A recent (Mar. 18) piece in the L.A. Review of Books by Roger Berkowitz, “Why Arendt Matters: Revisiting The Origins of Totalitarianism,” raised some provocative issues related to our own time. Here is one key sentence:
The modern condition of rootlessness is a foundational experience of totalitarianism; totalitarian movements succeed when they offer rootless people what they most crave: an ideologically consistent world aiming at grand narratives that give meaning to their lives. By consistently repeating a few key ideas, a manipulative leader provides a sense of rootedness grounded upon a coherent fiction that is “consistent, comprehensible, and predictable.”
If that phrase “coherent fiction” does not make you think of Donald Trump and his appeal to resentful whites in the Bible and Rust Belts, then you haven’t been paying attention. Trump embodies the perfect appeal to those who feel they’ve been left out of the modern economy and the collapse of manufacturing in the United States. He said he would “make America great again,” which they took to mean bringing back their jobs lost to either the recession or foreign competitors like China and Mexico. And he kept repeating this same, simple-minded message until it, improbably to most observers, landed him in the White House. Of course, he won’t be able to do it; it’s not only cheap foreign labor or immigrants that have caused those jobs to disappear; it’s also the increasing industrial reliance on automation, robots, and computers. But even if his supporters were to become aware of this latter cause of their discontent, it wouldn’t matter. New technology is going to decimate common jobs even more than foreigners; for robots are even now threatening to disemploy drivers (driverless cars and trucks), retail sales clerks (online buying that is already causing nearly all “brick-and-mortar” jobs to disappear, with robots performing the few tasks left), and countless other tasks once requiring human input.
All of this, of course, compounded by collapsing economies in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia due not just to automation but also to global warming and the decimation of the environment, will cause even more pressure on advanced industrial nations to employ some, at least, of the millions who will become part of the mass migrations of those displaced from their home countries. And it goes without saying that these migrants, like the ones we already see, will be characterized by that same condition of rootlessness and alienation. They will constitute the raw material upon which Arendt understood totalitarianism to depend: “atomized, isolated individuals” whose chief need is some form of consistency to compensate for the world they once knew. As Berkowitz puts it, quoting Arendt: “Above all, movements promise consistency. Movements ‘conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself.’” It is as if Donald Trump had read Arendt; except that we know he doesn’t read. What he does have is an uncanny insight into the needs of the masses of people he caters to. He seems to be well aware that they don’t much care about “facts.” Rather, the “facts” of the real world are what has confounded them and left them bereft, and so are precisely what they want to replace. And leaders like Trump seem to know this on some level—which is why they provide not “facts” that can be checked, but fabrications and dreams which “create a coherent fictional reality.” It is precisely this coherence, this consistency that rootless people yearn for, demand, need, to provide, at least for a time, some meaning to their lives.
Thus, becoming part of a movement—even a movement that appears absurd to most rational people—provides what looks like meaning to the lonely, the rootless, the un- or underemployed. In this regard, a recent piece by Wes Enzinna in Mother Jones Magazine, “Inside the Underground Anti-Racist Movement,” adds further confirmation from the other end of the political spectrum. Enzinna focuses on the anti-fascist movement that has garnered headlines recently in clashes taking place in Berkeley over right-wing provocateurs like Ann Coulter and Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos. It is a revealing article, not least because it points out that these anti-racist groups on the left (ARA or Anti-Racist Action, and HARM or Hoosier Anti-Racist Movement), appear to derive from the same social and economic classes as the proto-fascists they are battling. Enzinna’s piece provides a lengthy interview with Jason Sutherlin, one of the founders of HARM, who spent several years in jail for a May 2012 assault on a white nationalist group having lunch in the Ashford House restaurant in Tinley Park, IL. Sutherlin and his group were part of the larger ARA (Anti-Racist Action), dedicated to combating right-wing and neo-Nazi activities that have gained even more prominence with the election of Donald Trump. And most of its members come from the same background: lower- or lower-middle class whites, mainly, who like punk rock and violent action against those they hate. Sutherlin was particularly drawn to such combat because he had a half-sister who was “black,” and he’d experienced racial slurs while with her. He was also drawn to it because it promised to challenge the racists he saw getting away with their aggressive tactics. But one of the group made comments that are perhaps the most provocative of all. A high school dropout from Indiana, Alex Stuck of HARM, said this: “I wasn’t sure if I was racist or anti-racist. I just knew I was pissed off.”
That could be the most apt description of all those who engage in the new battles with fascists and white supremacists. They are the ones who have been left behind by the new economies, the ones who find themselves “pissed off,” the ones who are impatient with peaceful tactics and demonstrations put on by liberal “pussies” and yearn instead to “put on the big-boy boots and stomp through the mud.” The latter are quotes from another member of HARM named Nomad. Nor is this to say that all are committed to violence at all times. As another member named Telly put it,
“Violence is never our default response, and it’s a tiny fraction of what we do. But it is one weapon in our tool kit. We’re not afraid to acknowledge when nonviolence is obviously not working. What you’re doing, what the liberal left is doing, frankly isn’t working.”
What is working, in the minds of these stompers, is confrontation from within a group that doesn’t fear violence. As Jason Sutherlin put it to Wes Enzinna, “A lot of people are suddenly realizing you have to pick a side and go to war.”
Where this will end is anyone’s guess. In Nazi Germany, obviously, it ended with the rise of Hitler and an extension of brutal violence to first the Jews and then the entire world. Trump and his minions would appear to have a long way to go before they get to that stage. But the problem is that mass movements—driven by the need for a coherent cause to provide meaning, if only for time—have a way of getting out of hand, even absent a crazed leader with a totally insane program. Trump is pathological, to be sure; whether he’s quite mad enough to get to totalitarianism is another matter. And his program, thankfully, is not coherent enough so far to lead to mass killing. Yet, one never knows. He knew enough to aim his appeal at the rootless, racist whites he felt would respond. And they did. He also knew enough to resort to military violence outside our borders, twice, when his administration was reeling from scandal after scandal—to ‘wag the dog.’ He is now raising alarms again with his macho moves against North Korea. The danger lies in the unknowing—whether he is fool enough or pressured or infantile enough to risk nuclear war to prove his bonafides in battle (this just came out of Politico, from a White House staffer: “If you’re an adviser [to Trump], your job is to help him at the margins; to talk him out of doing crazy things”). The truly frightening thing, in this regard, is that nothing has the power to rally the disaffected to a cause—that longed-for coherence mentioned above—like a major war or confrontation. And that in such confrontations, things can get out of hand, even absent the malicious intent of a Nazi. We saw exactly that when George W. Bush rescued his failing administration with 9/11, and upended the entire Middle East. This time, we can only hope that somewhere, among all those highly-paid advisers, there’s someone who can talk the Drumpster out of the absolute craziest things, at least for as long as he’s the one with his finger on the dreaded button.