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Fixating on whether Trump’s response to COVID-19 is totalitarian makes it difficult to have a nuanced discussion about the role government should play in times of crisis.
Last Thursday, Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman issued a warning in the New York Times. “The pandemic will eventually end,” he wrote, “but democracy, once lost, may never come back. And we’re much closer to losing our democracy than many people realize.” Citing the Wisconsin election debacle—the Supreme Court ruled that voters would have to vote in person, risking their health—Krugman argued that Donald Trump and the Republican Party are using the crisis for their own, authoritarian ends.
This is the perennial critique of Trump: that he is a totalitarian at heart and, if given the chance, ‘would want to establish total control over society.’
Krugman is not alone. As early as last month, when cases of COVID-19 first began to surge in the United States, Masha Gessen wrote in the New Yorker that the virus was fueling “Trump’s autocratic instincts.” They argued, “We have long known that Trump has totalitarian instincts . . . the coronavirus has brought us a step closer.” This is indeed the once and future critique of the Trump presidency: that Trump is a totalitarian at heart and, if given the chance, “would want to establish total control over a mobilized society.” A few days ago, Salon published an article arguing that the president is using the virus to prepare “the ground for a totalitarian dictatorship.” Even Meghan McCain, as unlikely a person as any to agree with Gessen, indicated recently that Trump has “always been a sort of totalitarian president” and that he might use the virus to “play on the American public’s fears in a draconian way and possibly do something akin to the Patriot Act.”
These critiques make ample use of the term totalitarianism—“that most horrible of inventions of the twentieth century,” in Gessen’s summation. They and other commentators also use it to describe Fidel Castro’s Cuba to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which Gessen left in 2013. As right-wing populism has surged around the world in recent years, the term has had something of a renaissance. Hannah Arendt’s 1951 classic The Origins of Totalitarianism became a best seller again after Donald Trump’s election in November 2016.
This uptick in the term’s use runs counter to the trend among historians, for whom the idea of totalitarianism carries increasingly little weight. Many of us see the term primarily as polemical, used more to discredit governments than to offer meaningful analyses of them. Scholars often prefer the much broader term authoritarianism, which denotes any form of government that concentrates political power in the hands of an unaccountable elite. But the fact that historians who study such governments eschew the term totalitarianism, even as it enjoys wide public currency, points not only to a disconnect between the academy and the general public, but also to a problem that Americans have in thinking about dictatorship. And it underscores our collective uncertainty about the proper role of government in crises such as these.
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Historians increasingly see the term totalitarian as polemical, used more to discredit governments than to offer meaningful analyses of them.
The terms totalitarian and totalitarianism have a winding history. In 1922 King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy appointed Benito Mussolini, leader of the Italian fascist party, as prime minister. In subsequent years, Mussolini established an authoritarian government that provided a roadmap for other twentieth century dictators, including Adolf Hitler, and made the term fascist an enduring descriptor of right-wing authoritarianism. A year after Mussolini’s appointment, Giovanni Amendola, a journalist and politician opposed to fascism, used the term totalitario, or totalitarian, to describe how the fascists presented two largely identical party lists at a local election, thereby preserving the form of competitive democracy (i.e., offering voters a choice), while, in reality, gutting it. Other writers soon took up the idea and it became a more generic descriptor of the fascist state’s dictatorial powers. Mussolini himself eventually adopted the term to characterize his government, writing that it described a regime of “all within the state, none outside the state, none against the state.” In the next two decades, the terms began to circulate internationally. Amendola used them in 1925 to compare Mussolini’s government and the young Soviet regime in Moscow. Academics in the English-speaking world began to employ them in the 1920s and ’30s in similar comparative contexts.
In a sign of how much the meaning of the words drifted, however, those who later adopted them into political philosophy did not necessarily consider fascist Italy to have been totalitarian. Hannah Arendt, for instance, dismissed Mussolini’s movement: “The true goal of Fascism was only to seize power and establish the Fascist ‘elite’ as uncontested ruler over the country.” Even now, scholars point to the survival of pre-fascist government and bureaucratic structures, as well as lower levels of terror and violence directed against the populace, as evidence that Mussolini’s Italy was not genuinely totalitarian.
