We must face the facts: A big fat grinning fucker is the president now. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. What are we to make of this? Mainstream American liberalism has spent the past three months in confusion, unsure of what comes next; worse, they are unsure of how to understand the millions of their countrymen who voted for Donald Trump. In the immediate aftermath of the election, liberals’ status changed by the hour. They were the working class in revolt, then bigots longing for the reich. They were hypnotized by reality television. They were unreachable. They could be organized. They must be recruited. They must be fought. Some sort of ruling was needed; the usual experts were coming up short.
Suddenly, a voice came howling out of the past, highlighted in pull quotes and conveyed in memes. Her stern face is screwed up in contemplation of the profound. Who is she? What is she saying? The words are difficult to make out at first. They’re half-remembered, if remembered at all — Did I do the reading that week of college? A quick Google provides clarity. Of course: The woman is Hannah Arendt, and she has come back from the wilderness to deliver us a message: Fascists are bad news.
Americans are always discovering Arendt again. No writer, except perhaps James Baldwin, has had their ethos cannibalized so voraciously by a public that is also so disinterested in the labor of actually reading their work. In the 1960s, Cold Warriors like Norman Podhoretz marshaled her account of totalitarianism against the Soviet Union, disguising a worldview that found its whole complexity expressed in Reagan’s Evil Empire in the accouterment of high theory. She returned with 9/11, trotted out by neocons who were eager to explain Islamic terrorism as a mass psychosis wholly unrelated to any suspect American behavior in the Middle East. Now she is back again, finally turned against the United States — but not, as we might hope, in order to finally consider how her excellent and obscenely neglected writings on imperialism might illuminate our own geopolitical pathologies. Even the obvious connection has scarcely been made: Arendt wrote at length about the stateless and displaced — but then, we might be forced to move beyond mere condemnation and consider how so many became stateless and displaced to begin with.
Instead Arendt, who died in 1975, returns to us as a facile ghost: one of the 20th century’s most heterodox thinkers haunting our think pieces to argue that you can’t reason with Nazis. You wouldn’t think we needed a famous academic to shore up that conclusion, but here we are. The intelligentsia doesn’t just feel that Donald Trump’s supporters are irredeemable brownshirts — they’ve got Arendt’s dense prose to prove it.
No writer has had their ethos cannibalized so voraciously by a public that is also so disinterested in actually reading their work.
Arendt was brilliant, but she was also often wrong, most regrettably about the central political question she put her mind to: Why do ordinary people join fascist movements? She is cursed by history to be best remembered for the least valuable sections of The Origins of Totalitarianism, a book that by the end of last century was already reduced to half-hearted defenses on ambiguous grounds — a “metaphysical insight” in the words of Irving Howe — the value of which lay in some intuitive space beyond the reach of contradictory facts. As of this week, it has sold out on Amazon.
But it is this very intuition that explains Arendt’s new life as a meme. She is the sage who gets tweeted out in giant decontextualized chunks in service of the suggestion that Trump and his courtiers don’t care about being fact-checked, a bit like some Nazis you may have heard of. That is to say: Arendt in this modern usage has not actually provided contemporary liberals with an account of fascism they did not already possess, because the liberal professional set already believes that reckoning with the material conditions that produced Trump is pointless. His followers are all cynical dopes, explained away by mass psychology. Arendt comes only to imbue that belief with the sophistication of the philosophical canon, a reactionary to comfort liberals during their own descent into reaction.
For Arendt, totalitarian movements arose from the ruins of nation-states, a consequence of dislocation, and the dissolution of liberal norms. The totalitarian adherent, in her view, had no ideology, no rational political interests beyond an anxiety brought on by modern life. They wanted to have their individual identities obliterated. The totalitarian does not elect a dictator because they possess genuine economic concerns, nor because they want a particular set of policies to come about in their country. Rather, she says, it is order itself that compels them — a need for purpose and power in a society that has left them behind. They cannot be reasoned with because they are not, by nature, reasonable. They are not even individuals but a part of the “mass man,” typified by “the radical loss of self-interest, the cynical or bored indifference in the face of death or other personal catastrophes, the passionate inclination toward the most abstract notions as guides for life, and the general contempt for even the most common rules of common sense,” as she wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, a “psychology” born in the “atmosphere of the breakdown of class society.” Authoritarian movements “recruited their members from this mass of apparently indifferent people whom all other parties had given up as too apathetic or too stupid for their attention” and held them together “not … by a consciousness of common interest … expressed in determined, limited, and obtainable goals,” but by a desire to be organized totally and annihilated individually. For Arendt, totalitarianism is not politics. It is mass pathology.
