Analysis

Netanyahu, Trump and the Origins of Totalitarianism

Netanyahu went gaga over Trump who uses lies as a weapon, as Hannah Arendt described in her famous book.

Hannah Arendt, political philosopher and scholar, smoking a cigarette. 1969.
AP

Three great writers have made an amazing comeback in recent weeks, thanks to Donald Trump and to the delight of their estates and heirs.

The first is George Orwell, whose dystopian novel “1984” continues to feature in Amazon’s top ten bestsellers. The second is Sinclair Lewis, whose 1935 book “It Can’t Happen Here” depicted a power-hungry politician who takes over America by promising social revolution and a return to traditional values. And the third and possibly most surprising is renowned political theoretician Hannah Arendt, whose 500-page “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” despite its insanely long sentences and complex formulations, climbed to the top of Amazon’s lists in January till stocks ran out and is now returning there after a massive reprint.

Arendt, of course, hasn’t been out of the public eye for decades. The Jewish author’s books, including the controversial reports from the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, still spark heated debates that often move from academic circles to the public arena. “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” which Arendt finished at the end of the Second World War, has garnered virulent criticism throughout the years: Arendt is an amateur, she relies on narrow and sometimes questionable sources, she limited herself to Nazism and Communism and ignored all other totalitarian regimes, how dare she compare the two anyway, she’s a Jew who hates her people and so on.

All of which didn’t prevent “Origins” from becoming one of the most popular and influential political books in the second half of the 20th century. Now, after the election of Donald Trump, it is sparking renewed interest because of what seems to be its pertinence, which some experts naturally describe as superficial.

Arendt was the first to define the 20th Century novelty of totalitarian regimes that do not impose their authority on the populace from the top down but draw their strength from frustrated and disaffected masses made up of isolated individuals who are fed with the world around them and its values. In sentences that sound as if they were directly lifted from some of the soul-searching postmortems published in the media after Trump’s November 8 victory, Arendt writes, for example – bear with me here – “What the spokesmen of humanism and liberalism usually overlook, in their bitter disappointment and their unfamiliarity with the more general experiences of the time, is that an atmosphere in which all traditional values and propositions had evaporated made it easier to accept patently absurd propositions than the old truths that had become pious banalities, precisely because nobody could be expected to take the absurdities seriously. Vulgarity with its cynical dismissal of respected standards and accepted theories carried with it a frank admission of the worst and a disregard for all pretenses.”

The chief qualification of a mass leader, she writes elsewhere, “has become unending infallibility; he can never admit an error,” which certainly sounds familiar.

The purpose of totalitarian propaganda, Arendt notes, is to convince the “mob” that “truth was whatever respectable society had hypocritically passed over, or covered up with corruption.” It tries to “conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself.” Totalitarian propaganda seeks to “shut off the masses from the real world,” by means, presumably, of “alternative facts” like those proposed by Trump’s front-woman Kellyanne Conway. To create the “artificially fabricated insanity” on which they depend, the Nazis produced hatred of Jews, and the Communists enemies of the people, creating common ground for isolated individuals and giving them a new, unifying “self-definition.” The analogy, which many people might have found way off base, is to the distrust of Muslims and immigrants that Trump has generated since the start of his campaign.

American exceptionalism

It goes without saying that America in 2017 is nothing like post World War I Germany or Russia at the start of the previous century – despite Trump’s efforts to paint his country as a dysfunctional mess on the verge of collapse. Trump, for one thing, has no mass movement at his disposal with which he can impose his will. The apparatuses of checks and balances and supervision of the regime, in government and civil society, have proven themselves resilient in fighting Trump’s transgressions. America has independent judges, conscientious civil servants, courageous intelligence officials and combative journalists and commentators, exhilarated now by a renewed sense of purpose and a return to their good old days. Trump may have thought that he could change reality with words alone, as he did, in fact, by blustering his way to his November 8 victory. He is now finding out, however, that the walls with which American democracy defends itself are higher and stronger than he had expected.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to ignore some of Trump’s totalitarian traits, which he either adopted through sheer gut instinct or from reading “Dictatorship for Dummies,” because he certainly can’t cope even with the first page of the forward to Arendt’s book. Trump resides in a dark world haunted by conspiracies, though it’s hard to tell whether he actually believes in it or has just made it up to terrorize the masses. In addition to the usual ploys of authoritarian, nationalistic and irresponsible politicians who attack the media, undermine the legal system, defame political rivals and besmirch civil servants who don’t do their bidding – which is par for the course in Israel these days – Trump and his underlings literally fabricate nightmares and fantasies which then spring to existence in the minds of their followers.

