Much has been written about whether Donald Trump is a despot authoritarian, fascist or merely a bumbling clown. As we approach this question of what Trump “is,” it’s important for us to realize that — regardless of our assessments of his level of intelligence, or his adolescent mentality, or his bizarre mannerisms — he is in the most powerful seat in the world. Trump is dangerous and he needs to be taken seriously.
Kathleen Jones is a political theorist whose publications and teaching about modern political theory and Hannah Arendt span nearly four decades. Her most recent book is a philosophical memoir, Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt, about her 30-year relationship with the work of the well-loved political thinker.
In understanding Trump, Jones says, we need to look at the gaps — and potential gaps — between his claims and the truth. She points to Trump’s boasts of business acumen and accomplishments, alongside his refusal to release his tax returns, as well as his documented history of bankruptcies, which resulted in some of his business interests’ restructuring.
Given that his claims to be a wildly wealthy and successful businessman are what generated much of his support among his base, it is important to address the fact that these claims are dubious.
“In the absence of full financial disclosures we lack solid data with which to assess whether Trump is a success or a failure,” Jones, who is also a Professor Emerita of Women’s Studies at San Diego State University, told Truthout. “Instead, we have Trump’s bombastic proclamations, loudly and often, of his brand’s excellence and dominance: ‘Believe me,’ he exhorts. And his core of supporters complies.”
In fact, Jones sees Trump’s supporters’ compliance as similar to that of sympathizers of earlier European pre-totalitarian movements. Arendt called them the “masses.”
“Socially atomized, isolated, ‘lonely’ individuals, drawn from the ranks of different classes, who felt adrift in an incomprehensibly changed world, formed the mass core of ideologically racist movements, like Pan-Slavism and Pan-Germanism of the mid-to-late 19th century,” Jones added.
She quoted Arendt’s comment that these masses “remained unequivocally hostile to all existing political bodies. [Their] general mood was far more rebellious and [their] leaders were far more adept at revolutionary rhetoric.”
Jones explained that although the goals of the masses were vague and subject to frequent change, they consistently identified a conspiracy of enemies — foreigners, especially Jews — who they viewed as having fractured the social fabric of “the nation,” and embraced an ideology of “enlarged tribal consciousness” and a movement to achieve its inchoate goals.
According to Arendt, a vaguely defined ideology and a loose movement was “quite enough in a time which preferred a key to history to political action, when men in the midst of communal disintegration and social atomization wanted to belong at any price [emphasis added].”
Jeffrey Isaac is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, and a long-time editor-in-chief of one of the top political science journals in the world, Perspectives on Politics: A Political Science Public Sphere.
Isaac told Truthout that he believes what Arendt wrote about “mob mentality” applies to Trump, who rose to power by flouting “respectable leadership.”
“What is most important, though, is this: Trump has risen to power by fomenting resentment, xenophobia and mass hysteria among his supporters,” Isaac, who has written six books and more than 70 articles on the topics of democracy, totalitarianism and political rebellion, explained.
Trump was able to win, Isaac said, because “the old parties” are both in crisis.” It is exactly this “crisis” of “the old parties” that Trump has used to propel himself into power.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University, who writes and speaks frequently on fascism, authoritarian rulers and Donald Trump, agrees that much of Trump’s political strategy relates to distancing himself from the US’s two main political parties.
Ben-Ghiat told Truthout that Trump engages in “negative politics” by constantly referencing the failures of the established political parties and using these references as “a powerful lever to [his supporters’] personas as outsiders.”
“Trump is in this tradition,” Ben-Ghiat, who is working on a book entitled Strongmen: From Mussolini to Trump, added. “‘I alone can fix it,’ means the establishment parties have ruined the country; strong and new medicine is needed.”
Pledging Loyalty to “His People”
Jones feels it is important to take Trump at his word.
“He’s leading a ‘movement,’ not a ‘country,'” she said. “That explains his preference for the campaign rally over the press conference. And it also helps explain what otherwise seems like a childish, egotistical and obsessive focus on his electoral victory.”
