Hannah Arendt may be the most important political philosopher of the 21st century. She wrote about some of the most important political issues of the times. She wrote about violence, the Holocaust, and the rise of totalitarianism. She lived through totalitarianism in Nazi Germany before she fled to the United States. She knows whereof she speaks. I read her again after about 40 years away and was shocked at how relevant her books were to the current times.
John Wiens an educator from the University of Manitoba and Dean Emeritus of the Faculty of Education described Arendt’s concern about mass society this way in an article in the Winnipeg Free Press:
“Mass society, according to Arendt, appears in some rather familiar forms: anti-government rhetoric and resistance couched in perverted claims to personal freedom and/or nationalism; mob mentality laced with racism and fabricated enemies; conspiracy theories and anti-intellectualism; and tyranny and violence fuelled by tyrannical ambitions.”
That sounds like a perfect description of Trumpism 60 years before it happened. It also describes fascist supporters around the world. Arendt analyzed these ideas in her magisterial book, The Origins of Totalitarianism. While totalitarianism is not the same as Nazism, or Communism, or fascism, I think her analysis is applicable to all forms of tyranny. She described groups of deeply disenchanted and resentful individuals that were highly susceptible to authoritarians. She also described how modern people 60 years after she wrote the book would be attracted to authoritarians like Viktor of Hungary, Putin in Russia, Xi Jinping of China, Rodrigo Roa Duterte of the Philippines and Donald Trump in the United States.
People attracted to such authoritarians can even be found in Manitoba. Members of the so-called Truckers Convoy in Ottawa have many of these characteristics including deep resentment, an exaggerated sense of entitlement to unrestricted personal freedoms for themselves but which they deny to those who disagree with them. Interestingly, modern evangelical Christians provide strong support for authoritarians in the US and Canada. 60% of them still support Trump, long after his character is well understood.
As if she was talking about Trumpsters, rather than Nazis and Communists, Arendt pointed out,
“The fall of protecting class walls transformed the slumbering majorities behind all parties into one great unorganized, structureless mass of furious individuals who had nothing in common except their vague apprehension that the hopes of party members were doomed, that consequently, the most respected, the most articulate and representative members of the community were fools and that all the powers that be were not so much evil as they were equally stupid and fraudulent.”
These people who supported the Nazis and Communists were filled with “self-centered bitterness.” Once more a masterful description of Trumpsters and Canadian Convoy truckers, among others. Those Europeans, Arendt wrote, had a
“Radical loss of self-interest, the cynical or bored indifference in the face of death or other personal catastrophes, the passionate inclination toward the most abstract notions as guides for life, and the general contempt for even the most obvious rules of common sense.”
Arendt, along with others, calls these supporters of totalitarian movements mass men. They were mainly men. Trump would call on women too. Women for Trump. I can see them now in with their blonde hair and red MAGA hats often cheering wildly behind him at MAGA rallies. Supporters of tyrants, German, Russian, or American grew out of alienated western societies. As Arendt described them,
“The truth is that the masses grew out of the fragments of a highly atomized society whose competitive structure and concomitant loneliness of the individual had been held in check only through membership in a class. The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal relationships. Coming from the class-ridden society of the nation-state, whose cracks had been cemented with nationalistic sentiment, it is only natural that these masses, in the first helplessness of their new experience, have tended toward an especially violent nationalism, to which mass leaders have yielded against their own instincts and purposes, for purely demagogic reasons.”
The Russian Communist Party had to create the atomized society that Germany, and later the United States, found ready at hand.
As Arendt said, “Totalitarian movements are mass organization of atomized, isolated individuals.” The reason for that is that they demand absolute loyalty. Total loyalty. It is often difficult for married men and women to give such undivided loyalty. Their families distract them from their cause—from their duty.
The key ingredient of mass men (or women) is their total disgruntlement about government and their readiness to jump to support perceived “strong men” even when they are so strong that they are authoritarians.
They claim to want freedom but are quick to give up their freedom to support their strong leaders wherever they may lead.