[Essay] Men in Dark Times, By Rebecca Panovka | Harper's Magazine

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[Essay]

Men in Dark Times

How Hannah Arendt’s fans misread the post-truth presidency

Illustration by Franziska Barczyk

[Essay]

Men in Dark Times

How Hannah Arendt’s fans misread the post-truth presidency
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In a 1959 letter to her friend Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt paused to commiserate on a harrowing experience they had in common: having their writing fact-checked by The New Yorker. In her previous correspondence, McCarthy had mused that the magazine’s checking department was “invented by some personal Prosecutor of mine to shatter the morale,” and Arendt shared her frustration. Fact-checking, she replied, was a “kind of torture,” a “rigmarole,” and “one of the many forms in which the would-be writers persecute the writer.” Arendt’s opposition to the practice of fact-checking ran deeper than personal irritation. Throughout her work, she was critical of the infiltration of scientific terminology and methods into all aspects of human life. Couching an argument in language that sounded scientific, she thought, was a way of claiming the ability to know or predict things that could never be predicted or known. Fact-checking was a part of that larger trend: the practice, she wrote to McCarthy, was a form of “phony scientificality.”

This Arendt—snide, melodramatic, disdainful of the concept of factual verification—is not quite the picture that emerged after the election of Donald Trump, when she was rebranded as something of a patron saint of facts. “Welcome to the post-truth presidency,” the Washington Post opinion editor Ruth Marcus wrote, crediting Arendt as the thinker who had “presciently explained the basis for this phenomenon.” Michiko Kakutani, in an article titled the death of truth: how we gave up on facts and ended up with trump, likewise cast Arendt as a prophet whose “words increasingly sound less like a dispatch from another century than a chilling description of the political and cultural landscape we inhabit today.” how hannah arendt’s classic work on totalitarianism illuminates today’s america, ran a headline in the Washington Post. In Arendt’s work, the scholar Richard Bernstein declared in the New York Times, “we can hear not only a critique of the horrors of 20th-century totalitarianism, but also a warning about forces pervading the politics of the United States and Europe today.” The think pieces proliferated, reciting the same handful of Arendt quotations from her 1967 New Yorker essay “Truth and Politics” and her 1951 opus The Origins of Totalitarianism. Soon enough, Amazon sold out of Origins. “How could such a book speak so powerfully to our present moment?” asks a blurb at the top of its product page.

Arendt was deemed relevant when Trump was elected, relevant when he refused to wear a mask, relevant even in his defeat—with each successive crisis cast as confirmation of the predictions extrapolated from her prose. “As Congress is set to affirm the outcome of the 2020 presidential election,” wrote the Times columnist Thomas Edsall, “the words of Hannah Arendt, who fled Nazi Germany after being arrested in 1933, acquire new relevance.” In a New York Times Magazine cover story following the January 6 Capitol riot, the historian Timothy Snyder invoked Arendt to place Trump’s “big lie”—that he had won the election—on a spectrum with Hitler’s “big lies” that Jews ran the world and had sabotaged Germany during World War I. “Post-truth is pre-fascism,” Snyder wrote, “and Trump has been our post-truth president.”

As the scholar Samuel Moyn has observed, Arendt was “the most used and abused philosophical source to interpret [Trump’s] presidency.” Quoting Arendt, he argued, “gave many a think piece the patina of a famous name and pseudo-profundity.” In the slew of essays preaching the Arendt gospel, the content of her theories has often seemed extraneous—too elaborate to summarize in a paragraph or two, and ultimately unnecessary to the obvious argument that it is dangerous for a sitting president to spout incorrect information. But though Arendt is not needed for a straightforward condemnation of Trump’s lies, her thinking is useful in another, perhaps counterintuitive sense: as a reminder to look beyond Trump and his outlandish and constantly fact-checked distortions, and to think more carefully about the long-standing tradition of lies in American politics.

The Origins of Totalitarianism has a somewhat misleading title, tacked on only after the text was almost complete. (While she was drafting the manuscript, Arendt referred to it as “the imperialism-book.”) Written in the years after World War II, Origins can be understood as an attempt to make sense of Hitler by tracing the “subterranean trends” that primed Europe for totalitarian rule. But it is a book in three parts, and the first two do not directly concern the rise of totalitarian leaders; they are about anti-Semitism and imperialism in the century preceding the Third Reich. Arendt’s most popular quotations come from the third part, “Totalitarianism,” which discusses the regimes of Hitler and Stalin. But even here, her analysis is difficult to apply to Trump. As Arendt defines it, totalitarianism attempts to “transform the nature of man.” It is a “perpetual motion” machine, an engine that must exert absolute control over its subjects and requires for that control a state of constant expansion. “Wherever it rose to power,” she writes, totalitarianism “destroyed all social, legal and political traditions of the country” and “supplanted the party system, not by one-party dictatorships, but by a mass movement.” Totalitarianism always “shifted the center of power from the army to the police, and established a foreign policy openly directed toward world domination.”

