Why It’s Impossible to Watch a Documentary About Fascism and Not Think of Donald Trump

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tags: election 2016, fascism, Trump

Following a screening of the 2016 documentary Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt, a joint Israeli and Canadian project directed by Ada Ushpiz, I was shocked by the parallels between our current political situation and the rise of Adolph Hitler’s Nazi regime as outlined in the Jewish philosopher’s Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). I was well prepared for the controversies surrounding Arendt’s arguments that European Jewish leaders betrayed their own people in attempting to accommodate the Nazis and that anti-Semitism was not the primary motivation for the mass murders and genocide committed by Eichmann at Auschwitz. Eichmann’s problem, according to Arendt, was not that he represented demonic evil, but rather that in his ordinariness Eichmann embodied an evil that was able to ignore the human condition by denying the pain and suffering of others.

As a German Jew who did not practice her religion, Arendt’s family had assimilated in Germany society, but Arendt’s mother had warned her daughter to be wary of anti-Semitism and to report instances of discrimination in the schools. Such vigilance, however, failed to protect Arendt and the Jews of Europe. In her work, Arendt noted the role played by the devastation of World War I in the creation of refugees or stateless people who were no longer considered part of humanity. The propaganda and eventual legislation of the Nazi Party in Germany removed the Jews from the protection of citizenship and made them a stateless people whose very existence could be threatened. Arendt’s concern for the vulnerability of the stateless immigrant led to her socialist vision of a benevolent Zionism, but she was disappointed with how the nation of Israel treated the Palestinians, leading Arendt to abandon Zionism.

In seeking to explain how genocide was able to become part of ordinary life in Nazi Germany, Arendt pointed to the perpetuation of lies and propaganda that go unchallenged. The creation of an individual who has no sense of empathy with fellow humans, perceived as not part of the body politic, begins with the denial of thought as the dictates of the leader become the conventional wisdom and are incorporated into ordinary daily life. This concept is well illustrated in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 film The Conformist in which the protagonist Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is devoid of emotion and conforms to the obligations of life in fascist Italy; including being assigned to assassinate his college professor. Clerici develops a sense of attachment to the professor’s wife Anna (Dominque Sands), but he displays no emotion as Anna is murdered while crying out in vain for his help. Clerici seems to embody the banality of evil denounced by Arendt.

As the Nazis consolidated their hold upon Germany, Arendt became a stateless person and fled to France, where she found little protection from the rise of fascism. She was placed in a camp, but before she could be turned over to the Germans, Arendt made her escape to the United States. As a refugee, Arendt celebrated America as a place where the concept of pluralism made it difficult for fascism to find a home. The European refugee and philosopher was welcomed in the academic circles of New York City; however, she might have found less to praise in the 1940s if she had migrated to the Jim Crow South. In fact, Arendt appears somewhat naïve in ignoring the legacy of intolerance in American history ranging from the Puritan witchcraft trials to racial slavery to Indian removal to the exploitation of migrants from Ireland, China, and Mexico in addition to the New Immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. It is this strain of nativism that is prominently on display with the Presidential candidacy of Donald Trump; raising some disturbing implications when viewed through the lens of Arendt’s writing.

Vita Activa is not a political polemic. The film is a sympathetic, although not uncritical, account of Arendt’s life and work; focusing upon her ideas regarding the banality of evil and the origins of totalitarianism in the denial of basic human rights by the state. Of course, it is simplistic to compare Hitler with Donald Trump, and it is difficult to imagine the businessman having read any of Arendt’s philosophy. It is, nevertheless, rather uncanny and worrisome that Trump’s xenophobic political movement has tapped into some of Arendt’s insights on the origins of totalitarianism. Trump focuses upon denying the common humanity of immigrants who lack protection but are perceived as fundamental threats to the sanctity of the national state. In Trump’s case, immigrants from Mexico and Central America, who are fleeing violence and economic deprivation in their homelands, are described as criminals, rapists, and freeloaders who seek to take away government benefits intended for American citizens. The solution to this problem is to destroy families by deporting over eleven million people while constructing a wall that restricts the movement and human rights of the Mexican people. In a similar fashion, Islamic refugees from the Middle East fleeing the violence of civil war in Libya and Syria, the terror of the Islamic State, and the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are to be denied the right of migration due to their religious beliefs. Thus, in Trump’s world the vulnerable immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and the Middle East are not people with universal human rights. And to what extent might this denial of humanity be extended to other groups? For example, Trump often refers to African Americans as “the blacks” as if they are some type of other whose full integration into the American system is somewhat suspect.

Arendt perceived the redemption of America as its pluralism, and, indeed, it is estimated that whites will become a minority within the United States by the mid twenty-first century. Perhaps in fear of this changing world, many white voters have rallied to Trump’s cause, and respect for diversity is dismissed as political correctness. As Arendt warned, a politician such as Trump employs lies and attacks any thought process that might produce a greater degree of empathy. Thus, Muslim Americans are demonized by the false charge that Trump watched Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the collapse of the twin towers on 9/11. Truth and thought are casualties of the politics pursued by Trump. Yet, his followers seem to embody the ordinariness of an Eichmann or other bureaucrats who implemented the Nazi policies.

This is not to say that Trump voters are Nazis, but the implications of Arendt’s writing about the rise of totalitarianism provide some disturbing thoughts about a society in which so many are eager to ignore suffering people and deny their common humanity. The ordering of a pizza after the film suddenly seems to be a banal exercise as we pursue our ordinary activities and ignore the pain of those around us. After viewing images from the Holocaust and thinking about refugees from Syria and migrants from Mexico and Central America fleeing for their lives and seeking to attain the basic necessities of life, the pizza has lost some of its flavor.    

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