Populism and Totalitarianism

“Totalitarian politics — far from being simply antisemitic or racist or imperialist or communist — use and abuse their own ideological and political elements until the basis of factual reality, from which the ideologies originally derived their strength and their propaganda value — the reality of class struggle, for instance, or the interest conflict between Jews and their neighbors — have all but disappeared.”
–Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism

Donald Trump gave an inaugural speech as the 45th President of the United States.

“January 20th, 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.
At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction, that a nation exists to serve its citizens. Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves. These are just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public.
But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge; and the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.
This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.
We are one nation and their pain is our pain. Their dreams are our dreams. And their success will be our success. We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny. The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans.
For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidized the armies of other countries, while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military. We’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own.
And spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay. We’ve made other countries rich, while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon.
One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores, with not even a thought about the millions and millions of American workers that were left behind. The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world.
But that is the past. And now, we are looking only to the future.
We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first….
We will follow two simple rules; buy American and hire American.”

In his address, President Trump proclaimed the coming of a revolution, a return of America to its past glory. For those who wonder what “Make America Great Again” means, Trump offered a clear answer. American democracy means that the rulers serve the interests of their constituents. We will, he claims, put the interests of American workers ahead of illegal immigrants and foreign workers. We will punish with tariffs those companies and countries that produce goods outside of the United States. We will prioritize investment in American infrastructure over foreign aid. American security interests will be paramount and other countries will have to contribute financially to earn American protection. President Trump’s vision is clear. It is a stark retreat from an idea of American government in the service of grand ideals and a world order. It is a vision of a nation anxious about its decline. And it is a nationalist call for government understood to be in the service of its people.

If we put aside disagreements of policy and understand that President Trump takes office as a singularly unpopular populist President supported by a record low 42 percent of Americans, we can ask, following Hannah Arendt, what is the likelihood that President Trump would lead the United States down the road of authoritarianism or totalitarianism? For Arendt, this is the essential question of all modern politics that invalidates “all obsolete political differentiations from right to left” and introduces “beside and above them the politically most important yardstick for judging events in our time, namely: whether they serve totalitarian domination or not.” In a world that is susceptible to totalitarianism as ours now is, the most fundamental criteria for judging political events is whether they are more or less likely to usher in a totalitarian government.

Arendt understands totalitarianism to be marked, above all, by the loss of the distinction between fact and fiction, the disavowal of reality in favor of simplistic ideologies.

“Totalitarian politics — far from being simply antisemitic or racist or imperialist or communist — use and abuse their own ideological and political elements until the basis of factual reality, from which the ideologies originally derived their strength and their propaganda value — the reality of class struggle, for instance, or the interest conflict between Jews and their neighbors — have all but disappeared.”

Totalitarian movements rest on insights that reflect a basic reality. In the 1920s and 1930s, there were real disagreements about class politics and real arguments about antisemitism. Similarly, today, there are real problems that underlie that immense wave of anger that vaulted Trump to the Presidency. The working class in the United States has not been well served either by globalization or by illegal immigration; rural Americans are not enjoying the benefits of cosmopolitanism; there are racial conflicts surrounding police violence, affirmative action, and political correctness; conflicts abound around women’s right to choose and their right to an equal wage; gay and transgender individuals challenge traditional boundaries separating sex and gender; the 1% owns an increasing share of the overall pie; elite colleges and universities speak of diversity but most have more students from families earning in the top 1% than students from families in the bottom 60% — the most absent minority from our elite colleges are students and professors who voted for President Trump; and small business owners are struggling against the twin threats of regulation and competition from multi-national chains. These are all real conflicts that Trump is speaking about. As did Bernie Sanders, Trump has mobilized angry and disenfranchised voters into a populist mob. Many in that mob don’t like Trump and find him scary; but they voted for him anyway because of their utter frustration that the system and the establishment were deaf to their complaints.

The question today is simple: Does Trump mean what he says when he mouths the words of the people? If he does mean what he says, and if he could even bring about a fraction of the change he proposes, he could be a transformational President. But there is an understandable and well-founded suspicion that President Trump is merely mouthing these complaints, that they are simply ideological and propagandist slogans designed to sow chaos and disorder as he consolidates power.

Is Trump a populist? Or is he an authoritarian ruler using populist slogans as a smokescreen for ulterior motives? The scary answer is that two days after his inauguration as President, it is impossible to answer this question.

At this point, there is no evidence that Trump will aim to erode the institutional and constitutional limits on democratic power that make our country a constitutional democracy and not simply a democracy. His appointees, some conventional politicians, other outsiders, are all people who have shown respect for the American Constitutional system and the rule of law. While as a candidate Trump complained about the rigged system and threatened to challenge the election if he lost, as President elect and now so far as President, he has shown no clear proclivity to erode the Constitution. We are not yet witnessing the rise of authoritarian or totalitarian government.

