Brown University

Is the U.S. in the throngs of totalitarianism? According to history (and Arendt), not yet. By Amalia Perez at Brown University.

More than half a century after being written, Hannah Arendt’s hypotheses explaining the roots and contours of totalitarianism remain, unequivocally, a preeminent theoretical framework. The Origins of Totalitarianism has shaped schools of thought and popular understanding alike. The book is even making a posthumous resurgence as one of Amazon’s top sellers.

It is, however, concerned exclusively with the European experience before and during WW2.

This euro-centrism is to be expected. Arendt is a pioneering realist, and like her mid-20th century contemporaries in the school of thought (Morgenthau comes immediately to mind), her worldview was informed by the unforgiving tragedy she endured as a Jewish refugee escaping Nazi totalitarianism. Her emphasis on propaganda as a tool, cause, and effect of totalitarian projects — and the masses that primed them — is thus well-suited to predict the future of totalitarianism in Western Europe, the region which molded her convictions.

But can her theory transcend both time and space to explain post-WW2 (time), Latin American (space) totalitarian projects?  How about developments in the present-day (time) United States (space)? What can Arendt’s theories of propaganda as a totalitarian imperative tell us about totalitarianism and democracy in the Western Hemisphere, in their past and present forms?

An application of Arendt’s hypotheses to Argentina in the 1970’s, and the United States at present-day, is revelatory: the U.S. is in the throngs of the institutional erosion that paved the way for the rise of the Argentine totalitarian dictatorship. It is not yet, however, experiencing a totalitarian overthrow. Those consumers who have shot her book to the top of the recent selling charts can take a fleeting, proverbial deep breath.

A cursory overview of Arendt’s framework is needed for a proper juxtaposition of the two countries. She offers an exhaustive list of the characteristics of successful totalitarian propaganda (what could be considered the “supply side”) — successful, in said propaganda’s ability to consolidate the totalitarian agenda. I want to focus on three:

  1. Internal coherence. The regime offers a unified, easily comprehensible vision of the world. Repetition, rather than argument, is the modus operandi—reality or facts be damned.
  2. Obsession with victory; victory for victory’s sake.
  3. “Extreme contempt for facts.”

Arendt simultaneously offers what characteristics of the masses are necessary for the success of these campaigns (what could be considered the “demand side”). Her vision of the vulnerable masses can be understood as 3 overarching characteristics:

  1. Common sense is obsolete.
  2. A mass distrust in reality has taken hold.
  3. Extreme atomization and consequent isolation are rampant. The loss of community structures precipitates the loss of all common sense. Refer back to #1 for the vicious cycle.

I want to now judge the contemporaneous “supply side” of Trump’s rise by asking the questions Arendt answered.

  1. Internal coherence? In his recent U.N. keynote, Trump repeated the word “sovereignty” 21 times, the New York Times reported. This is not an anomaly.
  2. Obsession with victory for victory’s sake? Trump, 6 months after the election in which he won [the electoral college vote], signed an executive order to investigate voting fraud in the election—a move the Times succinctly puzzles to be “a quixotic effort to prove his unsubstantiated contention that he would have won the popular vote against Mrs. Clinton but for millions of ballots that were illegally cast against him.”
  3. Extreme contempt for facts? Please refer to the Definitive List of Trump’s Lies, through July 21st, 2017.

The question of the character of the masses is far more amorphous and fluid, and in being so, complicates the process of situating the U.S. masses today within Arendt’s framework. This necessitates a focus on broad trends, although these fall prey to the fundamental problem of causal inference—that the summation of the whole is not indicative of its parts. Notwithstanding this point:

  1. Common sense is obsolete? The answer to this might forever be doomed to a partisan echo chamber, further obscured by the vast expanse of social media that eschews non-truths at a mile a minute. Common sense is not obsolete so much as unprecedented levels of partisanship, which correlate at similarly unprecedented rates with an individual’s value system, create dual, conflicting realities. Does the very nullification of each sides sense of common sense by the other imply that common sense itself is obsolete? I will leave that loaded question hanging.
  2. Has a mass distrust in reality taken hold? A 2015 Pew Research Study, aptly titled “Millenials in Adulthood: Detached from Institutions, Network with Friends”, concluded that millenials in the U.S. are, as reported by the New York Times, ” less likely — by a striking margin — to say that one’s fellow human beings can be trusted.” Insofar as humans are a major component of reality, the high incidence of distrust in other humans is correlated with a high distrust in reality.
  3. Extreme atomization and isolation? The incidence of atomization is inextricably linked to the aforementioned rise of social media and technology.

Let’s now compare the propaganda employed by Argentine dictatorships during their ascendance with present-day U.S. Before this, however, I want to offer a qualification of my own exercise. This discussion is, in no way, meant to downplay the severity and pain of the Argentine dictatorship. Lives were lost. Others were inevitably interrupted. The pain is an ever-calcifying residue in the country—present and looming. The discussion is rather intended to emphasize the roots that led to the dictatorship, and learn lessons from this, so that history may never repeat itself in Argentina, nor abroad.

Before shifting the focus to the Southern Hemisphere, a timeline is important framework: after a precipitous decline in Argentina’s economic and political dominance throughout the first few decades of the 20th century, Juan Perón, Argentina’s transcendent, notorious populist leader, took hold of the country and ruled with an iron fist (although falling short of a totalitarian regime, scholars contend) from 1946 to 1955. In 1966, General Juan Carlos Ongania capitalizes on the institutional and socio-cultural unrest inflicted by the Perón years and establishes a military government. This dictatorship lasted from 1966 to 1973. From 1976 to 1983, a dictatorship with a series of leaders established a complete, totalitarian state. Forced disappearances, criminalization and persecution of the “left” (broadly conceived), harsh repression of social and political rights, and a suspension of all electoral activity were the tip of the iceberg. This is the dictatorship I want to focus on as an example of a totalitarian rule in 20th century Latin America.

