Totalitarianism in the age of Trump: lessons from Hannah Arendt

The political theorist who wrote about the Nazis and ‘the banality of evil’ in the 60s has become a surprise bestseller. Should we heed her warning that protesting just feeds the chaos?

Hannah Arendt in the US in 1944

Hannah Arendt in the US in 1944. She had managed to flee Nazi Europe three years earlier. Photograph: Alamy 

In it, the political theorist (she always explicitly rejected the term “philosopher”) details the trajectory: “antisemitism (not merely hatred of Jews), imperialism (not merely conquest), totalitarianism (not merely dictatorship)” are considered in their interrelation. Against the necessary background of imperialism, “antisemitism became the catalytic agent first for the rise of the Nazi movement … then for a world war of unparalleled ferocity and, finally, for the emergence of the unprecedented crime of genocide”. That much is well established; the chill is in the detail.

When she describes the rise of the dictator, which requires a mass not a mob, you could be reading a sociologist’s thesis about Trump supporters. “The term masses applies only where we deal with people who either because of sheer numbers, or indifference, or a combination of both, cannot be integrated into any organisation based on common interest, into political parties or municipal governments or professional organisations or trade unions. Potentially, they 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.”

She describes, quite brusquely, antisemitism at its incipience: “Whereas anti-Jewish sentiments were widespread among the educated classes of Europe throughout the 19th century, antisemitism as an ideology remained, with very few exceptions, the prerogative of crackpots in general and the lunatic fringes in particular.” Yet however you dismissed their mental capacity, this hardcore created the ideological infrastructure on which a mass movement could be built. It is strikingly reminiscent of John Naughton’s description on David Runciman’s interesting Talking Politics podcast about the “alt-right”: “People who belonged loosely to this side of the political system were essentially excluded from public discourse. But it just so happened, they didn’t go quiet. They went to the net. So, for the best part of 20 years, a network of rightwing echo chambers has been established, upon which was built the infrastructure of Trump’s campaign.”

Demonstrators on the Women’s March in January.

Demonstrators on Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue during the Women’s March in January. Photograph: Joshua Lott/AFP/Getty Images

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Two points come out of that. First, that we can see from the comparison that the net isn’t responsible for everything. Antisemites found ways to keep their ideas alive and generative without any such advantage, and with all the same forces of conservatism and common sense ranged against them. Second, as Runciman asks, what happened to the leftwing networks? Why don’t we have effective echo chambers? It is a question that all of us have been asking, one way or another; there is no shortage of radicalism on the left.

Here, Arendt brings some liberating insight, described in precis by Professor Griselda Pollock, an expert in Arendt. “She talks of the creation of pan movements, these widespread ideas that overarch national, political and ethnic elements – the two big pan movements she talks about are bolshevism and nazism. There is a single explanation for everything, and before the single explanation, everything else falls away. She gives a portrait of how you produce these isolated people, who then become susceptible to pan ideologies, which give them a place in something. But the place they have is ultimately sacrificial; they don’t count for anything; all that counts is the big idea.” The left, in other words, isn’t necessarily unequal to the task of creating a pan-ideology; but anyone who believed in pluralism or complexity would have no currency on this terrain. We should be glad not to have been effective in this space, even if it feels like a failure.

Arendt was born in Germany in 1906 and was an academic until 1933, when she embarked on charity work, securing passage to Palestine for Jewish children and teenagers. The decision was not based on any sudden realisation of Hitler’s menace. “For goodness sake,” she said, laughing, in a television interview in 1964, “we didn’t need [him] to know that the Nazis were our enemies. We also knew that a large number of Germans were behind him. That could not shock us in 1933.” Rather, she had been alienated from the intellectual milieu by their “coordinated” exclusion of their Jewish colleagues (Arendt came from a family of secular Jewish lefties).

“The personal problem did not lie in what our enemies did but in what our friends did,” she said. “[They were] not yet under the pressure of terror, [but] it was as if a vacuum formed around one.” She conducted the refugee work from Paris. Stripped of her German citizenship in 1937, she escaped to New York in 1941 with her husband and mother, via the Gurs internment camp in the Vichy-held south of France.

She was never unclear about the magnitude of the Holocaust, saying, in the same interview: “The decisive day was when we heard about Auschwitz. Before that, we said: ‘Well, one has enemies. That is natural. Why shouldn’t people have enemies?’ But this was different. It was as if an abyss had opened. Amends can be made for almost anything, at some point in politics, but not for this.”

Arendt in New York in 1972

Arendt in New York in 1972. Photograph: New York Times Co/Getty Images

However, she was a controversial figure by the 1960s, following the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, a consideration of Adolf Eichmann’s trial and what it revealed about the nature of the Final Solution and all those who were complicit in it. Opponents accused her of making the Jews complicit in their fate. She rejected that outright – “Nowhere in this book did I accuse the Jews of failing to resist” – but said, “that the tone is predominantly ironic is completely true. [Reading Eichmann’s trial] I laughed countless times, I laughed out loud. I’d probably still laugh three minutes before my certain death.”

