Why Arendt Matters: Revisiting “The Origins of Totalitarianism”

Roger Berkowitz reviews Hannah Arendt’s landmark “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” framing the book within the context of contemporary politics.

By Roger BerkowitzMarch 18, 2017

Why Arendt Matters: Revisiting “The Origins of Totalitarianism”

THE ASTONISHING STATEMENT Donald Trump made at a January 2016 campaign rally in Iowa seems like the essential moment in his unexpected rise to power: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody,” he said, “and I wouldn’t lose voters.” In saying that he could kill in broad daylight and remain popular, Trump did more than draw a logical conclusion from polls showing that his supporters demonstrated unprecedented loyalty. He understood that he was not running a political campaign but was the leader of a mass movement. Most importantly, he understood something that his critics still fail to understand: the essential nature of loyalty in mass movements.

Mass movements, writes Hannah Arendt in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, are one of the core elements of totalitarianism. Arendt does not say that all mass movements are totalitarian; to take seriously President Trump’s claim to be the mouthpiece of a movement is not to claim that he is a totalitarian leader or that he is leading a totalitarian movement. He has not mobilized terror, concentration camps, arbitrary arrests, a secret police, and a party apparatus that rises above the state — all of which were essential parts of Arendt’s description of totalitarianism in power. Mass deportation of undocumented immigrants — disgusting as it is — is not the same thing as de-naturalization, imprisonment, and deportation of citizens. Common sense insists that we not abandon reality and imagine that the United States is experiencing totalitarianism.

It is equally irresponsible, however, to ignore the important similarities that the president’s self-professed movement shares with totalitarianism. President Trump has repeatedly asserted he leads “a movement like the world has never seen before.” He has shown a willingness to assert his personal control over reality. And he has positioned himself as a Janus-faced figure who can present one version of reality to his followers and another version to the outside world. These are all characteristics Arendt attributes to leaders of totalitarian movements.

There is always a temptation to rationalize what is happening in politics, to say: this has all happened before. There is a voice in each one of us, wheedling us with common sense, telling us that Trump is simply another instantiation of American populism. That voice is likely correct. But we should be wary of such voices, Arendt warns, for “the road to totalitarian domination leads through many intermediate stages for which we can find numerous analogies and precedents.”


Arendt’s understanding of the origins of totalitarianism begins with her insight that mass movements are founded upon “atomized, isolated individuals.” The lonely people whom Arendt sees as the adherents of movements are not necessarily the poor or the lower classes. They are the “neutral, politically indifferent people who never join a party and hardly ever go to the polls.” They are not unintelligent and are rarely motivated by self-interest. Arendt writes that Heinrich Himmler understood these isolated individuals when he “said they were not interested in ‘everyday problems’ but only ‘in ideological questions of importance for decades and centuries, so that the man […] knows he is working for a great task which occurs but once in 2,000 years.’” The adherents of movements are not motivated by material interests; they “are obsessed by a desire to escape from reality because in their essential homelessness they can no longer bear its accidental, incomprehensible aspects.”

Movements thrive on the destruction of reality. Because the real world confronts us with challenges and obstructions, reality is uncertain, messy, and unsettling. Movements work to create alternate realities that offer adherents a stable and empowering place in the world. Amid economic dislocation and the loss of stable identities, the Nazis’ promise of Aryan superiority is stabilizing. Stalin understood that people would easily overlook lies and mass murder if it were in their interest to do so. Above all, movements promise consistency. Movements “conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself.”

Simone Weil wrote that “to be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” The modern condition of rootlessness is a foundational experience of totalitarianism; totalitarian movements succeed when they offer rootless people what they most crave: an ideologically consistent world aiming at grand narratives that give meaning to their lives. By consistently repeating a few key ideas, a manipulative leader provides a sense of rootedness grounded upon a coherent fiction that is “consistent, comprehensible, and predictable.”

The reason fact-checking is ineffective today — at least in convincing those who are members of movements — is that the mobilized members of a movement are confounded by a world resistant to their wishes and prefer the promise of a consistent alternate world to reality. When Donald Trump says he’s going to build a wall to protect our borders, he is not making a factual statement that an actual wall will actually protect our borders; he is signaling a politically incorrect willingness to put America first. When he says that there was massive voter fraud or boasts about the size of his inauguration crowd, he is not speaking about actual facts, but is insisting that his election was legitimate. “What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.”

