I’m Ezra Klein. This is “The Ezra Klein Show.”
So much of what we imagine to be new is old. So many of the seemingly novel illnesses that afflict modern society are really just resurgent cancers, diagnosed and described long ago. That’s how Anne Applebaum, the Pulitzer Prize winning historian and journalist at The Atlantic, begins her introduction to a new edition of Hannah Arendt’s 1951 classic, “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” Why do people keep going back to this book? What is it about Arendt that matters, and that keeps mattering decade after decade? I think it’s this. Arendt was the master theorist of liberalism’s most fundamental blind spot, its inability to account for or even understand the appeal of its shadow, of illiberalism. And look around today, it’s still happening — look at Putin, look at Trump, look at Xi. Look at how deeply liberals underestimated all of them, and the appeal they would have and continue having, even when they failed the very movements they promised to help.
This is not a lesson that’s been learned. So Arendt is interested in what makes people and societies vulnerable to this kind of takeover, takeover by totalitarianisms in the moment she’s writing, but I’d also say in our moment to authoritarians, to demagogues, to con artists. And our diagnosis is fundamentally about the weaknesses of liberal societies, the way liberal, political and economic systems can paradoxically open the door to the figures they fear most, to the passions and yearnings they refuse to understand. Reading Arendt today can be a little disorienting, because some of — much of, in fact — what she writes is dated. It reads strangely. And then every so often, you tumble into these paragraphs or pages of this startling insight. It’s like watching a black and white T.V. that every once in a while flashes a hyper vivid picture of your own future across the screen. And so I wanted to have Applebaum on to talk about those moments of technicolor prescience, and what we can still learn from our Arendt today.
As always, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have guest suggestions, if you have reading or watching recommendations, if you just have feedback, shoot us an email.
Anne Applebaum, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me.
So what’s striking to me, reading “Origins of Totalitarianism” and Hannah Arendt today for this conversation, is how focused she is on what makes seemingly liberal societies vulnerable to totalitarian, or now maybe more authoritarian takeover, and how she sees liberalism itself as creating a lot of those vulnerabilities. So what does she see that liberals often miss?
I agree with you that that’s one of the most interesting things about her. And of course, what’s also interesting is that she was observing liberal societies of the 1940s, which we now are nostalgic about, and we imagined to be so much more solid and deep and rich than our own. She talks about loneliness in a way that’s important and unusual. And by loneliness, she means individuals who are cut off from other people. And so whether that’s through the intervention of dictators, whether it’s through — she talks about Stalin actually using the purges, using these periodic assaults on society as a way of creating fear between people and creating distance between people. But there are — of course, there are other sources of this kind of radical loneliness, and loneliness meeting people who are not connected to institutions. They’re not part of groups. They’re not part of churches. They’re not part of civic organizations.
And people who aren’t connected to other people in society, she believes, are much more liable to be persuaded by forms of totalitarian or autocratic propaganda. I think sometimes that her idea of human nature is a little over simple. I think people can do many things at once. They can be susceptible to propaganda in the morning, and they can think about something else in the afternoon, so they’re — sometimes it’s more complicated than that. There’s a quote from her, where she says what prepared men for totalitarian domination in the non totalitarian world is the act of loneliness, once a borderline experience — so once, something that only elderly people experienced — and now, it has become an everyday experience. And here, she’s talking about modernity, the way in which people move around more often than they did, the fact that people work in anonymous factories, and not at home or not in communities.
And of course, all of that is as bad today, if not worse, than it was then. Almost every form of modern technology, almost every economic change and every technological change, often has the impact of separating people even more from one another — even new forms of entertainment, where we watch movies by ourselves on Netflix, rather than in movie theaters. We consume the news not by watching newsreels all together, or by sharing conversation with our neighbors, but by looking at our telephones. The way in which technology and modernity increased separations between people, all of these things are what she sees as a prelude to what she calls totalitarianism, and we call other things.
So before jumping into this, I agree with you on her view of human nature. And I find this often when I read 20th century thought classics, for lack of a better term. You’ll be reading, and compared to what we impose on academics today, it’s a lot of thoughts, it’s a lot of speculating about how things may or may not be. And sometimes, you’ll read these passages of just startling insight, where you feel they’ve got into something that studies and empirics can’t get you to. And then for much of the rest of it, you’ll be reading along, thinking, well, that might be true. I mean, it’s an interesting argument, but how would one really, really know? And I certainly had that experience reading Arendt for this. But I think, like you do, that her description and discussion of loneliness is really quite important. And so I want to zoom in on that a bit. She says towards the end that what makes a society vulnerable to takeover is loneliness.
And she describes it, to use her definition, as “the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.” And that word, belonging, struck me as really rich. And I’d like to know how you understand it, because you mentioned civic institutions and ties. But it also seems to me she’s speaking in an almost metaphysical way, of belonging to a shared sense of meaning. Belonging to a story, feeling a place for yourself, whether that place is literal as in a church, or just conceptual, as in part of the narrative of your own country and the time in which you live.
Yes, I do think she’s pointing at something quite important, which is that human beings need to be in a narrative, as you said — we would now call it — or part of a community, as others would call it, part of a world where we share values with other people and we feel reinforced by that experience. The thing I think that we’ve learned in the last few years is that that experience and that narrative don’t even have to be real. So I think people are genuinely nostalgic for past institutions, or what they imagine past institutions to have been. So they’re nostalgic for small communities that they think they remember from when they grew up, when life was simpler and everyone believed more or less the same thing. They’re nostalgic for, I think, an experience of religion that doesn’t always exist anymore, you know, where everybody in a single community went to the same church and thus believed the same thing.