It is no coincidence that, when stripped of its nuance and reduced to summary, this view corresponds neatly with liberal incomprehension of Trump. More than that, it gives reassurance to those who wish to believe that the failures of international liberalism are not to blame for the present conditions: income inequality, free trade, drug epidemics, and war. It was not these policies that led so many Americans to revolt against their own society, and therefore it is not the authors of those policies who are responsible for that revolt. The Trump coalition is only reacting poorly to a more progressive world, and there is nothing progressives could have done about it, short of fundamentally betraying their obligation to the oppressed.
“Arendt’s account dissolves conflicts of power, interest, and ideas in a bath of psychological analysis, allowing her readers to evade difficult questions of politics and economics,” wrote the political theorist Corey Robin nearly 10 years ago. “We need not probe the content of a particular ideology — what matters is not what it says but what it does — or the interests it serves (they do not exist). We can ignore the distribution of power: In mass society, there is only a desert of anomie. We can disregard statements of grievance: They only conceal a deeper vein of psychic discontent.” Condensed to a tweetable length, this statement becomes “lol economic anxiety,” hashtag #resistance. You are left with Hillbilly Elegy, the smash-hit book published last year that liberals comported to understand the white rural poor, feeling sorry for them while insisting that their material degradation could be solved with a forced embrace of modern culture. You are left with Cory Booker 2020. You are left with: “Be happy for the coal miners losing their health insurance. They’re getting exactly what they voted for.”
There is some debate over whether or not Arendt believed in democracy at all. She is committed to certain norms of liberalism; it is essential, in her view, that citizens be able to engage fully and without fear in the debate of public life. But her account of what properly constitutes a citizen and what questions belong to the domain of their politics reveal something far removed from our ordinary sense of mass deliberation. In 1963, Arendt published On Revolution, a comparison of the 18th century revolutions in France and the United States. In it, she argues by way of Aristotle that despite left-wing contentions to the contrary, the French Revolution was a disaster. In France, she wrote, the revolutionaries’ original commitment to liberal constitutionalism was abandoned in favor of questions like “Should the workers starve?” and these questions were beyond the realm of politics because they concerned “compassion” for the masses, not the proper organization of civil society. “The Revolution had come to its turning point when the Jacobins, under the leadership of Robespierre, seized power,” wrote Arendt, “not because they were more radical but because they did not share the Girdondins’ concern with forms of government, because they believe in the people rather than in the republic.” The guillotine — or the gulag — always follows.
The American Revolution fares better precisely in virtue of its resistance to compassion, Arendt wrote. It was dominated by a landed gentry, focused exclusively on the establishment of civil and political rights, dedicated to the forms of government, not a doomed concern for the impoverished. It was this that made its legacy so enduring and what separated it from the failed revolutions of Europe.
Even from this summary, two things should be clear about Arendt. First: She is a reactionary. What else can be said of somebody who explicitly believes that the material liberation of workers is not only misguided but actively dangerous? Second, in 1963, Arendt articulated what has become the animating principle of American liberal technocrats: The proper formulation of society consists of elites deliberating within the bounds of established civility norms, safe from the untrustworthy and violent impulses of the masses. If the Democratic Party has improved on this position, it is only in recognizing that the masses must sometimes be given a pittance of food and medicine to stave off total revolt. No wonder Arendt appeals to the pundit-technocrats of today — nobody else has developed such a robust theory for why class solidarity cannot be marshaled to combat bigotry and reaction, because that reaction, the psychological tantrum of the dischoate masses, is the inevitable consequence of elites worrying themselves over the condition of common people.
She is a reactionary. What else can be said of somebody who explicitly believes that the material liberation of workers is not only misguided but actively dangerous?
