Why the 2016 election cycle could be the start of a totalitarian strain in U.S. politics

Ignoring rule of law is a classic sign of Totalitarian thinking — and that's exactly Trump's mindset

Published May 7, 2016 6:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump   (AP/Chris Carlson)
Donald Trump (AP/Chris Carlson)

Over the course of the presidential primaries leading up to the 2016 election, there have been many articles condemning Donald Trump for engaging in demagoguery or encouraging authoritarian thinking. While both might be true, the more pressing concern is that no matter what the results are for this election cycle, Trump’s success in the primaries has exposed a potential shift in U.S. politics toward totalitarian thinking. Many Americans are now openly admitting that they are willing to give absolute power to one person, as long as this power is used to persecute people that they see as enemies.

At first glance, this seems like the opposite of Trump’s message, which is about the problems of government and how politics has led the U.S. in the wrong direction. However, when we take a closer look at his message and the underlying resentment among some citizens that it represents, we can see many similarities with the totalitarian leaders of the past. Ignoring rule of law is a classic sign of Totalitarian thinking, and many of Trump’s proposed solutions would likely violate both the Constitution and International Law.

Such methods of doing whatever is necessary to achieve national glory are classic signs of Totalitarian thought. While Totalitarian regimes present themselves as harbingers of a better future, they do so by appealing to the perception of a glorious past that has since been lost due to the mismanagement of the existing politicians. Thus Hitler referenced a Wagnerian vision of Germany as the source of two of the world’s great Reichs in order to present his Third Reich as a continuation of German greatness. Similarly, Mussolini invoked the orderliness and domination of Ancient Rome and Renaissance Italy in order to restore an ancient pride that would lead to a new prominence on the world stage. Such leaders follow a common pattern, in which they blame any failures of their society on the incursion of Others, who lack the purity of the true members of the nation-state.

While the details differ, the call to action carries a consistent refrain: the totalitarian leader promises to make the country great again, to return it to past glories that have long since been lost.

Nationalism always plays a large part in such movements, gaining effectiveness by appealing to a distorted history in which one’s own nation was once at the pinnacle of human achievement, only to be undermined by a loss of traditional values. Citizens today, according to the totalitarian leader, have forgotten the core virtues that once made the nation great. The solution is a return to these purer times, before immigration distorted the populace and introduced conflicting visions of the good life. The appeal is to a romantic vision of the past in which the national culture was both unified and unique.

This message appeals most strongly to people who feel lost and forgotten in the present society. They find that the culture around them no longer fits their view of the world. Many people willing to follow totalitarian leaders have suffered financial setbacks and are looking for answers. They seek a strong leader to steer the country in a direction that makes them more comfortable. Part of the reason that Totalitarianism arose most prominently in the 20th Century is that history suddenly sped up. Many people found themselves seemingly left behind in a modern world where progress was so rapid that in a single lifetime, the world they saw in middle age no longer resembled what they remembered from their youth. The same turbulence affects us today.

Such frenetic change can lead us to look for stability and wonder why things no longer seem so simple. We might be unable to understand why we are facing certain hardships, even as we remember a time when the factors that produce them did not exist. William Ophuls puts this point well: “People strongly impelled by an inner void to restore the coherence lost when they were stripped of all supporting myths and folkways are therefore very likely to look outside themselves for a devil to whom all their ills can be attributed” (Ophuls, 1997, p. 209). This devil could take the form of the next generation, who bring new ideas and are more comfortable with newer technologies. Or it might come from blaming groups that you do not remember existing when you were young, either because they did not or because a child’s world is fairly narrow.

In any case, the totalitarian movement plays on these feelings of isolation and fear. This is especially well noted by Hannah Arendt, an insightful critic of Totalitarianism. In examining the thoughts and trends that led to World War II, Arendt writes:

“What prepares men for the totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the evergrowing masses of our century. The merciless process into which totalitarianism drives and organizes the masses looks like a suicidal escape from this reality” (Arendt, 1951, p. 478).