Leaders of these mass totalitarian movements do not need to believe in the truth of their lies and ideological clichés. The point of their fabrications is not to establish facts, but to create a coherent fictional reality. What a movement demands of its leaders is the articulation of a consistent narrative combined with the ability to abolish the capacity for distinguishing between truth and falsehood, between reality and fiction.

The skill that President Trump excels at is his “ability to dissolve every statement of fact into a declaration of purpose,” the very skill Arendt attributes to the elite within totalitarian movements. Trump 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 Islamophobia, 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 political 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 the only person in the country willing to tell the truth.

It is true that facts are being manufactured on all sides today. It is widely reported that Donald Trump called all Mexicans criminals and racists. Most reporters know this is not what the president has said, yet The New York Times repeatedly prints this lie in news articles. In the same way, people speak of Trump’s “Muslim ban” knowing that the president’s executive order did not single out Muslims. It is widely asserted that the president is anti-Semitic, but there is little evidence to support such a conclusion. Those who repeat what they know to be false believe that their understanding expresses a deeper truth, that President Trump is Islamophobic and xenophobic. And Bernie Sanders also mobilized a movement of lonely and rootless cosmopolitans, many of whom sought to stifle dissent and punish deviations from the movement’s ideological center. Much like the movement led by President Trump, the opposition also has characteristics of a reality-denying movement.

There is an important difference, however, between President Trump’s falsifications and those of his critics. Neither Sanders’s followers nor Trump’s critics in the media have broken free from reality as radically as has President Trump. They continue to respect that there is an impartial truth. When it is shown to them that they are falsifying facts, they are chastened. They may continue in their untruths, convinced that their fictions are more useful than the facts; they may prefer life in their filter bubbles to the reality of real disagreement. But they know they are being hypocritical when they exaggerate or bend that truth; they can still be embarrassed and shamed. The New York Times and the mainstream media at least still believe in the ideal of truth.

President Trump, on the other hand, will never admit he is wrong, will never concede a factual error, and he challenges the existence of any authoritative reality. Even when he conceded that President Obama was born in the United States or when he disavowed David Duke, he did not apologize or admit his errors. In insisting on his ability to establish factual reality, he is denying the authority of the professional class of journalists, government officials, public figures, and reality-centered Americans to present reality. The president’s denial of reality is a kind of self-aggrandizing, self-empowering claim that he is powerful enough as the mouthpiece of the people to escape reality.

All movements employ propaganda to buttress their fictional realities. But totalitarian movements, Arendt writes, go beyond propaganda and embrace violence. To claim that the Moscow subway is the only one in the world “is a lie only so long as the Bolsheviks have not the power to destroy all the others.” And to say that Jews must be eliminated because they are the cause of evil in the world can be proven true only by going about the business of killing Jews. To say that “no man named Trotsky was ever head of the Red Army” requires power, not just propaganda. And that power to make a lying-reality a true reality is the power claimed and actualized by totalitarian governments. Totalitarian movements don’t aim to discredit particular facts; they seek to breed “extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of the man who can fabricate it.”

Such a totalizing claim to be empowered to “fit reality to their lies” is precisely the capacity that Arendt finds in totalitarian movements before they actually attain the power to do so. “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.” Only those who fully embrace cynicism are free to give their undying loyalty to a leader who promises to grant importance to the purposelessness of human life.

What Arendt shows in Origins is that movements are so dangerous and can be central elements of totalitarianism because they provide the psychological conditions for “total loyalty,” the kind of unquestioned loyalty Trump rightly understands himself to possess among his most faithful supporters. “Such loyalty,” she writes, “can be expected only from the completely isolated human being who, without any other social ties to family, friends, comrades, or even mere acquaintances, derives his sense of having a place in the world only from his belonging to a movement.”


Sales of The Origins of Totalitarianism have spiked since President Trump’s election, at one point rising 16 times above its usually robust sales. The Hannah Arendt Center that I founded and run has benefited from an unprecedented surge of over 100 new memberships, and our virtual reading group on The Origins of Totalitarianism has more than doubled in size. Writers and pundits have made frequent references to Arendt’s 500-page masterpiece in the pages of The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The New York Review of Books. What can Arendt’s book teach us today?

