Reading Hannah Arendt in Joe Biden’s America

With a grasp of her writings on totalitarianism and the human condition in crises, Biden could have a vision for change

January 08, 2021 12:02 am | Updated 12:31 am IST

For the first time in the history of the United States, a President has incited insurrection by his neo-Nazi brigade of right-wing supporters, opposing the peaceful transfer of power. It is tantamount to encouraging hostility when the world stood horrified as a witness to the rioters storming the U.S. Capitol. The violence against democracy, a blotch on the American constitutional democracy, interestingly, changed the minds of senators like Kelly Loeffler (Republican) who had previously said that they would object to the Electoral College results.

Healing a polarised nation

The unhinged and angry authoritarian at last stands crushed and humiliated after trying his best to undercut one of the oldest democratic systems in existence. With Joe Biden walking into the White House on January 20, there can be no overplaying the enormity of the tasks ahead of him, what with the deeply polarised nation divided into two belligerent camps. Afflicted with an escalating novel coronavirus pandemic, an ailing economy, racial discrimination, and a climate crisis rebuffed by millions, Mr. Biden’s America has four long years to undo the tragic consequences of intolerance and division left behind by the incumbent.


Tragedy, for Joe Biden, is the very condition of life. Having lost his wife and daughter in an accident and a son to cancer, Joe Biden has always had the deep-seated desire to urge politics towards humanism in the wake of the overwhelming systemic racism that has underpinned American culture recently. The bitter assault on democracy is better understood in the recent revelation of his letter written in 1975 to the famous German-American philosopher, Hannah Arendt , requesting her to send him a copy of her paper read at the Boston Bicentennial Forum. It reflects his desire to find “deeper causes” underlying the economic and social collapse as well as the scourge of racism.

A contrast to Trump’s politics

Arendt sent out a warning in her paper entitled “Coming Home to Roost” which the present generation must heed: “All speculation about deeper causes returns from the shock of reality... the stark, naked brutality of facts, of things as they are.” Her focus is largely on her deep-seated interest in political humanism and a free space in the world inhabited by people who are inspired by public principles and an ethics that stands in stark contradiction to the inherent ethno-nationalist populism and alternate-reality politics of Donald Trump. Boastful and deluded like Mussolini, and with an overriding penchant for self-glorification, he is overwhelmingly obsessed with not letting go of his power. More frighteningly, his conception of reality is different and facts have no significance for him.

Arendt returns repeatedly to this theme of the difference in things as they are and things as they can be made to seem — the difference, for example, in “our … outright humiliating defeat” in Vietnam and what Americans had been led to believe would be “peace with honor”. The image projected by Mr. Trump of an America for the whites, where there is no place for immigrant “termites”, coheres with the public sentiment of the white non-college going population that relates fondly with the language of a President that is no better than a junior school third rater. The invasion of Mr. Trump into the political life of America has been more of a politics of lies projected through the dominance of an image to convince the people that only he could save America. And now when the shaky putsch has failed and the Trump loyalists have departed for home, he has begun to exactly do what the American government is an old hand at: “finding ways and means of how to avoid admitting defeat” and keeping the image of a President as the ‘mightiest power on earth’ and the only one who can keep it intact. A bully is no different.

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In asking for the paper, Mr. Biden, to use Arendt’s words with which she described President Ford’s attitude after the defeat in Vietnam, has taken on the responsibility “to heal the wounds of a divided nation,” urging the people to begin a new chapter. As a young man in his thirties, he had already become aware of America’s “image-making as global policy”, a fundamentally American version of “big lie” techniques devised in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. There, Arendt argues, “lying was guided by ideology and backed by terror”; here, it has been directed at creating images and bolstered by “hidden persuasion” through the manipulation of public opinion.

A parallel, then and now

Interestingly, Mr. Biden, in keeping with the intellectual leanings of the 1960s and the 1970s, had begun to think at a young age of Arendt as a contemporary philosopher speaking on the idea of “image and lies”, on disinformation, on violence, on public and private freedom, and on political action. It was the war on terror, on Afghanistan and Iraq that echo Arendt’s report on the Holocaust organiser, Adolf Eichmann and his trial which derives its significance from the complex notions of justice and responsibility, ethics and duty. The war, for instance in Iraq or a few decades earlier in Vietnam was not in support of defending democracy and human rights but to exhibit the power and might of the American hegemon. The fabrication of the hypothesis of “weapons of mass destruction” was exposed when no such lethal nuclear arsenal was discovered. The sham left both the United States and Britain red in the face.

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Setting policy right

Mr. Biden had early on in life learnt from political philosophy that the rise of a more workable political and public humanism depends singularly on Arendt’s “free spectators of action” who determine the meaning of action and its public relevance that saves humans from the abyss of a miserable existence.

No wonder Mr. Biden has taken keen interest in pressing humanitarian issues such as Sudan’s political crisis or the dark contemporary history of Syria. He has already introduced a national security team designed to repudiate Mr. Trump’s nationalistic isolationism in order to usher in humility and confidence among America’s allies.

His choice to execute the nation’s immigration policy is a Cuban-American (Alejandro Mayorkas). Avril Haines will be the first woman to serve as director of national intelligence. And possibly Lloyd Austin would be the first African-American in America’s history to head the Department of Defense. As Mr. Biden’s choice for Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland will be the first Native American Cabinet Secretary to ensure that the nation would make right the wrongs in the long history of bloodshed and extermination of the natives. This counters not only Mr. Trump’s misogynism but also his agenda of withdrawing shamelessly from America’s role in the world as a defender of democracy and human rights.

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Arendt’s castigation of Zionism and the fascism of the American supported Israeli leadership brings us to the question of how authoritarian regimes fail to notice the lack of any sense of ethics or humanitarian necessity. It is true that “biological racism” that is visible in the history of apartheid, or in Germany under Nazism, or the resurgence of racist politics under Mr. Trump subsists on the major ideology of enforcing complete submission of the individual self to the state, the evil of incorrigible megalomaniacs striking out at the very dignity of being human.

Schooled in Arendt’s writings on totalitarianism and the nature of the human condition in times of crises, Mr. Biden is the right choice for President who hopefully, has the vision for an exceptionally progressive change. It is expected that he will constantly be on his toes with the same readiness as Barack Obama, and alive to what George Santayana warned, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Writings that inspire

America must know that politics of terrorism will not work any more at home or abroad. And it is hoped that many around the world would go to Arendt if only to learn a lesson or two about the vulnerability of our democracy that allows people like Mr. Trump to even stand for election when he is guilty of allowing thousands to die of the pandemic. Her writings have always been a powerful foundation of inspiration to the people’s movements fighting against totalitarian lying and the infringement of basic human rights. Her persistent warnings of failure of the American republican tradition for self-government asks for an ideological position underpinned by a more cognitive existence that is mindful of the facts ‘coming home to roost’. For Arendt, if you remain an onlooker and express no reaction appropriate to the circumstances, your inertia will amount to deliberately perpetrating violence and accepting lies to prevail.

Shelley Walia is Professor Emeritus, Department of English, Panjab University, Chandigarh

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