Origins evangelists, to be fair, do not tend to claim that the United States lapsed into a totalitarian dictatorship under Trump—only that Trump’s brand of politics displays some of the warning signs Arendt identified. (“Post-truth” is “pre-fascism,” not full-blown fascism.) And some of Arendt’s descriptions of totalitarian subjects as vulnerable to conspiratorial thinking do bear an uncanny resemblance to a liberal caricature of Trump’s supporters. Take this passage, one of the most frequently quoted in contemporary pieces about Arendt:

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.

To Arendt, the “ideal subject” for a regime intending to exercise totalizing control is one who does not ask questions. A thinking subject, even one sympathetic to the aims of the movement, can always dissent. (Arendt’s mentor and onetime lover, Martin Heidegger, was a “convinced Nazi,” an intellectual who supported the rise of the Third Reich, but not an ideal subject once the regime came to power: he publicly criticized Hitler’s government for betraying the “inner truth and greatness” of the movement.) When Arendt claims that totalitarianism transforms human nature, what she means is that a regime can only establish absolute control by dissolving its subjects into something like a single organism, ridding individuals of the capacity for independent thought.

In interwar Europe, Arendt believed, social atomization and the breakdown of communal bonds had engendered a pervasive loneliness. Ideology is tempting to lonely minds, she writes, because it knits the arbitrariness that characterizes modern life into a single, fully explained narrative, promising to “eliminate coincidences by inventing an all-embracing omnipotence which is supposed to be at the root of every accident.” Where reality feels fragile and contingent, totalitarian movements can “conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself.”

Arendt saw Nazism and Communism as endeavoring to fashion history into a science, something that acts according to universal laws and can therefore be predicted. A totalitarian leader, she writes, styles himself as the fulfillment of historical destiny and therefore its oracle. She cites Hitler’s announcement to the Reichstag in January 1939: “I want today once again to make a prophecy,” he said. “In case the Jewish financiers . . . succeed once more in hurling the peoples into a world war, the result will be . . . the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.” What Hitler means, according to Arendt, is: “I intend to make war and I intend to kill the Jews of Europe.” Totalitarianism voids the distinction between a prophecy and a declaration of intent. As Arendt puts it, once a totalitarian movement has seized power, “all debate about the truth or falsity of a totalitarian dictator’s prediction is as weird as arguing with a potential murderer about whether his future victim is dead or alive.” Just as the murderer can kill his victim to substantiate his claim, a government with total control can, in theory, ensure the accuracy of its predictions.

But total control is a chimera—a prediction about human affairs can only be infallible in a world expunged of all human agency—so its pursuit necessarily culminates in both outward aggression and internal terror. The organization of a totalitarian regime—its concentric circles of power, its bureaucratic systems, its elevated police force, its plans for world conquest—is designed to create “a society whose members act and react according to the rules of a fictitious world.” For adherents of the totalitarian movement, its lies grow impossible to challenge, “as real and untouchable an element in their lives as the rules of arithmetic”—and even the leaders “are convinced that they must follow consistently the fiction and the rules of the fictitious world which were laid down during their struggle for power.” According to Arendt, Hitler felt compelled to play along with his predictions, following conspiracies to their inevitable conclusions, often against reason and even self-interest; he was not content to lie without reorganizing the actual world accordingly.

To accuse Trump of anything so sophisticated is to misread his lies altogether. From the start, Trump’s lies were incidental and reactive, unconstrained by the need for coherence or the pressure to position himself as the culmination of historical trends. Though he retweeted QAnon-linked accounts, he did not explicitly endorse the conspiracy, which he could have harnessed to achieve the kind of “lying world of consistency” Arendt outlines. He invented facts as he needed them, flooding the field with misinformation. He tossed off a lie, and by the time the media had scrambled to fact-check him, he had already moved on to the next one. For the most part, his supporters were undeterred when his lies were unveiled, because they understood he was saying whatever was advantageous, not speaking as an absolute authority. In the end, Trump’s lies were less grand theory than self-aggrandizement—corporate bluster intended to artificially boost his own stock. He tended to inflate the numbers: how much money he was worth, how many people had attended his inauguration, how many votes he had received.

