Hannah Arendt (Photo by Fred Stein Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Trump’s Arendt and Arendt’s Trump

What would the German-born American political theorist Hannah Arendt make of Donald Trump if she were alive today?

Artillery Row

Some five hundred years after Pope Julius II moved his collection of classical pagan statues to the garden of the Belvedere Palace to repose amongst them and reflect on time, Donald J. Trump departed into the Florida sunset after signing an executive order for a pantheon of national heroes to populate a new sculpture garden.

Initially announced in the shadow of Mount Rushmore on the eve of Independence Day, two days before a closed inauguration ceremony guarded by twenty thousand soldiers, among the 244 figures included as emblematic of the American genius are musician Louis Armstrong, actor Humphrey Bogart, mystic Thomas Merton, poet Emily Dickinson, boxer Muhammed Ali and, apparently, the German-born philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt.

I think she would be appalled,” Roger Berkowitz, current director of the Hannah Arendt Centre at Bard College told Jewish Insider after being invited to comment on Arendt’s selection. “I think she would find Trump ridiculous, and I think shed find him dangerous insofar as he undermines the basic idea of truthfulness and truth in the country… Trump is everything she hated… What makes him exceptional is just his absolute lack of shame and his willingness to flout all common norms and standards.”

But it seems unlikely that Arendt would have expressed her own thoughts in this way. Among the least ideological of all twentieth century intellectuals, while remaining the most passionately politically engaged, one of the hallmarks of her thought was the rejection of unbalanced judgements even as the problem of judgement underwrote her whole approach. Arendt took her responsibilities as a public thinker seriously, and consistently refused to situate herself within ideological crowds. “Social nonconformism is the sine qua non of intellectual achievement,” she once observed.

Probably, as Daniel Johnson noted in September on the opening of an Arendt exhibition in Berlin, the philosopher’s first reaction to discovering that she had been selected for this kind of accolade would have been a mixture of embarrassment and astonishment. “Did I write to you that a week ago I became a ‘cover girl’ and had to look at myself on all the newsstands,” the flabbergasted author of The Origins of Totalitarianism wrote to Karl Jaspers in 1951.

But her second reaction would have been to detach herself from her personal feelings to reflect on things more broadly. Why is an embattled former president commissioning a national sculpture garden? And why has her own selection provoked this outburst of contempt?

Berkowitz is not alone in accusing Trump of flouting common standards, but this pattern is not restricted to the former president. From campaigns to remove public monuments, alter the natural meaning of words, rewrite educational standards and “decolonise” university curricula, the iconoclasm which has convulsed the West over the last four years has developed into a crisis of authority (the topic of a searching essay by Arendt first published in 1958).

Totalitarianism is an onion, in which power is projected outwards as successively deranging layers

The term authority has almost vanished from discussion across the whole political spectrum, from the intersectional left to the radical right, in favour of an emphasis on power. Yet the distinction between authority and power is cardinal to the history of Western political thought. As Arendt pointed out, the concept of authority was unknown in the Greek polis, which is why Plato was compelled to reinvent the figure of the despot, or the head of a household, in his attempt to introduce the principle as the polis crumbled. In Rome, by contrast, the prototype for every modern Republic, authority was linked to the conviction of a sacredness of the foundation; hence the figure of the “founding fathers” as represented by a “senate” composed of statesmen who represent authority, but do not have power, which is conceived as an unbridled force.

With the evaporation of authority, aimless power becomes the governing reality, jealously protective of its privileges. The characterisation of Trump as an authoritarian, the improbable chief vector of attack since he first descended through the Rubicon at Trump Tower in June 2015, relates to this dilemma. The key project of his administration consisted of an attempt to reimpose American authority and mythos against a headless coalition of the permanent administration, corporate media, intelligence agencies and miscellaneous well-funded fronts. Lacking any basis for legitimacy itself, what united and defined this force was opposition to the office and the person of the president: ersatz authority as transgressive opposition to authority and the determination to destroy it.

The name of this anti-authoritarian form of power is totalitarianism; not itself a project, but the symptom of the social and psychological breakdown of society. Arendt defines totalitarianism structurally, as opposed to ideologically, and distinguishes it from both authoritarianism and tyranny. Whereas authoritarianism is a pyramid, with each level commanding the level beneath it and subordinate to the one above it, and tyranny is a pyramid with nothing bridging the base and the apex besides the threat of force, totalitarianism is an onion, in which power is projected outwards as successively deranging layers.

Each layer has the double function of presenting a facade of normality for external layers, and a facade of reality for the interior. At the centre, power shifts between almost spontaneously gestating bodies contesting influence amongst themselves, like Sage, or Nervtag, or Spi-B, or Covid-O. As in medieval cosmology, where the devil occupies the centre of the earth, at the centre of a totalitarian system is the party, or a ruling faction, but the centre of the party is perpetually receding beyond successive layers of distortion, until the central point collapses into a zone of absolute insanity, like Hitler in his bunker.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt proposes that, as a form of government, totalitarianism is essentially new, emerging from the atomizing social chaos of modernity in tandem with the expansion of the capitalist economy. But what was new was really only technological development, which allowed a kind of waking nightmare to organise itself into a bureaucratic system. Understood more psychologically, totalitarianism has older analogues, above all with the seventeenth-century European witch craze, which convulsed the continent in a period of social war.