The Origins of Totalitarianism reminds us of the horrific reality and historically unprecedented nature of totalitarian governments in Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. History has seen its share of tyrannical regimes; fascism, insofar as it sought to take over the state, was a variant of tyranny. But totalitarianism, as an expansive movement aiming at world domination, was altogether new. It was closely related to the global aspirations of imperialism and it would have been impossible without the emergence of an ideological racism that could justify mass de-naturalizations, mass deportations, and mass killings. Never before, Arendt argues, was there a form of government that so blatantly sought to destroy the dignity of its people.

Totalitarian government is unique in seeking to “kill the juridical person in man” through arbitrary arrests; to “murder […] the moral person in man” by killing him behind barbed wire and depriving him of a meaningful death; and to annihilate the “uniqueness of the human person” by transforming him into an animal. Unlike past authoritarian regimes, 20th-century totalitarianism has more logically demanding aspirations — to put in place a “system in which men are superfluous.” Totalitarianism begins and ends with the insight that “total power can be achieved and safeguarded only in a world of conditioned reflexes, of marionettes without the slightest trace of spontaneity.” The aim is not simply to rule men, but rule them from inside out. In short, totalitarianism aims at “total domination” of the human population.

On the path to total domination, terror is the essence of totalitarian governance. “Terror is lawfulness, if law is the law of the movement of some superhuman force, Nature, or History.” The Soviet Union used terror to actualize Marx’s historical materialism. The Nazis used terror to bring about a social Darwinist vision of the survival of the fittest. Terror destroys the spaces between men and compresses them into a singular mass of ideologically unified beings furiously seeking to actualize a scientifically guaranteed historical or racial law. Thus is terror “the realization of the law of movement; its chief aim is to make it possible for the force of nature or of history to race freely through mankind, unhindered by any spontaneous human action.”

In a system of terror, the concentration and extermination camps are not simply accidental occurrences, but the logical outcomes of a system that insists on the extinction of human freedom and human spontaneity. Over and over again, Arendt insists that the concentration camps were useless from a utilitarian perspective. The Nazis and Bolsheviks could have killed prisoners and undesirables more easily in fields or villages. The camps were economically expensive and a waste of manpower. What the camps provided was training and experimentation in what absolute terror and undefined terror could accomplish — the denial of reality and the breaking of the human spirit.

It is common today to lump together all the various kinds of camps employed by totalitarian and pre-totalitarian regimes. But Arendt distinguishes at least three kinds of camps. The refugee camps, used both in totalitarian and non-totalitarian countries, simply work to keep the “undesirable elements of all sorts — refugees, stateless persons, the asocial and the unemployed” invisible and out of sight; the labor camps, as they existed in the Soviet Union, combined neglect with the chaos of forced labor to create a Purgatory, a gateway to Hell; and finally, the extermination camps perfected by the Nazis, which sought not only physical extermination, but also to reduce living itself to the “greatest possible torment,” opened the gates to Hell. All three types of camps share one goal in common, according to Arendt: “the human masses sealed off in them are treated as if they no longer existed, as if what happened to them were no longer of interest to anybody, as if they were already dead.” The point of these camps is to enact a terror that “enforces oblivion.”

Enforced oblivion is not an uncommon experience in today’s world. There are over 21 million refugees, the vast majority living in temporary and even quasi-permanent refugee camps. Residents of such camps are, increasingly, invisible and superfluous people who exist in contradiction to the principle of “equality before the law.” While these camps are, at first, dangerous only for refugees and stateless peoples, they serve as a dangerous model for how to deal with problematic and superfluous citizens. As Arendt writes,

The clearer the proof of [a state’s] inability to treat stateless people as legal persons and the greater the extension of arbitrary rule by police decree, the more difficult it is for states to resist the temptation to deprive all citizens of legal status and rule them with an omnipotent police.

The rise of nearly unfettered government surveillance is one extreme example of what an omnipotent police might mean. So too is the fact of mass imprisonment in the United States, where over one in 100 adults are in prison, one in 31 Americans are under the control of the corrections system, and one in six African Americans will spend time behind bars. These prisons and camps are not totalitarian. But they do normalize the enforced oblivion that Arendt argues is one element of totalitarian domination.