This is the book that coined the phrase “banality of evil”, which has ramifications for both totalitarianism as a project and the pathways of resistance. But it is also a useful thumbnail of the primacy of language to her understanding of politics; cliches in the service of control, their mundanity, their mendacity, cannot but amuse her. There is also the matter of Martin Heidegger, the philosopher with whom she had a turbulent relationship in the 20s, and some other contact – its extent unclear – after the war, despite his links with the Nazi party, even justifying them (it reads like the darkest imaginable romcom – “But I love him! But he’s a Nazi. But I love him!”).

Pollock guards against drawing too many of the obvious parallels between The Origins of Totalitarianism and the US’s situation today: “Islamophobia is not elaborated with the same complexity of tropes and myths as antisemitism and one shouldn’t equate them.” The work of Arendt’s that she refers to most often is the one that came directly after Origins, 1958’s The Human Condition. In the Holocaust, “we have seen the abolition of the human,” Pollock explains, “and then she has to write what would actually be an account of the human as a political creature”. Arendt has two core beliefs about the human condition (not to be confused with human nature). First, Pollock explains: “Every human life is the potential beginning of something new. Unlike animals, which are predictable – each will behave as its parents behaved – something has begun in a human that could be completely different. This is ‘natality’. As a result of that, the human condition is plural.” The consequences of this are vast: as we communicate and use language, we show ourselves to one another in our difference, and it’s in this disclosure that action is generated: we can do something to change the world.

Then comes a really important dichotomy, taking its roots from Greek philosophy: the difference between this action and labour, which is what we do to survive. Work is the economic, “which comes from the Greek word oikos, which is the household. But they imagined this other source, the political, the source of speech and action.” This is what constituted, for the Greeks, the human, and through Arendt’s prism, natality and plurality are the spurs of that political self; that is, the political recognises the infinite potential of each human life, while the economic recognises only that element of the human that works, that produces. As Pollock says: “What she was afraid of was the tendency to devalue action, for the economic to overtake the political.”

Taken to its logical end, the economic overtaking the political results not in the extermination camp but in the concentration camp; the difference is crucial, Pollock explains. The concentration camp exists not to extinguish life but to extinguish the human. “You are removed from moral action, you become a number and, finally, you are reduced physiologically to a bundle of reactions, as the body struggles to survive extreme emaciation.” If politics is only a set of economic decisions, then the person is no more than the work they do and the infinite preciousness of every person’s potential cascades into a brutal homogeneity, one person indivisible from the next.

To put this in a modern context, “official political reality is now being enacted by the modern capitalist businessman”. Politics and economics are, in Trump, indivisible. “And although it looks wonderful that people are demonstrating, it’s actually rather frightening, because it’s generating a crisis situation in which, ultimately, the protection of law and order justifies the government in extreme measures. For some of us, it’s repeating the proto-fascist scenario.” It’s an old Leninist stunt, the generation of civil unrest in order to attack civic society. In that sense, we are all playing into Trump’s tiny hands.

Mark Davis, director of the Bauman Institute in Leeds, points us towards another text, On Violence (1970). “I think that gets us closer to what’s going on at the moment,” he says. “She said in that book that violence and power are actually opposites. When institutions, particularly those of government, start to break down and lose their legitimacy, they lose their power over the everyday conduct of citizens. So what they do as a response to the loss of power is incite violence. Violence floods in to the loss of power rather than being an expression of it.”

A placard at the demonstration at Downing Street in January
A placard at the demonstration at Downing Street in January. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

Pollock brings us back to demonstrations and what they do to language, the slogan being a flattening out of complexity, an echo of exactly the same one-idea pan-ideology of the oversimplified worldview they protest against. I’m not sure. You can pack quite a lot into a slogan – I particularly like: “First they came for the Muslims, and we said, not today, motherfucker.” Yet I see the sense of these arguments, and wonder, what would Hannah Arendt do? Would she have marched on Downing Street? Davis is conflicted. “Certainly, I think there is a lot to be gained from people gathering together to show solidarity. But in a world where the institutions that we’re protesting in front of are losing their legitimacy and their power, I’m not sure that this has the impact that it once did. If we think of evil as this one person, this one big event, then we tend to want to match that with one big display of resistance. But actually, if evil is banal – a set of ordinary, mundane decisions day by day – then maybe we have to start living differently day by day.”

I still see the point in protesting as a concrete expression of solidarity. I’d take more, if under attack, from a person who went outside than a person who signed a petition. Tangentially, I have a sudden new faith in the feminist framing of recent demonstrations as women’s marches, which does something to allay the intimation of public violence that is always used as the justification of suppression. It seems clear, nonetheless, that it isn’t enough: that perhaps Arendt’s most profound legacy is in establishing that one has to consider oneself political as part of the human condition. What are your political acts, and what politics do they serve?

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