Hannah Arendt: Mass Support for authoritarians


Dictators live on mass support. To many people that seems strange, but it isn’t. Massive power comes from mass support. They can’t do it alone. That does not mean a democracy is necessary. Not at all. Tyrants realize that democracy is not important. Mass support is important and there are better ways to get it than messy elections. Hannah Arendt described it this way in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism:

“It would be a still more serious mistake to forget, because of this impermanence, that totalitarian regimes, so long as they are in power, and the totalitarian leaders, so long as they are alive, “command and rest upon mass support” up to the end. Hitler’s rise to power was legal in terms of majority rule and neither he nor Stalin could have maintained the leadership of large populations, survived many interior and exterior crises, and braved numerous dangers of relentless intra-party struggles if they had not had the confidence of the masses.


Often it is startling how brazen tyrannical leaders can be. Trump was not the first, though I acknowledge he was not a tyrannical leader-so far he is just a wanna be authoritarian, but he could easily tip in that direction if elected again. Arendt had another important observation here:

“Nor can their (totalitarian leaders) popularity be attributed to the victory of masterful and lying propaganda over ignorance and stupidity. For the totalitarian movements which precede and accompany totalitarian regimes, invariably as frank as it is mendacious, and would-be totalitarian rulers usually start their careers by boasting of their past crimes and carefully outlining their future ones.”


Trump did exactly that many times. For example, when he talked openly to Bob Woodward a reporter about how he minimized the risks of Covid-19 and told the American public they had nothing to fear. Later he kept saying, without evidence again, that “the end of the pandemic is around the corner.” He also bragged how he could stand in Times Square and kill someone and would not lose any support. He might have been right.


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