In On the Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt explained the rise of Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism, by identifying their political, economic, historical, and sociological underpinnings, focusing, in the case of Nazism, on the roles of anti-Semitism, imperialism, and of WWI’s deflation of the myths of progress in politics and the nation state.
It’s tempting to draw from her profound analysis to shed light on what looks like the anti-American phenomenon of Trumpian authoritarian populism. But there are reasons to think Trumpism doesn’t fit the classic totalitarian mold.
American Individualism and Totalitarian Collectivism
To begin with, Americans are more individualistic than Europeans, meaning that Americans have less trust in their federal government. This distrust was written into their constitution, which divided the US government into three, ever-clashing branches.
We see this distrust playing out vividly in the United States’ substandard handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, since American individualism is the main cause of the country’s lack of an adequate (affordable) healthcare system for many of its citizens. To be sure, Trump’s incompetence and egregious politicization and personalization of all the country’s issues exacerbated the problem and worsened the pandemic’s damage, but he’s not to blame for the longstanding trends in American culture.
Those trends include individualism, infantilization/consumerism, and faith-based anti-intellectualism, and they’re largely responsible for why the US hasn’t performed as well against Covid-19 as have other developed countries, despite its advantages in expertise and other resources.
Unlike more collectivistic societies that celebrate reason, expertise, and technocratic government, that invest in their nations’ infrastructure in the “socialist” manner, and whose populations defer to their government in crises, Americans are culturally ill-disposed to rely on their government to fix their many problems.
True, American culture has some progressive inclinations, so there was the exceptional period of the New Deal in which regulators (central planners) built up the middle class after the Great Depression, a period that ended by the time of Reagan’s free-market conservatism.
But America’s myths of the rugged lone heroes of the Wild West and of the saintly Founders who stood up to tyranny and created the world’s greatest nation based on the principle of individual liberty amount to a default mode of American thinking. And that default isn’t suited to handling nonmilitary emergencies that require central planning.
The US excels at technological innovation, entertainment, and violent overthrows of foreign governments, not at national cooperation to achieve a long-term goal. The free market is supposed to replace a central planner, but that offshoot of social Darwinism has only divided many Americans into branded herds that no longer know how to think, let alone to cooperate to face a disturbing reality. Trying to get Americans to forgo their desire for instant gratification, for the good of the country as a whole must be like herding cats.
But for the very same reason, an authoritarian thug couldn’t be expected to rally that entire country to his illegitimate cause. Trump managed to con enough Americans to take over the already-sociopathic Republican Party, but his ongoing political reality-TV show only further polarized the country so that he’s never had popular support from more than half the country. Many of his supporters were only using his host of malignant personality-disorders as a weapon against the establishment, as they sought to troll liberal culture for laughs and to lash out like spoiled white, racist babies.
The very fantasies of individualism that force Americans to suffer in certain crises insulate their country against the collectivist schemes of any wannabe American dictator. The Weimar Republic may have been liberal-minded, but the far-right was able to metastasize to such an extent within that body politic, largely because Germans were used to being a thriving empire under Bismarck (from 1871–1918), not a republic of independent, sovereign citizens or consumers.
The reason Americans have so many guns, for example, which they swear to use against any would-be tyrant in their midst, and the reason they misread the Second Amendment, which gives Americans the right to bear arms for the purpose of forming a militia is that their culture at large enshrines the value of individual liberty almost to the point of making the country functionally anarchical. So many Americans love guns because they see themselves as lone, paranoid antiheroes in a dystopian world in which no one can be trusted and they have to save themselves.
This is also why the socialist ethics of Christianity had to be Americanized in the right-wing fashion for a semblance of that religion to flourish in the relatively liberal and secular US.
This isn’t to say the US is as free as Americans imagine. Hitler and Stalin drew on old imperial practices in Germany and Russia to whip up fanatical support for their revolutions and to build infrastructures to carry out their brutal whims and policies. The US is a younger, more freedom-loving country and is much more susceptible to the carrot than to the stick.