The Origins of Totalitarianism also alerts us to the dangers of both anti-Semitism and racism when they are weaponized as ideologies. Arendt’s book begins with a 100-page extended essay on “Antisemitism.” Arendt is struck by the discrepancy between the actual unimportance of the Jewish question in the world and the fact that the Jewish question set the “whole infernal machine” of totalitarianism in motion. Against those who claim antisemitism was simply propaganda used to sway the masses, she argues that ideological antisemitism proved an essential justification for terror.

The key insight in Arendt’s surprising approach is that antisemitism is a secular 19th-century ideology, and thus unrelated to the long history of religious “Jew-hatred.” Arendt rejects the conventional orthography “anti-Semitism” and writes instead “antisemitism” to indicate the secular and ideological nature of antisemitism that, in practice, had little to with hatred of actual Jews. The Nazis adopted antisemitism to justify their belief in themselves as a master race fulfilling a prophetic destiny.

Understanding antisemitism as an ideology connects it with racism. Just as Arendt distinguishes ideological antisemitism from Jew-hatred, so does she distinguish ideological racism from what she calls “race thinking” — “one of the many free opinions” that make judgments based on race. While race thinking can represent unjust prejudices, it is simply an opinion, an argument — “it never possessed any kind of monopoly over the political life of the respective nations.” Race-thinking, Arendt argues, avoids the ideological racism in which one race is elevated as a master race and another is made into a natural inferior.

Racism, and not race-thinking, plays an essential role first in the justification of imperialism and then in totalitarianism. Imperialist rule requires the justification of violence over another people in the service of ruling them. Such a justification is possible only on the basis of racism: “Imperialism would have necessitated the invention of racism as the only possible ‘explanation’ and excuse for its deeds.” For Arendt, it is racism, not race-thinking, that is truly dangerous. “There is,” she writes in articulating this distinction, “an abyss between the men of brilliant and facile conceptions and men of brutal deeds.”

Arendt’s linking of racism to imperialism and then to totalitarianism should give pause to those who see in President Trump the beginnings of totalitarianism. While the president has clearly shown a willingness to engage in prejudicial race-thinking, he has studiously avoided the ideological form of racism that could justify the kinds of violent and brutal acts required of totalitarian regimes. On the contrary, the president’s ideological flexibility and pragmatism run counter to the kind of ideological thinking that justifies totalitarian domination.

The one prejudice that the president or at least some of his aides appear willing to weaponize as an ideology is islamophobia — I use a lowercase “i” in the same way Arendt wrote “antisemitic” with a lowercase “s”: to indicate that islamophobia is a secular 21st-century ideology. Stephen Bannon has argued that “Islam is not a religion of peace. Islam is a religion of submission. Islam means submission.” But Bannon is not talking about the Islamic religion; his target is not Islam but the demonization of Islam as a means to justify a war that would reinvigorate American nationalism. Bannon’s ideology is clear in a 2007 film script, where he writes, “The road to the establishment of an Islamic Republic in the United States starts slowly and subtly with the loss of the will to win.” And his 2014 speech at the Vatican where he said, “we are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism.” Bannon’s suggestions that Islam is an inferior religion that needs to be defeated in war for the soul of the West is not about religion; it is an ideological justification for systematic war, expulsion, and worse.

President Trump has rejected Bannon’s formulations about Islam, but only indirectly through a spokesperson. In his speech before Congress in early March, the president referenced the anti-Muslim attack against two Indian Americans alongside attacks on Jewish institutions, saying,

Recent threats targeting Jewish community centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week’s shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.

But the president specifically did not state that the victims of the attack in Kansas City were Indian or that they were thought to be Muslim. Such vague rejections of ideological islamophobia are not adequate.

While the president has not offered anything like a racial, antisemitic, or islamophobic justification for slavery, expulsion, or genocide, his flirtation with those on the alt-right who do make such justifications is supremely dangerous. The distance between an ideology of superiority and inferiority on the one side and mass expulsions and genocide on the other is morally vast but practically narrow. At one point during the campaign, Trump floated and then rejected the idea of a Muslim registry in the United States on national security grounds. What happens after the next terrorist attack? That President Trump has thus far refused to explicitly condemn ideological and physical attacks against Muslims is perhaps the greatest cause for alarm concerning the totalitarian potential of his movement.


