To Understand the Trump Era, Forget Orwell and Read Hannah Arendt

Lying defines the Trump era of American life. The sheer volume, brazenness, and repetition are all unmatched in US history. That Trump constantly lies is something that even most of his supporters acknowledge– that is just Trump being Trump! But it always comes with a caveat: We understand what he really means. At some point, all the lying distorts reality. Untruths and doublethink run rampant. War is Peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength. Americans have spent the last four years wondering if they live in Orwell’s 1984. The truth is we are living in something far dumber– a lazy parody of Hannah Arendt’s 1933.

Orwell’s dystopian “future” of 1984 is what most journalists and political commentators have used to describe the effect Trump has had on US politics and society from the earliest days of his administration. From Sean Spicer’s embarrassing lies about the inauguration size and Kellyanne Conway’s alternative facts, Trump’s sycophants have engaged in exactly the sort of up-is-down, left-is-right speech that Orwell describes. Orwell’s imagined dystopia echoes in our time, but there was a sort of competence and intent that is utterly lacking at this moment. In 1984, the specter of a government asserting total domination over their people comes with a hyper-competent, cartoonishly sinister totalitarian government that makes everyone a spy on one another and uses this information to personally manipulate and control their people, stripping them of individual identity and even the ability to “know” something. What has happened to American society is both less extreme and even more tragic. We let all the lying strip meaning from words, creating the sort of relativist hellscape that used to keep conservatives up at night. We indulge ourselves in media that reaffirms our tribal allegiances and gives us our talking points rather than drawing our own conclusions and expressing them directly to others. Worst of all, we became cynical about everything– including the very idea of truth or democracy.

The rise of relativism and collective cynicism pre-dates Trump. He is neither smart enough nor focused enough to change the society that way. I’d argue that relativism takes hold because people grew cynical. The post-modern critic of capitalism and the Trumpian rejector of the post-WWII consensus make fundamentally the same claim: that the paternalism, arrogance, and exploitation committed by the establishment shows how hallow the Enlightenment ideals were. Ignore the way people around the world used the very principles of democratic society to organize and express their revolutions around– those declarations of independence are nothing more than justifications for their actions. What, do you think we are so innocent?

You can chart our growing cynicism in many ways. Politically, faith in our elected representatives has plummeted over the last half-century. Religiously, Americans have literally lost their faith. Culturally, anti-heroes supplanted the traditional heroes of myth and legend. Cynicism is treated as realism. True believers in an ideology or institution– like our concepts of heroes from earlier times– are viewed as hokey, gullible, or downright stupid.

With that context, the idea that we live in an Orwellian dystopia is understandable. 1984 is accessible and widely read (or at least assigned in schools where kids skim or read summaries of it before bullshitting about how it represents the danger of communism/technology/social media or whatever the boogeyman of the day is). But it is wrong. This moment belongs more to the collapse of vital social structures vital to democracy described by Hannah Arendt than any terrors like Big Brother.
Every historian has heard some mangled variation of “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” so many times that they want to rip their hair out and I am no exception. This has never been true, and it is not why historians do what they do. History does not repeat, but if you listen closely you can hear its echoes. The Bard had it closer to the truth: what’s past is prologue. The totalitarians of the 1930s that both Orwell and Arendt wrote about were brutal strongmen who used language, violence, and terror to contort, control, and destroy their people. Like Orwell, Hannah Arendt understood how totalitarians destroy language and the meaning of words to sway the public. This trick, more lazy debate tactic than sophisticated management strategy, is nonetheless particularly damaging to a democratic society. Arendt understood that our conditions– the very nature of modernity in a democratic society– make us venerable to the demagogue. It isn’t just the mendacity or evil of the totalitarian that brings our pain– we are the architects of our own destruction. Specifically, this is about identity, though not in the way most of us talk about it. Our flirtation with totalitarianism is about a collective loss of any sense of “who” we are individually and a crass devotion to the idea of “what” we are categorically.

Trump’s war against truth erodes our frayed trust in institutions and heightens the strains that modern life imposes on humanity. Our commitment to consumerism– our Consumers Republic, to misappropriate a phrase from Liz Cohen– the act of satisfying ourselves through the market, created an obsession with economic prosperity, productivity/efficiency, and consumption. To feed our habit we became devoted to our jobs. Your identity is about what you do rather than what you think. Look at the way we talk about higher education. The utter disdain people have for work that they can’t see serious material wealth coming from is entrenched across most cross-sections of American society. I cannot count the number of people who have said some variation of “wow– you’ve done so well for yourself as a history major!” As though if I lived more modestly and still worked as a historian or college administrator, I would somehow be a story of failure. Our work and action have little meaning beyond maintaining or improving our material conditions. Obviously, as a historian turned consultant, I feel this acutely!