They’re nostalgic for those things, even if at the time — if you turned back the clock to the 1950s, which is, of course, as I said, when Arendt was writing, you might have discovered that the church where everyone believed thing ever the same thing was not that far away from a Black church, for example, where the community believed things that were very different, or felt things that were very different. So sometimes it’s imagined. And I think in the modern world, we now see that people are capable of being part of communities that exist only online. It’s a big change, technologically. I mean, maybe it’s not really a change in human nature, because the same thing took different forms earlier on. But I mean, QAnon is an excellent example of a community of belief.
Once you accept the basic premises of QAnon, you know, that there is a conspiracy, that American elites are involved in massive pedophilia scandals and complicated relationships with one another that involve abusing children, when you believe that there is a prophet out there named Q who’s going to tell you what happens in the future, and is going to shape reality for you — once you’re inside that world, you are constantly reinforced. So you join it. When you post things about it inside that community, people write back with enthusiastic acceptance and admiration. You read other people who believe the same kinds of things. You form a group that feels very strongly that all of this is true, and that you have — even more importantly, that you have access to special and secret information that most Americans don’t have. So you’re a community that has special knowledge. You’ve been gifted with this special access to a different reality.
And once you’re inside it, it’s extremely powerful. And it turns out that it’s more powerful than the real reality. And actually, Arendt anticipates this. She writes why propaganda is effective, because many people do not believe in anything visible in the reality of their own experience. They do not trust their eyes and ears, but only their imaginations. So it turns out this is a very old human property. It goes back a long way. Human beings have probably have always been like this. But in the modern world, it’s a feeling that can be evoked not by churches and priests, or by civic institutions and congregations and real life organizations, it can be evoked online. And that means it’s much easier to create these kinds of communities, and to give them that reinforcing power, because when people are surrounded all the time by the same images, the same messages, when they see them on their phones and their laptops and so on, it has the effect of seeming more real than what they can see out the window.
It’s really interesting the way that the digital world plays into this, because as you’re saying, it can be both a salve for loneliness, a place you can find community when you can’t find it elsewhere. And then, I think, on the other side, it can be a very sharp accelerant of loneliness. And it reminds me of some things that Arendt writes towards the end of the book. She writes that “loneliness is not solitude. Solitude requires being alone, whereas loneliness shows itself most sharply in company with others.” And she goes on to give this definition from Epictetus, the philosopher, who says that “the lonely man finds himself surrounded by others with whom he cannot establish contact, or to whose hostility he is exposed.”
And a description of loneliness as being surrounded by others with whom you cannot establish contact, or whose hostility you are exposed, actually strikes me as a very good description of what being online and being in social media often feels like for people. To the extent you establish contact, it’s not the kind of generative, nourishing contact you really want. And you’re constantly either exposed to hostility or on the knife’s edge of being exposed to it. And so what superficially looks like a way of coming out of loneliness, at least you’re there on Twitter with everybody, in fact is a more intense experience of it.
I think that’s right. The experience of watching things online or communicating online with people who then don’t exist when you put your phone down, or shut your laptop, can be profoundly alienating. You’re deeply absorbed in something that — you immediately have a contrast with the real. So there is this kind of double edged aspect of online life, that on the one hand, the more you’re absorbed in it, the more you’re cut off from real people and real experiences. On the other hand, the more you’re cut off from real people and real experiences, the more attractive a QAnon like community would be, because it seems to offer a substitute for those things that you’re missing. So I think that the experience of being online — it’s not just social media, it’s also other forms of communicating, and being, and watching, and being entertained online — I think the more you’re absorbed in it, the more cut off are, and the more liable you are to find attractive something very different.
I want to bridge to then how this kind of loneliness becomes a vulnerability for societies in the face of authoritarian or totalitarian challenge. I think we’ve all observed that there’s something here that is connected. I was thinking while I read all this that some of the older people in my life who have drifted right, or when I go and report with right wing thinkers who have become much more radicalized in recent years — something I hear again and again is that sense of non belonging, this feeling the world has changed too much for them to find a place in it, or that its mores have changed in a way where they feel like people are hostile to them and what they think. So there’s some connection there. But how do you understand the actual vulnerability? Why does loneliness like that create fertile ground for much more dangerous political movements to take hold? Draw the final mile of this for me.
So first of all, the phenomenon that I just described, which is the phenomenon of people being easily attracted to conspiratorial or radical movements that have a coherent ideology, and that are accessible online, and that seem to solve the problem of loneliness — because if you’re part of one of those movements or groups, then you feel connected to people in a way that you normally don’t. The movements offer that kind of belonging. And I think, also, the real life version of them offers that. Just to take an example, I mean, if you are in a white supremacist movement, you have actual meetings. You do military training together. You have projects that you do on the weekends. You plan things together. You map out a future. You know, you’re part of a group that has a project, and you’re hooked into that project in a way that you might not have found in other forms of your community.
A few years back, I wrote about a political party called Jobbik in Hungary, which was actually, before Fidesz, before the sort of main center right party in Hungary became more autocratic, which it is now, Jobbik kind of led the way. And what Jobbik started out with — what it started as, rather — was as a paramilitary organization. It literally just organized marching events for men on the weekends. And it was very, very successful in rural parts of Hungary where there wasn’t anything else to do. Jobbik created this sense of belonging. There was a group activity people could do together, and that offered entertainment and connection and bonding in a way that ordinary movements didn’t. I mean, there’s another aspect to this, which is a little bit separate, which is another thing that these movements often do successfully, is they attack and undermine existing morality. So they mock and make fun of not just the current political setup, but you know, the morals of normal people. They set themselves up as something outside of normal morality.
