Hanna Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)

I’ve just finished reading an extraordinary book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, written in 1951. Its author, Hanna Arendt, was a political theorist and a Jew who was briefly imprisoned by the Nazis and, years later, placed in an internment camp by Vichy France. Arendt’s book offer insights into our own state of affairs. Here are some excerpts:

The older nations enjoyed constitutions which implicitly or explicitly (as in the case of France, the nation par excellence) were founded upon the Rights of Man, that even if there were other nationalities within their borders they needed no additional law for them, and that only in the newly established succession states was a temporary enforcement of human rights necessary as a compromise and exception. The arrival of the stateless people brought an end to this illusion.

***

One is almost tempted to measure the degree of totalitarian infection by the extent to which the concerned governments use their sovereign right of denationalization [i.e., the right to deport people] . . . . But one should bear in mind at the same time that there was hardly a country left on the Continent that did not pass between the two wars some new legislation which, even if it did not use this right extensively, was always phrased to allow for getting rid of a great number of its inhabitants at any opportune moment.

***

The chief qualification of a mass leader has become unending infallibility; he can never admit an error. The assumption of infallibility, moreover, is based not so much on superior intelligence as on the correct interpretation of the essentially reliable forces in history or nature, forces which neither defeat nor ruin can prove wrong because they are bound to assert themselves in the long run. . . . Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.

***

. . .since the middle thirties, one mysterious world conspiracy has followed another in Bolshevik propaganda. . . . The effectiveness of this kind of propaganda demonstrates one of the chief characteristics of modern masses. They do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations, which may be caught by anything that is at once universal and consistent in itself. What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part. Repetition, somewhat overrated in importance because of the common belief in the masses’ inferior capacity to grasp and remember, is important only because it convinces them of consistency in time. . . . The revolt of the masses against “realism,” common sense, and all ‘the plausibilities of the world’ (Burke) was the result of their atomization, of their loss of social status along with which they lost the whole sector of communal relationships in whose framework common sense makes sense.

***

…they recruited their members from this mass of apparently indifferent people whom all other parties had given up as too apathetic or too stupid for their attention. The result was that the majority of their membership consisted of people who never before had appeared on the political scene. This permitted the introduction of entirely new methods into political propaganda, and indifference to the arguments of political opponents; these movements not only placed themselves outside and against the party system as a whole, they found a membership that had never been reached, never been ‘spoiled’ by the party system. Therefore they did not need to refute opposing arguments and consistently preferred methods which ended in death rather than persuasion, which spelled terror rather than conviction. They presented disagreements as invariably originating in deep natural, social, or psychological sources beyond the control of the individual and therefore beyond the power of reason. This would have been a shortcoming only if they had sincerely entered into competition with other parties; it was not if they were sure of dealing with people who had reason to be equally hostile to all parties.

***

With the assumption that foreign politics is necessarily outside of the human contract, engaged in the perpetual war of all against all, which is the law of the “state of nature,” Hobbes affords the best possible theoretical foundation for those naturalistic ideologies which hold nations to be tribes, separated from each other by nature, without any connection whatever, unconscious of the solidarity of mankind and having in common only the instinct for self-preservation which man shares with the animal world.

***

If it should prove to be true that we are imprisoned in Hobbes’s endless process of power accumulation, then the organization of the mob will inevitably take the form of transformation of nations into races, for there is, under the conditions of an accumulating society, no other unifying bond available between individuals who in the very process of power accumulation and expansion are losing all natural connections with their fellow-men. Racism may indeed carry out the doom of the Western world and, for that matter, of the whole of human civilization. When Russians have become Slavs, when Frenchmen have assumed the role of commanders of a force noire, when Englishmen have turned into “white men,” as already for a disastrous spell all Germans became Aryans, then this change will itself signify the end of Western man. For no matter what learned scientists may say, race is, politically speaking, not the beginning of humanity but its end, not the origin of peoples but their decay, not the natural birth of man but his unnatural death.

***

A conception of law which identifies what is right with the notion of what is good for— for the individual, or the family, or the people, or the largest number— becomes inevitable once the absolute and transcendent measurements of religion or the law of nature have lost their authority. And this predicament is by no means solved if the unit to which the “good for” applies is as large as mankind itself. For it is quite conceivable, and even within the realm of practical political possibilities, that one fine day a highly organized and mechanized humanity will conclude quite democratically— namely by majority decision— that for humanity as a whole it would be better to liquidate certain parts thereof. Here, in the problems of factual reality, we are confronted with one of the oldest perplexities of political philosophy, which could remain undetected only so long as a stable Christian theology provided the framework for all political and philosophical problems, but which long ago caused Plato to say: “Not man, but a god, must be the measure of all things.” (Emphasis added)

***

The final excerpt, of course, describes the dilemma Abraham Lincoln discovered in Stephen Douglas’s Popular Sovereignty doctrine expressed in the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. This dilemma precipitated Lincoln’s return to politics and was a major subject of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates. All of natural law is based on political equality, and political equality is based on the existence and reign of God. That’s a political restatement of the two greatest commandments, from which all the law and the prophets also hang.