Perhaps the greatest danger President Trump poses for the future of American constitutional democracy is the President’s apparent contempt for the meaningfulness of words. On Saturday, President Trump’s first full day in office, he gave a short speech to the CIA in which he repeatedly emphasized two falsehoods. First, he accused “dishonest” journalists of inventing his feud with the intelligence agency: “They made it sound like I had a feud with the intelligence agencies. It is exactly the opposite. I love you, I respect you, there is nobody I respect more.” Second, he repeatedly digressed to attack the media for lying about the size of the crowd at his inauguration. As the New York Times reports, both claims are demonstrably false. On the first claim, “Mr. Trump ignored his own repeated public statements criticizing the intelligence community, a group he compared to Nazis just over a week ago.” On the second claim, the Times writes: “[President Trump] also called journalists ‘among the most dishonest human beings on earth,’ and he said that up to 1.5 million people had attended his inauguration, a claim that photographs disproved.”

Over and again Trump denies reality. He denies that he mocked a reporter with disabilities; he denies that he has harassed women; and he still can’t decide whether he thinks or thought President Obama was a citizen. Marianne Constable has pointed out the danger of this approach to words in her essay for the Hannah Arendt Center blog:

“When Trump says “X” and later adds not only “I never meant X,” but also “I never said ‘X’,” fact-checkers work over the issue of whether Trump actually said “X.” His disavowal of having said “X” raises a more crucial issue than what was or was not said though. When what one hears is denied, and the denials continue no matter the facts, the issue becomes one of disregard and not simply disavowal. One can no longer believe one’s ears. No wonder that at least half of the country is reeling. We have entered very shaky ground when we cannot rely on our hearing and speech.”

Our public world is made up of words and actions. With President Trump, that world is seemingly cleaved into two. We are told the world of action is the one that matters, we should ignore his words. It is not simply that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It is that words are fungible, malleable, fleeting. Anything can be said and then retracted. People shouldn’t attach such importance to his words. But beyond the pain words cause, words and the stories they tell help build the common world we share together. When words become unreliable, we lose the confidence that we can know and live in that world. If we retreat from an unknowable and unreliable public world into our private bubbles of meaning, we then cede action in the world to the President and those who have emptied the public world of sense. As Constable continues,

“But it is precisely his words and their failure to distinguish fact from falsehood that have made him impossible to know as a political figure, as a speaker and actor in public. His disregard for his own words has contributed to making public speech impossible to trust.”

It is true the politicians lie. President Trump and his supporters are fond of pointing out that Hillary Clinton told some whoppers. And it is true that the media and government have, over the last 50 years, increasingly presented a common sense story of America that leaves out the stories of many Americans.

But there is a difference between lying, telling partial stories, and stretching the facts on the one hand and the bald denial of the reality of what one said or what happened on the other. When Trump says, as he has, that his inauguration was attended by more people than President Obamas, that is not simply a lie, it is a full-on denial of reality. It is a claim of immense power, to say that what the rest of you saw with your eyes did not happen and does not exist. The more the President denies reality, the less trustworthy our reality becomes, the more susceptible we all are to simply throwing up our hands and allowing him and his supporters to have the reality they want. It is paramount that the press and all of us insist on affirming reality. What is shocking and terrifying is how unstable and fragile that commitment to reality has become.

In her chapter on “The Totalitarian Movement” in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt notes that the leaders of movements are marked by their “extreme contempt for facts as such.” The reason for this contempt for facts is that the world is complicated and uncertain. For the masses of people who are suffering dislocation, instability, and meaninglessness in their lives,

“movements conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself; in which, through sheer imagination, uprooted masses can feel at home and are spared the never-ending shocks which real life and real experiences deal to human beings and their expectations.”

The great danger in all movements is that they can have no firm goal; as movements, they continually need to stir up their supporters who drive them forward. If any goal is met, a new one must be contrived. So movements are motivated less by a firm end than by a promise to fulfill a deep spiritual need. That is why movements mobilize masses who are longing for a “completely consistent, comprehensible, and predictable world.” There is a “desire to escape from reality because in [the mass of the people’s] essential homelessness they can no longer bear its accidental, incomprehensible aspects…

That Trump has so insightfully characterized and mobilized his supporters as a movement is evidence of his deep understanding of what he is doing. He possesses an incredible instinct for those words, phrases, and insinuations that give order and sense to the movement. He pokes at racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Islamism and in doing so allows his supporters to construct coherent narratives about the America Trump will restore to its greatness. He appears as the truth-teller, the one who reveals those hidden truths that polite society and the elites refuse to utter. And because the elites are so careful to not offend anyone and have placed so many topics and truths off the table of common conversation, Trump looks like a prophet and a truth-teller.

For those of us who insist on trying to make sense of President Trump and what he wants, his inaugural address was helpful. He emphasized certain core claims that have been largely constant throughout his campaign. He wants to use tariffs to renegotiate trade agreements and trade practices and to help American workers; he wants to compel our allies to share more of the burden of the defense of the global order; and he to grow the economy by taking on more debt, investing in infrastructure, and cutting taxes. This is a coherent if at times radical program that does represent the interests of particular groups.

From the perspective of those worried about the President’s constitutional commitments, Trump’s consistency is a good thing. So long as the President is actually working toward real interests — so long as he does not simply “use and abuse [his] own ideological and political elements until the basis of factual reality have all but disappeared,” Trump will remain a populist rather than something far worse.


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