The one ideology that President Trump has promoted is nationalism. Perhaps surprisingly, this is the one ideology Arendt argues is incompatible with totalitarian government. Internally, the nation-state imagines legitimacy to come from popular sovereignty and is based on the equal rights of all citizens, thus frustrating the totalitarian need for unrestrained domination. Externally, nationalism privileges parochial interests over world domination. By seeking to rule a determinate and limited nation-state of equal citizens, nationalism is fundamentally opposed to totalitarianism.

President Trump’s nationalist movement can resemble the late 19th-century pan-movements in Europe that Arendt claims were the nearest precursors to Nazism and Bolshevism. One key element of both these pre-totalitarian movements is “that they called themselves ‘movements,’ their very name alluding to the profound distrust for all parties that was already widespread in Europe at the turn of the century.” The pan-movements specifically imagined themselves as operating “outside of all parties.” This attitude was based in the “alienation of the masses from government” and their “hatred and disgust with Parliament.”

What unites the movements is not an interest but a mood: movements “discovered how much more important for mass appeal a general mood was than laid-down outlines and platforms.” The mood movements mobilize is one of constant motion. Arendt tells of Nikolai Berdyaev’s account of a young Soviet man who has traveled to France and complains that there is no freedom in France because nothing there ever changed. Freedom, for the exile from the communist movement, meant excitement, not being bored. Similarly, the Nazis referred to the Weimar Republic as the Systemzeit — the “time of the system.” The clear implication was that it was “sterile, lacked dynamism, did not ‘move’”; Weimar was followed by their “era of the movement,” a mood of epochal things happening.

The speed of politics today, the anger and recriminations, and the accusations and jokes, are all indicative of what Arendt calls the totalitarian mood, the “perpetual-motion mania of totalitarian movements which can remain in power only so long as they keep moving and set everything around them in motion.” All politicians use social media and seek to make politics fun and exciting. Every politician now runs against the boring mediocrity of Washington politics. But Trump is the only one who has been willing to fully embrace the manic potential of a mood that welcomes destruction, brutality, and character assassination as a welcome respite from the tedium of modern existence.

The president’s recent attacks on President Obama — whom only a month ago he was praising for his class — are only the most recent example of the way President Trump appeals to the mood of an electorate in need of constant distraction, destruction, and entertainment. Trump’s changeability — that we never know when he will shift 180 degrees and attack today who he praised yesterday — reflects the “extraordinary adaptability and absence of continuity” that Arendt argues are the essence of the “specifically totalitarian virus.”

A fundamental contradiction remains, however, between the nationalist and thus limited nature of President Trump’s policies and the constantly changing assignations found in his tweets. On the one hand, the president’s policies can be fit into the nationalist frame. His policies are generally conservative and thus announce a need for limited government and limited power. On the other hand, the president’s infinitely confounding tweets recall the anything-but-conservative mood of destruction identified with pre-totalitarian movements.

Trump’s mania for disruption — not his policies — is reminiscent of the many movements that dominated Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. While two of these ended in totalitarianism, the majority led instead to more typical authoritarian regimes. In our contemporary focus on Nazism and Bolshevism, we frequently forget that nearly every country in Europe was already ruled by democratically elected dictatorships at the outbreak of World War II. The principal exception was the United Kingdom and, across the ocean, the United States. Why is it, Arendt asks, that the breakdown of classes, the contempt for parties and states, and the rise of movements were successful in taking over governments on the continent, but not in the Anglo-American countries?

Arendt’s answer turns to the two-party system in Britain and the United States as distinguished from multi-party democracies that were the norm in continental Europe. In a two-party system, each party plans at some point to govern the state, whereas in a multiparty system each party “defines itself consciously as a part of the whole.” On the continent, parties represented partial interests, and to justify those interests were forced to embrace ideologies that interpreted their partisan interests as the general interests of humanity.

In the Anglo-American system, on the other hand, “power as well as the state remain within the grasp of the citizens organized in the party.” Because power is always within reach, there is no need, Arendt writes, for the “indulgence in lofty speculations about Power and State as though they were something beyond human reach, metaphysical entities independent of the will and action of the citizens.” The Anglo-American parties organize citizens first, and party members second. At least this has been true before the 2016 election.

The election of President Trump from both within and without the Republican Party will offer a fascinating test of Arendt’s argument. The question is: Will the president act in concert with his party as the governing party of the state as a whole? Or will he seek to seize the state for the advantage of one party above all parties? The president both needs his party to govern by laws, and has sought largely to appoint cabinet secretaries from the military and business elites who are determinately outside of the party structure. His contempt for government and the institutions of the state is palpable. And yet, any attempt to rule from above the party and above the state will lead to conflicts with the party that he needs to legislate.