The Declaration and Donald Trump

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Since the Civil War, American conservative and liberal national officeholders have been, in an important sense, all liberals. Conservatives and liberals both defend the Founders’ liberal ideology drawn from John Locke, Jean Jacques Burlamaqui, Montesquieu, and other Enlightenment philosophers. Conservatives and liberals, of course, emphasize different aspects of the Founders’ liberalism. Today’s conservatives, generally speaking, want to conserve liberalism’s emphasis on free-market capitalism, which hitched up with liberalism around the time of our nation’s founding, and on individual rights. Today’s liberals want to expand the reach of liberalism’s equality and its removal of barriers from social and economic opportunity.

Donald Trump represents a break from this implied agreement on the goal – that is, on Lockean liberalism – between America’s two major political parties and the modern conservativism and liberalism they have represented. Trump is more like a conservative in the eighteenth-century English sense of the word. He may be the first monarchical American presidential nominee.

The Indictment

One can find similarities between Trump’s illiberal positions and the actions that King George III and, by implication, his Parliament are accused of in that most liberal of American state papers, the Declaration of Independence. (Most of the Declaration amounts to a bill of particulars supporting its indictment of a monarchy, at least as monarchism was practiced by King George. The Declaration’s more famous and soaring rhetoric is chiefly in its preamble, of course, to which I will return.)

Here are a few of the Declaration of Independence’s particulars against Trump.

Trump’s incitements to violence against protesters at his rallies (e.g., “Knock the crap out of them”) and his traffic with white supremacists recall a particular: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us.” His bullying of Judge Gonzalo Curiel for what lawyers call “a civil advantage” by calling the judge “a hater” and “a Mexican” brings to mind the accusation that George “has made judges dependent on his will alone.”

His promise to loosen libel laws against the press for negative reporting against him is, of course, an attack on the First Amendment’s freedom of the press. To abridge the First Amendment to this extent is right up there with “taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our governments.” His justification for limiting the press’s freedom – “I’m not like other people” – is the justification monarchs have used for such actions for centuries.

Even his stands on particular issues seem extreme enough to warrant a particular from the Declaration’s indictment. His penchant for tearing up trade deals, according to most economists who have studied his proposals, will have the effect of “cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world.” His harsh immigration proposals, including the construction of a Mexican-funded wall along our Mexican border and his temporary ban of Muslim immigration, remind me of this item from the Declaration’s indictment: “He has endeavored to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws of naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither . . .” And his refusal to rule out the tactical use of nuclear weapons as well as his refusal to support measures aimed at halting nuclear proliferation threaten the use of “Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.”

But, more than anything else, Trump’s overall disdain for democratic and republican forms of government, from his failure to master the basics of seventh-grade civics (e.g., his belief that judges sign bills into law) to his assertion of a kingly prerogative to contradict himself without accountability, to his lack of any proposed republican means of carrying out his promises – instead, he asks us repeatedly only that we trust him – makes him seem like an eighteenth-century British monarch. To give King George credit, he was a constitutional monarch on his side of the Atlantic, but if our Declaration is to be believed, he acted as an absolute monarch over here. It is this brand of conservativism – this cynical, Patriarchalist, and Hobbesian view of mankind’s need for an autocratic ruler at the potential cost of individual and collective liberty – that Trump espouses.

The Equality Clause

Trump faces indictment not only by the Declaration’s bill of particulars against King George. Trump stands indicted also – and more significantly – by the Declaration’s preamble, particularly by its most precious member, the Equality Clause: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Equality is the political term for the true self. As political philosopher Harry V. Jaffa has established, the Declaration’s expression of mankind’s essential equality presupposes a Judeo-Christian understanding of the separation and mutual respect among God, humanity, and the rest of nature. Or as Jesus put it:

But you must not be called “rabbi,” for you have one Rabbi, and you are all brothers. Do not call any man on earth “father,” for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. (Matthew 23:8 – 9, REB)

Because we have a common Father and Rabbi, we “are all brothers.” To say that we are equal, then, is to say that God is our Father. It is to say that we are children of God and that each of us is a child of God. It is the foundation for individual identity. Many, of course, express their essential selves in less religious terms or in different religious terms. No matter how it’s expressed, it signifies an individual yet universal identity that challenges sometimes-externally advanced identities based on ethnicity, religion, race, or social class.

