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The roots of totalitarianism & Trump: To a new journalism

I do not believe most people espousing QAnon’s agitprop believe it. I believe they want us to believe they believe it. It’s performative: owning the libs, the pollsters, the media, the elites. Our old institutions fall for it and that is why the conspirators continue to play us. The primary weakness here is not in their belief system but in ours.

For us to think that journalism, fact-checking, and appeals to rationality will win this war on truth is itself irrational; we now know better. For the Trumpists to say something could be true —even blood libel—is sufficient for them, for their goal is not to express truth but instead anger, fear, frustration, hatred. They want to shock; so do media.

The other day, I wrote about this situation as the last stand of the old, angry, white man. Today, I want to begin to ask what journalism can do about it, for even if — God willing — Trump were to disappear, his people and their anger, abuse of power, and destruction of norms and institutions will not. We must reinvent journalism to address their shifting power, alienation, and unenlightened self-interest.

At this moment, it is instructive to reread Hannah Arendt. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she finds in Nazi and Soviet history “such unexpected and unpredicted phenomena as the radical loss of self-interest, the cynical or bored indifference in the face of death or other personal catastrophes, the passionate inclination toward the most abstract notions as guides for life, and the general contempt for even the most obvious rules of common sense.”

Radical loss of self-interest: Voting for a man who has not saved their jobs. 
Cynical or bored indifference in the face of death: Attending superspreader rallies while stubbornly burning masks. 
Passionate inclination toward the most abstract notions: Do abortion and the Second Amendment really matter uppermost in their daily lives, more than their health and employment? 
And general contempt for common sense: See COVID and QAnon.

Arendt argues that loneliness is the root of totalitarianism, of the mob, of the mass (though I disagree with the use of that term as it should represent the group, not the whole). Today we call them the “base.” “The chief characteristic of mass man is not brutality and backwardness,” she writes, “but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships.” There is the essence of the problem to address.

Totalitarian and fascist movements are made up of “atomized, isolated individuals.” How many of us know friends and family members who would sooner give up those ties than their allegiance to Trump? “Such loyalty,” says Arendt, “can be expected only from the completely isolated human being who, without any other social ties to family, friends, comrades, or even mere acquaintances, derives his sense of having a place in the world only from his belonging to a movement.”

But a movement to what end? Hitler took over the NSDAP and “unburdened the movement of its party’s earlier platform, not only by changing or officially abolishing it but simply by refusing to talk about it or discuss its points.” Trump took over the Republican Party and could not be bothered to articulate a cause or a platform. In the void, he forced the GOP to abandon every idea it once stood for — free trade, small government, less debt, more freedom. Thus when we believe this is a fight over beliefs, we are chasing ghosts. Beliefs matter even less than facts.

The only ideology at work seems to be one of destruction qua destruction, which I also wrote about: burning the fields so as not to share the crops with those who follow; destroying institutions before losing control of them. In Germany, says Arendt, not only the mob but also the elites “went to war with an exultant hope that everything they knew, the whole culture and texture of life, might go down in its ‘storms of steel.’” The same can be said of the GOP’s elites: senators, justices, and titans of various industries.

It is said by many sociologists, mass theorists, and mass psychiatrists — some insisting on a Freudian analysis — that members of these movements want to follow a father- or führer-figure. Hitler said to his SA: “All that you are, you are through me; all that I am, I am through you alone.” Remember, too: “I alone can fix it.” But Arendt cautions that leaders are easily replaced, even forgotten. Yet the roots that breed them do not disappear.

That root is rootlessness: atomization, alienation, a lack of identity and thus of individualism. I can begin to understand a lack of identity, for the paradox of growing up a white man in a white-dominated, male culture is that I came to think I had no cultural identity because mine was melted into and synonymous with the whole. I had to learn that to understand my cultural identity was to see it as white, cis, and male and built on privilege and racism.

Many don’t want to venture there. Instead, they fight: against criticism, against sharing society’s bounty and power, against losing in an economy that will be built on new skills, against phantom enemies: immigrants, the deep state, George Soros, rioters, Antifa, Others. So their identity becomes enmeshed with their fear and anger and the unspoken knowledge that they have squandered the privilege of whiteness. Outrage becomes their movement. Joining it, says Arendt, “seemed to provide new answers to the old and troublesome question, ‘Who am I?’ which always appears with redoubled persistence in times of crisis…. The point was to do something, heroic or criminal, which was unpredictable and undetermined by anybody else.” Or as sociologist William Kornhauser puts it: “The mass man substitutes an undifferentiated image of himself for an individualized one; he answers the perennial question of ‘Who am I?’ with the formula ‘I am like everyone else.’” That is, one loses one’s identity in the mob; one becomes lonely in the crowd.

Arendt scholar Samantha Rose Hill writes in Aeon that for Arendt, loneliness and isolation are distinct: creativity, even reading, requires isolation. “All thinking, strictly speaking, is done in solitude,” says Arendt. Hill says the word for loneliness in Arendt’s mother tongue — Verlassenheit — implies abandonment, thus being cut off from not only human connection but also from reality. She quotes 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 (ie, the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (ie, the standards of thought) no longer exist.” There could be no more accurate statement of where many stand today than that.