From her perspective, by continuing to talk about his “huge,” “big league” electoral victory, Trump reminds his supporters that they matter; they made The Donald into President Trump. He doesn’t care about the rest of the country or the rule of law. He pledges loyalty to “his people” and he demands their loyalty in return.
“Arendt’s identification of the social psychology of ‘enlarged tribal consciousness’ goes a long way, I think, to explain the persistence of support among Trump voters, despite the lack of real legislative or even administrative successes,” Jones explained. “His supporters feel ‘betrayed’ by the mainstream institutions and traditional party politics; social changes of the last two decades or so have threatened their racial and sexual privileges and class status.”
Thus, Trump’s supporters want someone, in no uncertain terms, to acknowledge this status threat and “do something” about it, and are thus willing to wait for the future that Trump has promised them. Their support largely persists, despite obvious evidence that Trump’s programs (like his disastrous health plan) would harm his base. Here, Arendt’s analysis of the psychologically seductive appeal of “tribal isolation and master race ambitions” is helpful.
The appeal, Arendt writes, “was partly due to an instinctive feeling that mankind, whether a religious or humanistic ideal, implies a common sharing of responsibility…. Tribalism and racism are the very realistic, if very destructive, ways of escaping this predicament of common responsibility.”
Jones explained how one of the hallmarks of totalitarian propaganda, according to Arendt, is its “ability to shut the masses off from the real world” by creating a “lying world of consistency.” Thus, the persistent repetition of claims, even ones that have been debunked by opponents, is important, Arendt wrote, because it “convinces the masses of consistency in time.”
Trump’s public statements and tweets reinforce points of view his supporters have already gleaned from some of the same sources, such as Fox News, Breitbart or right-wing social media networks. “Yet the dangerous paradox we face is that attacking these statements by attacking the sources actually feeds his supporters’ reasons to redouble their efforts to defend him,” Jones said.
Thus, according to Jones, Trump’s “America First” rhetoric lets people off the hook of having to care about undocumented immigrants, or about Syrian refugees, or about the impact of climate disruption on the planet’s future.
“They are freed to concentrate, without any ethical qualms, on their own isolated concerns,” Jones said. “‘America First’ becomes ‘Me and Mine First,’ and its model is Trump Family Enterprises.”
Thus, it is irrelevant whether Trump delivers concrete programs that directly benefit his supporters, because according to Arendt, his movement’s members are held together more with a “general mood than a clearly defined aim.”
“Trump’s appeal, like that of France’s Marine Le Pen, is his sloganeering ideology and his movement: the reconquest of America for the so-called ‘forgotten people’ who pledge to stand with him,” Jones said.
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist,” Arendt wrote, “but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.”
Jones pointed out how Arendt wrote extensively about the social conditions of “spiritual and social homelessness” that made “the masses” susceptible to propaganda or fabricated narratives.
“Trump repeatedly wove stories about the cause of America’s decline into his campaign speeches,” Jones explained. “These stories hinged on the identification of targets — Obamacare is a disaster, the American economy is failing, dangerous hordes of ‘Mexican rapists’ and ‘Muslim radicals’ are pouring into the country, the ‘inner cities’ are war zones, etc. — to explain why America was waning and what would make it great again.”
She added, “To his supporters, many who felt their lives were falling apart, either economically or because of cultural changes, this rhetoric struck a chord.”
Jones pointed out how Arendt noted that the masses’ gullibility wasn’t the result of stupidity or wickedness but was rooted in how, in the face of their perception of their impending disaster, the “fantastically fictitious consistency of an ideology … grant[ed] them a minimum of self-respect.”
“They no longer have to blame themselves for their pain, or accept that random harms may have befallen them,” she added.
“Trump identified the constellation of domestic and foreign forces corrupting the social order and promised to “drain the swamp,” Jones said.
She then pointed to Arendt’s observation, “through sheer imagination, uprooted masses can feel at home and are spared the never-ending shocks which real life and real experiences deal to human beings and their expectations.”
Thus, more than concrete outcomes, or fact-based reality, what matters is the maintenance of a “general mood” that “things are getting done;” because this sustains supporters’ sense of self-respect.