  1. Internal coherence? The rise of the final dictatorship relied far more on a demonization of the “left” and its “sympathizers”, and popular predilection towards such, than it focused on establishing a coherent message. The rise of the populist Perón, however, was a far more a coherent-message-through-compulsive-repetition strategy. His propagation of worker solidarity, appeals to traditional proletariat sympathies, and conception of the world as the left versus everyone else enabled not only his rise in popularity, but also his suppression of dissidents once he assumed power.
  2. Obsession with victory for victories sake? Scholars have interrogated the perpetuation of the dictatorship, and their intentions, to reveal the profound chasms in society at the time—so much so that the dictatorship truly felt justified in 30,000 disappearances because they were “saving” the country from the onslaught of the “leftist insurgency.” The latter was the lesser of the two evils — the first being the evils of a totalitarian state. Thus, the obsession was perhaps more so with partisan and ideological convictions than it was with victory for victories sake.
  3. Exhibits a fixation on scandals? While fixations of this specific nature have been lost to the passage of time, Perón was notoriously anti-imperialist and notably anti-U.S. in his populist rhetoric—hegemon which he framed as the elite. There is, similarly, little evidence of the 1976-1983 dictatorship’s fixation on scandals, although it is clear that they honed in more ardently on demonizing the left, rather than criticizing the elite.

A study of the “masses” in Argentina during that time does not fit quite as nicely into Arendt’s theories. They were characterized by high levels of polarization in society along both partisan and value-based lines. A distrust in the “other” was far more prevalent than a distrust in reality. But to situate them neatly into the three categories would do no justice to Argentine history.

Situating Argentina and the U.S. into Arendt’s frame of reference reveals the following: Trump’s rise recalls the rise of a populist demagogue, Perón, far more than the rise of the totalitarian dictatorship 30 years later.

What does this mean for Arendt’s relevance, and for our broader understanding of how and when a country is in the throngs of totalitarianism? While Arendt’s description of totalitarianism in WW2-era Western Europe aptly describes the rise of populist leaders in the Americas both past and present, this populist leadership has not directly led to complete totalitarian rule in the Americas, as it did in Arendt’s experience and subsequent perceptions of reality. Rather, it established critical groundwork for later totalitarian regimes to take hold of the country, by ripening the masses for their overthrow and weakening institutions defense against such.

We now are tasked with judging just how much damage is being done to both the masses and institutions in the U.S. throughout the continued ascent of a populist demagogue, and whether there is a viable fear that the road to totalitarianism is being paved. The U.S. is not, by any means, currently in the throngs of a totalitarian regime as brutal as the Nazi Germany that informed Arendt’s work, nor as brutal as the Argentine dictatorship—it is just exhibiting the precursors that paved the way for these totalitarian regimes abroad.

Arendt is surely, and sadly, rolling over in her grave.



  1. Aidan Calvelli

    October 3, 2017 at 1:58 am

    Arendt presents a compelling paradigm through which to view the rise of totalitarianism. But Amalia is right to note that applying Arendt’s ideas across continents and across time comes with some serious perils, not the least of which is confirmation bias. Given the fact that Origins of Totalitarianism has shot up the modern bestseller charts, it’s clear that people are already assuming that her work has modern relevance.

    A downside of this assumption is the ease of fitting facts into narrative, instead of the reverse. As Amalia noted, analyzing the “demand side” components of characteristics of the masses are hard to pin down. As such, there are reasonable counterclaims for each of the 3 examples given in the post: 1. Common sense is difficult to define, and social media reflects only a minority of thinkers in this country. Further, common sense can be apolitical, making metrics of political disagreement – where emotions run high – potentially not worthwhile to analyze. 2. Though Millennials may be more distrustful of people than other generations, it’s hard to claim a mass distrust in reality when the country’s economy is at an average growth rate, schools are functioning, and policymaking is still happening. 3. Atomization is similarly difficult to make strong claims about. Data on social loneliness or its ilk does not prove the type of atomization that leads people to turn to totalitarian propaganda. Social media may be isolating, but it also lets people be a part of broader communities, potentially exposing them to more viewpoints.

    It’s hard to conclude that the characteristics Arendt highlights are present in the US. Like Amalia said, it’s clear that extreme totalitarianism has yet to take root. I’d go one step further to suggest it’s not clear that paving has started on the road that will get us there.

  2. Yifei Shen

    December 3, 2017 at 9:01 pm

    First of all, I would like to say that I agree with the idea that Donald Trump is a populist. He has done and said things to exhibit characteristics of a populist. For example, Trump said at the Republican National Conference: “I alone can fix it.” Here, he wanted the people to know that he can fix their problems from the government. In addition, Trump often time instills the idea of “us versus them,” us as in the people and them the establishment politicians. It is safe to say that Trump is pretty good at “inciting riot” against the government. More importantly, he often brags about his victory in the 2016 general election and attacks his opponents with nasty language. However, I would like to defend Trump because he is new to politics and awfully overconfident person. He does not know how to talk and act like a president yet. So that is the reason why he has been exhibiting these populist’s characteristics. I think that Trump needs time to grow and develop as a politician. As time goes on, he would eventually grasp the true meaning of serving the country as a public servant instead of as a “know-it-all” populist. Thus, I reason that it is early to judge Donald Trump as a populist president. We need to take more time to truly understand him.

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