Perhaps one of the most under-acknowledged elements of totalitarianism identified by Arendt is the rise to political and social power of a corrupt business and governing class as well as a class of intellectuals that find corruption funny rather than outrageous. In a section of The Origins of Totalitarianism subtitled “The Temporary Alliance of the Mob and the Elite,” Arendt describes the original reception in 1928 Berlin of Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera:

The play presented gangsters as respectable businessmen and respectable businessmen as gangsters. The irony was somewhat lost when respectable businessmen in the audience considered this a deep insight into the ways of the world and when the mob welcomed it as an artistic sanction of gangsterism. The theme song in the play, “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral” [“First comes the animal-like satisfaction of one’s hunger, then comes morality,” memorably rendered by Marc Blitzstein as “First feed the face, and then talk right and wrong.” — RB], was greeted with frantic applause by exactly everybody, though for different reasons. The mob applauded because it took the statement literally; the bourgeoisie applauded because it had been fooled by its own hypocrisy for so long that it had grown tired of the tension and found deep wisdom in the expression of the banality by which it lived; the elite applauded because the unveiling of hypocrisy was such superior, wonderful fun.

Brecht’s Jeremiah Peachum is a businessman who organizes the beggars of London and takes a cut of their income. Peachum sees himself as a respectable businessman, compared to the gangster Mack the Knife, who marries Peachum’s daughter. And the Chief of Police is on the take. Brecht hoped to shock by showing the disappearing lines separating respectable professionals and gangsters; instead, Arendt writes, his satirical portrayal of corruption in Weimar society yielded glee.

Arendt is scathing in describing the attraction Brecht’s satire held for the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie suffered under the burden of hypocrisy. They had to maintain their respectability while also winning in the hard-nosed world of business. Brecht’s satirical presentation of the immoral business elite was a release; the applause showed that the German bourgeoisie “could no longer be shocked; it welcomed the exposure of its hidden philosophy.”

It is a testament to the extraordinary scope of The Origins of Totalitarianism that Arendt reveals the hidden philosophy of the bourgeoisie 200 pages earlier in a discussion of Thomas Hobbes, “the only great philosopher to whom the bourgeoisie can rightly and exclusively lay claim.” Boiled down to its essentials, the Hobbesian philosophy of the bourgeoisie is simple: “if man is actually driven by nothing but his individual interests, desire for power must be the fundamental passion of man.” All limits — laws and morals — are bothersome restrictions on the human drive to acquire power.

Hobbes’s idea of man as a power-seeking being finally emerged as reality in the 1870s. In the wake of two deep depressions, markets at home dried up. To keep the engine of the economy going, bourgeois businessmen needed new markets. The answer was imperialism. The bourgeoisie — which had always been apolitical, preferring to focus on business instead of politics — allied itself with governments to secure military backing for its imperialist ventures. In other words, the bourgeoisie entered politics when they needed political support for their imperialist pursuit of money and power.

What Arendt calls the “political emancipation of the bourgeoisie” is the demand that state power secure private investments. It is one thing to make foreign investments; but the bourgeoisie did not want to take risks in their imperialist escapades. “Only when they demanded government protection of their investments […] did [the bourgeois business class] re-enter the life of the nation.” This led to the rise of a particularly business-oriented vision of “political institutions exclusively as an instrument for the protection of individual property.” In Arendt’s telling, the bourgeoisie’s entry into politics brought with it the brutally cynical claim that politics was about naked power and money.

The naked pursuit of power contradicts the respectability that businessmen desire. Arendt argues that the bourgeois need to accumulate power had long been hidden “by nobler traditions” of respectability and by “that blessed hypocrisy which [François de] La Rochefoucauld called the compliment vice pays to virtue.” But in the late 19th century, traditional values had evaporated and the “old truths […] had become pious banalities.” The pretense of respectability became itself a vice, leading “everyone to discard the uncomfortable mask of hypocrisy and to accept openly the standards of the mob.” For Arendt, the reception of Brecht’s play makes manifest the embrace by the business and government elite of mob standards.

