The mainstreaming of totalitarianism

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 mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that … one 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. (Hannah Arendt)

In this oft-reprinted quote from Hannah Arendt’s seminal work The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), many 21st-century readers, particularly those engaged in pro-democracy movements in the United States and abroad, see Donald Trump and the emergent totalitarian formation of Trumpism sewn piecemeal onto the template that she constructed whole cloth from Hitler and Stalin’s political regimes. Although Trump hasn’t yet matched the political power, penchant for violence, or historical significance of Hitler or Stalin, he has made clear his disdain for democracy and exhibits a desire and willingness to use his power and violence to undo its institutional structures. For readers who are encouraged by the emergence of Trumpism and excited by its promise to make America great again, which includes inciting nationalistic pride, putting America’s interests first ahead of global concerns, policing public school curriculum for progressive ideological biases, packing the courts with sympathetic ideologues, and using banal procedural rules to derail the spirit of democratic negotiation and compromise then her work may provide you with a cautionary tale regarding the potential implications of delivering on those promises.

For its critics, Trumpism’s thrust is transparently dystopian, its trajectory violent and oppressive, its appeal to national greatness cynical, and its outcome always tragic and bloody. They have also consistently underestimated Trump’s capacity for violence and his ability, like Vladimir Putin, to ‘leverage inscrutability.’ But for Trumpists, the ethos of totalitarianism and the future it promises is not oppressive or frightening, but is empowering and liberating.

Trumpism, unlike liberal democracy, promises safety, security, purity, and pride; it represents a viable alternative to a political system that has left them angry, fearful, insecure, guilty, and marginalized. Trumpism promises that all citizens will be released from the responsibilities of governing – what Erich Fromm described as ‘negative freedom’ – while its supporters’ social, cultural, political, economic, and educational needs will be met. Equally important, they will, once again, be able to feel good about their nation, race, history, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and religion without guilt or apology. Embracing what Putin calls a politics of ‘counter-enlightenment,’ Trump represents himself and Trumpism as a corrective to what he sees as liberal democracy’s failure to defend the homeland from socialists, multicultural agitators, globalists, and dissident intellectuals. Like Putin’s United Russia party, Trumpists view liberal democracy as a ‘political arrangement that has outlived its purpose.’

It’s true that Trump/Trumpism’s supporters do not typically describe their emergent party or his leadership as totalitarian, even though they both embody many of its central organizing characteristics: Trumpism’s ethos and the future it imagines is anti-democratic; it demands from its constituencies an exchange of relative agency for the promise of comfort, safety, and security; it views compromise as weakness and domination as strength; truth is relative to its power as are its lies; it substitutes the rule of law for an ethic of domination; it requires schools to function as ideological state apparatuses; it uses violence and the threat of violence as a lever for social and political control; it manufactures propaganda through for-profit media to confuse, distort, and miseducate the public in the service of its own power; it is led and propelled by the charisma of an autocratic leader; it scapegoats a range of people who it sees as the cause of the country’s failings; it wants to reestablish racial and gender hierarchies; it substitutes nationalism for patriotism; and it criminalizes dissent. To deflect and deny its connection to these totalitarian characteristics, Trumpists portray themselves as victims of the ‘radical left’ whom they argue are trying to replace democracy with an authoritarian socialist government. Thus far, it seems to be an effective strategy, at least in terms of its ability to create a counter-hegemonic discourse within the GOP and conservative media, and in broadening Trumpism’s support more generally.

What adds to the frustration of pro-democracy movements in the United States and stymies their initiatives – in addition to liberal democracy and neoliberalism’s failure to deliver economic, food, health, and educational security to vast segments of the population – is Trump/Trumpism’s refusal to acknowledge its alignment with totalitarian ideology. Like Putin, Trump uses democracy as a veil to hide the totalitarian ethos of his party and leadership. Because of its public rejection of totalitarianism as a way to describe the party’s ethos and developing ideology, the leadership can condemn past totalitarian regimes – even assert that pro-democracy movements are themselves repressive – while, at the same time, advance a political agenda that is in line with totalitarianism’s essential principles. Standing behind other 21st-century ‘standard-bearers of counter-enlightenment’ like Putin, Viktor Orbán, and Kim Jong-un, Trump aspires to their levels of dictatorial power while using existing democratic institutions to elevate his standing and hollow-out democratic structures.

