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Hannah Arendt, Redux: The Enduring Power Of The Political Lie

Leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro don't just bend the truth. By using lies as a consistent political tool, they try to destroy it — as did the fascist regimes of the last century.

Philosopher Hannah Arendt has renewed relevance in the current political era.
Philosopher Hannah Arendt has renewed relevance in the current political era.
Federico Finchelstein

-Analysis-

BUENOS AIRES — How can people believe so much misinformation? How can a good portion of public in the United States back a rabble-rouser who puts lying at the very center of politics?

All politicians bend the truth, but Donald Trump —like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil or Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines — have marked themselves out as elected presidents with no qualms about lying systematically as a political tool.

This insanity provides us with another necessary excuse to study fascism, which wasn't simply one atrocious lie, but an assemblage of falsehoods that millions of people experienced and believed. The big question is why people would accept such lies.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and American President Donald Trump shakes hands. — Photo: Alan Santos/President Brazil/Planet Pix/ZUMA

That is precisely what thinkers like the German-born Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) tried hard to make sense of. Like many antifascists, Arendt sought to understand why so many viewed fascist ideology a form of truth. And it's to her ideas that we can turn again in this new era of rampant untruths, especially to understand why some would deny the effects of the COVID-19 crisis, or even the pandemic itself, which is what Trump and Bolsonaro do while urging people to take miracle remedies.

Arendt observed that fascism was an absolute lie, with horrendous political consequences.

Why doesn't Trump wear a face mask in public? Like many of their acolytes, some fascists were undoubtedly hypocrites and liars who thought of ideology as a propaganda tool. But in that case, how could the movement's paramount leaders and so many of their supporters follow the lies and propaganda to the bitter end, even dying for them? Who dies for a lie?

In 1945, Arendt observed that fascism was an absolute lie, with horrendous political consequences. The fascists deliberately transformed lies into reality, exploiting, she wrote, a 1,000-year Western prejudice, which they turned into a palpable reality.

The German-American philosopher and political theorist believed that reality is malleable. It can be remolded, unlike the truth. She saw no sense in arguing with fascists when their aim was to give their lies a "post-facto base in reality" and to destroy the truth, rather than just hide it.

Arendt believed that such a political ideology inexorably leads to the obliteration of reality as we know it. The fascist lie produced a fantasy reality, but her interpretation suggests that the destruction of the truth was impelled by a belief that fascist conceptions were actually a "higher" truth.

The Nazis did not distinguish between verifiable facts and ideologically biased "truths." The most radical consequences of a totalitarian dictatorship, she wrote, appeared when the mass leaders took power and began reshaping reality to fit their lies. Years later, in her controversial study of one of the planners of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann, Arendt revealed an essential aspect of the reasoning that despises plain facts. She observed that an entire society had come to think like Eichmann, shielding itself against reality and facts with similar mechanisms of self-deception, stupidity and enthusiasm for lies.

Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann (second from left) during his interrogation in Jerusalem. — Photo: DPA/ZUMA

She did, however, overlook an important dimension of Eichmann's trial in 1960, which was the victims' perspective on the truth. Her portrait of Eichmann also omits his profound ideological dedication and fanaticism. He was unrepentant, even jubilant before his execution, an attitude Arendt identifies as a moment of grotesque stupidity.

But also saw this attitude is stereotypical — as a "banal" aspect of evil — rather than indicative of adherence to a particular ideology. In fact, Eichmann's Nazi past and crimes were the result of a profound commitment to what he considered the essential, ideological truth of Nazism. Eichmann saw his life and death as a memory that went beyond the trajectory that took him to several cities and ended in Jerusalem.

Historians of fascism must likewise understand how fascists justified their lies, especially because doing so can help explain today's political lies. Why did the fascists, and today's "fascistic" caudillos like Trump and Bolsonaro, think their lies serve the truth or indeed, are the truth?

As Arendt showed us, the history of dictatorships is founded on lies. Their imagined universe could never be corroborated, being based on fantasies of total domination in the past and present. We see the same today, in efforts to negate or downplay the pandemic. And as with fascism, the consequences of such lies can be lethal.


*Finchelstein is an Argentine historian and professor at the New School for Social Research in New York.

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