It is frightening that a view offered by a German philosopher and political theorist on how totalitarianism advances is more relevant now than it was when it was published in 1978.
Hannah Arendt was born in Hanover in 1906, so she lived through the last century’s — particularly Germany’s — catastrophes.
Her views carry the weight of real experience, especially in a week when events show that the process she so clearly warned against is resurgent.
Arendt warned that “the moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian, or any other, dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer ... and a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind ... And with such a people, you can then do what you please,” she said in an interview published posthumously by The New York Review of Books in 1978.
In 1978, the idea of Donald Trump as US president was laughable: He was enjoying his rich, favoured-son, playboy life. His desire to “make America great again” had yet to manifest itself.
Yet, this week he excoriated Twitter, his drug of choice, because the firm refuted his dishonest attacks on postal voting. Twitter diplomatically described Trump’s claims as “unsubstantiated”.
On Wednesday, in a response Arendt would recognise, Trump threatened to “strongly regulate” or “close down” social media. That threat is as transparent as his postal voting blather: The idea that he has 80m Twitter followers is his very oxygen.
The contrast between Trump and his 1978 predecessor, the almost clumsily moral Jimmy Carter, could hardly be greater. That Trump, despite that chasm, may be re-elected sadly confirms Arendt’s dark analysis.
So, too, is the shameful baiting of the BBC by the Conservative party. Though the broadcaster’s public service culture is held up as another example of British exceptionalism, it is, ironically, under threat from the very people who trumpet that exceptionalism.
Suggestions that the broadcaster’s income may be cut persist. Johnson’s government is considering proposals to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee.
This sabre-rattling cannot but have a cowering, silencing impact. It is, as Arendt warned, part of the process of denying an audience the “capacity to think and to judge”.
Our press ombudsman, Peter Feeney, touched on those issues in his annual report yesterday. He warned that disinformation and conspiracy theories could become everyday, if there are further cuts in print, online, or broadcast media: “More people get their information from social media ... we are handing it over to multinationals, which are virtually unregulated, where there is a huge amount of disinformation.”
Millions of Arendt’s peers paid an appalling price because they were unable to slow the creep of totalitarianism. Surely we have learned the lessons, surely we are not as vulnerable?