And that means they admire different things. So they admire violence, or they admire power in an old fashioned form, or they admire old fashioned kinds of hierarchies, male-female hierarchies or racial hierarchies that are now taboo. And they offer people the chance to break taboos, and once again, be in some kind of special and enlightened community. And as Arendt tells us, that’s really nothing new. The phenomenon of wanting to break with the bounds that normally hold us, the bourgeois rules of behavior and values, and wanting to be outside of those things, this is something that those kinds of movements can also offer people. So it’s a community outside of normal communities. It’s not just an ordinary church group or an ordinary — I don’t know, some kind of charitable organization. This is a community that breaks the rules, exists outside of institutions, and offers you a full experience of entertainment, connection, comradeship, that almost nothing else can.
I think her description of what that kind of rule breaking, that gleeful defiance of normal ideas of morality and virtue offer people in these movements was absolutely my favorite part of the book. And I want to read a quote from her on this. She writes, “Since the bourgeoisie claimed to be the guardian of Western traditions and confounded all moral issues by parading publicly virtues which it not only did not possess in private and business life, but actually held in contempt, it seemed revolutionary to admit cruelty, disregard of human values, and general amorality, because this at least destroyed the duplicity upon which the existing society seemed to rest.”
And I read that, and I thought it was the single best description of how a lot of people I know on the right, who believed totally different things about how you should comport yourself in public a couple of years before, ended up responding to Trump — that yes, he is cruel and bullying and vulgar and unkind. But you know what? It just shows. It just goes to show how sick our society has become that we needed someone like that. And they began to take an almost delight in it. He’s our fighter. Arendt’s sense of this seems to me to be very, very perceptive.
There are a couple of things I liked about that also. One was that she quotes that in the context of also explaining why so many elites have gone along with these new ideas and movements in that time. And she talks about this alliance between the elite and the mob, which is an unfortunate word, but she has a specific meaning for it — but elite and the mob rested largely on the genuine delight with which the former watched the latter destroy respectability. So people who are in the elite but suspect the elite of being duplicitous or being hypocritical, or of not living up to its own morality, or being corrupt, then see anybody who breaks up those things as somebody who has to be applauded. And I think the more corrupt the society, or the more people sense it to be corrupt, the more you get this phenomenon.
I mean, modern Washington, with its lobbyists, with its really ridiculous rules about money — I have European friends who come to America. And when they learn how the American political system works, and how important money is for congressional campaigns or senatorial campaigns, they’re often really shocked by it. And once people understand how corrupt, how dark money works, how lobbyists work, once they understand that, they can often feel so much disgust for the system that they think, well, you know, anybody who wants to smash that is right. And that was why Trump’s language about destroying the swamp was so successful, because people intuitively believed it was a swamp. They saw that there were things wrong with it. But rather than trying to reform those things, which sometimes can seem unreformable, they came to the conclusion that they should be broken altogether. And never mind that Trump was the swampiest creature in America. I mean, he ran the White House as if it were an adjunct to his private business, which is something that has never been done before in American history, at least not at that scale. But that didn’t bother his followers, because they thought, well, he’s simply doing in public and openly things that were done privately in the past.
I remember having a conversation — must have been about 2017 or 2018. I was in Texas, and I sat next to some people at a dinner. And they were pro-Trump, and we started talking about that. And I asked them, you know, aren’t they bothered by Trump’s corruption? They said exactly that. No, he’s just doing in public what everybody did in private. And although, of course, that’s not true — Obama was not running a business out of the White House, and George W. Bush was not running a business out of the White House — the impression that Washington is somehow corrupt was so deep and so broad that Trump was seen as just a smarter guy who was doing it openly. So I think the impression that the system needs to be smashed, that the hypocrisy needs to be exposed and that anybody who does that is good, even if they’re offering a completely different set of values, is clearly something, again, that’s very powerful, a powerful human phenomenon that we have now, and we also had in the 1930s.
So there’s corruption, which we’ve been talking about — dark money and running businesses, and enriching yourself — but there’s also something else in that Arendt quote about virtue. To use it again, she says, “The bourgeoisie claimed to be the guardian of Western traditions, and confounded all moral issues by parading publicly virtues, which it not only did not possess in private and business life, but actually held in contempt.”
I’ve been doing this series for the show on the populist right, and so I’ve been spending a lot of time in what people on the populist right have been writing. And I’m really struck by the potency of this exact thing, this feeling that society’s current elites — like, what they like to call often, like, the managerial class, or liberals, or whoever it might be — that they’re out there telling you, you’re racist, you’re sexist, you’re bigoted, you’re backwards, you’re deplorable.
And there they are, taking millions of dollars from Goldman Sachs and jet setting all around the world, and telling you how bad climate change is while they fly in their private jets and have their big mansions. And you know, you can poke holes in this, but there is something, I think, to the power at least of this feeling, the power of what it feels like to believe that you’re being judged morally suspect by people who are themselves morally suspect, but simply control the mechanisms by which virtue is assigned.
And that — out of that comes a real desire for somebody who says, screw those mechanisms, screw who decides whether or not you’re virtuous, or kind, or good. I’m going to break this whole thing wide open.
One of the things I dislike deeply about the populist right in America and elsewhere is that it conflates a lot of things. I mean, it’s not necessarily the same people who are accusing people of being racist and sexist — that’s not necessarily the same people who are advocating for climate change policy, and it’s not necessarily the same people who are doing other things that. They tend to talk about an amorphous class, or an elite, which in fact they’re often part of.