Trump’s list of lies is amazing and never-ending, from Obama’s forged birth certificate to the millions who cast their votes illegally, from the Muslims who danced in the streets on 9/11 through the Bowling Green Massacre to those hidden terror attacks that the media won’t report on, from the events that supposedly led to Michael Flynn’s resignation as national security adviser to the claim that Flynn is wonderful, it’s the reporters and the leakers who are to blame. Recklessly or maliciously, the president of the United States is a pathological liar, a psychological condition also known as mythomania. And after Wednesday’s White House shindig with the Israeli prime minister, he’s also Israel’s hero, Bibi’s BFF, the man who brought unadulterated joy to his Israeli guest and many of his supporters.

Contrary to the prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, who went through the motions of embracing Trump but couldn’t conceal his discomfort, and unlike Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who wore his distaste for Trump on his sleeve, Netanyahu’s enthusiasm for the new president was palpable, almost volcanic in its visible eruption. Netanyahu couldn’t stop laughing with delight throughout his Wednesday press conference with Trump.

Bibi as groupie

But as with Trump and his tall tales, it’s hard to tell where the real Netanyahu ends and his pose begins. Does he discern hidden qualities in Trump that no one else can see? Does he not see that he’s dealing with a president who has no regard for truth and is devoted only to himself? Or perhaps it’s a kind of mutual admiration society between two devoted deceivers, possibly even an expression of envy by a relatively cautious fibber like Netanyahu for a colossal conman like Trump, who lies through his teeth as if there’s no tomorrow? Was there really no middle ground between appropriate deference to a U.S. president and the kind of groupie-like, giggly adoration that Netanyahu showed on Wednesday?

The White House lovefest may have satisfied many Israelis and Netanyahu fans in America, and, who knows, the powers that be in Russia and Saudi Arabia. For most of the world, and particularly for American Jews, Netanyahu’s ecstasy was an agony to witness. Most of Western public opinion views Trump as a dangerous, racist and possibly unbalanced leader, one whose negative image will now rub off on Israel and Netanyahu, as if we don’t have enough problems.

Not to mention Netanyahu’s callous disregard for the anxieties felt by American Jews at what they perceive as an outburst of anti-Semitism in America, nor his demeaning disdain for their anger at the White House’s failure to mention Jews in its Holocaust Remembrance Day statement. Put to the test, Netanyahu preferred to sell his soul for a photo op and a few hugs from a questionable president, rather than stand by American Jews, who have always stood by him.

Trump’s most ludicrous moment of the evening, of course, came when he uttered his “one state, two state, whatever” formula, which sounded like a ham-handed effort to fulfill a request from the Prime Minister’s Office not to complicate Netanyahu’s life with his coalition back home. One can understand Trump, for whom words are not cardinal and who can simply deny he ever said them or accuse the media of distorting them, even though they were broadcast on live TV. The rest of the world however, has no choice but to take Trump’s statements seriously, irresponsible as they were because he is, unbelievable as it remains, the president of the United States.

The irony is that talk of a one-state solution can also take one back to Arendt, whose early Zionism developed into ambivalence in her later years. Arendt supported a Jewish “homeland” in Palestine and was a great admirer of the social and cultural achievements of the pre-State Yishuv, which she saw as redesigning the modern Jew. But she also supported a one-state solution, as it is defined today, that is a binational Jewish-Arab state along the lines advocated by philosopher Martin Buber and Hebrew University president Judah Magnes, and who knows, because he really doesn’t care, Donald Trump as well. On the eve of the 1948 War of Independence, Arendt underestimated the resilience of the fledgling Jewish state as well as the influx of Jews who would immigrate in later years – but there are many who view her warnings about the eventual fate of a Jewish-majority state founded by use of force as eerily prescient.

Even if the Jews were to win the war, she wrote in a 1948 article “To Save the Jewish Homeland”: “The ‘victorious’ Jews would live surrounded by an entirely hostile Arab population, secluded inside ever-threatened borders, absorbed with physical self-defense to a degree that would submerge all other interests and activities. The growth of a Jewish culture would cease to be the concern of the whole people; social experiments would have to be discarded as impractical luxuries; political thought would center around military strategy; economic development would be determined exclusively by the needs of war.”

And, in a forecast of Netanyahu’s treatment of American Jews, Arendt wrote: “Palestine Jewry would eventually separate itself from a larger body of world Jewry and in its isolation, develop into an entirely new people.”

Two years later, after the state was established, Arendt continued to fight for a Jewish-Arab alliance. In her 1950 article “Peace or Armistice in the Near East,” she wrote that Israel faces a choice between federation and Balkanization. Without the creativity of the intellectually vibrant Jerusalem that she knew back then, and without the kibbutzim that she so admired, the cultural, social – and European, she meant – achievements of the Zionist enterprise would be lost forever.

“Chauvinism of the Balkan type could use the religious concept of the chosen people and allow its meaning to degenerate into hopeless vulgarity,” she wrote.