Thus, the US is dominated not by an overgrown nation state, contrary to its misguided libertarians, but by transnational corporations that exploit their customers’ unconscious biases and wishes. The US is more like Aldous Huxley’s dystopian scenario than like George Orwell’s.
The most glaring example of this is the impact of associative advertising. This corporate speech has flooded the American airways for a century (since the pioneering cynicism of Edward Bernays), piggybacking on the principle of freedom of speech, eschewing critical thinking and logic, and drawing only fallacious associations between the customers’ emotions, unconscious desires and prejudices on the one hand, and the products sold by the companies, on the other.
Having mastered that art and thrived in the still weakly-regulated American economy, some corporations tend to acquire monopoly power and to consolidate their advantages by buying off much of the American government through lobbying, campaign contributions, and the revolving-door between the public and private sectors.
Other democracies have advertising too, of course, but they don’t design their economies around a ghoulish power-elite’s taste for the weaknesses of the human brain. By regulating what businesses can say, by prosecuting white-collar fraud, and most importantly, by funding and respecting their public education systems so their young people are trained to be responsible citizens (not just selfish, short-sighted consumers), non-American democracies immunize their populations, to some extent, against the cons of big businesses and against the degrading and self-destructive ideology of consumerism.
This is why Europeans take more vacations than Americans, for example, and why Americans are far and away the world’s biggest consumers.
But again, the point is that since classic totalitarianism downgrades the good of the individual in favor of that of the “race” or of the state, a wannabe dictator like Trump isn’t likely to enact a collectivist totalitarian system within the staunchly individualistic US.
Narcissism: The Psychology of Trumpism
Another problem with applying Hannah Arendt’s account to Trump is that she emphasizes sociology more than psychology, whereas for Trump psychology explains not just the causes of his authoritarian style of anti-Americanism, but its purpose and its notable effects.
Trump is a con artist, not a politician or even a genuine businessman. A capitalist runs a business that makes a profit and invests in his company to strengthen and expand it. Trump was more interested in stealing and cheating by exploiting bankruptcy laws and defrauding his investors, than in growing the company that was handed to him.
In more neutral terms, Trump is primarily a salesman — but no ordinary one. That’s because Trump is also a malignant narcissist — and again, he’s not even an average in that strange respect, since he’s also been a highly protected and empowered psychopathic narcissist ever since his father slipped him hundreds of millions of dollars under the table to start his “business” ventures in New York real estate.
As many commentators have observed, including many who have worked with or known him for years, Trump has no ideology or long-term plans. Trump isn’t an intellectual but a survivor with reptilian cunning who reacts to the disasters he creates, based on his barbaric instincts.
Of course, Hitler and Stalin, not to mention cult leaders, monarchs, and dictators throughout the millennia generally were likewise personally corrupted by their absolute power. Such rulers tend to be megalomaniacal psychopaths, meaning they’re incapable of feeling empathy or remorse and are obsessed with maintaining their power and establishing their legacy.
Where Trump differs from the other real-life supervillains is his narcissism, which is to say his solipsistic small-mindedness. Indeed, Trump’s infantile self-regard illustrates how cultural trends trickle down from the one-percenters to the hoi palloi. Just as the layout of middle-class houses — with separate living and dining rooms, for example — is an attempt to simplify that of the aristocrat’s palace, mass infantilism produced in part by associative advertising is an attempt to imitate the decadence of the rich and the famous.
The primary means of retarding your existential growth is to acquire so much wealth and power over others that you no longer have to work or think hard. When that happens, you’re ironically spoiled by your domination and are poised to sabotage your privileged lifestyle with your reckless, infantile whims. This is why groundbreaking work is usually done by those who are still “hungry” and burning with unachieved ambition. Once someone in business, politics, or art succeeds in building a company, subduing his or her rivals, or establishing a brand, the accompanying wealth, privileges, and fame paradoxically degrade the hero’s character.