Many Americans, especially white Americans, have felt insulated from this downside of modernity until the last several decades, when automation, globalization, wage stagnation, and our focus on investment growth eroded material conditions for everyday Americans. It turns out your do not need to interview a bunch of former coal miners in eastern Kentucky or rural Pennsylvania diners to understand the identity crisis that makes them open to Trump’s “Only I can save you” and “At least I will piss off those people you think have it better than you” pitch. Nor is it tough to see how most of the people who have stable and/or lucrative careers see no appeal in this message. Simply reading a few seminal texts on the concept of democratic citizenship would explain this to you.

The realization of lost identity alienates people from our shared world. Universal seem less universal when you think the world is rigged against you. Our social pursuit of wealth, power, and status erodes our sense of individual identity and distorts our notion of public and private interests. Political activity in a healthy society is not simply a means to an end– political action is supposed to be aimed at a public good with intrinsic value. You might recognize them as slogans like “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but they have a lot of other names. As Arendt reminds us, the public interest is not supposed to be based on the accumulated sum of our collective private self- interests. Instead, they are based upon those famously self-evident truths and a commitment to the freedom to pursue the good life (right up until our conceptions of the good life clash) that is immutable.

Our politics and culture have degraded, far more on the right but the left certainly engages in their own versions of this, to the point that the private interest is the only one people or candidates bother expressing in most campaigns. Trump’s GOP, much like the late-modern conservative movement it replaced, is nothing but a collection of private interests, from the short-term economic gain of a tax cut to “Giving the middle finger to the cultural forces that you oppose,” it is personal interests/grievance all the way down. Religious freedom for me, but not for thee. Law and Order for civil rights protestors, open carry in the halls of state legislatures and polling places for “patriots.” The post-Gingrich GOP has fostered a zero-sum view of the public sphere for decades. This was simply a logical conclusion. Anyone who followed the Bernie Sanders campaign closely– especially on “Rose Twitter”– would note these tendencies on the far left too. If you are not committed to Medicare for All you are a neoliberal shill who does not care if poor people die. Unwilling to commit to a full and immediate implementation of the Green New Deal? You are in the pocket of big oil and don’t care that we’ll all be dead in a decade. There is no room for nuance. No quarter will be given for enemies and there is no room for accommodation. This worldview prefers short-term policy-oriented purity tests and rejects the Enlightenment philosophies the Founders predicated our form of government on. In its place is a cynical totalitarian mindset that assumes you can either impose your worldview on others or have theirs imposed on you. Citizenship in a democratic society demands that we uphold a public interest centered on sharing the world and providing space to allow the widest freedom possible for pursuing happiness. The cynics worldview is fundamentally undemocratic.

Speech plays an important role in democracy and life. It is through speech that we express our identities– the unique and inner “who” that we are as opposed to the observable and easily classifiable “what” that we might be described as. I always think of the rush process for Greek life when I try to define what this means. For those who have never been through it, imagine being interviewed by a bunch of hungover, rich 20-year-olds for admission into a drinking club that occasionally masquerades as a business unit. Like a bad corporate interviewer, most frat bros were obsessed with the “what” of who someone is. What does your dad do? Where are you from? What sports do you play? What was your high school GPA and SAT score? People exist to checkboxes and fulfill roles in this process. Who they are is essentially meaningless. What the best houses knew– perhaps more by coincidence than any practice– was that the whole thing worked better if you recruited interesting people who had individual identities. Anyone worth a damn at interviewing (from recruiting for a frat, to hiring for a job, to going on a first date) knows that to get a sense of who someone is you have to interact with the interviewee– often by giving insight to who you are both to build trust so they will reveal themselves and as a way of testing your compatibility. Our words and deeds tell a much more complete, interesting, and relevant story. When words cease to have meaning, when there is no universe of shared facts, when we live in information monocultures, we lose a lot of our capacity for explaining ourselves. Democracy requires citizens to use their words and deeds to make themselves known, to understand one another, and to find common ground. Instead, we are absorbed in our tribal identities focused on short-term wins for our team. We win and they lose. It is all about the what because we’ve lost all sense of the who. Democracy demands the opposite condition. We must negotiate around the who rather than the what.
The weaknesses of identity in the modern economy have tied people deeply to their party status and the short-term gains of politics aimed at the personal rather than the public good. Trump instinctively gets this the way a con man always notes a mark. It isn’t tough. In fact, you can just follow the pro wrestling promo formula. You play heel towards your team’s designated “bad guys.” AOC +3! Nasty Woman! Sleepy Joe! Go for the cheap pop by mentioning where you are and their local sports teams. Riff about how awesome you are and what losers your opponent is. Simple stuff. You could take any anti-hero face promo from Stone Cold Steve Austin on and substitute in Nancy, Chuck, Hillary, Joe, or Obama as the subject and recreate a Trump rally. He knows that the crowd cheers when he says one thing and boos when he says the other, so he gives them what they came to hear. He has no principles and cynically plays to the crowd. He tells you what he thinks you want to hear and it is all about what you will win, what you will deprive the other side of having, and how great it is to identify as a “real American.” Trump defines everyone, friend and foe, by “what” rather than “who.”