This tangled web of untruth has expanded to every corner of a brutalised and bullied world

Updating the idea of the witch and the appetites of a party of witch hunters is a totalitarian movement organised against ideological heretics theorised as vectors of a phantasmatic contagion. Then as now the scapegoat is not an enemy to be eliminated, but fuel to be burned, where the power of the party to kill or torture with impunity converts into political capital as the power of fear. It’s not that the witch hunters care about witches or kulaks or a virus per se; what they care about is what they can do with the witch, which is why demand for enemies increase as the hunting or the testing system swells, why “mutant strains” of supernatural crimes proliferate under every totalitarian regime and why no witch craze has ever actually eliminated witches, but instead only stimulates their increased production.

For Arendt, the key significance of antisemitism in twentieth-century totalitarian movements had less to do with the theological or communitarian antisemitism which existed in premodern Europe, or some theoretical eternal enmity, but emerged from specific political and historical factors which crystallized after the Enlightenment. Following an ambivalent emancipation, amounting to a general liquidation of tradition Jewishness” was stripped of its national religious character to transform, first, into a quasi-confessional faith, and then a psychological quality, as Jews themselves became identified with the emergence of the modern state and the destructive drives of capitalism.

The parallels to what today is understood as whiteness are complex but unmistakable. Whiteness too is now no longer imagined as a natural property, but something closer to a malediction or a psychological disorder, at the origin of the destructions of modernity; thus, Susan Sontag identified the white race as “the cancer of human history”. Conceived as prevalent in certain categories of people, but not exclusive to them (hence the possibility of what the Washington Post calls “multiracial whiteness”) as well as embedded in the institutional power structure (as “white supremacy”) whiteness supplies a floating target for a totalitarian assault against the central institutions of society and its defenders, which are theorised as corrupted by its contaminating presence.

Trump’s reputation as an avatar of white America, despite his politics of civic nationalism, turned his presidency into the spectacle of a disintegrating national republic. Notably, as in the scandal of the trial, and retrial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, which came to function as a lightning rod for the fault lines of Republican France, the discourse around his period in office was animated by a persistent ambiguity between the people and the mob.

Both the people and the mob are formed from individuals drawn from every class, but whereas a mob is drawn from criminal and sadistic elements, the people is composed of individuals organised through shared ideals, and the recognition that the infringement of the rights of one man is the infringement of the rights of all.

Arendt describes a pattern of a “temporary alliance between the elite and the mob,” based on “this genuine delight with which the former watched the latter destroy respectability.” On the other hand, as the anonymous author K.V.T. wrote of the Dreyfusards in the Contemporary Review 1898, “They come from political parties and religious communities who have nothing in common… These men do not know each other. They have fought and on occasion will fight again. Do not deceive yourselves; they are the ‘elite’ of the French democracy.”

It is unclear if freedom anywhere in the West is going to survive the system

Arendt’s well-known quotation that 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,” was repeatedly applied to Trump throughout his time in office, yet the charge seems more like an example of the phenomenon than an accurate assessment of the former president. Trump could be reasonably accused of bluster, if not bullshit, but Arendt’s description aimed at something much more systematic and pervasive.

Writing in 1971 on the Pentagon Papers, Arendt observed a “quicksand of lying statements of all sorts, deceptions as well as self-deceptions,” which an unhappy reader is compelled to acknowledge as “the infrastructure of nearly a decade of United States foreign and domestic policy”. In the intervening fifty years, and especially the last twelve months this tangled web of untruth has expanded to every corner of a brutalised and bullied world, and nowhere more so than in Britain.

Here one is forced to acknowledge the most melancholic dimension of reading Arendt today. Even as the storm clouds gathering in Europe forced her into exile to New York City at the beginning of the darkest chapter in twentieth century history, there was still somewhere she could go. Today it is unclear if freedom anywhere in the West is going to survive the system which is now being imposed by propaganda and police state violence across the world.

After the death of Julius II, the Cortile del Belvedere became first the stomping ground, and subsequently the crypt, of his successor Leo X’s beloved pet white elephant Hanno; today, the Belvedere hosts the Vatican Museum, still the supreme example of the secularising humanist and republican vision which sustained the Western cultural project for five hundred years. Paradoxically, in establishing an art museum, Pope Julius had simultaneously brought to a conclusion the medieval Catholic vision. Art was invented as a category of contemplation, superseding ritual devotion, exhibiting a world now situated in the past, rather than eternity. By proposing in one of his final acts in office plans for an American national sculpture garden, Trump has now performed this gesture for the United States. The project is the mausoleum of the American dream.

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