What Comes After Denial? Thoughts on Donald Trump’s Movement

“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.”
—Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

I was in the lobby of a theatre this week after the election, having an honest talk about Donald Trump. A lady came over to me and my friends and whispered, “keep your voice down or you’ll get arrested.” I told her she was being ridiculous and she responded that we all had to be careful. He would arrest his critics. I understand some people are upset. I’m upset. But paranoia leads to isolation. The worst thing we can do is silence ourselves, to act as if the danger is worse than it is. There are real problems. Let’s not pretend to have problems that don’t exist.

So what is the situation that shows itself in the election of Donald Trump?

Donald Trump is boorish and a bully. He is mean. Whether he actually is a bigot or just plays one on the national stage, his enabling of bigotry is real. The NY Times published a long list of the 282 people and ideas that Trump insulted on Twitter. Anyone who reads that list and doesn’t see that Trump is a stunted person has lost their faculty of judgment. It may be that 58% of those who voted for Trump don’t like him. Many say that he is different in private. But does it matter? What matters is less Trump himself than what his election says about us.

Trump’s most revealing line was early in the primaries when he claimed he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still be elected President. He has been proven correct.

I am shaken by the lack of judgment of my fellow Americans. For Trump, the basic principle of nihilism, that everything is permitted, is a mantra. It is a sign of his ruthlessness, his willingness to do anything to win. And that is part of his attraction: that he will be a strong leader who will do anything to win. In business, Trump uses lawyers to refuse to pay his contractors. He uses lawyers to avoid income taxes (sometimes legally, but likely not always). He uses lawyers to bully those who would question him and journalists who report on him. Just two weeks ago he repeatedly threatened to not accept the election results. The very ‘win at all cost’ mentality that should disqualify him convinces us that Trump will succeed.

I say this as someone who very much understands the attraction of someone like Trump, an outsider who would come into Washington owing no one anything and “drain the swamp” as Trumps’ supporters like to say. I at times hoped Trump would prove himself worthy, for I am furious at political corruption and the culture of lobbying. I too want to attack the culture of privilege in government and in business and in cultural institutions. If Trump carries through his plan to reduce lobbyists, reduce regulations, and limit congressional terms, much good would come. But what in God’s name makes people think that Trump can do this? He has no experience in administration. No record of public service. And shows no evidence of being able to manage a sprawling Federal bureaucracy, let alone being able to oversee foreign policy. He lies with abandon and insults everyone. How have we put our hope in such a man?

When we lose our willingness to judge, when we come to accept vileness into our political world, we prove that we have made peace with our nihilistic faith that “everything is permitted” so long as it is useful. We show ourselves for who we are, a people whose indifference to ethical vacuity exemplifies our own banality with regards to evil. This election is a necessary mirror, and we should all be looking at ourselves.

What drives the pundits crazy is that the data doesn’t support their simplistic narratives. Trump won more Latino and more African American voters than Mitt Romney despite the fact that Trump legitimized angry denunciations of illegal immigration from Mexico and fanned racism and antisemitism; Clinton didn’t carry women voters by as much as Barack Obama did and Trump won the majority of working-class-white women, even though Trump bragged about sexual assault and was accused of assault by eleven women; and white lower-class voters began to abandon their traditional democratic leanings even though Trump is a plutocrat with absolutely no record of public service, no history of philanthropy, and no record of being concerned for the average American. The pundits are befuddled, since they thought and think the election was about race, gender, and class. But the data around racial and gender support are all equivocal.

Too often left out in this litany of resentments is the fact that Trump’s popularity was fueled by a deep, abiding, and angry resentment against the pundit class itself, the elites — that is those of us in positions of authority throughout this country. More than racism and sexism, and even more than class, this election was a rebellion against elite power.