It isn’t that liberals do not feel sorry for the dispossessed. It is not that they wouldn’t like to help them. It is only that those dispossessed are dangerous, and any effort to move politics beyond the question of theoretical rights and benevolent oligarchy will give way to the origins of totalitarianism. The Trump voters don’t have legitimate economic grievances. They’re just fascists, and the socialists, with their rude tweets and disinterest in diversifying Harvard, are just as bad. Only wonks can save us. That the vast majority of new Arendt enthusiasts have not actually read her work only adds a bitter irony to all of this. At least Arendt was not ashamed to admit to the truth of her own ideology.
Here, though, is the great joke: These professional class liberals, the ones who cling to the SparkNotes of Arendt as their world order collapses? They resemble nobody so much as Adolf Eichmann, one of Hitler’s most loyal disciples and a central character of Arendt's work. In the common understanding, Eichmann was guilty of something called the “banality of evil,” a condition frequently interpreted to consist of unthinking cowardice in the face of dictatorship, attributed to Arendt. Eichmann has come to represent a drone — a bureaucrat pencil-pusher who oversaw a genocide with the dull incomprehension of a middle manager, and the lesson, in this telling, is that good people must remain keenly aware of what is going on around them. They must refuse to normalize what is happening, must be on the lookout for fake news; otherwise, they’ll wake up one day to discover that Soylent Green is people, shocked that they were too lazy and ignorant to notice before.
But Eichmann was no slouch. For all her distaste for popular movements, Arendt also rightfully worried about the ease with which the professional class became a collaborator with tyrants. Arendt’s Eichmann was not a mindless drone. That was how he wanted to be seen, how he defended himself in Jerusalem. In reality, he was a careerist. His sin was not a failure to notice the conditions around him, but the active exploitation of those conditions in the pursuit of his own trivial glory. “This aspect of Arendt’s treatment of Eichmann is often overlooked in favor of her account of the bureaucrat, the thoughtless follower of rules who could cite the letter of Kant’s categorical imperative without apprehending its spirit,” wrote Corey Robin. But “the bureaucrat is a passive instrument, the careerist is an architect of his own advance. The first loses himself in paper, the second hoists himself upon a ladder. The first was how Eichmann saw himself; the second is how Arendt insisted he be seen.” The banality of evil is not when good men do nothing. It is when capable men do what is best for their own access to power, because power and its pursuit are the greatest banalities of all. Who has the power is not important — if you want to get ahead, you do your job. You do it well. You earn the esteem of your peers and get promoted. You oversee genocide, in large part, for an invitation to the best parties.
The liberal professionals are resisting now, but in the coming years, I am more terrified of them than of any poor bigot in middle America. For years, the pundits and party hacks who fill out the lower echelons of American power have devoted themselves to the maintenance of an empire, laughing and drinking at the White House Correspondents Dinner while the poverty and terror of reaction fermented in the country. They have dedicated themselves to the maintenance of the hierarchy and the veneration of power not because they are morally dedicated to international liberalism, but because dedication to the prescribed boundaries of the politically possible are how you get a Congressional internship, how you get a cable show, how you get respect and money and a little scrap of power. They have debated under a liberal president — and with apparent sincerity — whether or not incinerating civilians and starving our poor are a regrettable but reasonable price for robust GDP growth and “global security.” Is it so hard to fathom how they will come to regard the depravity of the Trump administration with the same callous circumspection? They protest now. They howl against normalizing fascism and weakening norms; they turn their eyes to Russia because they cannot turn their eyes to one another when looking for a culprit. But normalization is inevitable; it is baked into the very structure of our politics. Careers are made in the orbit of power, and Donald Trump is now the center of gravity. “Resistance” can only last so long.
For Arendt, great evils spawned from the swamp of common vices. She was misguided on the level of mass society, too concerned with existential psychology and too blind to the political simplicity of poverty and fear. But she understood the striver. She understood that atrocities are carried out by managers, not ignorant or malicious, but trained to look out for their own petty standing first. Our professional set has been a horde of Eichmanns all their lives. Today, they blast Arendt quotes, eager to show that they understand that fascists are bad news. But tomorrow? You’d be shocked to discover how quickly the terrifying grind of empire becomes banal.