Even more than the bourgeoisie, it is the elite’s reaction to the exposure of hypocrisy that draws Arendt’s contempt. The cultural embrace of vulgar satire in the 1920s and 1930s, Arendt writes, is confirmation of a “cynical dismissal of respected standards and accepted theories”; the rise of vulgar satire in Weimar Germany — and in our own time — carries with it a “frank admission of the worst and a disregard for all pretenses which were easily mistaken for courage.” In the normalization and comic internalization of “mob attitudes and convictions,” what Arendt calls vulgar satire embraces the pseudo-honesty apparent in contemporary figures from Milo Yiannopoulos to President Trump, who abandon respectability in the name of fighting hypocrisy. It is hard not to wonder what Arendt would think of the wild success of The Sopranos, House of Cards, and The Daily Show — shows in which the self-proclaimed elite celebrate and laugh at the exposure of the obvious hypocrisy of businessmen who are gangsters and politicians who are businessmen.

The appeal that totalitarianism and fascism can hold for the elite is its claim that society is rotten to the core. It is easy to criticize the excessive nihilist fantasies that respond to the moral corruption of business and government with violent outbursts of “drain the swamp” and “dismantle the system.” We need, Arendt reminds us, to remember “how justified disgust can be in a society wholly permeated with the ideological outlook and moral standards of the bourgeoisie.” One reason that Milo Yiannopolous and President Trump are so popular is that their unmasking of political and cultural corruption has a grain of truth.

What the unmaskers too often forget is that every one of us wears a mask that conceals a dark cabinet of hidden vices behind our public personas. A world populated by people unmasked, their secrets exposed, would be one where all immorality is shameless and all claims to respectability are hypocritical. But shame and hypocrisy are essential human drives. The rage against hypocrisy is a rage against civilized life. The danger in totalitarian movements is that the elite’s justified moral disgust at hypocrisy is translated into a carnival of destruction that is just so much fun.


Arendt added a final chapter called “Ideology and Terror” to the second and subsequent editions of The Origins of Totalitarianism. “It may even be,” Arendt writes, “that the true predicaments of our time will assume their authentic form — though not necessarily their cruelest — only when totalitarianism has become a thing of the past.” Totalitarianism, she suggests, is “no mere threat from the outside” of Western civilization. On the contrary, “the entirely new and unprecedented forms of totalitarian organization” rest upon a new “basic experience” of modern life that underlies and makes totalitarianism and potentially other and related forms of government not only possible but also likely. The basic experience underlying totalitarianism, the experience that continues today to make it likely that totalitarianism remains a constant concern, is loneliness, an alienation from political, social, and cultural life.

“What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world,” Arendt argues, “is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the evergrowing masses of our century.” Loneliness is the feeling of being “deserted by all human companionship”; it is “the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.” As a modern phenomenon, loneliness is visible in what Robert Putnam calls the loss of social capital. Americans of all classes and all political persuasions report having fewer close friends than ever before; many say they have no one they can confide in or count upon in an emergency.

Putnam has also shown that loneliness increases in proportion to the diversity of the community in which one lives, suggesting that our cosmopolitan ideal may further the social ennui that is the fundamental element of totalitarianism. Social media only further feeds loneliness. The well-documented social media filter-bubble is an effect and cause of the need lonely people have for logically consistent fictional worlds. None of this is to say that we should abandon cosmopolitanism or social media. But it is to suggest that we need to take seriously the way modern society breeds loneliness and rootlessness.

The lonely individual craves and needs the “ice-cold reasoning” of coherent logical fantasies that appear “like a last support in a world where nobody is reliable and nothing can be relied upon.” There can be substantial space for private and social freedom under authoritarian regimes. But totalitarianism demands that its subjects abandon even nonpolitical and social bonds such as family ties and cultural interests. A community of chess players, Arendt writes, cannot be tolerated in a totalitarian state because the players, protected from loneliness by their bonds, do not experience the lonely person’s “feeling of being expendable”; that feeling of superfluousness is what prepares man for totalitarian domination. Only the lonely man “derives his sense of having a place in the world only from his belonging to a movement.”

If totalitarianism is “organized loneliness,” the fundamental loneliness of modern life means that totalitarianism is hardly a phenomenon of the past. Adaptive totalitarianisms may be less cruel than the 20th-century totalitarianisms — as we have been conditioned to reject the inhuman cruelty of the Nazi and Soviet regimes — but they may be just as totalizing. Which is why Arendt insists that “the politically most important yardstick for judging events in our time” is simply this: “whether they serve totalitarian domination or not.”