The elites have given themselves the keys to power. Seventy-two percent of all voters in the New York Times’ exit polls (voters for both Hillary Clinton and for Trump) say they “believe the economy is rigged for the advantage of the rich and powerful.” Sixty-eight percent of all voters believe that “politicians from Republican and Democratic parties don’t care about people like you and me.” If we want to know where Trump comes from, we should be looking at those of us in the political, business, media, and cultural elite.

What stands out in the election polling and is obvious from watching the frenzied and enthusiastic support for both Trump and Bernie Sanders is that the electorate is furious at the power of the elite. The people feel spurned. The forgotten people are rebelling. We are witnessing a rejection of elite power. Eighty-three percent of Trump voters say “bringing real change” is the most important quality in a President. We are seeing a rejection of ourselves. And we need to take that seriously.

Throughout history, the people don’t despise or resent power in itself. What they resent, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted in his description of the French Aristocrats about to lose their power, is unjust and illegitimate power.

“[T]he French people hated the aristocrats about to lose their power more than it had ever hated them before, precisely because their rapid loss of real power was not accompanied by any considerable decline in their fortunes.”

The people loved the aristocrats until the power of the rich seemed unnecessary and “the people felt them to be parasites, without any real function in the rule of the country.” The lesson Hannah Arendt took from Tocqueville is that “neither oppression nor exploitation as such is ever the main cause for resentment; wealth without visible function is much more intolerable because nobody can understand why it should be tolerated.” In other words, when people rebel, it is because they come to see the power elite as useless and superfluous. They are usually right.

Trump has tapped into the growing realization that the wealth and power of the connected business, political, cultural, and media elites has no visible function. When the economy is growing, when schools are functioning, when health care is accessible, when jobs are plentiful, and when hard work leads to success, the people generally tolerate and respect the powerful. For the last 50 years, however, the elite has made a promise to the people. “Let us — the college-educated, the social-scientists, and the experts — let us run the country. Give us your taxes. You live your lives and don’t involve yourselves in politics. Let us take care of you.” And after fifty years, the people are looking at the system that the elites have created and crying foul.

Trump’s election is an opportunity, if we grasp it. It is an opportunity to break down our prejudices and reach out to the people who are so angry that they were willing to risk voting for Trump. We should hear their stories with an empathy and solidarity that is currently lacking. Yes they must listen to us as well. Both sides need to reach out and engage in deep and ethical listening of the kind imagined in this public living room conversation between Trump and Clinton supporters. And that will require revising our worldviews, admitting our own failures and limitations, and renewing our respect for people very different from ourselves.

In writing about the evils of genocide and totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt insisted on the effort to understand. “To understand totalitarianism is not to condone anything, but to reconcile ourselves to a world in which such things are possible at all.” Understanding means making our knowledge of totalitarianism meaningful. Understanding is a “strange enterprise,” and an “unending activity” by which we “come to terms with and reconcile ourselves to reality, that is, try to be at home in the world.” But why should we make totalitarianism meaningful? Why reconcile with evil?

Arendt argues that by making totalitarianism “meaningful,” understanding “prepare[s] a new resourcefulness of the human mind and heart.” In understanding, we take the other person’s point of view. We don’t abdicate our power to judge, but we do seek to make sense of that view, to see the world from its perspective. When I seek to understand I broaden my own view of the world and come to know my own view of the world as partial. This is why “Understanding is the specifically political way of thinking;” in understanding I take “the other fellow’s point of view!” and thus enter into political dialogue.

The election of Donald Trump as President needs to be understood; we need to enter into a political dialogue with the people who are angry. We need to listen to them. Listening does not mean agreeing. We may find them wrong. But we need to listen and we need to reconcile ourselves to a world in which people who don’t like Trump, who find what he says offensive and rude, would nevertheless take the risk in making him President because they are desperate to break up and destroy the corrupt system of power. My remarks here are an effort at such an understanding.

