The astonishing statement Donald Trump made at a January 2016 campaign rally in Iowa seems like the essential moment in his unexpected rise to power: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody,” he said, “and I wouldn’t lose voters.” In saying that he could kill in broad daylight and remain popular, Trump did more than draw a logical conclusion from polls showing that his supporters demonstrated unprecedented loyalty. He understood that he was not running a political campaign but was the leader of a mass movement. Most importantly, he understood something that his critics still fail to understand: the essential nature of loyalty in mass movements.
Mass movements, writes Hannah Arendt in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, are one of the core elements of totalitarianism. Arendt does not say that all mass movements are totalitarian; to take seriously President Trump’s claim to be the mouthpiece of a movement is not to claim that he is a totalitarian leader or that he is leading a totalitarian movement. He has not mobilized terror, concentration camps, arbitrary arrests, a secret police, and a party apparatus that rises above the state — all of which were essential parts of Arendt’s description of totalitarianism in power. Mass deportation of undocumented immigrants — disgusting as it is — is not the same thing as de-naturalization, imprisonment, and deportation of citizens. Common sense insists that we not abandon reality and imagine that the United States is experiencing totalitarianism.