The loudest populists in America at the moment are all graduates of Ivy League schools, or most of them are. So they try to create the image of an amorphous elite that has all these properties and qualities, and is hypocritical and does all these bad things —
You don’t find Peter Thiel to be an authentic tribune of the working class?
Peter Thiel, Laura Ingraham, graduate of Dartmouth, JD Vance, graduate of Yale Law School. They’re all from the same elite, but they’re one part of the elite turning against another part of the elite. But some of that is it’s a fake elite. I mean, it’s not consistent. I mean, the thing they’re pointing to doesn’t have any consistency. It’s not one group of people. You find this when people talk about, oh, the mainstream media said x or y.
I mean, what’s the mainstream media? Something might have been in The New York Times, but it might have been denied by The Washington Post, or it might have been in Politico, but not on NBC News. And to say the mainstream media thinks or does x or y is almost always wrong. And so it’s a way of robbing the story of nuance. And whenever you rob it of nuance, you make it much easier to attack. And it’s a little bit like that with attacking the elites.
This gets to something that is also big in Arendt’s thought, which is this interesting intersection of cynicism and gullibility, which I think are two conditions people often think of in tension with each other, right? If you’re cynical, you can’t be gullible. If you’re gullible, you’re definitely not cynical. But her argument is that they play off of each other. They coexist in a way that’s really important to these movements. Can you talk a bit about that?
Well, cynicism, which is very close to nihilism and very close to apathy, are emotions that are often deliberately created by autocrats. For example, it is the policy of Putin’s Kremlin, of his propaganda, to make Russians apathetic. And how is that done? That’s done by offering them contradictory and sometimes ridiculous pieces of information that don’t make sense.
The best example, famous example of this, was after the crash of MH17, the Malaysian plane that crashed in Ukraine in 2014 that was shot down accidentally by Russian soldiers, the state came out with completely different explanations. And sometimes, even the same television presenter would give one explanation and then a different explanation an hour later. And this kind of multiplication of explanations meant that people were totally disoriented. They said, we have no idea what happened, and we can never know.
I actually saw a kind of man on the street interviews that were done in Moscow a few days later. And people’s attitude was, we have no idea. Well, it’s impossible to find out, and so — and I think that was an attempt to create cynicism and create nihilism, and also to work on people’s gullibility. So the idea is that people who feel less oriented, or they feel unable to be certain, you know, what the truth is, you offer them many different explanations, and they then become cynical.
So both of them come from the same thing, which is the fear that they can’t know something, or the impression that it’s impossible to know something. And as I said, they’re useful to autocratic regimes or to authoritarian movements because they lead people to feel that they’re powerless. If you don’t know what happened and you feel that you can never know what happened, then how can you do anything about it? And so I think these are sort of parallel and related feelings.
You know, I’ll accept anything, but I’m at the same time skeptical of everything. Alongside loneliness, this is a kind of precondition for autocracy.
And this gets to the famous Arendt quote, that this mindset is everything was possible and nothing was true, which now is applied very often to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. There’s a great book by Peter Pomerantsev that takes its title from that quote. But I think there’s something here too about liberalism, and the way it is offended or disbelieving of this mindset, that it thinks people would be themselves repelled by this way of looking at the world.
I think of this a little bit as the fact checker’s fallacy, that if you can prove, or think you can prove, that somebody who claims to tell the truth is lying, that you will deeply damage their relationship with those who trust them.
And we’ve seen over and over again that’s not really true, but I think it gets to something in Arendt’s thought that once people hit a certain level of cynicism, not only do they not care if their leaders are lying, they think lying is how the game is done.
And so to lie well, and to lie effectively, is actually part of proving that you can be the leader of this movement, that you can survive in this dog-eat-dog world, you know, where the institutions are all controlled by a cabal of your enemies. But it really reverses, I think, a lot of the rules under which more traditional liberal politicians like to think politics, but also voters, operate.
It’s funny. Those rules are modern rules. our assumption that people are reasonable, and that you can win any argument through rational argument — Tony Blair used to say have this thing, if I could just get two people in the room at the same time and get them talking to one another, they would agree. I could come up with a compromise. Bill Clinton had that as well, this belief that you could solve problems through rational conversation and discussion.
Actually, the founders of the United States of America, the people who wrote the Constitution, didn’t believe that. They were much more skeptical about human nature. While they were writing the Constitution, many of them were talking about and reading histories of ancient Rome and especially the Roman Republic. And they were actively worried about a Caesar coming to power. And there’s the famous Alexander Hamilton quote about, you know, someday a demagogue will come to power and people will fall in behind him. And they’ll gullibly believe whatever it is that he says.
And some of the even more irrational elements of the American Constitution, the ones that don’t work so well now, like the Electoral College, some of them come from the Founding Fathers’ attempt to head off that problem. And that was — well, that was what the original idea was, even if it doesn’t work that way anymore. So really, what we’re talking about is a modern form of liberalism, which became idealized.
I reckon that this is due to the success of the United States since the Second World War. So we became a society that was the richest, the most prosperous, the most powerful, the most culturally attractive society in the world. And we simply were that way for many decades. And that gave us the assumption that we’ve found the solution, we found the best of all possible worlds. Within this system, everything can be resolved reasonably, and there aren’t any challenges to it that are serious.
And we forgot that there is another side of human nature, described — that the Founding Fathers knew perfectly well, and that other liberal societies in the past were very wary of, and that Hannah Arendt described so beautifully in this book, as did others, which is that there are other impulses in human natures. There’s an attraction to the irrational. There is a desire to smash whatever the existing system is, that we’ve just talked about.