The United States finds itself amidst a worldwide reaction against globalization, cosmopolitanism, and elite governance. Terrorism threatens civilized security; climate change threatens our earth and our health; globalization threatens to leave us homeless and rootless; refugees threaten to render ever-greater populations superfluous; technology threatens to make humans superfluous; bureaucracy threatens a tyrannical rule of nobody; and rampant inequality combined with corruption threaten to undo the legitimacy of government, business, religious, academic, and other institutions that are the bedrock of our lives. The problems are so enormous that hoping for a solution feels juvenile.

To whom shall we turn to for guidance in such perilous times? The same politicians, funded by the one percent, who have lined their pockets and led us to the brink? The business community with deep interests in the status quo? The media, corporate owned, who feed us pro-and-contra as if it were a tennis match? The cultural elite that is obsessed with itself and sees the majority of Americans as rubes and bumpkins?

The people have turned to Donald Trump as their tribune. Why?

Part of the problem is that they saw no good alternative. Hillary is to my mind a supremely competent person. Hillary’s loss was painful for me and many others. But we also must listen to what the voters say. They want change. When Trump says that Hillary has been in and around power for 20 years and asks what she will do now that she hasn’t done then, he is right. The voters despair of change. Hillary and Bill Clinton are now worth somewhere around $50 Million according to Forbes Magazine. Whatever Trump may be worth (and we don’t know), he earned his money through dirty business, but at least he admits it. The Clintons come across as hypocritical, claiming to be warriors in the public interest. But in 14 years between 2001 and 2015, they earned $230 million through speaking engagements, book deals, and consulting gigs. While the media largely covered the Clinton’s email server scandal, the social media world lit up over the pay-to-play scandal around the Clinton Foundation that was revealed in the Wikileaks hacks. I have no love for Wikileaks and I understand the hesitancy to publish hacked private emails. But there is no doubt that Hillary’s willingness to enrich herself and her family in and around her public work and her apparent conflict of interest during her time at the State Department that contributed to her defeat.

Perhaps even more important was Hillary’s labeling of Trump supporters deplorable. Worse, she doubled down and said maybe only half of his supporters were deplorable. This is a form of bigotry. Granted, Clinton did not make bigotry a centerpiece of her campaign, as did Trump. But Trump’s bigotry was always presented as entertainment, as a flourish. He walked a fine line between bigotry and hyperbole; at times he crossed that line. But Trump could always plausibly say he didn’t mean it. With Hillary’s comments about the deplorables, there was no doubt. She, and so many of us, her supporters, feel immeasurably superior to Trump supporters. Too many of us see them as uneducated, rude, racist, sexist, xenophobic, and less important. Our privileges are justified because we are better. We elites need to face our very real bigotry; if we don’t, this election will be just the beginning.

But still, why Trump? Why did the people choose a plutocratic billionaire playboy and harasser with no public experience and no apparent administrative competence to be their savior? On one level, Trump’s celebrity and narcissism allowed him to stay in the race even when he said and did things that should have ended his candidacy. There have been other “outsider” candidates who have captured the people’s imagination, and then crashed and burned. I think of Herman Cain and his 9–9–9 tax proposal and his insistence on a three-page limit on all congressional legislation. Cain was the most-covered candidate in the 2012 Republican field according to Pew Research, until allegations of sexual assault ended his campaign. Somehow, Trump just powered through much more specific and numerous allegations. And his supporters did not care.

But there is a more important reason that Trump — hardly a man of the people — was able to become a leader of what he aptly describes as a mass movement. The key to understanding Trump’s success is to see how and why he has been able to commandeer a movement.

In her chapter on “The Totalitarian Movement” in 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 truthteller.

In a recent essay in the New York Times, Jason Stanley offers the following quotation from Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism on his way to arguing that Trump uses propaganda to promote a racist ideology.

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.

Stanley argues that the effort to create a consistent reality must be in the service of some “simple reality as a means to express his power.” The only question Stanley sees is, “What is the simple reality that Trump is trying to convey?” For Stanley, the answer is obvious. “The simple picture Trump is trying to convey is that there is wild disorder, because of American citizens of African-American descent, and immigrants. He is doing it as a display of strength, showing he is able to define reality and lead others to accept his authoritarian value system.”