Instead, Arendt considered totalitarianism to be a way of understanding fundamental similarities between Stalinism and Hitlerism, despite their diametrical opposition on the political spectrum. This archetypal comparison remains the bedrock of studies of totalitarian dictatorship. In Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt laid out what she saw as its internal dynamic:
Totalitarianism is never content to rule by external means, namely, through the state and a machinery of violence; thanks to its peculiar ideology and the role assigned to it in this apparatus of coercion, totalitarianism has discovered a means of dominating and terrorizing human beings from within.
This state of affairs, which Arendt diagnosed as the result of an increasingly atomized society, bears a striking resemblance to the state described in George Orwell’s 1984 (another bestseller in the Trump era). Airstrip One, as Orwell renamed Great Britain, is dominated by an omniscient Big Brother who sees, hears, and knows all. Through a reform of language, Airstrip One even tries to make it impossible to think illegal thoughts. Newspeak, it is hoped, “shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.” Orwell and Arendt considered the obliteration of the private and internal life of individuals to be the ne plus ultra of totalitarian rule.
Of course, what Arendt and Orwell described are systems of government that have never actually existed. Neither Nazism nor Stalinism succeeded in controlling or dominating its citizens from within. Moreover, while later scholarship has partially borne out Arendt’s analysis of National Socialism, her understanding of Stalinist rule has proved less insightful.
The other classic account of totalitarianism is Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy, published in 1956 by Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski. In it, the political scientists developed a six-point list of criteria by which to recognize totalitarianism: it has an “elaborate ideology,” relies on a mass party, uses terror, claims a monopoly on communication as well as on violence, and controls the economy. Like Arendt, Friedrich and Brzezinski believed totalitarianism to be a new phenomenon—to take Gessen’s words, an invention of the twentieth century. Their goal was to understand structural similarities between different modern dictatorships.
Even Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union—the two archetypal examples—were so different that historians wonder if their comparison as totalitarian really yields interesting insights.
While scholars critiqued Friedrich and Brzezinski’s model—for example, its one-size-fits-all list fails to appreciate these regimes’ dynamism—the debate over the usefulness of the term totalitarianism continued. In the decades since, historians and political scientists have gone back and forth, defining the concept in new ways and showing how those definitions fail in one way or another.
But, at base, these definitions have typically assumed, in the words of historian Ian Kershaw, a “total claim” made on the part of the totalitarian state over those it rules. That is, Arendt’s basic characterization—that totalitarian regimes aspire to total control over the public, private, and internal lives of their citizens—continues to inform scholarly debate.
Arendt’s, I would venture, is also the term’s folk definition: that is, in people’s minds, totalitarianism distinguishes a subset of authoritarian regimes that seek to (and perhaps even sometimes succeed at) dominating the individual in every conceivable way. China’s new social credit score, which curtails the rights of people who engage in so-called antisocial behaviors, is a current example of this sort of thing. It is also a clear illustration of the role technology plays in totalitarian fantasies. But China’s government also has many other characteristics, such as a market economy, that traditional understandings of totalitarianism explicitly reject.
This pared-down definition of totalitarianism is still only of dubious utility. Even Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union—the two archetypal examples—were so different that historians wonder if their comparison as “totalitarian” really yields interesting insights. Studies of everyday life in both countries have underscored the limits of the totalitarian model. These revisionist histories, in the words of Soviet historian Sheila Fitzpatrick, “introduced into Soviet history the notions of bureaucratic and professional interest groups and institutional and center-periphery conflict, and they were particularly successful at demonstrating inputs from middle levels of the administrative hierarchy and professional groups. They were alert to what would now be called questions of agency.” Similarly nuanced approaches to Nazism have uncovered ways power worked within the regime that throw the totalitarian hypothesis into doubt.
In my own area of research, Germany after World War II, totalitarianism plays a fraught role. During the Cold War and its immediate aftermath, politicians, journalists, and scholars all painted East Germany as a totalitarian government on par with the Nazi state. But that characterization is simply wrong. For instance, the East German and Nazi secret police forces, the Stasi and the Gestapo, functioned in fundamentally different ways. The Gestapo was a relatively small organization that relied on thousands of spontaneous denunciations. It practiced brutal torture and was embedded in a system of extralegal justice that was responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of German citizens (not to mention the millions more killed in the Holocaust). The Stasi was quite different. It employed a vast bureaucracy—three times larger than the Gestapo in a population four times smaller—and cultivated an even larger network of collaborators. Around 5 percent of East Germans are estimated to have worked for the Stasi at some point, blurring the lines between persecutors and persecuted. Against those unlucky enough to wind up in a Stasi prison, the secret police employed methods of psychological torture. But it never induced the same level of terror as did the Gestapo. Nor was it responsible for anywhere near the same number of deaths. For most East Germans, the Stasi’s presence was more of a nuisance—a “scratchy undershirt,” historian Paul Betts argues.
