23rd May 2017 | Conference paper: “The Relation between Populism and Arendtian Totalitarianism”

Conference paper Presentation:

The Relation between Populism and Arendtian Totalitarianism

Author: Anne-Kathrin Weber (University of Giessen)

Date & Time: 23 May, 2017; 10:30 – 12:15 (Morning Session II: “USA and the world in the era of post-truth”)

Event Location: Prague, Czech Republic

Event Details: The talk is part of the 3rd Prague Populism Conference (“Current Populism in Europe and the Role of the Media”)


Since the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States, book sales of the dystopian fiction 1984 by George Orwell (1948) have been increasing notably – as well as book sales of Hannah Arendt’s classical totalitarian theory, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). The influential political theorist was among the first to analyse totalitarianism, which she saw embodied in National Socialism in Germany and Stalinism in the Soviet Union. That her analyses of totalitarian movements have been getting renewed attention seems to be a clear indicator of the fact that many people are trying to find ways to grasp that which is happening in the wake of the current rise of right-wing populism, and also that which makes these populisms dangerous for democracy, pluralism, and human rights. This, however, applies not only to the US, but also to all those European countries in which right-wing populism has been gaining momentum.

In my paper, I will compare Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism with current right-wing populisms in Europe and the United States. I will demonstrate that the elements of totalitarianism that Arendt mainly depicted in her study are in some important respects very different to these current forms of populisms. Directly linking populisms with Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism, as depicted in some media outlets, thus distorts potential analyses of, and respective responses towards, right-wing populisms. However, I will argue that proto- or pre-totalitarian elements and tendencies, according to Arendt’s theory, can indeed be detected in current right-wing populist politics – such as the explicit pursuit of anti-pluralism, the (self-)attribution of populisms as “movements” and its consequences for political stability, as well as the powerful play with emotions such as fear, outrage, and love that help stabilise and facilitate populist ideologies.


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