But this assumes that Trump’s movement is a totalitarian movement, one that seeks to fully actualize its fictional world through terror, an assault on the rule of law, the empowerment of a bureaucratic secret police, and total domination. Arendt describes the way a totalitarian government is grounded in a movement. Her description of the danger in movements is relevant. But there is simply no evidence for this idea and no need to believe that Trump is a totalitarian figure.

What is more, there is no coherent ideology underlying Trump’s movement. The very premise of totalitarianism is that there is a single, unifying, total idea — an ideology — that is to be actualized and affirmed. Trump has no such governing idea. His pragmatic openness characterizes his particular movement and is what makes his movement both so popular and so dangerous. It is a 21st-century movement in the sense that Trump, as its leader, does not insist on any kind of fidelity to a single idea. He empowers all sorts of fantasies (anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic, racist, misogynistic, nationalist, and more). But no one in the movement must pledge fidelity to one idea. What he does as the leader of the movement is make it acceptable to establish whatever conspiratorial fantasy one wants. And the way Trump does this is through a cynical and nihilistic war on reality.

The power behind Trump’s movement is cynicism. What Arendt saw in movements in general and Trump has now made real is that cynicism is deeply liberating. When reality is oppressive and messy and disorderly, cynicism gives people permission to remake their realities in ways that are more comfortable:

“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.”

The totalitarian leaders Arendt described sought to make their followers believe their ideologies and saw that they

“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.”

Trump has mobilized that same cynicism, but without the claim of guiding or leading an ideologically driven movement. He has empowered a uniquely American and individualist version of a movement, one that grants individuals and groups license to create and defend their own meaningful realities.

I stayed up on election night to see the President Elect give his acceptance speech. I told others the speech was important. We had to see how he would react to having won. And in general, I was heartened by what I heard and saw. He was gracious and Presidential. The one policy he spoke of was one that appeals more to liberals than to conservatives, the investment of $1 trillion into infrastructure developments in inner cities and around the country.

When I offer praise for Trump’s speech, my colleagues scoff. They ignore or laugh at Trump’s repeated insistence that he will invest in inner cities and rebuild our outdated infrastructure. And they deride Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again.” True, there is an emptiness to such a cliché and also a dangerous nostalgia for a time that does not exist.

Yes, but we can also hear Trump’s slogan charitably. It is a call to a time when in America we built the world’s tallest buildings, opened the Western frontier, took risks to construct beautiful bridges and open grand public concourses. Yes, in settling the West we committed a genocide. Yes, FDR’s National Highway System may have been justified as a wartime necessity, but it was also emblematic of an American drive for the bold and the big. Central Park was imagined as a way to keep the huddled masses happy, but it has proven a grand and democratizing public space. Nostalgia is always partial; but that doesn’t mean nostalgia is not meaningful. It calls us to values we cherish. It beckons us to act.

I suggest that, for now, we read Trump’s positive project charitably. This in no way means that we abandon our vigilance regarding the very real dangers Trump represents. Those dangers include our collective loss of judgment, public cynicism, and the real threat of increasing violence against many communities and individuals. We must have the courage to stand up to violations and actions that threaten the rule of law, the dignity of persons, and basic Constitutional rights. Thus we must heed Arendt’s warning, not to excuse the stirrings of tyranny and totalitarianism when we see it:

“There is a great temptation to explain away the intrinsically incredible by means of liberal rationalizations. In each one of us, there lurks such a liberal, wheedling us with the voice of common sense. The road to totalitarian domination leads through many intermediate stages for which we can find numerous analogies and precedents…”

Arendt meant those words as warnings not to excuse other countries that would begin down the path to totalitarian domination. But it applies well to us hear in the United States as well. I have written about the real elements of fascism that are included in Trump’s movement. We are not yet in any danger of becoming a totalitarian country. Let’s be thankful for that. And let’s keep it that way.

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