Of course, the Stasi’s ubiquity and its vast surveillance apparatus have equally been taken as proof that the totalitarian hypothesis does indeed apply to East Germany. But there is ample evidence that East Germans enjoyed robust private lives, along with a sense of individual self. East Germans wrote millions of petitions to their government, for instance, complaining about everything from vacations to apartments. They showed up to quiz members of parliament about government policy. When the regime tried to outlaw public nudity in the 1950s, as historian Josie McLellan has described, East Germans disobeyed, protested, and eventually forced the government to relent. Kristen Ghodsee, among others, has contended that in many ways life was better for women in Eastern Bloc countries than in the West. And the dictatorship never tried to bring the Protestant Church, to which millions of East Germans belonged, under its full control. My own research reveals that gay liberation activists were able to pressure the dictatorship to make significant policy changes.
In short, whatever criteria one uses to define totalitarianism, East Germany does not fit. It was a dictatorship, but certainly not a totalitarian one. In fact, the classification of East Germany has proved such a nettlesome problem, it has spawned a veritable cottage industry of neologisms. Scholars describe it, variously, as a welfare dictatorship, a participatory dictatorship, a thoroughly dominated society, a modern dictatorship, a tutelary state, and a late totalitarian patriarchal and surveillance state.
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If the obliteration of the wall between public and private is the defining characteristic of totalitarianism, can any contemporary society be described as other than totalitarian?
This brings us back to current usage. The problem is that the term totalitarian fulfills two quite different purposes. The first, as just discussed, is taxonomic: for scholars, it has helped frame an effort to understand the nature of various twentieth-century regimes. And in this function, it finally seems to be reaching the end of its useful life.
But the term’s other purpose is ideological and pejorative, the outgrowth of a Cold War desire to classify fascist and communist dictatorships as essentially the same phenomenon. To catalog a state as totalitarian it to say it is radically other, sealed off from the liberal, capitalist, democratic order that we take to be normal. When we call a state totalitarian, we are saying that its goals are of a categorically different sort than those of our own government—that it seeks, as Gessen suggests, to destroy human dignity.
The ideological work that the term totalitarian performs is significant, providing a sleight-of-hand by which to both condemn foreign regimes and deflect criticism of the regime at home. By claiming that dictatorship and democracy are not simply opposed but categorically different, it disables us from recognizing the democratic parts of dictatorial rule and the authoritarian aspects of democratic rule, and thus renders us less capable of effectively diagnosing problems in our own society.
We love to denounce foreign dictatorships. George W. Bush invented the “Axis of Evil,” for example, to provide a ready supply of villains. These “totalitarian” regimes—Iran, Iraq, and North Korea—we were told, all threatened our freedoms. But the grouping was always nonsensical, as the regimes bore few similarities to one another. While Iran, in particular, is authoritarian, it also bears hallmarks of pluralistic democracy. Pointing out the latter does not diminish the former—rather it helps us understand how and why the Islamic Republic has shown such tenacity and staying power. To simply call such regimes totalitarian not only misses the point, but also whitewashes American complicity in creating and propping up authoritarian regimes—Iran not least of all. Indeed, the United States supported a number of the past century’s most brutal right-wing dictatorships.
Moreover, by thinking of totalitarianism as something that happens elsewhere, in illiberal, undemocratic places, we ignore the ways in which our government can and has behaved in authoritarian ways within our own country. Black Americans experienced conditions of dictatorial rule in the Jim Crow South and under slavery, to name but the most prominent examples.
The language of totalitarianism thus obscures how dictatorship and democracy exist on the same spectrum. It is imperative that we come to a clearer understanding of the fact that hybrid forms of government exist which combine elements of both. These managed democracies, to take political theorist Sheldon Wolin’s term—from Putin’s Russia, to Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey—have hallmarks of democratic republics and use a combination of new and old methods to enforce something akin to one-party rule. These states are certainly not totalitarian, but neither are they democracies.