In other words, totalitarianism thrives when the kind of isolation that normally applies only to people outside of mainstream social life is felt by an increasing number of people in a society. Groups that were once privileged majorities either lose that privilege or are made to feel unworthy of it. Consider how Germans, after the first World War, must have seen their lives when compared to their parents, or even their own childhood. As inflation ran amok and the world continued to punish them for the part they played in the war, the Nazi party was able to sell a return to the days when the future promised glory rather than shame.

Now consider the U.S. today, still feeling the lingering effects of the largest recession since the Great Depression (an event that played a part in the suffering of Germany and Italy before WWII). White, middle-class Americans no longer enjoy the privileges they held in the past. Younger generations are bombarded by articles suggesting that they are inferior to their predecessors or overly entitled, even as globalization and technology changes put them in a uniquely difficult situation for finding meaningful work. At the same time, wages remain so flat  that those who find work often still struggle.

Many Americans find themselves wondering where their opportunities have gone. In the last 10 years, the number of Americans who see themselves as middle class has declined, while the number who self-identify as poor or working class has risen. The tendency to measure success in terms of material goods remains a strong part of our culture, for better or worse, but many people view themselves as living on the wrong side of growing inequality.

As a result, a large segment of America is desperate to matter, to have an identity that can be a source of pride. They look at their own history, filled with white, middle-class men who were able to take pride in their lives, to look back and call themselves the Greatest Generation, and wonder where it all went. In today’s world, they see themselves as vilified, as the one group that does not need protecting, but remains the reason others need protection. They cannot be part of a special interest group. They are not a minority; they are not a persecuted sexual orientation. They are the average against which others measure themselves, and even though being a white man carries more privilege than any other group in the U.S., it is a privilege that is dissolving, and rightly so. However, the people losing that privilege are often scared because it is not being replaced by anything that can give their lives meaning.

Suicide rates and drug addiction are on the rise among white, middle-class men and women. Studies refer to these as “despair deaths,” and note that the less educated are especially affected by a sense that their lives may have lost meaning in the modern world. Lack of proper healthcare and economic woes play a role as well.

All of these factors play well with Trump’s supporters, who are looking for someone who will identify the source of their problems and promise to solve them by any means necessary. In such desperate circumstances, Rule of Law seems less important than raw survival. As Arendt noted, Totalitarian governments engage in authoritarianism, demanding absolute control of the state in order to fix it. As Matthew MacWilliams points out, the single strongest predictor for whether someone supports Trump is belief in authoritarian thinking. Whether he knows it or not, Trump is playing to the fears of his supporters, who are willing to give absolute power to someone who will fix their problems, whatever they might be.

This is why Trump supporters talk about the "Others" so much. “They” are ruining America. The pronoun is vague enough that you can insert your own demons, vilify whatever group you currently see as wronging you personally, and then extend that feeling of persecution to all of your fellow supporters. In a Trump rally, certain people feel a sense of belonging again, and in a world that increasingly rejects them for not having a college education, or not being part of a civil rights movement, or even for being historically associated with oppression, having a place where you see yourself as making America better, making it great again, can have a special pull to it.

In many ways, calling Trump supporters an analog to the rise of Nazi Germany is too easy, and far too dismissive. However, there is this one obvious similarity. Hitler and the Nazi party appealed to a people who believed that their Golden Age was past them, and that the world was moving on without them. The appeal of the nationalism that was offered was that it would allow a return to greatness, a necessary repeal of all of the policies, both externally imposed and internally permitted, that had led to their fall. Trump offers a very similar message, and he couches it in a way that allows his followers to fill in the blank. Whatever version of the good life they believe existed in their parents’ or grandparents’ day, that is the world that Trump plans to recreate. It is a compelling narrative, because it is their own narrative, and each individual gets to tell his or her own story while simultaneously believing that everyone else around them is thinking the same thing.

For many, there is no price too high to pay for such a utopian vision.

By Robert Sharp

“Robert Sharp has a PhD in Political Philosophy from Vanderbilt University; he is currently an Associate Professor at Muskingum University in Ohio.” Follow him at @therobswritings.

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