Not since the 1930s, writes Jill Lepore, has the hegemony of democracy in the United States been challenged as it is being challenged today from the totalitarian formation of Trumpism. As with the formation of past totalitarian regimes in Europe and South America, Trumpism has broad support from a diversity of people across the mainstream of society. Beyond the parade of characters we often see in the neoliberal media, Trumpism’s popularity reaches through the radical fringe and deep into the heart of the GOP. In addition to its ‘base’ of neo-Nazi’s marching with tiki torches and chanting anti-Semitic slogans; Proud Boys and Oath Keepers looking to intimidate and do violence to anyone who gets in their way; or even those rank and file republicans who stormed the Capitol, Trumpism’s hegemonic power arises in large part from the support it gets from mainstream GOP, libertarian, and independent voters throughout the country. Trumpism’s widening demographic of support forces the utopic agenda of totalitarianism into the centre of democratic life.

For those who scoff at the idea that there are parallel lessons to be gleaned from past totalitarian regimes, they should remember that only in retrospect do many of us look back and say with righteous indignation, there but for the grace of God go I. Indeed, Stalin, Castro, Chavez, and Mao maintained a grip on the left’s imaginary, even after bodies were discovered, books banned and burned, curriculum in the schools colonized, pedagogy surveilled, and dissidents imprisoned, murdered and exiled. Until he was discovered for being the genocidal maniac that he was, Hitler remained popular to many mainstream Germans, French, Austrians, and Poles who saw salvation and a radicalized hope in his soaring militaristic and anti-Semitic rhetoric. He promised German citizens a return to regional dominance and gave them permission to have pride in their culture and country. Others saw a powerful, truth-talking force of reform that was willing to help their allies rid themselves of Jews and others who challenged the cultural hegemony of white Christians in the region. He couldn’t have done what he did, nor could any of the other totalitarian leaders of the 20th century, without the implicit support of the mainstream citizenry and the military.

It’s important to remember that, before the Holocaust trains became a symbol of terror and death globally, they were perceived by many Germans, Austrians, French, and Poles as a reasonable response to a real problem. Similarly, many Americans throughout US history, although not living under a formal totalitarian system, were nevertheless convinced that slavery, Jim Crow, Japanese internment camps, the ‘deculturalization’ of Native Americans in Indian boarding schools, McCarthyism, and the criminalization of homosexuality were reasonable reactions to perceived threats. Rarely framed as articulations of totalitarian ideology, to the victims of these policies and initiatives, rationalistic appeals to Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism provided little comfort. In the passion of these historical moments, mainstream Americans, like their European and South American counterparts under different conditions, were consumed and blinded by the dominant power’s utopic imaginary, making it difficult for them to recognize the unforeseen terror of totalitarian ideology that was hiding in plain sight.

As an articulation of past totalitarian regimes, Trumpism is a relatively blank slate upon which the fearful, insecure, nostalgic, righteous, and nationalistic can project their own fantasies of what a return to greatness will look like under Trump’s charismatic leadership. I believe this is why Trump/Trumpism continues to have such broad support across radically different constituencies. For its followers, the ‘post-modern’ ambiguity of Trumpism allows them to imprint, map, project and transfer their own knowledge, experience, rage, and hope onto its articulation of totalitarian leadership and power. Trump/Trumpism will deliver them from the repressive terrors of ‘illiberal’ democracy and into a future in which their group’s interests will be respected and protected from ‘the other’ and all the dangers to freedom and opportunity they represent.

The most concrete move Trump makes in the service of Trumpism – and the crux of its power – is to provide different groups with different enemies for different reasons, all the while positioning himself as the only person who can mitigate violence, enforce the peace, and determine what is just. The list of enemies is long and always growing: Black and brown people, the disabled, feminists, gay people, immigrants, Mexicans, the impoverished, China, liberals, socialists, ‘agitators,’ the ‘liberal’ media, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, the New York TimesThe Washington Post, Amazon, the US postal service, higher education, public schools, history teachers, science, Palestinians, Muslims, Jews, ‘critical race theory,’ ethnic studies, abortion rights advocates, Dr Fauci, the ‘radical left,’ ‘liberal’ judges, transsexuals, and intellectuals are his main targets today. Once he has manufactured representations of these ‘enemies of the people,’ his followers (i.e., the people) pick and choose which ones are most deserving of their rage, while ignoring those that might contradict or trouble their choices. From the pulpit of social media, Trump appoints himself judge, jury, and executioner.

