Arendt, freedom, Trump

This passage, from a previously unpublished 1966 or 1967 lecture by Hannah Arendt, is a rich text for the week of Independence Day while Donald Trump is president:

The first elements of a political philosophy corresponding to this notion of public freedom are spelled out in John Adams’s writings. His point of departure is the observation that “Wherever men, women, or children are to be found, whether they be old or young, rich or poor, high or low . . . ignorant or learned, every individual is seen to be strongly actuated by a desire to be seen, heard, talked of, approved and respected by the people about him and within his knowledge.” The virtue of this “desire” Adams saw in “the desire to excel another,” and its vice he called “ambition,” which “aims at power as a means of distinction.” And these two indeed are among the chief virtues and vices of political man. For the will to power as such, regardless of any passion for distinction (in which power is not a means but an end), is characteristic of the tyrant and is no longer even a political vice. It is rather the quality that tends to destroy all political life, its vices no less than its virtues. It is precisely because the tyrant has no desire to excel and lacks all passion for distinction that he finds it so pleasant to dominate, thereby excluding himself from the company of others; conversely, it is the desire to excel which makes men love the company of their peers and spurs them on into the public realm. This public freedom is a tangible worldly reality, created by men to enjoy together in public—to be seen, heard, known, and remembered by others. And this kind of freedom demands equality, it is possible only amongst peers. Institutionally speaking, it is possible only in a republic, which knows no subjects.

Note, first of all, that Arendt, like John Adams, views “the desire to excel another” in public life as a virtue. She could be thinking pragmatically: by encouraging people to excel in debates, we motivate them to enter public life and do their best. We give them a reason to “love the company of their peers and [spur] them on into the public realm.” But I read Arendt as making a second point as well. She sees political excellence as an intrinsic virtue, as constitutive of a good life. Her theory differs from views of democracy that emphasize humbleness, self-abnegating service, or the dispassionate pursuit of truth or consensus. She admires people who effectively advocate their own views and obtain recognition for their special eloquence.

Excellence of this sort “demands equality.” As a matter of logic, you cannot display the virtue of persuasiveness unless the people whom you seek to persuade are your equals, free to agree or disagree with you. Thus anyone who develops a love of political virtue will fight for political equality. Helping other people to be equal is not just good for them; it’s a necessary condition of one’s own “public freedom,” meaning the freedom “to be seen, heard, known, and remembered by others.”

The corresponding vice is “’ambition,’ which ‘aims at power as a means of distinction.’” For John Adams, virtuous citizens seek to distinguish themselves by demonstrating excellence and receiving the free respect of peers. This makes them fundamentally sociable; they seek company. In contrast, “the tyrant has no desire to excel and lacks all passion for distinction.” He tries to “dominate” or exclude others, seen as threats rather than peers. That leaves him alone, “exclud[ed] from the company of others,” with only his power over them as a connection to his fellow human beings.

Examples of civic virtue in Arendt’s sense are not terribly rare, but as a well-known case, I will cite our last president. Barack Obama is not self-abnegating. He demonstrates confidence and strives for excellence. He attempts to win arguments. But he never denies his fellow citizens’ standing in the public sphere or claims arbitrary power over others. On the contrary, almost every significant speech by the former president explicitly invites opponents into the conversation. Although President Obama is sometimes described as reserved or even mildly introverted, he “loves the company of peers” in the sense that he evidently appreciates the give-and-take of ideas in public forums.

In contrast, our current president understands speech as the mere display of power. Criticism is by nature a threat. A successful statement is one that demonstrates greater power. Trump doesn’t strive for eloquence–he doesn’t even spell-check his tweets. He demands loyalty to his person and shows no interest in differences of principle. He “thereby [excludes] himself from the company of others” and is fundamentally lonely in a way I don’t think we have seen in the White House since the last days of Richard M. Nixon.

I do not mean to imply that Donald Trump is a tyrant in Arendt’s sense. He lacks sufficient constitutional power for that; his incompetence provides an additional barrier. His efforts at domination tend to be more pathetic than terrifying. A tyrannical personality without tyrannical authority verges on a laughing-stock. Because the constitutional order creates independent peers for the president–members of Congress, judges, reporters, foreign leaders, and courageous citizens–a president who talks like a tyrant just loses friends and allies. Still, Arendt’s portrait fits, and if an extrinsic factor like a terrorist attack suddenly confers power on our national laughing-stock, the patterns she observed in 1789 and 1917 will become frighteningly relevant.

See also: Hannah Arendt and Lin-Manuel Miranda and notes on Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.