What would have been political theorist Hannah Arendt’s 110th birthday passed with little incident this month, between the second and final debates of the presidential election. I've spent the better part of the election haunted by her ghost. As far as election companions go, one could do worse than a dead, chain-smoking German political theorist who, in 1951, published The Origins of Totalitarianism, an incisive and copiously footnoted history of the rise of Nazism and Stalinism.
Considered one of the most important works of political philosophy of its time, today Origins reads more like a contemporary analysis of this election cycles's post-fact landscape—the one driven, mostly, by Donald Trump’s candidacy. While we don’t have the horrors of concentration camps and gulags yet, the political propagandizing and systematic organizing behind the genocidal totalitarian regimes that Origins describes could have been ripped from this year's election headlines.
Dozens of passages in The Origins of Totalitarianism left me writing “TOO REAL, HANNAH” in the margins of my copy. Here are 14 short excerpts that, in brief, tell the story of the Trump campaign.
1. The “Shit’s F**ked Up And Bullshit” theory of political change
The answer to the fateful question: why did the European comity of nations allow this evil to spread until everything was destroyed, the good as well as the bad, is that all governments knew very well that their countries were secretly disintegrating, that the body politic was being destroyed from within, and that they lived on borrowed time.
One of the preconditions for totalitarianism, according to Arendt, is public recognition that the political landscape is actually highly unstable or on the cusp of instability. Bill Clinton-era globalization, climate change, and endless wars on terror pretty much fit the bill here.
2. Villainizing immigrants and refugees is easier than acknowledging that national policies created an immigration crisis
Every attempt by international conferences to establish some legal status for stateless people failed because no agreement could possibly replace the territory to which an alien, within the framework of existing law, must be deportable. All discussions about the refugee problems revolved around this one question: How can the refugee be made deportable again?
Arendt thought the post-World War I refugee crisis contributed to the disintegration of European countries. And she specifically called out the failure of the League of Nations to attend to the crisis, which may sound familiar.
3. Europe and North Carolina were into fascism way before Trump made it cool
It is now conveniently forgotten that at the moment of the outbreak of the second World War, the majority of European countries had already adopted some form of dictatorship and discarded the party system, and that this revolutionary change in government had been effected in most countries without revolutionary upheaval.
Let's not forget that racist far-right European parties and politicians like Geert Wilders and Nigel Farage—who both support Trump—have been gaining power for years now. Not to mention policies implemented in local- and state-level U.S. governments. From HB2 in North Carolina to Theresa May’s immigration proposals in the UK, Trump didn’t invent these policy positions out of thin air. They’ve been normalized in governments across the country and the rest of the world.
4. The appeal of charlatans in a world mostly already running on lies
The masses' escape from reality is a verdict against the world in which they are forced to live and in which they cannot exist, since coincidence has become its supreme master and human beings need the constant transformation of chaotic and accidental conditions into a man-made pattern of relative consistency… Totalitarian propaganda can outrageously insult common sense only where common sense has lost its validity.
As profiles of lifelong union Democrats changing allegiances and dispatches from Trump rallies demonstrate, many Trump supporters express feelings of betrayal, of being left out of or abandoned by traditional politics.
5. Trump supporters: They are yuge, they contain multitudes
Totalitarian movements are possible wherever there are masses who for one reason or another have acquired the appetite for political organization. Masses are not held together by a consciousness of common interest and they lack that specific class articulateness which is expressed in determined, limited, and obtainable goals… 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.
6. On racism as instrument for uniting displaced masses and elites
In Marxist terms the new phenomenon of an alliance between the mob and capital seemed so unnatural, so obviously in conflict with the doctrine of class struggle, that the actual dangers of the imperialist attempt—to divide mankind into master races and slave races, into higher and lower breeds, into colored peoples and white men, all of which were attempts to unify the people on the basis of the mob—were completely overlooked.
Elites manipulating racist sentiment among the disenfranchised isn’t a new approach, hence so many Trump supporters standing by him despite (or because of) his statements about Mexicans and Muslims. And yet, how is it that through a litany of scandals and revelations about his alleged abuse of women and business dealings, many of Trump's supporters remain loyal?
[The totalitarian leaders'] careers reproduce the features of earlier mob leaders: failure in professional and social life, perversion and disaster in private life. The fact that their lives prior to their political careers had been failures, naively held against them by the more respectable leaders of the old parties, was the strongest factor in their mass appeal.
8. Also those lies were on purpose all along (or, gaslighting as fascist political strategy)
In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true… The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.
When the public is already skeptical of claims from a media elite, it’s easy to turn lies and failures into so-called truths and triumphs. But it's not merely the proliferation of lies that defines the totalitarian leader, it's also the dismissal of things he has actually said as merely pandering or exaggerating.
9. On using lies as distraction from actually horrible policy positions
In order not to overestimate the importance of the propaganda lies, one should recall the much more numerous instances in which Hitler was completely sincere and brutally unequivocal in the definition of the movement's true aims, but they were simply not acknowledged by a public unprepared for such consistency.
10. Hannah Arendt throws shade at Peter Thiel, kind of
The businessmen who helped Hitler into power naively believed that they were only supporting a dictator, and one of their own making, who would naturally rule to the advantage of their own class and the disadvantage of all others.
11. On front organizations, or how you get from Paul Ryan to Alex Jones
The front organizations surround the movement's membership with a protective wall which separates them from the outside, normal world; at the same time, they form a bridge back into normalcy, without which the numbers in the prepower stage would feel too sharply the differences between their beliefs and those of normal people, between the lying fictitiousness of their own and the reality of the normal world.
12. Hannah Arendt doesn’t understand Pepe the Frog and all the 8chan stuff either
An anonymity which contributes greatly to the weirdness of the whole phenomenon [of front organizations] clouds the beginnings of this new organizational structure.
From imageboards to SuperPACs run by VR billionaires, navigating just who makes up the community of Trump supporters and what exactly they believe can be confusing. But there is a recurring theme: an isolationist, America-first nationalism.
13. Nationalism as a cool trick for completely destroying the nation-state from the inside
[Antisemites] could indulge in hypernationalistic talk even as they prepared to destroy the body politic of their own nation, because tribal nationalism, with its immoderate lust for conquest, was one of the principal powers by which to force open the narrow and modest limits of the nation-state and its sovereignty.
14. Finally, the idea that Trump might spark a left-wing revolution can GTFO, says Hannah
Totalitarian domination, like tyranny, bears the germs of its own destruction… Its danger is that it threatens to ravage the world as we know it—a world which everywhere seems to have come to an end—before a new beginning rising from this end has had time to assert itself.
Origins as a book and Arendt's political theory broadly are imperfect tools for analyzing today’s United States (Arendt’s later writings on American racism, for example, showed an inability to comprehend antiblackness and the civil rights movement). But the number of parallels between the origins of today’s election climate and The Origins of Totalitarianism should set off some alarms. Work remains to be done.
As Arendt points out, the refusal and failure to take the threat of totalitarianism seriously often enabled those movements to seize power. Totalitarian regimes are ideologically constructed to inevitably destroy themselves—and Trump’s own outrages may have blown his shot at the Oval Office (this time!)—but that doesn't necessarily mean something better will rise up from the mountain of skulls to take their place.
Ingrid Burrington writes and works on a small island off the coast of America. She's the author of Networks of New York: An Illustrated Field Guide to Urban Internet Infrastructure and an artist in residence at Data and Society Research Institute.