Not wanting to overdo Arend’t famous excursus in Totalitarianism, it’s important to note that she draws a careful distinction between totalitarianism and fascism. And there’s something louche and laissez faire about the American fascism on display at the Capitol that does not fit the older European models. And fascism was more or less unrealized in America. Too close for comfort, maybe it remained something of a rump thing, which never managed to take over state and society. While larger scholarly analyses of fascism help explain the political organization of white supremacy and Christian nationalism in America today, I will refer more obliquely to “these kind of phenomena.” I do so in order to maintain some degree of separation between Nazi and Stalinist totalitarianism which are the proper subjects of Arendt’s analysis, on the one hand, and America First, MAGA and Christian Nationalism, militia movements, and conspiracy theorists, on the other hand.
About at least three things, however, Arendt in Totalitarianism gets right about our current moment.
The first thing that Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism helps us understand is that, long before contemporary media and social media platforms, these kind of phenomena instantiate the political organization of an atomized social mass. By this she means “the mass of apparently indifferent people whom all other parties had given up on as too apathetic or too stupid for their attention.” Their place is “outside and against the party system.” Unlike the cases covered by Arendt in her analysis, I don’t think MAGA represents anything near like a majority of the country. MAGA is more like what Arendt called a “mob” than “the masses,” a “great, unorganized, structureless mass of furious individuals.” The mob she refers to in terms of so-called “tribal nationalism and rebellious nihilism” is in complete opposition to bourgeois “ideological outlook and moral standards” (pp.9-15, 26).
The second thing that Arendt understands about these kind of phenomenon relate to the political imagination and, in my own reading of her, to “religion.” For Arendt these refer to myth and mystery in the formation of imaginary worlds at war with the common sense of “the real world.” What matters at this moment of danger to democracy in America are not facts, but the consistency of the MAGA system, and a “longing for fiction” over “mere occurrence.” Conjured up is 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 being and their expectations (pp.49-51). Anti-Black racism and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories adorn the Big Lie that the election was rigged against and stolen from Trump.
Lastly and looking forward, Arendt in the concluding pages of Totalitarianism assumes that the plausibility of these fictional world can only be displaced by another and stronger reality. Arendt’s language here is notably strong. These kinds of political movements have to be shattered and destroyed. She’s writing about Germany after the war, but the words retain their resonant warning. In defeat, people caught up in these kind of phenomena give up the movement as a “bad bet.” But they’ll look around for another fiction or wait for the former fiction to re-establish itself as another mass movement.
Susannah Heschel & C.West