Mapping Arendt’s framework onto Trump obscures the way his lies operated, and what they were: not totalitarian world-building so much as boardroom bullshit. Far from resorting to terror, Trump made only paltry efforts to convert his lies into action. He antagonized the press but never made moves to dismantle it. Even when he contested the 2020 election result, he made his case through lies and lawyers rather than recruiting the kind of organized military force that might have executed a bona fide coup. On January 6, there was no serviceable plan because Trump never made the defining totalitarian effort to bend reality to his fictional world. His lies never progressed beyond the singular goal of saving face.

In the oft-quoted “Truth and Politics,” Arendt is not ringing alarm bells at the blurring of facts and falsehoods in the political realm; she is acknowledging that lies have always been a part of politics. “The story of the conflict between truth and politics is an old and complicated one,” she writes, “and nothing would be gained by simplification or moral denunciation.” Though it is placed in conversation with Origins, “Truth and Politics” was written decades after the war and has relatively little to do with totalitarianism. Its immediate subtext is Arendt’s perception of herself as a besieged truth teller.

In 1963, two years after she traveled to Israel to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker, Arendt ignited a controversy with the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem. Mossad operatives had captured Eichmann and flown him to Jerusalem for prosecution, but now, Arendt was appalled to discover, the Israeli government displayed little interest in passing accurate judgment on the man or his crimes. Eichmann was one of the organizers of the final solution, but Arendt saw that he did not come across as a monster with evil designs; he seemed to her like an ordinary bureaucrat. Evil, she determined, could be carried out in mundane, boring ways, not by people with sadistic intentions, but by those who drifted along, forgetting to think about what they were doing. An evildoer in the Eichmann mold was a person who had neglected to judge for himself, failing to evaluate the rightness or wrongness of the systems he helped to invent. In demonizing Eichmann, the Israelis had failed to recognize “the banality of evil.”

Many Jewish observers were offended by what they saw as Arendt’s sympathetic portrayal of Eichmann and unsympathetic portrayal of the heads of the Jewish Councils, the leaders who she felt could have done more in the face of impending disaster. Her thesis, interpreted by some as a defense of Eichmann, was attacked, and her assertion that the councils had cooperated with the Nazis treated as a blasphemous lie. Scores of pieces (and even a book) were written to fact-check and refute her claims, and Arendt, together with McCarthy and Daniel Bell, wrote several essays refuting the refutations.

Occasioned by the outcry, “Truth and Politics” was Arendt’s attempt to work through her indignation. Despite the animus that undergirds it, the essay provides a systematic and impersonal account of the way truth and lies operate in the political arena. Arendt first distinguishes rational truth (mathematical truth, philosophical truth—anything that can be proven by axiom) from factual truth. The difference here is between a statement like “2 + 2 = 4” and one like “It rained in Reykjavík yesterday.” Whereas rational truth must be the case, Arendt writes, “facts have no conclusive reason whatever for being what they are.” Believing them requires a degree of trust in witnesses, historians, and scientists. If rational truth provides the basis for philosophical speculation, then facts perform an analogous role for political thought. When we enter the public sphere to debate a policy or decision, proper participation is only possible if we rely on a shared set of facts.

Because factual truth is not self-evident, it is “easy to discredit factual truth as just another opinion.” In a war of opinion against opinion, lies—which are crafted to maximize credibility and reduce the appearance of arbitrariness—carry the advantage. When the truth teller confronts the liar, the real facts will often sound paltry, incidental, random; the liar “will usually have plausibility on his side.” If the truth sounds implausible, it is vulnerable to denialism and willful ignorance, and Arendt is particularly concerned with facts that are publicly known but treated as secrets. Though she brings up Hitler and Stalin to note that under their regimes it was taboo to discuss concentration camps, the phenomenon she describes is not limited to totalitarianism. She writes, “Contemporary history is full of instances in which tellers of factual truth were felt to be more dangerous, and even more hostile, than the real opponents.” The truth-degrading culprits she points to in the essay are not Hitler and Goebbels but de Gaulle and Adenauer.

