The Origins of Totalitarianism


When Donald Trump began mixing right-wing populism with the demonization of Mexicans, Muslims, and – well, just about everybody – it brought to mind an old, reptilian strain of fascism and it revived sales of Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here.” Lewis’ book shows us that fascism damn well can happen here. And, yes, that photo above is of an all-too real Nazi rally in Madison Square garden in 1939.

People have been dreading this week, and for good reason.

When the New York Times reviewed Volker Ullrich’s book “Ascent,” it was obvious that the review was not merely about Hitler’s ascent to power but about someone closer to home. Now, with real neo-Nazis and white supremacists in the White House, no one can say “It Can’t Happen Here” was just a piece of fiction.

It’s happened already.

A while ago the New Yorker ran a cartoon with an amusing caption: “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it, while those who do study history are doomed to stand around helplessly while everyone else repeats it.”

So recently I’ve been re-reading Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” Arendt begins with the rise of antisemitism and moves on to nationalism, then to how citizens are isolated, the weak are stripped of their humanity, the average guy loses his remaining power by being subsumed into a mob, and how myth and lies become the dominant narrative. The world of “fake news” articles in Facebook streams or denying science is hardly a new one. And the complete and blitzschnell capitulation by the Republican establishment is shocking, but one that Arendt would have predicted.

Totalitarianism depends on desperation and the suspension of critical thinking – in other words, a society gone mad. Arendt writes:

“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 that nothing was true. … Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. 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.”

Last year Republicans managed to turn serious social and economic woes afflicting all Americans into End Times for a very specific constituency. During the presidential conventions last summer, for Democrats the glass was half full – and could topped off at leisure. Yes, they said, there were problems, but the nation had made progress and we were going to make even more. But for Republicans, the glass was totally empty. And shattered. And there were shards of glass in dead babies. White, Christian babies. And Democrats were gunning for the fathers.

By studying the rise of Nazism, Arendt figured out the importance of lies, doubt, insecurity and self-delusion. Her insights still hold today.

So when Trump and his Breitbart buddies make up their own “facts,” declare war on the “lying [mainstream] press” (some of them even use the Nazi word “Lügenpresse”):

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.”

And when Trump speaks to white crowds and promises to make “America great again,” whitewashing national crimes, institutional racism and promoting American Exceptionalism and Christian White identity:

“The antisemites who called themselves patriots introduced that new species of national feeling which consists primarily in a complete whitewash of one’s own people and a sweeping condemnation of all others.”

And when Trump promises: “I’m going to fix everything. Trust me.”

“The point is that both Hitler and Stalin held out promises of stability in order to hide their intention of creating a state of permanent instability.”

We can feel the instability beginning this week as Trump begins dismantling all the agencies that protect citizens.

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And, as if he had somehow been reading Arendt himself – perhaps as a cookbook – this week the new president, his press secretary, and his apologists went to war with the press and with facts. Trump ordered media blackouts on a number of federal agencies.

Last year’s election season, with the emergence of an authoritarian candidate, got at least a couple of scholars wondering how a coup might unfold in the United States. Taziz Huq and Tom Ginzburg of the University of Chicago Law School, write:

Is the United States at risk of democratic backsliding? And would the Constitution prevent such decay? To many, the 2016 election campaign may be the immediate catalyst for these questions. But it is structural changes to the socio-economic environment and geopolitical shifts that make the question a truly pressing one. […] By drawing on comparative law and politics experience, we demonstrate that there are two modal paths of democratic decay, which we call authoritarian reversion and constitutional retrogression. A reversion is a rapid and near-complete collapse of democratic institutions. Retrogression is a more subtle, incremental erosion that happens simultaneously to three institutional predicates of democracy: competitive elections; rights of political speech and association; and the administrative and adjudicative rule of law. Over the past quarter century, we show that the risk of reversion has declined, while the risk of retrogression has spiked. The United States is not exceptional. We evaluate the danger of retrogression as clear and present, whereas we think reversion is much less likely. We further demonstrate that the constitutional safeguards against retrogression are weak. The near-term prospects of constitutional liberal democracy hence depend less on our institutions than on the qualities of political leadership and popular resistance.

We’re at risk. We’re not immune. And our now-gutted Constitution can’t help us. But while a coup may not be in the immediate future, Ginsburg says:

"We’re at this moment where it’s very good to be considering these things.

Indeed it is.