Even before the election of Donald Trump, as some critics began to see the possibility of a win, talk turned to historical names of anti-fascism: George Orwell, Sinclair Lewis, and, especially, Hannah Arendt, author of The Origins of Totalitarianism, On Revolution, and Eichmann in Jerusalem, her series of articles for The New Yorker about the trial of the Nazi’s chief bureaucrat. Arendt closely observed authoritarian regimes and their aftermath, detailing the way ideology seeps in through banal political careerism.
Since 2016, her warnings have seemed all-too-prescient, especially after a coup attempt last January that has been all-but hand-waved out of political memory by the GOP and its media apparatus, while candidates who deny the legitimacy of election outcomes they don’t like increasingly get their names on ballots. The degree to which Arendt saw the political conditions of her time, and maybe ours, with clarity has less to do with foreknowledge and more with a deep knowledge of the past. Corruption, tyranny, deceit, in all their many forms, have not changed much in their essential character since the records of antiquity were set down.
“Dark times,” she wrote in the 1968 preface to her collection of essays Men in Dark Times, “are not only not new, they are no rarity in history, although,” she adds, “they were perhaps unknown in American history, which otherwise has its fair share, past and present, of crime and disaster.” Had her assessment changed a few years later, in what would be her final interview, above, in 1973 (aired on French TV in 1974)? Had dark times come for the U.S.? The Yom Kippur War had just begun, the seemingly-endless Vietnam War dragged on, and the Watergate scandal had hit its crescendo.
Still, Arendt continued to feel a certain guarded optimism about her adopted country, which, she says, is “not a nation-state” like Germany or France:
This country is united neither by heritage, nor by memory, nor by soil, nor by language, nor by origin from the same. There are no natives here. The natives were the Indians. Everyone else are citizens. And these citizens are united only by one thing and this is true: That is, you become a citizen in the United States by a simple consent to the Constitution. The constitution – that is a scrap of paper according to the French as well as the German common opinion, & you can change it. No, here it is a sacred document. It is the constant remembrance of one sacred act. And that is the act of foundation. And the foundation is to make a union out of wholly disparate ethnic minorities and religions, and (a) still have a union, and (b) do not assimilate or level down these differences. And all of this is very difficult to understand for a foreigner. It’s what a foreigner never understands.
Whether or not Americans understood themselves that way in 1973, or understand ourselves this way today, Arendt points to an ideal that makes the democratic process in the U.S. unique; when, that is, it is allowed to function as ostensibly designed, by the consent of the governed rather than the tyranny of an oligarchy. Arendt died two years later, as the war in Vietnam finally came to an inglorious end. You can watched her full televised interview — with English translations by the uploader, Philosophy Overdose — above, or find it published in the book, Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview and Other Conversations.
What would Arendt have had to say to our time of MAGA, COVID-19 and election denialism, mass political racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia? Perhaps her most succinct statement on how to recognize the dark times comes from that same 1968 preface:
I borrow the term from Brecht’s famous poem ‘To Posterity,’ which mentions the disorder and the hunger, the massacres and the slaughterers, the outrage over injustice and the despair ‘when there was only wrong and no outrage,’ the legitimate hatred that makes you ugly nevertheless, the well-founded wrath that makes the voice grow hoarse. All this was real enough as it took place in public; there was nothing secret or mysterious about it. And still, it was by no means visible to all, nor was it at all easy to perceive it; for, until the very moment when catastrophe overtook everything and everybody, it was covered up not by realities but by the highly efficient talk and double-talk of nearly all official representatives who, without interruption and in many ingenious variations, explained away unpleasant facts and justified concerns. When we think of dark times and of people living and moving in them, we have to take this camouflage, emanating from and spread by ‘the establishment’ – or ‘the system,’ as it was then called – also into account. If it is the function of the public realm to throw light on the affairs of men by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better or worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished by ‘credibility gaps’ and ‘invisible government,’ by speech that does not disclose what is but sweeps it under the carpet, by exhortations, moral and otherwise, that, under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality.