Generosity and The Real Evil

Writers are turning to Hannah Arendt’s thinking about totalitarianism and fascism to try to understand Donald Trump. Last week Ingrid Burrington offered 14 quotations from Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism that she thinks shed light on Trump.

This week in the New York Times, Jason Stanley offers this quotation from Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism on his way to arguing that Trump is a dangerous authoritarian figure.

Like the earlier mob leaders, the spokesmen for totalitarian movements possessed an unerring instinct for anything that ordinary party propaganda or public opinion did not care to touch. Everything hidden, everything passed over in silence, became of major significance, regardless of its own intrinsic importance. The mob really believed that truth was whatever respectable society had hypocritically passed over, or covered with corruption … The modern masses do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience … What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.

Arendt did rightly see that a deep human need for simplicity and coherence lie as one of the foundations of totalitarianism. Such simplicity leads totalitarianism to adopt and push ideologies, pseudo-scientific truth claims that reduce the world’s problems to one basic cause. If there is poverty, it is because of Jews, or Africans; and it is because of the capitalists or the one percent. Ideologies insist that “one idea is sufficient to explain everything.”

The danger of ideologies is that logical coherence replaces free thinking. Ideologies free us from the messiness of reality. In offering truths that have a “consistency that exists nowhere in the realm of reality,” ideologies buttress a fictional world that gives meaning and sense to those who hold the ideologies. Arendt’s true insight into totalitarianism is that idealogues become so dependent on the meaning contained in ideological worldviews that they will kill and commit terrible crimes to hold their ideological fantasy world together. As Arendt argues, “totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself.”

As important as Arendt’s thinking about the link between ideology and totalitarianism is, it is hard to argue that Trump is an idealogue. What is his ideology? If anything, it is “winning,” the goal of his life. But winning is hardly an ideology. And Trump is neither consistent enough nor disciplined enough to pursue an ideology.

Stanley wants to argue that Trump’s ideology is “law and order” founded upon racism. But, if anything, we are faced with a candidate with very few if any deeply held views. He inveighs against Wall Street but argues for tax cuts for the rich. He promises economic growth but wants to impose tariffs. He insults immigrants but married one. He threatens to exclude Muslims, then walks that back. He enables antisemitism but his daughter is a converted Jew. He inflames racism, but lauds his black business colleagues who also laud him. He insults and harasses women, but also promotes women to positions of power. Trump has shown himself to be a despicable, bullying, dishonest, sexist, racist, antisemitic, and downright mean person. But he is hardly a consistent idealogue. Trump wants to win. He will do anything to win. That kind of pragmatism reveals an openness that is hardly ideological. But it is fascistic.

Perhaps the best article seeking to understand Trump’s politics was written back in 1995, and does not mention Trump. It is not even about the United States. Umberto Eco wrote about the confusions around fascism in the Italy of his time. Eco is fully aware that his Italy is neither a Nazi-like totalitarianism nor a Mussolini-like fascism. He explores the way Italy is and is not fascist. And yet for Eco, the fact that fascism was not like previous fascisms did not mean that there was no fascism. He thus reflects Arendt’s insights that it is unlikely that we will repeat German and Soviet totalitarianism. More important is that we understand the basic outlines of totalitarianism and be on the lookout for its new varieties. Similarly, Eco seeks to discover the fundamental characteristics of Ur Fascism.

It is true, Eco writes, that the Italian politics of his day was ideologically blurred and inconsistent, but it was, he argued, a “rigid discombobulation, a structured confusion. Fascism was philosophically out of joint, but emotionally it was firmly fastened to some archetypal foundations” In trying to make sense of his situation, Eco identified 14 features of an Ur-Fascism. As he writes, “ These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.” A few of these features of Ur-Fascism seem particularly relevant today in the United States and Europe today.

“5. …Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.
6. Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups. In our time, when the old “proletarians” are becoming petty bourgeois (and the lumpen are largely excluded from the political scene), the fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this new majority.
7. To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. Besides, the only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia. But the plot must also come from the inside: Jews are usually the best target because they have the advantage of being at the same time inside and outside. In the US, a prominent instance of the plot obsession is to be found in Pat Robertson’s The New World Order, but, as we have recently seen, there are many others.
13. Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view — one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction. To have a good instance of qualitative populism we no longer need the Piazza Venezia in Rome or the Nuremberg Stadium. There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.
Because of its qualitative populism Ur-Fascism must be against “rotten” parliamentary governments. One of the first sentences uttered by Mussolini in the Italian parliament was “I could have transformed this deaf and gloomy place into a bivouac for my maniples” — “maniples” being a subdivision of the traditional Roman legion. As a matter of fact, he immediately found better housing for his maniples, but a little later he liquidated the parliament. Wherever a politician casts doubt on the legitimacy of a parliament because it no longer represents the Voice of the People, we can smell Ur-Fascism.

