Hannah Arendt looked closely at the supporters of totalitarian movements of the 1930s and 1940s and many of the things she learned are applicable to the current authoritarian movements. She found that the enthusiasm of the true believers was stunning. This is what she said about the totalitarians of the 1930s and following decades:
“They shared with Lawrence of Arabia the yearning for “losing their selves in violent disgust with all existing standards, with every power that be. They all remembered the “golden age of security,” they also remembered how they had hated it and how real their enthusiasm had been at the outbreak of the first World War. Not only Hitler and not only the failures, thanked God on their knees when mobilization swept Europe in 1914. They did not even have to reproach themselves with having been an easy prey for chauvinist propaganda or lying explanations about the purely defensive character of the war. The elite went to war with an exultant hope that everything they knew, the whole culture and texture of life, might go down in its “storms of steel” (Ernst Jünger) In the carefully chosen words of Thomas Mann, war was “chastisement” and “purification”; “war in itself,” rather than victories, inspired the poet.” Or in the words of a student of the time, “what counts is always the readiness to make a sacrifice, not the object for which the sacrifice is made”; or in the words of a young worker, “it doesn’t matter whether one lives a few years longer or not. One would like to have something to show for one’s life.”
The true believers were truly zealots. And note the religious significance here. Sacrifice is of course a fundamental religious concept in virtually every religion. It is no accident that the words “sacred” and “sacrifice” come from the same root. You only have to look at that wonderful series, A History of Religious Ideas, in 3 volumes by the Master Mircea Eliade to see the similarities.
Arendt also pointed out how
“the “front generation” in marked contrast to their own chosen spiritual fathers, were completely absorbed by their desire to see the ruin of this whole world of fake security, fake culture, and fake life. This desire was so great it outweighed in impact and articulateness all earlier attempts of a “transformation of values,” such as Nietzsche had attempted…Destruction without mitigation, chaos and ruin, as such assumed the dignity of supreme values.”
Arendt also pointed out in her book The Origins of Totalitariainism that willingness to go to war for the cause was in itself insufficient. This attitude had to survive the war, no matter how horrific it was:
“The genuineness of these feelings can be seen in the fact that very few of this generation were cured of their war enthusiasm by actual experience of its horrors. The survivors of the trenches did not become pacifists. They cherished an experience which, they thought, might serve to separate the definitively from the hated surroundings of respectability. They clung to their memories of four years of life in the trenches as though they constituted an objective criterion for the establishment of a new elite.”
So it is hardly surprising that Trumpsters were not done after the storming of the Capitol. They wanted more. I believe it is likely that. They want to follow their leader into the next battle.
Hannah Arendt said this about the totalitarian believers of Europe:
“This generation remembered the war as the great prelude to the breakdown of classes and their transformation into masses. War, with its constant murderous arbitrariness, became the symbol for death, the “great equalizer” and therefore the true father of a new world order. The passion for equality and justice, the longing to transcend narrow and meaningless class lines, to abandon stupid privileges and prejudices, seemed to find in war a way out of the old condescending attitudes of pity for the oppressed and disinherited. In times of growing misery and individual helplessness, it seems as difficult to resist pity when it grows into an all-devouring passion as it is not to resent its very boundlessness, which seems to kill human dignity with more deadly certainty than misery itself.”
Will the same be true of Trumpsters? We have no way of knowing. None of this is pre-ordained. I am not suggesting Arendt was a prophet. I am just saying her remarks about true believers of the totalitarians makes one look at the modern variants with deep trepidation. At the very least we have little justification for easy optimism or over confidence. We should not be quick to believe the troubles are over. It is more likely that they are just beginning. That is not a comforting thought.