“And that means that every attempt to demonstrate factually that proposed policies will harm their interests leads supporters to a renewed defense of the leader who has been identified as the defender of their self-respect,” Jones added. And as Arendt wrote, “[T]ruth was whatever respectable society had hypocritically passed over, or covered up with corruption.”
This is how Trump’s supporters overlook his questionable business dealings and ties with Russia, his gross massing of wealth for himself and his family, and his countless missteps.
“Creative Destruction” and the Echo Chamber
Ben-Ghiat also pointed out how authoritarians engineer processes of “creative destruction.”
“The master of this was Lenin, someone Bannon has quoted,” she explained. “You uproot the established system, engineer ‘shock events’ to destabilize things. I read the slew of executive orders following the inauguration in this light, and Conway tweeted “Get used to it…. Shock to the system … and he’s just getting started.”
Then, according to Ben-Ghiat, the authoritarian hollows out the established state through purging the civil service, or more passively, by not hiring, leaving the chains of command and expertise broken. The dismantling of established expertise is key to the disruption.
“Trump’s following this principle, leaving many hundreds of positions unfilled,” she said. “Dismissing civil servants who disobey him; installing “eyes” among his loyalists to watch others; etc.”
Another feature of authoritarianism, she pointed out, was the practice of narrowing the inner circle of decision-makers to loyalists, who usually include family or kin-like networks; something Trump has clearly done.
“The problem with this is that an echo chamber results in which no one has the courage to tell the leader the truth, making for bad decisions,” Ben-Ghiat added.
If this sounds similar to how things are done in the Mafia, that is because it is. Trump has done business with the Mafia since the beginning of his real estate career, and has used a Mafia-linked company for his cement, according to Ben-Ghiat. He also appears to have emulated aspects of the organization’s practices.
“The Mafia is notoriously an authoritarian organization, so it’s logical that there are similarities, from the need for absolute loyalty, both from his followers — thus the loyalty oath — and from individuals, such as Comey,” she said. “His habit of threatening people, claiming he has dirt on them through tapes, etc., is also mob-like, as of course, is his boast that he could stand on 5th Avenue and shoot someone and not lose followers.”
Isaac doesn’t believe we have yet reached the level of alienation and disconnection from established institutions of which Arendt wrote … yet.
“The ‘dedicated’ supporters of Stalinism and Hitlerism were willing to do things that Trump’s supporters have not yet evidenced; and they were supporting well-organized party-movements,” he said. “There is no Trump party or even movement, really. There are important differences. That said, it is true that Trump has mobilized his supporters using ideological rhetoric that has parallels with the rhetoric of fascism.”
Isaac believes, however, that Trump has taken to new levels the effacement of the distinction between truth and falsity.
“Trump is all about rejecting science, journalism and common sense as ‘fake news’ and ‘hoaxes,’ and maintaining that whatever he says at any given moment is what is true, even if he contradicts this the next moment,” Isaac said. “This is very scary, and it does remind one of some features of totalitarianism, features probably best diagnosed by Orwell in 1984.”
He added, “This is very frightening and dangerous, and it has strongly authoritarian dimensions and implications.”
Ben-Ghiat sees Trump’s base as having a strict sense of loyalty to him, and pointed out how polls and studies have shown that his followers don’t care if he lies; they either believe the lies or explain them away as part of his jolt to the system. She explained Trump’s supporters, inculcated by years of right-wing media, are primed for his portrayal of white people as victims, as well as his conspiracy theories (such as “birtherism”).
“Authoritarians always aim to discredit all sources of information that don’t emanate from themselves or from their close allies,” she said.
Ben-Ghiat sees Fox and Breitbart as “palace medias” at this point, and pointed out a feedback loop in which misinformation starts with Fox News, goes to Trump, is tweeted by Trump and is then broadcast back to the public by Fox News.
She pointed to Trump’s highly effective method of direct communication with the people: tweeting.