So how do we judge whether we are witnessing a rising totalitarianism? As Immanuel Kant understood, there are no rules for reflective judgments; the only criteria for a political judgment is, like an aesthetic judgment, that it claims to be and comes to be seen to be true. It is altogether too early to judge whether President Trump heralds a coming totalitarian rule.

If it is too early to judge, it is not too early to be wary. Arendt warns us against getting caught up in “sophistic-dialectical interpretations of politics which are all based on the superstition that something good might result from evil.” Totalitarianism invalidates “all obsolete political differentiations from right to left.” Efforts to draw lessons from the Holocaust and concentration camps will likely remain ineffective. Human beings have an “inherent tendency to run away from the experience” of the past, so that remembrance of concentration camps seems incredible and thus powerless. Just as the experience of war does not prevent wars, “dwelling on the horrors” of past totalitarianisms, Arendt argues, will not inoculate us from future totalitarianisms.

One potentially reliable way to prevent a return of totalitarianism, Arendt writes, is fear. It is not enough to contemplate the horrors of the past. “Only the fearful imagination,” the constant “thinking about horrors” that may arise can dissolve political differences and remind us all just how much is at stake. It is possible to think that something good may come from a Trump presidency. It is conceivable that in providing a shock to a sclerotic and corrupt political system President Trump would help reinvigorate American democracy. There is a temptation to use the fact of President Trump’s political disruption for one’s own purposes. But Arendt’s inquiry into the elements of totalitarian domination teaches us we must never let go of the fear of totalitarian government.

Another defense against totalitarianism — one that Arendt hints at in The Origins of Totalitarianism but only fully develops 20 years later in On Revolution — is the rejuvenation of local governance. Since all democratic governance is susceptible to totalitarian as well as tyrannical impulses, the great danger in democracy is a unified sovereignty. What Arendt understood is that “The great and, in the long run, perhaps the greatest American innovation in politics as such was the consistent abolition of sovereignty within the body politics of the republic, the insight that in the realm of human affairs sovereignty and tyranny are the same.” That is why Arendt regrets the failure of a proposal Jefferson had put forth for breaking counties into wards and having each ward act as a miniature self-government. On the model of town council government, the wards would offer a space for all Americans to engage in the act of free self-government. Only such local, contradictory, and pluralistic power centers offer both practice in self-government and a protection against tyranny and totalitarian government.

At a time when the United States government increasingly resembles a sovereign nation state, the danger of totalitarianism at home is greater than ever. Alienation from government is widespread and bipartisan, among the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. Even mainstream Americans are despondent about a government that is corrupt, arthritic, and impervious to citizen control. A unified and sovereign government combined with a disempowered citizenry poses the greatest danger of totalitarianism. The best way to protect ourselves is, perhaps, to turn back to our roots in local self-government. We cannot turn back the clock. But we might begin to engage in the activity of politics and the multiplication of local power structures that can resist the totalizing impulses of sovereign states. In doing so, we would seek to rediscover the Jeffersonian project of local self-government that Arendt calls the lost treasure of the American Revolution.


Roger Berkowitz is founder and academic director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities and associate professor of Politics, Philosophy, and Human Rights at Bard College. He is co-editor of Artifacts of Thinking: Reading Hannah Arendt’s Denktagebuch, published last month by Fordham University Press.

LARB Contributor

Roger Berkowitz is founder and academic director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities and professor of Politics, Philosophy, and Human Rights at Bard College. He is co-editor of Artifacts of Thinking: Reading Hannah Arendt’s Denktagebuch, published last month by Fordham University Press. Professor Berkowitz’s books include The Gift of Science: Leibniz and the Modern Legal Tradition (Harvard, 2005; Fordham, 2010; Chinese Law Press 2011); Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics (2009) (co-editor with Jeffrey Katz and Thomas Keenan); and The Intellectual Origins of the Global Financial Crisis (2012) (co-editor with Taun Toay). His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The American Interest, Bookforum, The Paris Review, Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, and many other publications. He is the editor of HA: The Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center, and a co-editor of Just Ideas, a book series published by Fordham University Press. He also runs the Hannah Arendt Center’s Virtual Reading Group. 


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!