All of those things, I think, were forgotten by 20th and 21st century liberals. And it’s worth now remembering them.
I think that point, that a lot of the premises by which politics is understood or looked at today, are relatively modern. And another one Arendt takes aim at, that I want to get to before trying to wrap this into one theory, is the idea that politics is about self-interest. At one point, she calls it supposedly the most powerful force in politics. And that dominates a lot of normal political thinking, certainly in the United States.
It’s certainly somewhat behind the idea of imposing these sanctions on Russia, that if you can just make people feel their leaders are not doing the work of making their material position better, they will abandon those leaders. And I think Arendt’s view is that self-interest is much weaker than people think, and people are willing to sacrifice quite a lot of material gain to be part of these larger movements. How do you understand that tension?
So I think this is a really profound insight. And it’s not really an insight about liberalism, per se. It’s an insight into something else, which is economism, which is a word that’s used to talk about one of the directions that liberalism went in the 20th century, but especially after the Second World War, in which — the idea was that all of politics is really about prosperity and wealth. So it’s not quite self interest, it’s about making people wealthier.
And actually, our politics in the last several decades, up until a few years ago, were divided that way. We were divided into a party that wanted a smaller state and a party that wanted a bigger state, one party that wanted more welfare spending, one wanted less. But these were all arguments about economic well-being, one way or the other. And one of the insights, not just of populists — but one of the insights, for example, of George Orwell, was that often those arguments can become trivial to people, or unimportant.
Orwell wrote a famous essay in — I think it was published in 1941. It was at the time that “Mein Kampf,” Hitler’s book, was published in Great Britain. And he did a very short review, which is worth reading, in which he describes the book and so on. And then he says at the end, the thing about this horrible book is that I also see its appeal. So here we are in Great Britain — and he was a socialist, of course, and we’re all worried about things like hygiene and water quality, and access to birth control, which was an issue at that time.
And he’s offering people something completely different. And the expression he uses is guns, flags and loyalty parades. So he’s offering people a way of being part of a spectacle. And the rest of us are over here arguing about things that can often seem trivial. And it is, of course, not necessary for liberalism to be about for futile things, or for those to be the main political arguments. But in recent years, they often have been.
I mean, in a way, the height of this was really the era of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. They were both excellent leaders. They were both excellent speakers. And they were both policy wonks who absolutely believed that if they could just get people in the same room and have them talk to one another, they would soon see the light, and rational conversation would solve all problems, and what people really wanted was better policies to deliver better things.
And that worked for a while, until it didn’t. And the insight of Orwell, and the insight of a number of autocrats, and the insight of some — in other parts of the political spectrum, too, actually, I might even include Bernie Sanders in this — is that people also sometimes want something more. They want to be part of a movement. They want to be part of a big change. They want to be on the cutting edge. They want to be marching in the parade. And when liberalism shrinks to being only about economics, that’s what can happen.
You know what this reminds me of, is Donald Trump’s contempt, very, very often stated, for the other politicians, whose rallies are not very well attended, or who don’t do that many rallies. He had this towards Hillary Clinton. He very much had it towards Joe Biden. And it’s something that I think a lot of his political opponents laughed at a bit, his tendency to overstate the importance of his rallies, his preference to thinking about them rather than, say, polling, where he maybe was behind.
But I think from this perspective, this might reflect Trump understanding something that still is important in politics, which is that to really have a kind of vibrancy, a movement requires that feeding of the communal soul or mass. And that when he understood that he had it and his opponents didn’t, that maybe doesn’t mean he’ll win, or he’s got everything, or he’s widely popular, but he’s right that he has something important that they don’t.
When he understood there to be an enthusiasm gap, that he was seeing something there that was too often derided by those who didn’t want to see the importance that might have carried.
It’s not just enthusiasm. It’s the sense of being part of some sweeping change. I mean, I actually think this was something that Barack Obama had.
Particularly during his first campaign, the sense that there was a movement sweeping the country, and that it was hope and change, and that it was going to make things different, I think people wanted to be part of that, even people who didn’t agree with everything that he said or thought. The Republican Party understood that, which is why they became so dedicated to stopping him in any way they could, using whatever tactics were possible, because they saw exactly how powerful that kind of feeling is and can be.
I don’t think all politicians have to be that. And also, there are other moments in history you can see where people get sick of that. I mean, there’s a way in which sometimes people, after the experience of a very charismatic president or a very charismatic leader in powerful a long time, they just want someone who can pick up the pieces and make the trains run on time and pay people’s salaries. So it’s not something that people universally want, and they don’t always want it.
But they do sometimes want it. And they especially want it in periods when politics has become very technocratic, and very boring, and very focused on policy. And then, people begin to feel the need for something bigger.
Yeah, I think it’s correct to understand this as an ache and a desire more than an always winning strategy in politics. And that’s always something that Obama worried about. I mean, they — he became very concerned this would become a liability for them. But I do think it’s something that Arendt gets at in an interesting way. And I want to generalize it to something she’s saying here, and this goes to this point about self-interest in politics, which is that people communicate on many levels aside from the literal.
That’s true for what they’re saying, and its truth value. It’s true for what politics is supposed to be about, right, not just self-interest, but a story. Something that I really read in her, and that I’ve seen in a lot of studies of anti liberal thinkers, is this sense that people need myths and spirit and stories and communion and narrative to thrive, not just for politics to work, but for them to thrive. And that — I see Arendt as identifying this as something that liberalism, when it is in its governing mode, begins to lose.
