What might Arendt have to say about Trump?

A few people have been asking me my thoughts on the recent surge of interest in Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, in relation to our present political crisis.  I’m working on writing something on the subject, but meanwhile – to air some rough ideas –  I offer the following snippet  of a conversation I had last week at Brooklyn College (where I teach), in the office of the chair of our political science department:

Roy [sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated]: …Agreed. Obviously Trump is no Hitler, and this isn’t 1933. But that’s why I’m starting to think Arendt might be relevant, after all. It’s like I always said: her focal case  for totalitarianism isn’t the Nazis, it’s the Bolsheviks – and only under Stalin, not before— 

Corey Robin [impatient, scanning his inbox]: — I know, I know…

Roy [talking against the clock]: —So the point is, her theory can accommodate  a case where there’s little or no authentic mass movement beforehand. The leader need only be in a position to commandeer  and transform existing institutions, and manipulate prior loyalties…  You could think of Trump’s hold on the Republicans now as something like Stalin’s over the Old Bolsheviks – they didn’t like him before, and don’t like him now, but they’re boxed in; to abandon him now would leave them with nothing… But, look, never mind Stalin.  Arendt is sketchy on Stalin, and I’ve stopped trying to do her homework for her a long time ago.  The point is – that’s why I’m finding her relevant now. I want to say – Trump could turn out to be a better instance of what she meant by totalitarianism than either Hitler or Stalin…

Corey [baffled]: What are you talking about? I still don’t see it.  Where’s the relentless drive for logical consistency, the compulsive force of ideology? —

Roy [puzzled, then incredulous]:  — Huh? …You mean, the stuff Arendt wrote in the last chapter?  ‘Ideology & Terror’? That’s  from 1953. You thought I meant that? Corey, please  I’m talking about Arendt’s theory from ’49 —  the one in the book’s first edition.*  It’s not about consistent ideology.  It’s about taking reality for one massive conspiracy, and operating on that basis.  Part of what she saw as distinctively totalitarian in the Bolsheviks under Stalin was their flexibility — and their contempt for those who complained of their contradictions… The other stuff — the stuff Arendt added in the later chapter — that doesn’t interest me, never did. She herself  abandoned it later. We’ve been through this, remember? Thus the Eichmann book…

Corey [bemused chuckle]:  ….

[* The changes to Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism are documented in this old paper of mine,  written on the occasion of 50th anniversary of  the publication of The Origins of Totalitarianism in 2001. (The paper came out of a conference held in New York just a few weeks after the September 11 terrorist attack, which explains its ominous last paragraph.)   A few details of the interpretation are superseded by subsequent scholarship, but I’m not aware of any challenge to the basic documentary account.  Links to some other pieces I’ve written on Arendt’s work can be found here.]

Original post title: “Is Arendt Any Help? Raw Thoughts on Trump and Totalitarianism”

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