Why American Totalitarianism Is Totally Possible

Conspiracy theories, stupid mobs, demagogues, where do you think this all leads?

Hannah Arendt was one of last century's great political theorists (a philospher, really)

In her book Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt described what I call the four horsemen of a totalitarian apocalypse.

  1. Conspiracy theories
  2. 'Stupid' people, well-organized
  3. Wishful thinking
  4. Loneliness

America today has all four, galloping apace.

60% of the population believes in some sort of conspiracy theory. A major political party is taken over by the 'stupid' mob. And people are not taking it seriously. They're not learning from history, not believing what their enemies say, refusing to consider where this all leads.

Americans simply think totalitarianism isn't possible for them, but this is wishful thinking. People died for the information that everything is possible. As David Rousset wrote, after his experiences in a concentration camp:

This is the epigraph of Arendt's book. Everything is possible. Conspiracy theories can become policy. Stupid mobs can take over countries. Complacent elites can be forced to flee. Saying that this isn't realistic misses the point. Totalitarianism makes its own reality.

As Arendt said, "The reason why the totalitarian regimes can get so far toward realizing a fictitious, topsy-turvy world is that the outside nontotalitarian world, which always comprises a great part of the population of the totalitarian country itself, indulges also in wishful thinking and shirks reality in the face of real insanity."

Look at the insanity around you and ask, what's realistic? Believing that the people attacking the Capitol won't come back? Believing that people calling for mass executions don't mean it? This is just delusional. It's shirking reality. This is exactly how totalitarian regimes get so far. In the shadows of our disbelief.

So believe in the impossible, if you want to keep it that way. Take your enemies at their word. Learn historical lessons written in blood. You can't just leave out milk and cookies for the four horsemen of the apocalypse and hope they go away. You have to man the barricades and not just let them walk through the democratic gates.

Totalitarianism is possible in America. Act accordingly.

1. Conspiracy Theories

The road to total terror starts with total bullshit. Conspiracy theories. Germany was awash in theories of a ruling Jewish cabal before the Nazis took over. Many Americans are in the thrall of a very similiar conspiracy theory today.

Arendt describes totalitarianism as a movement that overwrites reality with ideology, and this is exactly what conspiracy theories do. We laugh at conspiracy theorists, but we shouldn't. This is the totalitarian base. As Arendt says,

In the face of a complicated world that sucks and treats them like losers, people escape into a fictional world. One where there's an obvious evil (Satanic pedophiles!) and they're part of the plucky crew defeating them. It's the plot of every Hollywood movie they've been opiated with, and this time they get to be stars. It seems absurd, but it answers a very deep human need. It makes them feel good.

The mob will worship any leader who tells them these comforting lies. And more terrifyingly, as Arendt said, "the masses were not so much frightened by Jewish world rule as they were interested in how it could be done."

Hitler rose to power with conspiracy theories about Jews. Donald Trump rose to power on conspiracy theories about Obama. These were not random quirks, this is actually the core of their power. Conspiracy theories are what's at the Tootise-Roll center of totalitarianism.

This is the first horseman of the apocalypse, and you should not be comforted that the lies are stupid. You should be very afraid. Today in America the QAnon conspiracy theory is as popular as some major religions. This is terrifying. According to a March 2021 PRRI survey, only 40% of Americans completely reject the following QAnon beliefs, making America mostly insane.

From PRRI, see the whole questionnaire

60% of Americans partially or completely agree with QAnon. 14% believe in it all. Satanic pedophiles drinking children's blood is the far edge of it, but 25% of Americans believe that Trump is the legitimate President. A majority believes that COVID-19 was nefariously made in a lab. This stuff is everywhere, it's completely mainstream.

In truth, America is 100% delusional. 60% of the population is deranged, and the rest of the population is delusional to just live with it. They're all shirking reality, in one way or another. When reality completely fractures like this is when totalitarianism marches right in. "The difference between truth and falsehood may cease to be objective and become a mere matter of power and cleverness, of pressure and infinite repetition."

Which leads us to our second horseman. We're used to thinking of reality as objective, but it's just a social hallucination (the value of paper money, for example). It doesn't matter if the hallucination is stupid and makes no sense, as long as enough people believe it. To mix metaphors, conspiracy theories are like a Trojan Horse. Stuff enough people inside, wheel them inside a democracy, and they will raze that shit to the ground.

2. 'Stupid' People, Well-Organized

Stupid people, well-organized, will beat 'smart' people doing nothing any day. This is the power of what Arendt calls 'the mob.' People considered too stupid by conventional politicians become the power case for unconventional demagogues.

In America you can actually watch this happening in 2008:

John McCain speaking to a town hall in 2008

Here John McCain's supporters ask him about conspiracy theories (Obama being a terrorist 'Arab') and McCain, the traditional party man, shuts them down. The Republican Party was still plenty evil, but even they had given up on these people as too stupid for their attention.

This was the moment that showed the demand for a Donald Trump. Someone to say "Yes ma'am, the black man is a terrorist Muslim." Fast-forward 13 years and this mob has taken over the Republican Party. Donald Trump was their man.

Trump said what the mob whispered, he followed their forwards, and above all, he didn't talk down to them. And they loved him for it. They love him still. He was the head of a mob wave that crashed into the White House in 2016 and rolled back in 2020. However, like Kanye said, waves don't die. They just keep coming back and back, until everything you consider normal crumbles into sand.

