Two of the most monstrous regimes in human history came to power in the twentieth century, and both were predicated upon the violation and despoiling of truth, upon the knowledge that cynicism and weariness and fear can make people susceptible to the lies and false promises of leaders bent on unconditional power. As Hannah Arendt wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, “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 (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.” What’s alarming to the contemporary reader is that Arendt’s words increasingly sound less like a dispatch from another century than a chilling mirror of the political and cultural landscape we inhabit today—a world in which fake news and lies are pumped out in industrial volume by Russian troll factories, emitted in an endless stream from the mouth and Twitter feed of the president of the United States, and sent flying across the world through social media accounts at lightning speed. Nationalism, tribalism, dislocation, fears of social change, and the hatred of outsiders are on the rise again as people, locked in their partisan silos and filter bubbles, are losing a sense of shared reality and the ability to communicate across social and sectarian lines.
Has anyone of you ever attended a Trump rally? If you have, or have not, you can read about them here and here and here and at any number of other uTube and internet sites.
What interests me is who are the people who attend the rallies? They’re Americans, helas, but Americans for whom, in the words of Michiko Kakutani, “the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist. And if ever these people were to become a majority in our country we would surely lose our freedom no less than did the Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, who was brutally murdered on the orders of his Crown Prince and King.