Lida E. Maxwell is Associate Professor of political science at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and is the author of Public Trials: Burke, Zola, Arendt, and the Politics of Lost Causes.
As it became clear last night that Trump was going to win the election, I found myself increasingly thinking about Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the Dreyfus Affair in The Origins of Totalitarianism, which she argues offers a “foregleam of the twentieth century.” In particular, I found myself thinking about Arendt’s claim that the anti-Dreyfusard hatred of Jews and distrust of government – their “suspicion of the republic itself, of Parliament, and the state machine” (92) – were tied together. Arendt reads the Dreyfus Affair as a crucial moment in France – and in Europe – that enabled and paved the way for the ultimate collapse of the Third Republic. Does Trump’s victory – marked, as anti-Dreyfusard sentiment was, by scapegoating of outsiders and distrust of government – similarly presage the decline of our republic?
There are reasons to see similarities between Trump’s campaign/victory, and the anti-Dreyfusard movement in late 19th century France, which was characterized by anti-Semitism, disregard for factual truth, trust in myth and ideology rather than government, and mob violence. Yet the similarity that I want to focus on here is that both the anti-Dreyfusards and the Trump campaign were driven by a conflagration of hatred of “outsiders” and a distrust of government. Arendt argues that these two passions were entangled during the Dreyfus Affair, but that they did not grow out of the Dreyfus Affair itself – which crystallized around the conflict over whether the conviction of the Jewish Army Captain, Alfred Dreyfus, was just or unjust. Instead, this twin hatred of Jews and distrust of government grew, Arendt argues, out of citizens’ disgust with scandals having to do with unsavory connections between business and politics.
Most notable of these scandals was the Panama Scandal, wherein it came to light that most of Parliament had received bribes from the Panama Company to secure Parliament backing for millions of francs in private loans – loans for which, after the Company went bankrupt, Parliament (and thus the public) were on the hook. The bribes were made public by Edouard Drumont’s anti-semitic daily, La Libre Parole – the alt-right paper of its day – which gained in publicity and influence out of the scandal. The bribes found a place in Drumont’s paper because the intermediaries for the bribes were Jews. Portrayed as “parasites upon a corrupt body,” Arendt argues that these Jews’ role in the scandal “served to provide a thoroughly decadent society with an exceedingly dangerous alibi. Since they were Jews it was possible to make scapegoats of them when public indignation had to be allayed” (99). The scandal, in other words, stoked distrust of and alienation from government, while also allowing the public to blame that distrust and alienation on a group of supposed “outsiders,” or “parasites”: Jews. Thus, hatred of “outsiders,” the “parasites” that the Anti-Dreyfusards depicted Jews to be, and the suspicion of government go together and reinforce each other – creating the sense that the government is “under the influence of the Jews and the power of the banks” (92).
What Arendt is suggesting is that anti-Dreyfusards were not created by the Dreyfus Affair, but existed before Dreyfus’ conviction and were available to be called into anti-Semitic, violent action. Specifically, they already existed as what Arendt calls a “mob.” For Arendt, the mob is “a group in which the residue of all classes are represented” (107), and which, in contrast to “the people” which fights for “true representation,” will “always shout for the ‘strong man,’ the ‘great leader’” (107). The mob did not come into existence because of impersonal economic and political forces, but because an elite’s greed and decadence, and its use of political power to further that greed, created a class that felt superfluous, unnecessary, left behind. As Arendt puts it, the mob was “produced” by the “[h]igh society and politicians of the Third Republic,” in a “ series of scandals and public frauds” (107). Thus, when the Dreyfus case arose, the mob was available for hatred, and available to be soothed with slogans like “Death to the Jews!” and “France for the French!”
The similarities between Arendt’s account of the rise of the Anti-Dreyfusard “mob” and Trumpism is obvious. The 2008 bailout of Wall Street, along with the flaunting of politicians’ ties to business and finance (the revolving door between politics and finance and lobbying), and the various scandals surrounding especially Hillary Clinton’s ties to finance (such as the Goldman Sachs speeches) have made obvious to everybody that Clintonian (and Reagan-ian and Bush-ian) neoliberalism favors the wealthy and leaves the poor and working class behind. In this sense, it is also obvious – as it has been to many of us throughout the campaign – that Trump’s popularity is at least in part a byproduct of neoliberalism. It is because neoliberalism created a superfluous class, marked by anger and resentment, that they were available for Trumpism.
This does not mean that a Clinton presidency would have been the same thing as a Trump presidency will be. Far from it: many diverse groups would have been more valued and protected under a Clinton presidency, and racism, misogyny, and anti-immigrant sentiment would have been declaimed and likely fought against. Climate change would have been addressed – even if not aggressively enough. It is important, in other words, to make distinctions between Clinton and Trump. Yet it is also important to acknowledge that more Clinton-ism would likely not have meant an end to Trumpism, but probably more of an audience for it.
That audience, like the Anti-Dreyfusard mob, craved scapegoats. And Trump, like the Anti-Dreyfusard leaders, eagerly fed this craving. He portrayed himself as an outsider who was challenging a “corrupt” system – exemplified for him and his victims by “Crooked Hillary.” Hillary, however, served a dual purpose for his campaign. She both exemplified corrupt government – the intimate ties between corporations and government (the Goldman Sachs speeches, the Clinton Foundation, etc.) – but also the “outsider” who can be blamed for that corruption. The misogynistic discourse and symbols of Trump rallies – notably, the “Trump that Bitch” and “Hillary sucks but not as much as Monica” T-shirts – portray Hillary’s female-ness (and not just her supposed corruption and ties to big money) as parasitic on what might be an otherwise healthy body politic.