By contrast, Trump offers us a tribal identity. He regularly re-tweets material from white supremacist sources. His campaign’s chief executive’s infamous web site denigrates both blacks and Jews qua blacks and Jews. He traffics in racial conspiracy theories, such as the false claim that President Obama is not a United States citizen. Trump gets many of his talking points from Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, who champions and quotes approvingly a formerly disgraced white fascist.

Trump’s actions are consistent with the words of the Confederacy’s chief philosopher, John Calhoun. Calhoun in a famous Senate speech stated that “there is not a word of truth in the whole proposition” that all men are created equal – the very proposition to which the Gettysburg Address claims that our nation was dedicated. Individuals have no rights, Calhoun believed; rights attach to individuals only as members of a race, and then only when that race earns those rights over the course of generations.

Lincoln and the Declaration on Trump

Taken alone, according to Lincoln, the particulars of the Declaration’s indictment, which take up over half of the Declaration’s words, would amount to a “merely revolutionary” document. The more important section is what Lincoln called the Declaration’s “abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times”; that is, the Declaration’s Equality Clause. According to Lincoln, it is the Equality Clause, even more than the particulars of the Declaration’s indictment, “that to-day, and in all coming days . . . shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”

Trump’s campaign is certainly a harbinger of reappearing tyranny. The entire Declaration of Independence rebukes it.

Why we Evangelicals nominated Trump

It may seem ironic that we Evangelicals, who profess everyone’s need for redemption, helped to nominate Donald Trump, who professes no such need. But we did: he swept the Bible Belt primaries, losing only Texas to favorite son Ted Cruz. According to NBC News exit polls, Mr. Trump won a combined forty percent of the Evangelical vote in the  GOP primaries and caucuses as of May 10, shortly after he effectively wrapped up the nomination. Mr. Cruz by then had a combined thirty-four percent of the Evangelical vote, in second place in that regard. Mr. Trump’s share of the Evangelical primary vote, of course, rose thereafter.

I first felt my own need for redemption as a teen in Newport News’s Ferguson High School. One of my best friends there had suddenly gotten religion – a common experience during the Jesus Movement of the late nineteen-sixties and early seventies – and I walked the aisle at his church. My conversion felt powerful. Shy as I was, I often preached until crowds clogged the school’s halls, forcing our assistant principal to stop me.

I wanted everyone to see what I saw: each of us is made in God’s image and endowed with an invisible spirit – a means of connecting with something universal and eternal.

Slowly something happened to our movement. As a William and Mary law student in the late seventies and early eighties, I watched Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, the Portsmouth-based show I had enjoyed as a teen, begin to mix politics with its religious programming. Nationally, of course, American Evangelicalism was by then becoming associated with a conservative stance on a number of social issues, including abortion, homosexuality, and the expression of religion in public places.

Our culture-war emphasis came at a cost: we Evangelicals became less inclined to see the image of God in our political opponents. In other words, our focus on social issues made us lose touch with the core of our democracy – our political equality as God’s children – an understanding that our earlier spiritual renewal made particularly available to us.

Our nation was founded on Enlightenment philosopher John Locke’s notion of equality before God. As law and philosophy professor Jeremy Waldron observes, “Locke accorded basic equality the strongest grounding that a principle could have: it was an axiom of theology, understood as perhaps the most important truth about God’s way with the world in regard to the social and political implications of His creation of the human person.”

In Enlightenment terms, this “axiom of theology” is a “self-evident truth,” and the American Framers accorded the Declaration of Independence’s Equality Clause – “all men are created equal” – this foundational status.

Instead of discovering in the Declaration the core of our own faith, however, many of my fellow Evangelicals have reconstructed America’s Revolutionary past with a “Christian nation” narrative. This rather tribal outlook on our country’s origins tends to exclude other faiths and denies the universal truth at the heart of the American experiment in self-government.

The “Christian nation” narrative is also godless at its core. It suggests that our political rights spring from historical accident and not from our status as God’s children. G. K. Chesterton, the Christian apologist, in his book What’s Wrong with the World stood against a similar notion of the origin of English rights, quoting and then countering Edmund Burke:

“I know nothing of the rights of men,” [Burke] said, “but I know something of the rights of Englishmen.” There you have the essential atheist. His argument is that we have got some protection by natural accident and growth; and why should we profess to think beyond it, for all the world as if we were the images of God!

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address claims that America was dedicated not to the Christian God, exactly, but to Chesterton’s proposition, a universally shared spark of divinity reflected in our essential – that is, our political – equality. America was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The proposition is attracting some harrowing answers, and the issue is again joined.

We Evangelicals were not wrong per se to mix religion and politics, but we have fought our culture wars as us-versus-them moral battles at the expense of the Equality Clause, which Lincoln rightly calls “the father of all moral principle among us.” This moral principle guided some past Evangelicals to support political movements that led to the abolition of slavery, to women’s suffrage, and to Civil Rights legislation.