There is no doubt in my mind that Donald Trump is an American instance of what Umberto Eco calls Ur Fascism. His “obsession with a plot” against him and the nation; his “fear of difference,” racism, and “appeal against the intruders”; his “appeal to a frustrated middle class,” a class that is homeless and fearful of losing its identity; and his selective populism that seeks to make the resentful, fearful, and hateful voices of a part of the people the voice of the entirety of the people.

Hannah Arendt saw the true foundation of totalitarianism in the homelessness and loneliness of the masses of people who have lost a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives. That basic condition is with us today in its metaphysical ennui, its economic malaise, and its social loneliness on a massive scale. Vast numbers of Americans are lost, miserable, and in pain. That is a dangerous situation; Trump is taking advantage of it.

Is Trump dangerous? We have little sense of what a Trump presidency would look like. The man is so mercurial and unpredictable. But the one thing we do know is that a President Trump would normalize a kind of meanness, a vileness, a disgusting politics in this country. And this is dangerous. Whether or not Trump is evil, whether or not he threatens the institutions of this country, his candidacy and presidency threaten to unleash a true evil.

Morality is founded in examples of good action. As Arendt and Kant teach, examples are the go-karts of moral judgment. Achilles inspires us to act courageously. Solon inspires wisdom in us. Socrates stands for the goodness of self-abnegation and holding to one’s truth. “We judge and tell right from wrong by having present in our mind some incident and some person, absent in time or space, that have become examples.” We become indignant at villains like Macbeth or like Hitler; and we celebrate good people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Atticus Finch. Morality, Arendt teaches, comes not from catechism or from civics class. Morality is rooted in our choice to respect those who inspire us and to despise those who repel us.

Arendt’s great fear for our times is not that evil people may exist — they also do, and evil is a part of our world. It is that we will cease to condemn them for what they do, that we might cease to care about whom we spend our time. There will always be Hitlers. And there will always be Himmlers who worship Hitler. Sadly, there will even always be Eichmanns who thoughtlessly do the biddings of Hitlers and Himmlers. But the real danger of our times is when there are millions of others — Popes, reverends, rabbis, Imans, lawyers, business people, and teachers — who while recognizing vileness somehow don’t mind it. “Morally and even politically speaking,” Arendt writes, “this indifference, though common enough, is the greatest danger.” In the refusal to judge — the refusal to state simply that Trump is unqualified, unfit, and unacceptable — we risk exposing our indifference, “our unwillingness or inability to choose one’s examples and one’s company.” It is out of this unwillingness to say no to living with someone we abhor that for Arendt “the real skandala” arises.

When Arendt writes about evil, she identifies different kinds. There is radical evil in the form of a Macbeth or a Hitler; there is evil as banality that she identifies in Adolf Eichmann; there is the evil that attends to the person, our evil will, our sense that we have done something wrong, something that we must bear; and there is a fourth kind of evil, the kind that Jesus defined as a “Skandalon,” a “stumbling stone,” the kind of evil that “human powers cannot remove, so that the real wrongdoer appears as the man who should never have been born — “it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck and he cast into the sea.”” That person who embodies the real evil is not Donald Trump; it is us insofar as we lose our ability to judge and come to accept the entrance of vileness into our political world. It is us insofar as we prove with our indifference our own banality with regards to evil.

If Trump were to be elected, the United States will not end as a democracy. Totalitarianism will not come to reign. At least there is little reason to think such things will happen. The institutions of this country are stronger than one strong man. But a Trump presidency will endanger what Marilynne Robinson calls the American spirit of generosity. And that would be a real tragedy. The idea that public life is one of goodness, seriousness, and virtue. To lose our spirit of goodness — our desire to celebrate the good and condemn the awful — would be an evil that lasts and one that lays waste to greatness. It will be up to us, if Trump wins or if he loses, to work daily to keep that spirit of generosity alive.


Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director, Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities, Bard College

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