That, as you say, it becomes about technocratic governance. And if at one point it had these big stories, and I think you’re right to note, say, a Barack Obama as somebody who told these stories, but also liberalism in its post-war period as an answer to two devastating wars has thrilling dimensions to it. But when it moves into the governance mode, it not only doesn’t really communicate on these levels, but begins to be condescending to the idea that one would communicate on these levels.
And people who prefer a religious way of understanding the world often feel this, but I also just think in general, there’s a tendency to miss the importance of myth in politics.
I mean, I absolutely agree with you. The importance of myth, the importance of feeling of unity, the importance of history and giving people a version of history that is reinforcing as well as just merely educating, all those things are really important. A really interesting example of this is with us right now. And we see it in the popularity, the incredible popularity, actually, of the Ukrainian president in the rest of the world, and especially in the democratic world.
Why is Zelensky so popular — because he’s seen as somebody who is speaking for and defending a liberal society, one which is profoundly tolerant, in which people can speak more than one language, and they can have different religions, and they believe in freedom and the rule of law. And yet, he’s doing it with a military campaign, and in this vigorous and extremely brave way.
The sight of that is what’s inspiring these mass marches around the world, and the fact that everybody wants Ukrainian flags hanging from their flag poles, or stuck onto their Twitter accounts. It’s the appeal of that liberalism, but liberalism with this kind of muscular bravado attached to it that people miss and that they admire in Ukraine right now.
But also liberalism under threat, or liberalism attached to a mission — I think Zelensky, for the remarkable nature of his leadership in this period, is a really interesting example of this, because I’ve been trying to go back and read political analysis and reporting in Ukraine the last couple of years. And it’s so striking coming from where I’m coming from, which is this moment, to read Zelenskyy framed as a compromiser, as kind of uninspiring, as somebody who people feel is going to be too diplomatic or too submissive to Russia.
There are all these pieces just of a kind of exhaustion, a frustration that, you know, the revolutions have amounted to only this. And then Russia actually invades, and Zelensky becomes this world historic figure. But the fact that these two periods could exist in one man, I think, speaks to something that’s really profound here, which is that — and one reason that totalitarians so often, and authoritarians so often actually do launch wars, which is that it is hard to sustain the inspiration that comes from life or death stakes without life or death stakes. And so either they are imposed upon you, or sometimes they are chosen — this is a big point in Arendt’s work, that totalitarians often create the world they tell people is inevitable. But that there’s something about the difficulty of sustaining this in times of normalcy that leads people to crave abnormalcy. To use the famous Chris Hedges book title, war is a force that gives us meaning.
I think, unfortunately, that’s absolutely true, and that’s also something very fundamental about human nature. Arendt writes at one point about the totalitarian — I think she’s talking specifically about the Nazis, actually — she talks about them in the 1930s, artificially creating civil war conditions. In other words, they sought to increase the feeling of violence so that people would feel more safe inside their movement than outside it, but also to create exactly what you said, which is this life or death stakes.
There was a moment when the Trump administration sought to do that too, I think, when they sent DHS police, or whatever they were — they were sort of armed men from different parts of the Border Guards and the Coast Guard, and so on, when they sent them to Portland, Oregon to fight with protesters. It was a classic piece of the authoritarian playbook, because it created scenes of violence in which the state was pushing back against what was shown as crazy radicals to Trump supporters.
And it was exactly an attempt to create that sense of threat. You know, we are threatened by these protests, and we are pushing back with power and strength. So unfortunately, that is something that has a deep appeal to people, the sense that we are fighting something that threatens our very security and our safety, and we need to band together to do that. And that’s something that simply motivates people more than anything else.
And to use a more modern example, too, I mean, this has very much been Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric on Ukraine all along.
Absolutely. I mean, this is one of the reasons for his war in Ukraine. He needs to create the sense that an outsider is threatening Russia in order to justify his rule, so he’s somebody who is profoundly corrupt, and is known to be corrupt, and who runs a very unfair and unequal society, and one that has actually been getting poorer in recent years, which he also knows.
And so what has he sought to do? He sought to create an enemy, and the enemy is a combination of Europe, which is degenerate and threatening our values, and America, which is violent and is prepared to attack us. And then Ukraine, which is a kind of proxy for both of those things — you know, Ukraine, he describes Ukraine as a fake state, and we need to attack this state, because Ukraine is the symbol of this degeneracy and this violence that are coming from outside.
And absolutely, he’s created this war as a part of his attempt to stay in power, and as a way of crushing what remains of the pro-democracy movement, and essentially, anti-Putin movement inside his country. He’s trying to create a rally around the flag sentiment and a feeling of unity in the face of this war. Another question is, can it work? I mean, it looked initially like it might work, but I wonder whether as the costs grow higher, and as he starts losing, whether it will succeed. But that’s another issue.
Well, I do think a relevant one — not necessarily to predict the course of the war, but there’s been a line of commentary and analysis, which is argued something like, Vladimir Putin, geostrategically, was afraid of NATO, had always said it would be a real problem if Ukraine joined NATO, and launched this war, on some level, on those grounds. And look what he got. He strengthened NATO, he brought Europe closer together. He has expanded the number of countries who want to, and might join NATO.
So it has all backfired on him.
But I do think another way of looking at it, from this more Arendtian perspective, is that Putin needs, wants, the foil of NATO. And actually, making NATO into more of an anti-Russian force, in some ways, backs up his narratives — actually making the West more directly contributing, or even driving the decline in Russian living standards, the impoverishment of Russia. Actually, making the West more anti-Russian fits his narrative.
And so on the one hand, if you take him geostrategically, this is all a profound failure. If you take him narratively, in some ways, it’s not. He has created something much closer to the world he has told Russians they are living in, and the world he has told them he is the only answer to.