Cynical talking heads on both sides will tell you that compromise with the other is not possible. That “they” hate “us” and our way of life. To suggest otherwise is foolish, or so the accepted wisdom goes.

In the Democratic primary, Joe Biden made the case that he’d reach across the aisle and work to advance the common good. Countless podcasts, twitter activists, the op-ed pages of the major papers, and the talking heads on cable met this with snark and derision. The very idea was mocked as the gullible, toothless centrism that would get Biden crushed. His message of playing to the center, reaching out to extend the tent rather than sticking to the “get out the base” approach both parties had pivoted to in recent years looked hopelessly dated. No one online was excited about him. No one was showing up to Biden rallies. Joe Biden was declared out of touch– a relic of an earlier era who did not notice the world had passed him by.

Then he won…

Trump doesn’t understand how his lies and cynicism damage a democratic society and I suspect few of do his supporters do either (the pro-Trump politicians and media on the other hand knew better and deserve our deepest scorn). What Trump understands is that lies and cynicism are an effective shield from responsibility and consequence. He doesn’t need to be right; he doesn’t even need anyone to believe him. He just needs enough people to not care or to deem it as “how things work.” It allows him to create a sense of false equivalence with his rivals. It worked in 2016, when “but her emails!” (on top of decades of conservative Clinton conspiracies) sufficed to counterbalance Trump’s onslaught of scandal (Access Hollywood, Stormy Daniels, his taxes, “Russia, if you are listening,” et al). He got caught doing it in Ukraine. He is trying it again now with the absurd Hunter Biden “scandal.” Trump floods the zone with stories of his own blatant corruption, overwhelming your ability to be shocked and points to the coverage as proof that he is treated unfairly. Then he locks you on to one conspiracy about his opponent or their family and suggests that it is “those people” who are the real crooks. When nothing is true anything is possible.

Trump didn’t force this on us. Neither did Rush, Newt, Glenn Beck, or any of the increasingly more insignificant grifters that followed in their footsteps. This farcical totalitarianism only works because there is a market for it. Hanging on to their identity as Republicans and/or conservatives is important to his voters. The single-issue concerns that dominate their coalition provide the motivation and cover for their choices. The private, short-term gain of “gun rights” or getting pro-life judges on the Supreme Court overrides any sense of public need to uphold democratic standards, personal behavior, or policymaking. Indeed, “he fights” is one of the most common defenses his supporters mount to explain their vote. No matter his negative qualities– the lying, the cheating, the sex scandals, the personal enrichment, the racism, sexism, or flattering of real dictators– they view him as fighting for their identity. Nothing else matters.

No doubt we are in a dark and stupid place right now, but there are cracks in this pseudo-totalitarian moment. Democracies are incredibly resilient, and culture is extremely fluid and responsive. Joe Biden’s primary victory and his consistent dominance in the polls show there is a real political market for a call to return to the cooperation and negotiation that are necessary for a functioning democracy. NeverTrump conservatives repudiating prior positions and finding common cause with expanding civil rights and voting access is an example of the sort of public good that shouldn’t require a partisan lens to see. Respected news outlets are beginning to reassert their role as gatekeepers of verifiable information rather than acting as passive amplification of whatever is trending on social media. Things are far from as bleak as our Orwellian nightmares would have us believe. We’ll see how much of our democratic spirit we’ve reclaimed next week. Whatever the result, the fight to reclaim the soul of American democracy won’t end on November 3rd. This is just the first chapter in a long story. But every hero’s journey starts somewhere. This is where ours begins.

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3 thoughts on “To Understand the Trump Era, Forget Orwell and Read Hannah Arendt

  1. Jeremy,
    I often find your posts to be well-thought-out and provocative. This latest is interesting on a number of fronts and I concur on several fronts. What I find difficult fundamentally, are the numerous punctuation & grammatical mistakes that appear throughout. As an historian myself, I value not only the content but also the delivery.
    Perhaps your haste to publish will be met with a finer eye to detail in the coming missives.
    And. let’s hope the present Trump/GOP machine/totalitarian nightmare is resoundingly rebuffed come the final election tally.

    Like

    1. Ah! The dangers of trying to copy edit your own work while feeding and putting to bed two unruly little boys has been laid bare for the world to see!

      Did a quick edit during my coffee break this morning. Thanks for reading (and for the comment).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. If seeing that comment (and this one) is bothersome, please do not hesitate to delete it/them now that you’ve made revisions. I won’t be offended. And there’s no need to alert anyone else to your previous version. 🙂

        Like

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