Social power obviously corrupts, but the corruption can consist in a slide not just into amorality or sadism but into infantilization. No powerful person on earth currently demonstrates this more than Donald Trump, even if there may be infantile tendencies in most one-percenters and authority-holders. Trump affords us a peak behind the curtain that’s usually reserved for the sycophantic insiders who help push cult leaders, kings, CEOs, and dictators over the edge of sanity.
This is because with Trump we have a perfect storm. Trump is psychotically obsessed with being respected and praised and he has a child’s thin skin which causes him to lash out when he’s instead ridiculed and condemned for his blunders and for his palpable subhumanity.
From a young age, he was treated to his father’s wealth and connections and trained to adopt his father’s psychopathic mindset, which means Trump’s malignance has gone unchecked for decades. By the time he came to win the presidency, hyper-publicity became possible due to television, the public appetite for empty spectacle, and the proliferation of social media such as Twitter.
Trump therefore lives out in the open, holding nothing back and being cheered on by his cultists for every rancid sign of his depravity. Like a child, Trump has no respect for conventions or laws, but only the primitive fear of getting caught and the animal cunning to avoid that outcome by gaming the system.
Again, judging not just from insider reports but from what’s startlingly obvious from the daily news over his four years of anti-presidency, Trump lives as though he were literally a solipsist who believes that there’s no independent external world and that reality comes with a tag saying, “Made by and for Donald Trump.” When Trump publicly interprets natural disasters as happening to him alone, not to the country, he’s demonstrating not gall but psychotic small-mindedness, a grotesque incapacity for kindness or sympathy.
These psychological considerations, then, explain why Trump ran for presidency despite his lack of qualifications, why he attempts to govern like an autocrat, and why he openly prefers dictatorships to democracies. They explain also why he continually sabotages his efforts and why he gets away with his failures unscathed.
For example, his personality traits account for why he managed to become a useful idiot of Putin’s Russian — because he knows next to nothing but can only feel his way through situations, from one self-inflicted catastrophe to the next, like an omnipotent baby. You can lament the baby’s ignorance and the wreckage left by its incompetence, but you can’t stop this creature because this is no ordinary baby; Trump’s a baby who’s also president of the United States. That’s the bottomless horror.
To be sure, there are also historical and sociological reasons why there was a political opportunity Trump could exploit, and why he was able to take over the Republican Party and defeat Hillary Clinton. He took advantage of a global backlash against neoliberalism, globalization, and intellectual elitism in complacent democracies.
But because of the nature of Trump’s monstrosity, we can’t understand the effects of his presidency without at least adding the psychiatric diagnosis to an Arendtian sociological account of Trump’s populism. Trump isn’t so much the center of gravity of some world-historic force or the figurehead of a political movement or of an ideology; rather, his presidency is as idiosyncratic as a religious cult.
Precisely because he has no ideas or intellectual capacity, but only infantile whims and reptilian instincts, Trump doesn’t act for any reason in the sophisticated, human sense. By contrast, Hitler wanted to recreate the German empire for the glory of what he considered to be a superior white race. Stalin wanted to protect Russian communism and to hide its shortcomings; his infamous paranoia was due to his knowledge that communism must be a flawed economic system after all, since the system obviously didn’t work well for the many millions of Russians who had to be disposed of in the gulags.
Trump has no such overarching agenda, so his legacy will be chiefly the humiliation of the United States, because the so-called greatest nation fell for an adult baby’s con and had to endure four years of a psychotic man-child playacting as its political leader.
The Silver Lining of Trump’s Odiousness
Notice that for all of that absurdity, Trump didn’t turn the US into a shambles. The bureaucracy prevented a total collapse from the presidential power vacuum; after all, from 2016 to 2020 the US effectively had no president of its executive branch. That didn’t really matter because the US is individualistic, governed largely at the state level, and anyway puts severe limits on the powers of its president. Just as the average consumer runs on autopilot, as we rarely stop to reflect on what’s occurring in brute existential terms, the American government operates even without the benefit of presidential guidance.
