For four years I have heard various liars say that Hannah Arendt would abhor Donald Trump and that Trump heralded a prospective totalitarianism—it was not so. Arendt’s vision of the good life was the vita activa: the life of action. A free man would emerge from the wings—his private home, where he was king—onto the stage of public life, the realm of action. His action was not limited to participation in war, but included his speeches in the assembly; his speech, particularly speech that disclosed, was a crucial form of action. The free man was an actor, putting on his mask—just like the masks of Greek theatre—to act on the public stage. His speech acts should be disclosure, a revelation; a concept related to Heidegger’s aletheia, truth as revelation.
Trump was a free man on the stage making sharp statements that were acts of disclosure or revelation. Trump’s tweets were almost Zen koans and were, per Heidegger, a rough and ready form of disclosure. His opponents only repeated the banal slogans of the managerial state; their speech concealed through meaningless slogans: “Black Lives Matter” or “diversity, equality, and inclusion”.
When Arendt spoke of totalitarianism she meant something very specific, not simply authoritarianism. Pinochet, for example, could be seen as a tyrant, but he was not totalitarian. The tyrant asks that people obey him; he does not care what they think. He kills a limited number of opponents, but he has no interest beyond his political opponents; he does not, for example, want to rewrite the Bible to make it conform to his ideology, actually he has no ideology—he just wants to stay in power. Trump could have become a tyrant, but he was too nice and too much of a believer in old republican values to do so.
Totalitarianism insists on total reform down to the family level: it destroys the distinction between the public and private realms; it destroys the wings of the theatre from which the man of action emerges, so making free action impossible. For Arendt, totalitarianism was a completely new political category, developed in the 20th century, to add to Aristotle’s concepts of tyranny, oligarchy, republic, and so on. Totalitarianism was distinguished by its justification in pseudo-science—for example, the Marxist theory of history—and its desire to break up and atomise societies, leaving no private space, so that people became instruments under technical control, coordinated through banal slogans. Totalitarianism murders large numbers of people who fall under arbitrary and ever-shifting pseudo-technical categories; people who might have no interest in politics whatsoever—by contrast, a tyrant, with his limited hit list, is a joy to live under.
When the American managerial state allows families to be broken up by court order so that a child can be “transitioned” to a new gender, it acts in a totalitarian way; private life is destroyed by the state in the name of pseudo-scientific ideology. When football players must affirm that “Black Lives Matter”, it is totalitarian; the state takes over a person’s thought world; it is not enough to obey, a person must mouth the slogans or be marginalised. Similarly, Samantha Power, a senior advisor to Obama, wrote an introduction to Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism; she either did not read Arendt or is a hypocrite, for she advocated “humanitarian intervention” across the Middle East—precisely the kind of dull technocratic language Arendt abhorred.
When a drone pilot grabs his latte from Starbucks to wash down his hormone pills, then sits at his desk in a Las Vegas suburb to select a Pakistani wedding to blow up he represents what Arendt called the “desk murderer”: men like Adolf Eichmann, who orchestrate mass death without thought; for Arendt thought meant the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in tension at the same time. There is no thought in the American managerial state; there is the slogan: “Black Lives Matter, bigot!” Mouth the slogan, destroy your thought world—or get droned.