The power of the mob is still there, even if their man has been (temporarily) removed. Today the mob controls the Republican Party and is organizing at the state and local level (school boards and elections commissions). Meanwhile Democrats are tripping over their own dicks in the Senate.

As I've said, motivated and well-organized 'stupid' people beat 'smart' people doing nothing any day.

3. Wishful Thinking

They say "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing." This is precisely what Democrats are doing, so what do you think is going to happen?

America's Capitol was attacked and the Democracts haven't done shit. Germany's Social Democrats at least arrested Hitler and banned the Nazi Party (for a minute). America is doing even less than Weimar Germany and somehow expecting different results.

As Arendt writes, the greater population will—until it's far too late—not believe what's right in front of the eyes. To understand totalitarianism just turn on Fox News and never turn it off. Tucker Carlson openly talks about white supremacy. Fears of socialists/communists taking all your freedom away are common. People openly call for mass executions. Who's delusional here? The people saying this shit, or the people not taking it seriously?

The reason totalitarianism gets so far is that people ignore it for so long. People believe it's impossible while it gets busy becoming real. In 1931, Harry Kessler noted in his diary that "the Nazis are not nearly so bad as their programmes and manifestoes make them appear, nor would they behave stupidly in foreign affairs." Well, he was wrong.

He should have taken Hitler at his word just as we should take Trump at his. All of these demagogues say what they're going to do quite clearly, people just don't believe them.

The same thing is happening in America today. The enemies of democracy are quite clearly coming for democracy and people are like "nah, they're just kidding." They're not fucking kidding. This is not a drill. As Oprah said, "when someone shows you who they are, believe them." Not taking your enemies seriously is not a strategy. It's just losing.

Wishful thinking is what killed the Trojans. They wheeled a horse full of men right into their gates, and invited the apocalypse in. In the night of their disbelief, their enemies slipped out and slit their throats.

4. Loneliness

The final horseman rides alone. According to Arendt, the "essence of totalitarian government" is loneliness. Isolated, disconnected people, who essentially join a national death-cult. It starts with conspiracy theories about total control, and ends in actual total control.

You can see this in America today. Lonely old people watch Fox News and escape into the made-up grievances of the day. People escape into online communities, chasing 'secret intelligence drops', while their own family drops out of contact. This isolation prepares them for the final escape from reality. Totalitarianism.

Quite poetically, Arendt likened these lonely, disconnected people to grains of sand. Describing totalitarian organization, she said "If this practice is compared with that of tyranny, it seems as if a way had been found to set the desert itself in motion, to let loose a sand storm that could cover all parts of the inhabited earth."

Many Americans today are as atomized as grains of sand. Physically separated by highways and suburbs; living in a desert of strip malls, while private equity strips their communities dry. They're divided digitally by algorithms; fractured into slivers of screentime, while venture capitalists profit from their worst tendencies.

People are divided by constant capitalist competition and culturally broken by the collapse of both the extended and nuclear family. I lived in America for 12 years and I left the continent because it felt, to me, like a terribly lonely place. This loneliness is the deepest, most fertile ground for totalitarianism to grow. Totalitarianism, according to Arendt, is not a transformation of politics or even society. It addresses a much deeper need. It transforms (and destroys) the self.

For lonely people, in pain and impotent rage, this is a relief. Who wants self-awareness? It's miserable. Totalitarian propaganda gives people self-respect.

The Apocalypse Now

And so, enter the apocalypse. Conspiracy theories lead to mobs. Mobs enter politics. Politics disappears. Like a million grains of sand, the atomized loneliness of millions of people sweeps the world. Fringe delusions become mass policies. Calls for executions become executions. Imagined threats from minorities are answered with real camps, real guns.

And so the impossible becomes possible, all while you were refusing to believe it could be done. And the delusion goes on longer than you'd think. Even after mass crimes, people refuse to believe what's going on.

Hannah Arendt was arrested by the Gestapo and somehow got out, to France. She was arrested there and thrown in a camp and somehow escaped. Millions of people did not. Hence these are not abstract lessons. They were paid for in blood.

Arendt chose David Rousset for the epigraph of her work, saying "Normal men do not know that everything is possible." I dug up a French copy of his work, and this is what it says:

"Normal men do not know that everything is possible. As much as testimony forces their intelligence to admit it, their muscles don't know. The concentration camp survivors know."

You know what? Even writing this, even after looking at Weimar Germany, even after seeing all the signs that totalitarianism is possible in America, I still don't believe it. It just seems impossible. As much as I understand it with my mind, I cannot feel it in my muscles, in my bones.

But I think we owe it to the people that suffered and died to take them at their word. Everything is possible. I think we owe it to our enemies to take them at their word as well.

If you look at what's in front of you, if you look at the history, if you look at the theory, the four horsemen are already here. The Trojan horse is already inside the gates. Totalitarianism is possible in America today. All the elements are already here, including the most vital one. Even after reading this, you probably cannot believe.

This article obviously heavily references Hannah Arendt's Totalitarianism, which is the third book of her tome The Origins Of Totalitarianism. Her ideas are fascinating and unsummarizable, I'd recommend reading a bit yourself, at least Chapter 4.

I have written more on her ideas here: How Totalitarianism Is A Total Nightmare.  I have written about the history and diaries of Weimar Germany in How America Is Becoming Nazi Germany.