Arendt, who writes brilliantly about the importance of publicness and the deprivation that privacy and alienation can bring, adds this in The Human Condition: “To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.”

And so we arrive at the challenge for journalism: to build a table. Given the lessons we should have learned from history and Arendt, I am building my own growing list of needs and opportunities, which begins here:

First, we need to pay less attention to the angry, white, male Trump base who have monopolized and manipulated the news. Then we may pay more attention to the the true majority of the nation, not as a mass but as a constellation of communities that for too long have been ignored, under-represented, and ill-served in mass media. By portraying the circumstances, interests, needs, and humanity of these communities as America’s normal — not as minorities or Others — we make it harder for the old power structure in media and politics to ignore and treat them as the aberrant.

Second, we need to remind the Trumpists of their own more enlightened self-interest: that they surely do care about the health and safety of their families — not against immigrants but against viruses and guns — and about their employment and the economic futures of their children. We should not be empathetic to their racism. But we should understand and reflect their true circumstances. We should show them how they share these concerns with the people they had considered Others, not in competition but in collaboration: These are the concerns of the nation. This is the table we must set.

Third, we need to tell the stories of lives ruined in loneliness and in allegiance to false messiahs. Tell the stories of Trump’s lies and exploitation not from his perspective or from the journalist’s — “we fact-checked ’im!”— but from that of his victims, not to shame them but to understand them, even when they share in blame.

Fourth, we need to build the next generation of the internet that does more than enable talking (though hurrah for that) but enables listening — and then finding that which is worth hearing. Then we can begin to hold a respectful, informed, and productive public conversation. Facebook and Twitter do not yet do that, for they are the first generation of a very young net; there are many more generations to come. Rather than complaining about the Facebook we have, build the next one.

Fifth, we need to create the means for people to hold informed, productive debate over the issues of their everyday lives. See, for example, Spaceship Media and its new book on the conversation about guns, and also The New York Times’ story about an experiment in deliberative democracy. We need spaces to collaborate on solutions to our problems, sharing lessons, holding our leaders to the standards we set, demonstrating that we can make progress together.

Sixth, we need to foster connections among people, in communities. Sociologist Emil Lederer — who called fascism “an effort to melt society down into a crowd” — emphasizes the value of community: “Freedom resides in the structure of society as long as society is composed of groups. In groups man pursues his interests, and in groups he shapes his life. Since society is composed of many groups it is pluralistic in nature and necessarily involves a division of social power.” Kornhauser argues that one regains one’s identity as and “autonomous man” through participation in communities in a pluralistic (not mass) society. Facebook is a first-generation tool for sharing things with people we know. We need means to connect with and appreciate strangers and to build meaningful and productive collaboration in our communities; that is a next generation of the social net.

Seventh, we must change the measurements we use to run media, away from attention and its cynical exploitation, and toward metrics of value in people’s lives and communities, expectations set by the public, not by media.

Eighth, we must rely on science and do a better job of reporting on it, understanding and explaining it as a process of learning through experimentation, not a room filled with (white) men shouting “Eureka!” Thus we set a different expectation for what science can and cannot answer in a crisis such as a novel pandemic.

Ninth, we need to call upon history. How good it would be for journalism students and technology students — for editors in newspapers and executives in Silicon Valley — to reread Arendt and understand the dangers she warned against. How necessary it is for them to study the humanities.

Tenth — and you will hear this from me often — we need to call on other disciplines to identify society’s problems and then reimagine a journalism that can address them. What do cognitive scientists and psychologists have to tell us about how people who reject masks cognize facts so we can create new ways to transmit and explain information? What do anthropologists and sociologists have to tell us about how communities interact so we can help them build both communities and bridges among them? What do ethicists and philosophers have to teach us in journalism, media, and technology about our missions, how we should create and be held accountable for them? What can researchers in African-American and Latino-American and Women’s and Queer studies tell us about the damage journalism has done to communities? This — the tenth — is where I hope to concentrate my work from now on.

If, God help us, Trump wins, we in journalism must urgently reexamine our role and responsibility and study Arendt et al to avoid the next, short step into the abyss. We need to stop our precious reluctance to call a liar a liar, a racist a racist, a fascist a fascist and learn from the history Arendt teaches and from what we so hubristically call the first draft of history that we wrote in the last four years.

If Trump loses, we must grab this opportunity to rebuild journalism and, we hope, contribute to rebuilding a better society, knowing what we now know. We should celebrate democracy and support it.

Journalism failed us. It is the institution built to prevent the rise of authoritarians, totalitarians, and Trumps. It did not. It is the institution built to expose inequity and to defend justice. It has not, not well. It is the institution built to hold power to account and prevent its abuses. It did not, not enough. We must do better, else we know what comes next.

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