“We cannot underestimate the impact of receiving unfiltered messages from Trump at 9 pm, 3 am, 7am,” explained Ben-Ghiat. “It makes people feel they are in direct communication with the leader.”
She believes this practice, during the campaign, made the establishment Democratic communications practices look old hat and scripted. Meanwhile, she explains, Trump is a skilled propagandist: He “does the highly effective thing of calling into question something that has been accepted as fact, from climate change, to Obama’s birthplace, etc.”
Ben-Ghiat sees this as an “old authoritarian trick” and one used by Holocaust deniers: It essentially says that if you — as an individual — do not have direct, first-person evidence of something, maybe it did not happen.
Authoritarian or Totalitarian?
According to Ben-Ghiat, who is also on the board of directors of the World Policy Institute, totalitarianism entails the establishment of a one-party state, and the active suppression of opposition parties and press.
“The dictator may rule with a purged parliament, which rubber-stamps his desires, and there is usually a parallel party bureaucracy to that of the previous state,” she explained.
Authoritarian leaders also have the desire for expanded executive powers, and the desire to disable the checks and balances of democratic systems, but — unlike totalitarians — they don’t generally rule with a one-party monopoly.
“Nowadays, authoritarians can exert their power while keeping the semblance of democracy,” Ben-Ghiat said. “This is the case in Turkey, Russia and elsewhere.”
Jones explained that Arendt very carefully distinguishes simple authoritarianism from totalitarianism, both in terms of their very different organizational structures and the operation and scope of their power.
“Authoritarian, fascist movements are ‘nationalist’ in a territorially bounded sense,” Jones explained. “Totalitarian movements are global in scope; their goal is world conquest through “a state of permanent instability” not limited by “the borders of the territory in which it came to power.”
In using the term “totalitarianism,” Arendt had in mind the Bolshevik concept of “permanent revolution” and the Nazi concept of a “thousand-year Reich,” based on Himmler’s notion of a “racial selection which can never stand still.” Jones explained that, essentially, this “selection” meant “the continual evolution of new categories of people declared unfit to live.”
Jones notes that one could argue, through Arendt’s lens, that the function of Trump’s repeated rallies is to sustain the development of a kind of “front organization” of sympathizers “who are to all appearances still innocuous fellow-citizens in a non-totalitarian society” and not “single-minded fanatics.”
In this way, Arendt writes, totalitarian movements “can spread their propaganda in milder, more respectable forms, until the whole atmosphere is poisoned with totalitarian elements which are hardly recognizable as such but appear to be normal political reactions or opinions.”
However, Isaac does not believe the US is in danger of totalitarianism under Trump, and said he does not think that Trump’s actions have led to the overthrow of democracy and the creation of an authoritarian regime — “yet.”
Still, this does not discount the reality that Trump does display some characteristics of an authoritarian leader. Isaac said, “I do believe that he is authoritarian in many ways, and that his authoritarianism greatly threatens liberal democracy. In many ways, like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Trump claims to stand for an ‘illiberal democracy,’ a kind of populist authoritarianism.”
Isaac sees Trump “as an authoritarian” in at least four ways.
First, according to Isaac, Trump has a history of ruling, or trying to rule, his domain — his family, his business and now the US government — by decree, and exhibits an extreme form of authoritarian personality.
“Trump is a dictatorial individual,” Isaac said. “By disposition, he is an authoritarian.”
Second, Trump’s administration is the most nepotistic and kleptocratic US administration that has ever existed, according to Isaac. He sees Trump’s corruption as “a means of projecting his grandiose image and of maintaining his power. And it is a serious abuse of power.”
Isaac’s third point is that while only in his first months in office, “Trump has sought to institute some seriously authoritarian measures,” and has done so by appointing a number of individuals with neo-fascist leanings to his administration, among other strategies.
Lastly, Isaac sees Trump as a performer using “Hitlerian rallies to denounce, bully and attack his opponents, and to mobilize angry crowds of supporters around resentful, xenophobic slogans…. Such behavior, on the part of a political leader who is a US president, represents a form of authoritarianism par excellence.”
It is important to note that Arendt highlighted the “leader principle” to distinguish between totalitarianism and authoritarianism.
