The remarkable if often misunderstood anti-fascist modern German-born American political philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), best known for her study and critique of Naziism in her work, “The Origins of Totalitarianism” (1951), wrote in that book that a decisive step in the demagogue’s authoritarian rise is “the murder of the moral person in man,” thus “making martyrdom for the first time in history impossible.”
In his 2008 book, Demagogue, the Fight to Save Democracy From Its Worst Enemies, Michael Signer says of Arendt’s observation that under tyranny, “The moral person — the person capable of making individual choices — becomes a victim. Totalitarianism then puts the soul itself to death” by way of “totalitarianism’s particularly devastating quality: grinding out spontaneity, humanness and liberty.”
By contrast, as Signer noted, “the defeat of the demagogue…comes from a culture of individual self-reliance, the gift and radical responsibility of the individual burden of political choice, and the cultivation of a constitutional conscience in the hearts and minds of citizens,” led by Arendt’s identification of a “governing spirit of an almost martial sense of discipline and sacrifice by the soldier in democracy’s civil war of the soul,” part of a “flexible, resilient web connecting people to each other, dispersing authority through a million political filaments” by way of “a vibrant state of continuous revolution.”
To Arendt, Signer explains, “the long slide from demagogue to authoritarianism to totalitarianism is enabled by individuals’ loss of their own sense of self-reliance and responsibility for society.” wherein “the individuality of the totalitarian citizen veers in the wrong direction. Instead of going inward, energizing one’s conscience and sense of integrity, wholeness and self-respect, this species of individuality instead explodes outward, in a chaos of directionless, angry energy.”
Demagogues “seek out and suffocate the basic individual creative faculty,” wherein “we should cradle our individuality like a lit match on a windy day. Precisely because our ‘dangerous thoughts’ are ours and ours alone, they can strike a fire. We have a political obligation to use our most powerful asset — our humanity — to nip demagogues in the bud.”
This, and much more of what Arendt wrote and taught, is extraordinarily poignant for this moment in our history.
The elections of last week, the first widespread exercise since Trump took power in January and was met with millions of protesting women and their friends filling the streets in Washington, D.C. the very next day, and the amazing upsurge of exposes of male chauvinist abuse of women now surging through Hollywood and the seat of our government, signal a new level of resistance to the drumbeat coming out of the White House seeking to impose new levels of crass demagoguery.
In this context, it is important to understand the nature of the Russian intervention into the presidential election a year ago, and what’s happened since.
Arendt’s core insight is that totalitarianism feeds on the disenfranchisement of the moral fiber of individual citizens.
If one examines the content of the Russian propaganda in the midst of the election process that we’ve seen so far, it becomes crystal clear that its common denominator has been the tearing down of the individual moral character in favor of anger, suspicion, contempt, foul-mouthed profanity and contemptible name calling, and a very unholy non-morality rooted in heightening differences by playing on old prejudices and “holier than thou” sentiments.
Among other things, the assault on truth, on facts, on the free reporting of events, fuels this process.
Perhaps we didn’t think the subversion of our nation’s values, our democratic institutions, would take this form. The prevailing wisdom advanced from the FBI and establishment “intelligence” since the post-World War II launch of the so-called “Cold War” was that the assault on America’s values would come from an effete inteligencia schooled in sophisticated Marxist and socialist theory.
Who thought it would come through the heightening of angry, thuggish and very unsophisticated proletarian prejudices?
But on the positive side, and there definitely is one based on recent events, the elections last week affirmed just that quality of American democratic culture which is its greatest strength, the rejection of angry white male prejudices in favor of diversity, including the election of many women, gays and a half dozen transgender candidates.
Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected].