Matthew McManus of Counterfire looks at what is at the root of Trump’s appeal under Hannah Arendt’s microscope on Fascism in society.
In Hannah Arendt’s pioneering book The Origins of Totalitarianism, she criticized the failure of many to understand the appeals of fascism to modern citizens. She wrote that many observers gave fairly rote justifications for its rise and appeal in an apparently advanced and enlightened country like Germany, the birthplaces of Goethe, Kant, and Beethoven. Some claimed that it was the depressed economy which was responsible. Others in the German context pointed to defeat and humiliation in the First World War. Some reactionary conservatives claimed it was declining moral standards and the collapse of religiosity. And Arendt accepted that many of these might have something to do with it. But her ultimate explanation was far simpler and yet strangely more acute. Modern Germans were lonely.
The technologically oriented modern world, focused on the production of wealth and new economic values had driven many Germans from their homes in rural areas. There they had expected to grow into secure jobs in traditional forms of work whose ancestry went back centuries. Instead, they found themselves in big cities where they knew no one and were exposed to forms of life with which they had no familiarity, and which seemed to evolve and metastasize from day to day. Coupled with the realization that myth of endless capitalist expansion was simply that, a mythology brutally desacralized with the advent of Depression and unemployment, countless Germans found themselves alone and poor in a world that seemed strange and unreal to them. In this context, their capacity for resentment and radicalization deepened and could gnaw at itself in bitter isolation. It was only a matter of time before many of these same Germans gravitated to the simplifying but rhetorically powerful movements who promised them belonging, prosperity, and of course revenge against the manipulative alien parties who had manipulated them and infected their country.
Today, Arendt’s analysis still has a great deal to teach us about the appeal of hard right movements to lonely individuals. Much has been written about the rise of Trumpism-its relativism, its appeal to traditional values to efface all standard political conventions, its vulgarity, its populism-but relatively little attention has been paid to its psycho-social foundations beyond traditional appeals to working class ennui and economic malaise. Here Arendt can still be our teacher. But we must update her insights considerably by looking at how our now post-modern technological world engenders new but still seductive hard right movements.
Technology and Capitalism
It seems strange today to think of how anyone could be lonely. Technology, especially telecommunications and the internet, have brought about a global village where billions of people can interconnect with one another in an instant. Often all that is required is a cell phone with a decent enough data plan. People are connecting with one another at a rate that would bewilder even such prophets of the post-modern world as Marshall McLuhan and Jean Baudrillard. Moreover, the economy is booming. After a recessionary dip in the last 2000s, the 2010s have seen recovery and job expansion in the United States and many other OECD countries.
Any yet hard right movements like Trumpism thrive because people say they are deeply anxious and losing their country. They feel alienated and like they no longer connect with their communities. Many claim that Western Civilization itself-whatever that means-is under assault by hordes of turbaned and hooded immigrants bringing foreign religions and customs. How is this possible? With immense capacities to communicate, and interconnected economy, and Western Civilization still mostly retaining its position as a globally hegemonic, how is it that these hard right movements exist. I believe the answer lies more deeply, in the political economic processes of post-modern capitalism and its alliance with the powers of technology. Much as in Arendt’s day, these same forces continue to propel a culture of loneliness and anxiety. But they do so in a unique way.
In the United States and other Western countries, reactionary conservatives have long made idols of both Christendom and the dollar. They wanted a white, Christian society organized according to traditional mores that were widely approved by democratic majorities. At the same time they wanted robust capitalist societies in which barriers to capital expansion and wealth creation were liquidated as rapidly as possible. What was never accepted was the fundamental tension between these two positions. The stability of a traditional way of life is in no small part dependent on maintaining forms of wealth creation and their affiliated technologies to the extent possible. But one of the features of capitalization, especially in the post-modern era where technology enables the movement of wealth and the creation of new industries with unparalleled rapidity, has been precisely to upend these traditional forms of wealth creation and their affiliated technologies. At points capitalist firms will move themselves around the globe. At others they will simply outdate industries; coal being an ideal example. These will demolish traditional forms of wealth creation and the communities which depend on them. And this is only the surface tendencies.