Of course, women are not the only outsiders blamed in the Trump campaign. Unlike the Dreyfus Affair – fueled almost solely by anti-Semitism – the Trump campaign portrayed not only Jews, but all manner of diverse groups as parasites that must be silenced, deported, or banned in order for the country to be made “great again.” To name just a few others: his continued promise to build a wall along the southern border, his portrayal of Mexican immigrants as rapists, his diminishment of Muslim Americans (even Muslim members of the Armed forces, such as Captain Khan – here very reminiscent of the Dreyfus Affair, and the worry about Jews in the Army), his call for a ban on Muslim immigration, his affirmation of police violence against African Americans, his and his followers’ making fun of and physically harassing the disabled, and the homophobic chants at rallies (after the Orlando shooting, people yelling, “the gays had it coming”). For the Trump campaign, not just a single group, but the presence of all diverse – non-white, non-straight, disabled, immigrant, non-male – people in the American public sphere and workplace are the reason why “Americans” are unhappy and out of work, and why they can’t trust their government, which, with its “PC” discourse, is under the sway of these groups.
What to do? The main lesson I want to glean from Arendt, at least for today, is that despair in democracy or the republic is not an option – or, at least, that we should allow (in Bonnie Honig’s terms) mourning to be implicated in morning, to find openings in our despair for beginnings, if we are to find a path away from Trump-ism and the politics of the mob. For Arendt, the true hero of the Dreyfus Affair was not Dreyfus, and not Zola – but Clemenceau. What made Clemenceau heroic, for Arendt, is that he refused to engage in the scapegoating that the mob demanded. Instead, he offered a positive vision of society, based in equal justice under the law and human rights: “There was only one basis on which Dreyfus could or should have been saved. The intrigues of a corrupt Parliament, the dry rot of a collapsing society, and the clergy’s lust for power should have been met squarely with the stern Jacobin concept of the nation based upon human rights – that republican view of communal life which asserts that (in the words of Clemenceau) by infringing on the rights of one you infringe on the rights of all” (106). Clemenceau was not motivated by a hatred of a particular class or group – Jews, the bourgeoisie, women, immigrants, Muslims, the disabled. Rather, he was motivated by a fiery love of justice. As Arendt puts it, Clemenceau, “in his consuming passion or justice, still saw the Rothschilds as members of a downtrodden people” (119). He was the hero of the story, for Arendt, because he refused to leave anyone behind. Everyone should have an equal place in the republic, and that is what he stood for.
Indeed, for Arendt, what made the Third Republic fall (thirty years after the equivocal conclusion of the Dreyfus Affair), ultimately, was not the persistence of anti-semitic, Anti-Dreyfusard sentiments, but rather a lack of Clemenceaus: that is, “the fact that [France] had no more true Dreyfusards, no one who believed that democracy and freedom, equality and justice could any longer be defended or realized under the republic” (93). What was lost at that point, in other words, was a faith that government and law could achieve equality – that representative government could create equal, free conditions for all of us. It was because of this vacuum, and not because of the force of anti-Dreyfusard sentiment, that the republic could fall to the Nazis.
In the wake of the Trump election, it is easy, on the one hand, to be consumed by a hatred of, resentment toward, or fear of Trump and his followers; or, on the other hand, to despair of democracy and government altogether. I am tempted to those paths myself. Yet to do so would be to cede the republic to neoliberal elites and the resentful class their excesses and greed have produced. Instead, we should be working right now to offer a Left democratic vision of freedom and equality that refuses the scapegoating logic of Trumpism, and the neoliberal moderation of Hillary Clinton, which happily produces classes of winners and losers, while trying to check its worst excesses. Such a Left democratic vision would affirm and pursue a government that will be an active, radical agent of freedom and equality and that refuses to leave anyone behind, including Trump supporters. What might this look like? The first things that come to mind: I see such a government as one that creates a new, clean energy economy, powered by a large tax on fossil fuel companies and corporations, and which creates jobs for its citizens in alternative energy and the building of a new infrastructure focused on mass transit. It is a government where, as Bernie Sanders demanded, all citizens are promised a free college education, and where everyone has affordable, excellent health care. It is a government that aggressively monitors, restructures, and de-militarizes the police. It is a government that treats refugees and immigrants as equals.
This incipient vision might seem ridiculous in the context of a Trump victory – pipe dreams. But now is not the time to narrow our vision into the confines of a defensive posture. It is exactly the time to dream big, to demand more, to call for what we really want: freedom and equality for everyone. Only such a vision, and the political action to match, can create a bulwark against the worst excesses of elite greed, the (white, male) resentment it spawns, and the misogyny, racism, ableism, and anti-immigrant sentiment that this resentment enables and feeds on.
*The title is indebted to Bonnie Honig’s writing on morning/mourning in “Corpses for Kilowatts?: Mourning, Justice, Burial, and the Ends of Humanism,” in Second Nature (ed. Archer, Ephraim, Maxwell; Fordham University Press, 2013)