The postwar European governments, Arendt holds, were built on myths—on “such evident non-facts as that France belongs among the victors of the last war and hence is one of the great powers,” and that the “barbarism of National Socialism had affected only a relatively small percentage of the country.” These untruths are evidence of what Arendt calls “image-making.” Image-making goes beyond altering facts and skewing perceptions, and instead offers entirely new narratives constructed to replace reality wholesale. According to Arendt, modern political lies are “so big that they require a complete rearrangement of the whole factual texture.” Politicians must create a new reality into which their lies “will fit without seam, crack, or fissure, exactly as the facts fitted into their own original context.” Though this language is reminiscent of the “lying world” from Origins, Arendt is referring here to the ordinary operations of modern governments, not the state of exception in Nazi Germany. In Origins, Arendt asserted that totalitarian governments replaced the real world with a fictional world, but “Truth and Politics” clarifies that this kind of image-making does not, on its own, amount to totalitarianism: liberal democracies are implicated in the same game of defactualization.

For Arendt, power is ultimately incapable of producing an adequate substitute for factual reality. Even totalitarian regimes are unable to render their lies airtight or their narratives all-encompassing. As facts change and history progresses, the totalizing system struggles to adapt to new data, and those who believe the official story notice as inconsistencies develop. The sense of a shifting reality gives rise to a “trembling, wobbling” feeling; eventually, it amounts to a disorientation that Arendt compares to the effects of brainwashing. After victims of brainwashing have been reacquainted with reality, she writes, they tend to experience “a peculiar kind of cynicism—an absolute refusal to believe in the truth of anything, no matter how well this truth may be established.” Once a regime’s lies are unveiled, its subjects become deeply distrustful, incapable of distinguishing between truth and lies.

A brainwashing victim, by this account, looks something like the “ideal subject” of totalitarian rule. In another ubiquitously cited passage, she writes,

The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth, and that the truth be defamed as lies, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth vs. falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed.

It is easy to gloss over the words “consistent” and “total” and conflate the kind of lie Arendt describes with the Trump Administration’s “alternative facts.” But by definition, alternative facts cannot be total: the term itself implies conflicting data. In “Truth and Politics,” Arendt is not warning about liars in Washington. She is worried, rather, about a state of affairs in which a singular, unquestioned image has been installed in place of reality, and in which, as cracks begin to appear, those who placed their faith in authority have no one left to trust—a state of affairs, as she made clear, that cannot coexist with a free and combative press.

“Truth and Politics” engages with American politics only obliquely, but a few years later, Arendt had the opportunity to retrofit her theory of image-making to the United States in an essay for The New York Review of Books. In “Lying in Politics,” which recycles much of the material from “Truth and Politics,” Arendt discusses the trove of lies revealed by the Pentagon Papers. She identifies a class of leaders in Washington who, like the totalitarians, had appropriated the language and logic of science to promote a fraudulent image. Borrowing the journalist Neil Sheehan’s term, she calls these men “the problem-solvers.” Administrators such as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, she writes, “were eager to find formulae, preferably expressed in a pseudo-mathematical language, which would unify the most disparate phenomena with which reality presented them,” weaving chaos into order, reality into fiction. The problem-solvers were familiar to Arendt—allergic to contingency, hungry instead for consistent systems. She detects in them a “disdain for facts, and the accidental character of those facts.” Rather, she writes, “they were eager to discover laws by which to explain and predict political and historical facts as though they were as necessary, and thus as reliable, as the physicists once believed natural phenomena to be.”

According to Arendt, the problem-solvers saw politics as “a variety of public relations” and “lied not so much for their country, certainly not for their country’s survival, which was never at stake, as for its ‘image.’ ” She quotes Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton, who was revealed in the Pentagon Papers to have summarized the principal American military aim in Vietnam as follows: “To avoid humiliating defeat (to our reputation . . . ).” For the government, defeat was not as problematic as the appearance of defeat. What the papers show, Arendt writes, is that the ultimate goal of the Vietnam War was not power or profit or any specific interest at all. There was no ultimate goal to which appearing as the “greatest power in the world” was proximate: “The goal was the image itself.” Rather than striving for world conquest, the American government had set its sights on victory over the hearts and minds of the world’s people. “Image-making as global policy,” she writes, “is indeed something new in the huge arsenal of human follies recorded in history.” For Arendt, Vietnam was yet another instance in which glorified bureaucrats failed to think for themselves. “The problem-solvers did not judge,” she writes, “they calculated.” Like Eichmann, they planned and executed a strategy without stopping to consider its rightness or wrongness.

Yet even in its most despicable crimes, Arendt clarified multiple times, the American government had not lapsed into totalitarianism. In the case of the Vietnam War, one mitigating factor was a strong investigative press, which prevented the problem-solvers’ image from attaining a hegemonic hold on the public. “In the Pentagon Papers, we deal with people who did their utmost to win the minds of the people,” she concludes, “but since they labored in a free country where all kinds of information were available, they never really succeeded.” Arendt contends (somewhat controversially) that the Pentagon Papers were full of facts that had already been reported—secrets and lies that had been leaked years earlier. She argues, as she had in “Truth and Politics,” that political participation depends on access to unmanipulated information. The Pentagon Papers demonstrated that the American press had protected that right, supplying the factual conditions for a free and informed debate about Vietnam.

