication of fact-based thinking. This would be America restoring its democracy to itself.

Fear of the disintegration of America democracy may have led thousands to discover and re-read Hannah Arendt in these past months. As it turns out, she is also worth reading for insights into the way forward. Seen through Hannah Arendt’s visionary eyes, the United States stands on the precipice of a choice. Does it want to be a country of neighborly love, critical thinking based on fact, compassion, and recognition of the shared interests of citizens? Or does it want to be a country of alienation, unhappiness, unthinkingness, and the urge to hatred and violence? The answer is easy.