Jews can ignore his anti-Semitic dog whistles and alignment with white supremacist movements because he gives them the divisive issue of Israel and the anti-Semitic threat of Palestinians and Muslims. His followers, who would never think of themselves as racist or misogynistic, rationalize their support on his representation of socialists and dissident intellectuals while ignoring his degrading comments about women and people of colour. Evangelicals glam onto his support of Israel, anti-abortion, and homophobia while ignoring his profane behaviour and language toward women and immigrants. Working-class white people are encouraged to ally themselves with wealthy whites even though their class and racial interests are more consistent with working-class people of colour. Anti-government ‘vaxxers’ demand that the government ban and/or regulate a woman’s decision to abort a foetus in her body, while demanding that the government has no right to mandate vaccinations during the COVID pandemic. Parents are encouraged to surveil and censor teachers and curriculum in their children’s schools for ‘anti-American’ and ‘liberal’ bias, while demanding that teachers and curriculum remain neutral. Etc., etc., etc. This creates a tapestry of contradictions that strengthens Trumpism while confusing the pro-democracy movement.

It is true and no small matter that liberal democracy in its uneasy partnership with neoliberalism has failed to provide the poor, the working-class, African-Americans, recent refugees and immigrants, women, and members of the LGBTQ community formidable levels of political capital. It is also inefficient, expensive, and frightening, or in Winston Churchill’s famous characterization from 1947, ‘the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’ In its more radically utopic forms, it checks against power’s concretization and centralization while holding it accountable through elections, term limits, constitutional constraints, and the continued participation of the people. Yet this is only true if, as Churchill continued, ‘there is the broad feeling … that the people should rule, continuously rule, and that public opinion, expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of Ministers who are their servants and not their masters.’

In 2022, I am much less convinced than Churchill was in 1947 that there is a broad feeling in the United States that the people should continuously rule. Democracy only works if a large majority of the citizenry believes in the value of self-governance and learns the associative skills and habits of mind it demands. Once the idea of self-governance becomes suspect and undesirable to enough people, then democracy’s hegemonic power will weaken and be replaced. Democracy’s only real promise to those constituencies of people who are suffering from the anomic implications of official power is its commitment to a process by which diverse people work together toward common goals. Outside of some abstract and contentious appeals to human nature, justice, and rights, it provides little guidance about what the outcomes of this process should be and offers no guarantees that participating in the process will get you everything that you want. Diverse democracies require high levels of emotional maturity, intellectual sophistication, and equitable relations of capital, while totalitarianism, by contrast, is an infantilizing discourse unburdened by ethical constraints, the need to compromise, or the requirement for the people’s continuous participation in governance.

Harvard political science professor Daniel Ziblatt points out that this is no longer a fight between conservatives and liberals, occasionally provoked and troubled by the radical ideas of dissident intellectuals: It is now a struggle over the hegemony of opposing ideological formations. This struggle marks the beginning of a ‘cold’ civil war in the United States. What the pro-totalitarian movement in the United States understands that the pro-democracy movement does not is that they are playing a zero-sum game. Whether the pro-democracy movement in the United States can learn the rules of this new game as they play remains to be seen.

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Eric J. Weiner

Eric J. Weiner is an Associate Professor in the department of Educational Foundations at Montclair State University, New Jersey, U.S.A. He writes about a range of issues from the perspectives of critical pedagogy, semiotics, aesthetics, sociolinguistics, and sociological theory. His work focuses on the intersection of meaning and power in everyday life. Recent books include: Deschooling the Imagination: Critical Thought as Social Practice (2015, Routledge); The Theater of Educational Possibility: Where Teachers Learn How to Think Critically and Act Creatively (2012 Peter Lang); Private Learning, Public Needs: The Neoliberal Assault on Democratic Education (2005 Peter Lang Publishers).



Article Feature Image Acknowledgement: Photo by Jørgen Håland on Unsplash