Our own efforts at political action, however, have culminated in our support of Mr. Trump, an autocrat at heart who shows little inclination to see God’s image in Mexicans and Muslims, among others. After some political defeats, we Evangelicals see ourselves as weak and as a mere special interest; we seek Mr. Trump’s protection, and he has promised it to us.

We seem willing to give up on our nation’s 240-year-old experiment with equality in favor of a king. We fit a biblical precedent, that of ancient Israel, who rejected God by crying to the prophet Samuel to “give us a king!”

Unlike ancient Israel, of course, America isn’t a theocracy, but the spiritual core of the Equality Clause suggests an outlook on democracy based on a people’s status as children of God – government by “the people in mass . . . inherently independent of all but moral law,” as Jefferson puts it. In a real sense, we Evangelicals are rejecting the spiritual essence of our nation’s founding.

Instead of breaking through “the gates of hell,” as Jesus envisioned the church, we Evangelicals may pay dearly for arranging for our own protection.

Bibliography

1 Samuel 8 (KJV) (“Give us a king!” quote)

Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith) (2012-05-12). What’s Wrong with the World (Kindle Locations 2085-2086). Kindle Edition.

Erler, Edward J. “Harry Jaffa and Original Intent Jurisprudence.” Introduction. Storm over the Constitution. By Harry V. Jaffa. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 1999. Xvii-Xl. Print. (For Jefferson’s “moral law” quote, page xxix.)

Jaffa, Harry V. “What Were the ‘Original Intentions’ of the Framers of the Constitution of the United States?” University of Puget Sound Law Review 10 (1987): 351-448. Web. 22 July 2013. <http://digitalcommons.law.seattleu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1246&context=sulr>. (For Lincoln’s “the father of all moral principle among us” quote, page 417.)

Matthew 16:18 (KJV) (“Gates of hell” quote)

Mitchell, Travis. “Evangelicals Rally to Trump, Religious ‘Nones’ Back Clinton.” Pew Research Center’s Religion Public Life Project RSS. Pew Research Center, 13 July 2016. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.

Waldron, Jeremy. God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations of John Locke’s Political Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print. (Page 6)

The James

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When home, I walk along a beach or seawall and sometimes think of a conch shell. I hear the Atlantic’s breakers in the James’s soft laps, and I know the river hears the same thing.

Faulkner’s father once offered him a cigar. A teen at the time, Faulkner thought about it, accepted it, broke it open, dumped its contents into his pipe, lit the pipe, and, puffing, thanked him. Faulkner never outgrew his delight at telling this story.

Note: this post appeared first on Instagram @peterstephens

De tail

A day of trailing glories. A wonderful, critical review in this morning’s Post of the Phillips’s new Paul G. Allen exhibition sent us there. A Microsoft cofounder who’s worth just over or under $18B “depending on which side of the bed the market got up on today,” Allen collects art like souvenirs, Philip Kennicott writes. Allen visits the Grand Canyon, but instead of taking snapshots of it, he collects paintings of it, and several are here. Same with Venice: Canaletto, Turner, Manet, Monet, Moran. Allen also has a thing for volcanoes. Philip Kennicott calls him a cypher whose comments in the catalog interview are “disturbingly inarticulate and jejune.” But these big, bold paintings are fun.

Finally got to see Avery’s Dancing Trees. Victoria saw me weeping from across the gallery. Couldn’t hold it in, either, before Hopper’s Clamdigger, which I didn’t know existed. Victoria loves to find things in paintings, and Jan Brueghel the Younger’s Five Senses series occupied her a great deal. But I stumped her when I asked her to find the doggie in Klimt’s Birch Forest. Hint: it’s in the base of a tree trunk on the worthy catalog’s dust cover (image #6 in the press release). Really more of a coyote. Above: Detail from Paul Signac’s Morning Calm, Concarneau, Opus 219 (Larghetto)

Note: this post appeared first on Instagram @peterstephens

Paula

Gas. #winter #Hopper “Tinselations, tessalations, tessaracts — the cold captures the downward trajectory of tears.” Beneath that line, a kind composition of two icicles. It was her last post before the sickness that took her life.

This morning’s ice storm, and the branches and leaves I was drawn to, made me think of Paula Tatarunis and the thoughtful, twelve-year-long conversation between her poetry and photography. It and something of Paula’s spirit are still there, frozen in time: paulashouseoftoast.blogspot.com.

From the same post: “Close looking (while the eye lasts) rewards the eye: someone’s last breath, cast in ice, hangs inside a drop. [photo] For a single brief moment you might think you feel the comforting touch of a humanoid ghost.”

A photo posted by Peter (@peterstephens) on