Yes, I mean, I always thought that his creation of NATO as a big enemy was always fake. I mean, he knew it was fake. The Kremlin knew it was fake. NATO has not been capable of attacking Russia in many years. Until 2014, there weren’t even any American or Western — other Western European troops in the Eastern native states, so yes, it was always fake in that sense. It was always designed for internal consumption.
Unfortunately, some Westerners rather gullibly believed it — while we’re on the subject of gullibility. But yeah, no, I take your point, that reinforcing NATO, and even provoking NATO to be involved, might help him rhetorically. I do wonder whether Russians are — have been prepared for the sacrifice this time, and not just the economic sacrifice, but the sacrifice of young men, mostly, that this is going to entail. I mean, there’s an oddity in Russia, which is that it’s very strange, really, that Putin has not told the Russians yet that they’re at war.
He’s still describing this as a special military operation. He’s still not explaining to people what’s happening. He’s barely acknowledging that there have been any losses. And that leads me to believe that there’s still some ambivalence. I mean, I think they believed the war would be over very fast, so they didn’t expect this circumstance. So I’m not sure that saying this is exactly what he wanted is exactly correct.
I think that gets to, in some ways, the liberal counterargument to a lot of this, which is that eventually stories run out and reality takes hold, that you can tell people an alternative story for some time, and they’ll believe it for some time, but the more that they actually have to live under it, which is different than when you’re simply an opposition movement or a conspiracy theory — the more they actually have to live under the consequences of your story, the more something else actually takes hold.
And over time, the consequences for their lives become if not dominant, at least relevant.
Yeah, so I mean, reality can undermine and change that kind of narrative. I mean, that’s actually — that is how the Soviet Union fell. The Soviet Union had this very consistent and actually inspiring narrative, one that was much more inspiring than what Putin offers people, about international brotherhood and peace, and so on. And of course, it was hypocritical. And of course, it wasn’t true. And for a lot of people who lived inside that system, it still had a deep appeal.
The problem with it was is that it also had an economic narrative that said, and we are getting richer and richer, and the West is getting poorer and poorer, and we are getting closer and closer to communist utopia every day. And people could — all people had to do is walk outside and look around themselves, and walk into an empty shop. And they understood that it wasn’t true.
And so communism essentially fell because the narrative no longer worked. And it didn’t work for ordinary people, and it didn’t work for the elites. Nobody wanted to defend it anymore. And so when the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union could have invaded and protected East Berlin. And they talked about doing that, but nobody had the conviction anymore that would work, or that it was a good idea. I mean, it’s as if the idea failed, and from the failure of the idea, all these other consequences followed.
So yes, it’s profoundly true that reality can contradict a propaganda narrative, although the Soviet Union was around for a long time. It can take a long time for that to happen.
The good news, in a way, is that Arendt was wrong in her time. So she envisions that the post-war world is going to be even darker. But instead, we get European integration. We get the rise of social democracies. Liberalism does triumph over communism. So to be more optimistic here towards the end, what did Arendt miss? What did her analysis of the strength of totalitarian movements and the weakness of liberal democracies get wrong?
It’s funny. When I reread Arendt, I wrote an introduction to the recent edition of Arendt, as you know. And when I reread it, while working on that introduction, that was my first reaction — was this is so pessimistic, and it’s so dark. And she foresaw so many awful things happening that didn’t happen. And why not? And my guess is that she underestimated the creativity of Western societies, of Western democracies, and American democracy.
She and a lot of other similar intellectuals had a lot of disdain, for example, for Hollywood, and for American entertainment and American popular culture. And they miss some of the good aspects of it, you know, the power of it, the storytelling ability, the strength that — she missed the way in which democratic societies would be so much more innovative economically, but also kind of sociologically, that problems would be solved in ways that they couldn’t be solved in autocracies.
And the way in which Western economies and societies simply became so much more sophisticated than totalitarian dictatorships, and they became able to solve problems that the dictatorships themselves barely could even know existed — all of that, I think, she just underestimated. Coming from 1930s Germany, she saw America in a much darker way than I think she should have done.
And in that same preface, though, you write something that is a little bit more pessimistic, which is that the origins of totalitarianism forces us to ask not only why Arendt was too pessimistic in 1950, but also whether some of her pessimism might be more warranted now. So why do you think it might be more warranted now, that the world we’re in might be better described by her than the world she was in?
Partly because we’ve lost some of that ability to innovate. I don’t mean in terms of technology, I mean in terms of politics and bureaucracy and political change. We see it seems so hard to fix anything now, in a way that it wouldn’t have seemed so hard in the 1940s. I also do believe that social media, as we discussed at the beginning of this conversation, has created new divisions between people that are much harder to surmount.
And the mere fact that people don’t disagree anymore just about their opinions, but they disagree about what happened yesterday. And we can’t agree on our problem. And if we can’t define the problem, then we can’t solve it. I mean, this is the problem that the Soviet Union had. I mean, there was so much lying and so much dishonesty that they couldn’t analyze what was wrong with their society. And I worry that we can’t analyze what’s wrong with ours for different reasons, because we live in a different echo chambers, and they don’t intersect.
So I worry a lot about something that Jonathan Rauch has described as the sort of breakdown of what he calls the constitution of knowledge, the way in which we are able to know things, and then by knowing them, advance our knowledge. I worry that she intuited some of that in the ‘40s, and then it was fixed in postwar America in ways she didn’t anticipate. And I worry that some of those systems, whether it’s universities or the news media, or other ways of knowing things — whether those things aren’t breaking down now.