Likewise, the Republican Party’s efforts to manage U.S. democracy through gerrymandering and voter suppression is similar to Putin’s, Orbán’s, and Erdoğan’s tactics of securing political power. Its strategies push the republic further toward the authoritarian end of the political spectrum. And, indeed, the sophisticated data-mining techniques of Cambridge Analytica, which assisted the 2016 Trump campaign to manipulate voter choices, would have made the Stasi, the Gestapo, or the NKVD green with envy.
In fact, if the obliteration of the wall between public and private is the defining characteristic of totalitarianism, can any contemporary society be described as anything other than totalitarian? What, after all, does agency mean in a world in which Facebook aspires to know what we want before we know it ourselves or in a country in which the NSA collects vast troves of data on our own citizens? To my mind, totalitarianism’s usefulness as a distinctive category of government simply evaporates when we begin to look at all the ways in which technology has compromised individual privacy and agency in the twenty-first century.
Fear of totalitarianism gives the right cover to denounce measures to control the virus: if freedom means freedom from government, then the worst government is one that makes a total claim on its citizens, even in the interest of saving them from a plague.
Use of the term also prevents us from thinking productively about COVID-19 and how governments ought to respond to it. For a state of quarantine necessarily forces everyone to give up—whether voluntarily or no—their rights of movement, assembly, and, to some extent, expression. It requires the private choices individuals make—whether to have friends over for dinner, go on a morning jog, or buy groceries—to become public in painful and sometimes even embarrassing ways. Technology companies are starting to employ their products’ tracking features to trace the virus’s spread, an application that many worry poses an unacceptable breach of privacy.
Yet, the destruction of the private sphere in the interest of the public good is precisely what theorists tell us lies at the heart of totalitarianism. Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben made precisely this point, arguing recently that the extraordinary response to COVID-19 is totalitarian: “The disproportionate reaction . . . is quite blatant. It is almost as if with terrorism exhausted as a cause for exceptional measures, the invention of an epidemic offered the ideal pretext for scaling them up beyond any limitation.” Of course, we now know the measures the Italian government introduced went neither far nor fast enough. Now there are over 160,000 confirmed cases in Italy and over 20,000 confirmed deaths from the virus.
The confusion the idea of totalitarianism sows over responses in the United States has also been evident since last month. On March 22, right-wing commentator Andrew Napolitano asserted that measures to combat COVID-19 were motivated by “totalitarian impulses.” Meanwhile, state officials have been busy postponing primary elections, a measure that under normal circumstances would undoubtedly be denounced as totalitarian in nature.
If we are going to arrive at a more sophisticated answer to the question of how to govern democratically in the twenty-first century, we must begin by acknowledging that all modern governments attempt to control and influence the lives of their citizens, and all governments make use of exceptional powers to combat crises. The problem with the idea of totalitarianism is that it makes no accommodation for the reasons behind such exercise of coercive power.
It is, of course, quite right to worry about Donald Trump’s response to the virus. His dilly-dallying, his narcissism, and his inability to take responsibility for anything may cost one hundred thousand or more lives. Commentators like Krugman are correct, insofar as Trump and his cronies are indeed trying to use the crisis to cement their authority. But the ways they are going about it are not totalitarian in any sense of the word. In fact, the idea of totalitarianism, as commentators such as Napolitano reveal, gives the radical right cover to denounce measures to control the virus. It is the last stage in the late-twentieth-century neoliberal critique of government: if freedom is only ever freedom from government interference, then the worst form of government is that which makes a total claim on its citizens, even in the interest of saving them from a plague. Thinking in terms of totalitarianism—instead of the broader and more flexible term authoritarianism—leads one into such frustrating mental thickets, in which democratic policies can plausibly be denounced as totalitarian.
These seeming paradoxes illustrate that the idea of totalitarianism is a useless tool in assessing the decency of governance in any twenty-first-century state. If we are to survive in this brave new world, in which technology makes it ever easier for governments to manipulate individual decisions, but in which we also demand that the state take an ever-larger role in ensuring our safety from ourselves, we must acknowledge that the Manichean worldview implied in the term totalitarianism is an outdated relic of the Cold War.
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