“Society is always prone to accept a person offhand for what he pretends to be, so that a crackpot posing as a genius always has a certain chance to be believed,” Hannah Arendt warned in Origins of Totalitarianism almost half-a-century ago. Her pioneering work shed light on the factors that led to the emergence of fascist governments in Western Europe in the early decades of the 20th century.
Arendt analyzed how rapid modernization could create a profound sense of alienation and dislocation within what she called a “mass society,” where large numbers of disaffected and marginalized people “are not held together by a consciousness of common interest” and “lack that specific class articulateness,” thus preventing them from participating in mainstream politics.
Yet, eager to gain political voice, the masses are susceptible to mobilization by demagogues who offer salvation and empowerment in exchange for unbending obedience to an absolute authority–Der Führer, Il Duce–even to the point that some followers would lose “interest in their own well-being” for the fulfillment of a higher cause. As in the case of Germany and Italy, that cause could be highly amorphous goals such as “national glory” or making a broken community “great again.”
Arendt’s work provided an in-depth understanding of the psychological context within which even highly educated societies like Germany could succumb to an atavistic form of politics defined by hierarchy, conformity, and blind obedience, with the horrors of the World War II as its denouement. More importantly, she evinced the dark side of modernity as well as the limits of democratic institutions in containing humanity’s self-destructive instincts.
For some, Arendt’s work is also relevant to understanding contemporary politics among established democracies, especially in light of the rise of far-right parties across Europe, with the likes of Poland and Hungary increasingly resembling “illiberal” democracies, and, even more alarmingly, Donald Trump’s eerily auspicious bid for the White House. Trump’s anti-liberal demagoguery has provoked panic even among the country’s most conservative thinkers. Robert Kagan, a leading neoconservative, has gone so far as likening Trump’s presidential campaign to the arrival of fascism in Europe, warning that the “unleashing of popular passions would lead not to greater democracy but to the arrival of a tyrant, riding to power on the shoulders of the people.”