If Trump somehow blocks the 2020 election, perhaps using the pandemic as his Reichstag fire and as a pretext to retain power undemocratically, he’ll be more comparable to a classic totalitarian ruler like Hitler, but even in that case he’d be acting like a spoiled child who can’t give up his new toy, not because he fears a Democratic successor would ruin the new system he’s built. There’s no such system because Trump’s had no vision of anything beyond the gratification of his impulses.
Take, for example, Trump’s preference for vacancies in his government or for acting rather than senate-confirmed members of his cabinet. The reason he prefers dysfunction and chaos isn’t that such a “system” is somehow more streamlined and efficient, but because Trump wanted to surround himself with lunatics and amateurs whom he could bully so he wouldn’t have to deal with bad news from reality. As if he we were a baby playing peekaboo, he thought that if you don’t see or hear discouraging news, because you’ve eliminated skeptics and independent-minded members from your inner circle, the disasters themselves would go away.
Instead of solving anything or even tackling America’s problems, he swept them under the carpet because he was laughably out of his depth. In the case of healthcare, for example, he let things rot purely out of spite because Obama had mocked him at the 2016 White House Correspondents Dinner, so of course Obamacare had to go even if there was no Republican replacement.
Assuming instead that Trump is replaced by Biden or even that Trump wins a second term and “governs” with more of the same, once again the lasting result will be largely psychological; that is, Americans will be traumatized by the embarrassment and the horror of having had such a farcical disgrace play out in their hallowed Oval Office. Americans will have to absorb the obviousness of how Trump’s anti-presidency desecrated American values.
That trauma can be contrasted with 9/11, for example, since the Islamist terrorists were ideological fanatics who died for their cause and who physically attacked symbols of American power, notably destroying the World Trade Center. The emotional devastation Trump will inflict on Americans may be as severe as that wrought by 9/11, but Trump won’t have physically harmed anyone — except in the negative sense of creating a power vacuum and thus four years of missed opportunities to address large-scale problems such as global warming and the evident need to reform or replace neoliberalism. Even Trump’s reluctance to use military force abroad is only childish, since Trump’s merely acting as the bully who’s afraid of being hit back.
(Granted, President Trump put foreigners in cages at the US/Mexico border, but the Obama administration built those cages, and Trump exacerbated the Covid-19 pandemic in the US, but again the US had underlying weaknesses which laid the groundwork for a disaster.)
Trump didn’t govern for ideological reasons; thus he won’t have acted systematically to change the US or the world. He pretended to govern, rather, as a child dresses up like an adult, because he’s interested in nothing beyond his momentary thrills. In particular, Trump’s not capable of feeling ashamed of being a bizarre hybrid, a malformed, infantile mind at the helm of a wealthy adult’s body that’s charged with running the world’s most powerful country.
Just as Trump’s mental disorders cause his loathsome behaviour, the collective impact of that behaviour will be mainly — and merely — psychological. This can be compared also to his work in real estate and as a reality TV star. Trump’s company built or refurbished certain buildings, and he produced a popular television show. He himself had to do little apart from lying, conning, and acting; lots of other people did the hard, reality-based work to bring the ideas to fruition and to engage successfully with the world.
Trump can say that as president he governed the country and made such and such decisions, but the record will show he was responsible mostly for inaction or for actions his regime took in spite of his bluster. No president enjoyed as many vacations or golfed as much as Trump. No other president had to fire as many high-level personnel or appeal to a conspiracy theory of the deep state, because so many careerists were ignoring his idiotic orders. And none presided over such chaos while making so few big decisions and being responsible for such a litany of howlers.
Fingers crossed, but Trump could have blown up the world. He could have launched nuclear weapons or leaked all of America’s secrets to Putin. But Trump’s not competent enough to be a supervillain. A clownish man-baby can disgrace himself and embarrass everyone who’s obliged to pretend Trump’s anti-presidency is at least halfway normal or something apart from a glimpse into the universe’s mind-shattering absurdity. But the physical damage from his bumbling must be counted as largely accidental rather than as intended by a morally culpable agent.
By contrast, the sort of totalitarian menace whose actions are rational enough to be worthy of an Arendtian sociological explanation is liable to inflict much worse than mere national humiliation.