I almost think of that as a quite optimistic way of thinking about the problem in liberalism, which is — to sum up our conversation here, one way of looking at it is that these external challenging movements are able to tell these world historic, almost mythic stories. And because they’re not bound in any way by truth, because they’re not bound by what they can deliver, they can say almost anything, and that liberalism somehow needs to come up with a counter story.
But you’re actually suggesting, I think, something different and more plausible, which is that liberalism and liberal democracies and governments need to do what they actually do well, which is govern — that while it is true that self-interest, even broadly described, is not all of what politics is about, and certainly not material self-interest, it still does matter. And being able to deliver on that, and being able to govern effectively, is one of the better ways you might have of keeping some of these contrary movements at bay.
Historically, it’s one of the answers that people have given. A few months ago, I spent some time looking at how civil wars are resolved, and civil conflict. And I got very wrapped up in Northern Ireland for a variety of reasons. You know, it wasn’t a full war. It was just a civil dispute. And how did communities eventually reconcile themselves to living next door to one another, who had incompatible views of the state, they lived in — some believed it should be Ireland, some believed it should be Britain.
And that was not a resolvable conflict. I mean, or not easily resolvable. And one of the answers was these various community projects were created, and so people could argue about where the community center was going to be located, and what it would do, or where the bridge would be built, and which neighborhoods would be affected by the new road works. And people could disagree about those things, but at least they wouldn’t kill each other about them, because there were arguments that people can have that are not existential.
So a lot of effort was made in Northern Ireland — and this is also something that was tried in other post-civil war, post-conflict zones, where they try to get people to talk about practical solutions that don’t have existential answers. You don’t have to kill your opponent to solve them. I thought for a long time that was one of the answers in the United States, although, I heard a — I had a very depressing conversation a few days ago with somebody who works in the Biden White House, who was talking about the new infrastructure bill.
And he said, you know, everybody criticizes us for not talking enough about it. These are concrete, practical solutions to things that people say they care about, like the bridge falling down, or the road having potholes. And we are going around the country, and we’re making announcements about investments, and nobody appears to be interested.
I worry that Americans, especially in the area of national politics, are so caught up in the culture wars, and in these — as I said, these existential arguments — that it’s very hard even to get people interested in the business of governing, or the business of building.
And that’s a very dangerous moment. It’s certainly — as I say, it’s a traditional argument. It’s what many people have argued for years would be a way to solve these kinds of conflicts. But can that still work in a time when people aren’t even focused on the outer world? They’re just focused on online, or theoretical conflicts between narratives.
I do think there are a couple of interesting questions there. One is, in a nationalized media world, you just get a lot less attention to what’s fundamentally a local or regional story about an investment in the highways, or train lines, or something. But on the other hand, I wonder if that was ever such a big point of public attention, but what was maybe different was things got built. I am, compared to some other people on this, I’m skeptical that you get credit for infrastructure you’re building.
I think you might get credit for infrastructure you’ve built, and that’s particularly new things. So I know a lot of the infrastructure bill, in part because it is hard to deliver on new infrastructure because of how much difficulty we have in this country building things quickly, on budget and on time, went into repair. But I think you don’t get probably that much credit for repair. And on the other hand, things that should have been signature projects, say, California High-Speed Rail, don’t really happen, or they’re very, very hard to make happen, because of all the difficulties, we have building.
So I think there’s a bit of a tension between the trying to use modest infrastructure projects as an answer to the fact that the federal government is having a lot of trouble doing very big things, and at the same time wanting credit for the federal government actually doing things, which comes when people see big, headline things happening, I think, not so much when their roads get a little bit better, and the bridge is reinforced in a way they don’t understand.
Maybe. I mean, that would be one explanation. It’s more satisfying explanation than it’s because people are caught up in online conflicts that they care more about. I mean, it’s certainly true in the U.S. that local and even state level politics are often better than national politics for exactly this reason, because local politics is often about concrete and particular things, and not about, as I said, existential conflicts that have no solution.
That might deteriorate as national level arguments penetrate lower. But generally speaking, politics are better when they’re about things that people can see and touch, rather than celebrities arguing on television.
I think that’s a good place to come to a close. So always, our final question, what are three books you’d recommend to the audience?
Number one is a book that just won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s called “Cuba: An American History,” by Ada Ferrer. And what I really liked about it was that it’s not a right wing or left wing story of Cuba, it’s about Cuba, and its intimate and very complicated relationship with the United States. And it’s full of things you haven’t thought about it. Cuba was a slave state past the time when America was, and so it became a place that was where former secessionist Jefferson Davis went on holiday.
It played all kinds of roles in American history, and vice versa, and it’s very worth reading.
I would also recommend a novel called “The Lincoln Highway” by Amor Towles, which is a really amazing piece of Americana. It’s a story that doesn’t bear — I can’t sum it up for you, but it gives you many different perspectives on America of the 1950s, from very many different kinds of people. And it’s told in a way that’s un-putdownable — slow start, but then un-putdownable. And then I would say the third thing I recommend is Hannah Arendt’s “Origins of Totalitarianism,” if you haven’t read it. It’s a very long book. You don’t have to read all of it, but the sections in the second part that focus on mass movements and propaganda and dictatorship, you’ll find them revelatory, because they sound so much like things that are happening today, as we’ve just discussed.
Anne Applebaum, thank you very much.
Thank you. [MUSIC]
“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Annie Galvin, Jeff Geld and Roge Karma. Fact checking by Michelle Harris, Rollin Hu, Mary Marge Locker and Kate Sinclair. Original music by Isaac Jones, mixing by Jeff Geld. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi. Special thanks to Kristin Lin and Kristina Samulewski.