Jones explained how the leader’s monopolization of responsibility and complete identification with every subordinate as “his walking embodiment” marked, for Arendt, “a decisive difference between a totalitarian leader and an ordinary dictator or despot.”
She quoted Arendt, who said that an ordinary dictator “would never identify himself with his subordinates, let alone with every one of their acts; he might use them as scapegoats and gladly have them criticized in order to save himself form the wrath of the people, but he would always maintain an absolute distance from all his subordinates and all his subjects.”
Thus, she said, Trump’s practice of throwing people under the bus — Michael Flynn, James Comey, Sally Yates — is no surprise.
“In this respect, Trump’s leadership is authoritarian but not yet totalitarian,” Jones said. “Yet, his failure to appoint large numbers of civil servants to administrative positions, and his constant search for ‘loyalists’ is a worrying indication of the potentiality for a shift toward something more extreme.”
Jones sees Trump’s repeated attacks on the press and judiciary as very troubling.
Trump is “aided by his deceitful spokespersons, including Vice President Pence, and abetted by the unwillingness of key democratic institutions, notably Congress, to check his power grab or hold him accountable for the violation of his executive oath,” she said. “This constellation of actions and inactions by elected or appointed public servants represents a clear and present danger to our democratic institutions.”
Ben-Ghiat gave several examples of how Trump is an authoritarian president, and has behaved predictably as such.
“Authoritarians harass and criminalize those sectors of society that uphold the values of evidence and investigation: the judiciary, the press and sometimes intelligence services,” she explained. “Trump started all of this during his campaign, declaring the press to be ‘enemies of the people,’ an expression with a long repressive history.”
Ben-Ghiat also pointed out how just two days after the inauguration, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway said that Trump wanted to put in his own intelligence and national security community. Recent events with the FBI are likely part of this plan, Ben-Ghiat said. Furthermore, Trump established a particular authoritarian kind of bond with his followers from the start — one based around his own charisma, and not loyalty to party or principle.
“He’s shown time and again, he wishes to expand his presidential powers; criminalize protest; judge people not by what they’ve done, but who they are (Muslims, immigrants, etc.),” she said. “All of this is authoritarian.”
What Is at Stake
Jones believes that without continued vigilance, protest and demands for accountability, which can hold back the tide in the shorter term, we will head into more dangerous and unpredictable waters every day.
“Although it would be a mistake to view Trump’s election as the moment of some neo-totalitarian movement’s ‘seizure of power,’ unless the constitutional checks on executive power are operationalized, some feigned or real state of emergency could trigger a move in an even more authoritarian, and potentially totalitarian, direction,” she said.
Under such circumstances, she believes, Trump’s outspoken support for other reactionary dictators, from Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and France’s Marine Le Pen, indicates the outlines of a movement with internationalist, collaborationist aims.
Jones sees Trump’s rise to power, combined with renewed attacks on immigration as a threat to “the nation,” both in Europe and in the US, as signals of a renewal and expansion of the internationalism of fascist movements, of which Arendt warned.
Jones added that such movements “able to operate all over Europe at once, without being bound to a particular country” so they can “assume the appearance of a genuine European movement.”
And those movements can now add significant forces in the US to the equation.
“Does this mean Trump’s America is establishing itself as the center of a new international fascism?” Jones asked. “Too soon to tell. But it is certainly significant that the US, long considered, rightly or wrongly, as a bulwark against authoritarianism, has now come to symbolize the opposite to the various right-wing, white nationalist movements around the world.”
Ben-Ghiat believes Trump has shown through deed and word that he’d gladly take the authoritarian path further if allowed. She added that he’s managed to achieve a key authoritarian success: co-opting the decision-maker elites, which in this case is the GOP.
“The Republicans have stuck by him so far, as declarations of mistrust are not the same as action — for example, John McCain denounces him publicly but then votes for his legislation — and what they do will be crucial,” she concluded. “He’s managed to sow chaos, cause mass intimidation — and also resistance to him and his agenda. We’re set for a showdown this summer.”