Under Arendt’s analysis, the terms of the post-2016 conversation about truth and lies grow slippery. If politicians have always lied, and the American government has a well-established habit of attempting to deceive its citizens, what is new about “post-truth”? Trump’s hatred for reporters was hardly novel. (Arendt cites a rumor that the Nixon Administration planned a campaign to “destroy the ‘credibility’ of the press before the 1972 Presidential election,” which she deems “quite in line with the public relations mentality.”) What was distinct, perhaps, was the way reporters responded to Trump’s lies. Throughout the Trump Administration, the press maintained an antagonistic pose, aggressively fact-checking the president. His narrative never had the chance to become monolithic, because an alternative story was always available.

Trump’s lies were not more convincing than those of other presidents; they opened the curtain on an epistemic crisis because they were less convincing, more flagrant. Trump was often accused of “saying the quiet part out loud”—revealing the open secrets politicians generally avoid acknowledging. The rhetorical effectiveness of Trump’s taboo-breaking proved the same thing Arendt gleaned from the Pentagon Papers: the American people already know their politicians aren’t telling them the truth. Trump did not need to create a make-believe world, because he appealed to those who had already lost confidence in the official representations of American political reality.

For Arendt, real government conspiracies are what give rise to outlandish conspiracy theories—it is fraudulent image-making, perpetrated by authority, that degrades the ability of the public to judge the difference between fact and fiction. Jerome Kohn, Arendt’s longtime assistant and literary trustee, once argued that the lies of the George W. Bush Administration echoed Arendt’s warnings. The administration had forged documents stating that Saddam Hussein was in the process of obtaining yellowcake uranium, and the press had dutifully printed the lie. The absence of dissent to the passing of the Patriot Act and the invasion of Iraq afforded the government the opportunity to craft a singular fiction—exactly the kind of unquestioned image-making Arendt feared. Kohn pointed to a New York Times Magazine report by Ron Suskind, in which an anonymous aide redressed the journalist for being insufficiently attuned to the way truth operates in the American empire. The aide, who is widely believed, despite his denials, to be Karl Rove, said that Suskind and his ilk were “in what we call the reality-based community,” meaning they believed “that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” For the aide, discernible reality was beside the point. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he said. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

Since Arendt’s time, Kohn said, the United States had witnessed “a slide from a lot of lying for political expediency into domination by an ideology and the kind of worship of logical consistency that brings that ideology to the public.” Though it was not overwritten with an officially sanctioned ideological system like Nazism or Communism, the status quo of American politics in the Aughts was not devoid of ideology. The Iraq War represented its own ideological project, an effort to export and enforce liberal democracy as the natural and inevitable endpoint of history. And in the half century since Arendt wrote “Lying in Politics,” Washington largely continued its “image-making as global policy,” checked only to varying degrees by the press.

Trump’s loudest critics spent his time in office wringing their hands over “alternative facts,” worshipping fact-checkers, and fetishizing factual truth—declaiming Trump as an exception and yearning for a return to normal. But amid the criticism, they did little to examine the status of truth under previous administrations. Trump was not the first liar in the Oval Office, and unlike some of his predecessors, he was fiercely challenged by an adversarial press and an opposition party keen to decry his every statement. Rather than a calculating liar with an all-embracing plan, Trump was an opportunist able to exploit a lack of public trust in the institutions charged with disseminating facts. The journalists who nitpicked his statements managed only to preach to the proverbial choir, while his most ardent supporters shrugged off authoritative facts altogether, convinced that the media was aligned with the “deep state.” The press, after all, had already proved itself unequipped to dismantle the fictional reality constructed by the architects of American empire.

In her preface to the third edition of Origins, Arendt cautioned against prematurely crying totalitarianism in a U.S. context. Arendt had watched as protesters hurled accusations of fascism at the Johnson Administration, and she thought they were preoccupied with the wrong war. In her view, the United States was closer to repeating the sins of British imperialism, but this “unhappy relevance,” she warned, should not be taken to imply that history would inevitably repeat itself. To respect human freedom is to acknowledge that history does not operate according to scientific laws: “No matter how much we may be capable of learning from the past,” she writes, “it will not enable us to know the future.”

 is the co-editor of The Drift. She lives in Brooklyn.


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