Eichmann in Jerusalem is a better guide to Trump Time than is Origins of Totalitarianism

I’ve argued many times that I think Eichmann in Jerusalem is a much better guide to fascism—and, to whatever extent that mode of politics is relevant today, to our times as well—than is Origins of Totalitarianism. There are many reasons I believe this, but three stand out.

First, Origins sees totalitarianism as essentially a mass phenomenon, by which Arendt means not only the rise of the mass but also the liquidation of all familiar institutions, established elites, and traditional hierarchies. Eichmann completely dispenses with that view, emphasizing instead how fascism is much more of an elite affair dependent upon long-standing social hierarchies.

Second, Origins sees totalitarianism as the liquidation of the individual agent and individual action; even the regime’s leaders, Arendt argues there, are unthinking automatons, having squandered their selfhood long ago. Eichmann emphasizes the persistence of the individual, personal agency and personal action—from the topmost perpetrator down to the most abject victim. The particular agent Arendt has most in mind is the collaborator, a self who stands somewhere in between the perpetrator and the victim (and thus unsettles all of our most cherished dichotomies), and how these collaborators make particular decisions—under conditions of great constraint, yes—and thereby perpetuate regimes of evil.

But the last reason why I think Eichmann is such a great book, and so helpful at this particular moment, is that it mounts a devastating critique of intentionality—the inner state of mind, the personal motive, that allegedly gives rise to an action—as the primary way of understanding political life. Against the focus on intentions and motives, Arendt insisted that we attend to actions, to what people do, and the institutional setting in which that action occurs.

I wrote about this in a long piece for The Nation a while back:

Even if Eichmann was a rabid anti-Semite, one had to be mindful of the gulf between his thoughts and his actions: ”extermination per se,” Arendt added in the letter to McCarthy, “is more important than anti-semitism or racism.” Attending to Eichmann’s motives risked a loss of focus. It threatened to drown him, with all his undetermined agency and criminal excess, in the stream of his intentions…

By erecting a wall between anti-Semitism as a motive and the execution of the Holocaust, however, Arendt was less interested in making a claim about Eichmann or even the Nazis than she was in mounting a philosophical argument about what Susan Neiman has called, in Evil in Modern Thought, “the impotence of intention.” Against centuries of moral teaching and jurisprudence, which assumed that the nature and extent of a wrongdoer’s guilt are determined by his intentions, Arendt suggested that inner states of mind—ideologies, beliefs, intentions, motives—could neither mitigate nor aggravate an offense. They simply didn’t matter. The body count of the Holocaust was so massive that it rendered any intention, no matter how malignant, moot. In Neiman’s words: “What counts is not what your road is paved with, but whether it leads to hell.”

That is why Arendt proved so willing to entertain Eichmann’s most outlandish claims about himself: that “he ‘personally’ never had anything whatever against Jews,” that “he had plenty of ‘private reasons’ for not being a Jew hater.” If Eichmann was lying, then he had failed to confront the reality of his deeds. Did he seriously think his role in the Shoah might be mitigated if he could show that he bore the Jews no ill will? If he wasn’t lying, then his honesty was a piece of almost comic lunacy—a self-confessed mass murderer insisting that he never meant anyone any harm—made all the more terrible by the fact that it was true.

In the literature of ancient Greece, a smallness, a blankness, can tear a hole in the world: Hector doesn’t slay Achilles, Paris does. There is a cold, almost cruel, accent on the disproportion between actors and actions, intentions and consequences. Arendt’s insistence on the blankness behind Eichmann’s actions—“except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement,” she wrote, Eichmann “had no motives at all”—issued from a similarly chilly outpost of antiquity….

Arendt’s account of Eichmann’s evil—with its leeriness of his inner state and ideology, its almost archaic attention to the fullness and finality of his deeds—was a natural extension of her return to the Greeks. “In every action the person is expressed as in no other human activity,” she told Günter Gaus in 1964; what a person does was all she—we—needed to know. Hence her contemptuous references to Eichmann’s “private reasons,” his “personally” not feeling any hatred for the Jews: Whatever Eichmann’s feelings or intentions, all his railroads led to hell. What further proof of his criminality, his evil, did one need?

So much of our discussion of Trump (and before that, of Obama) focuses on what are his true aims, what are Bannon’s real goals. The problem here is that in our probably fruitless quest to divine the ultimate truth of Trump’s inner self, we completely lose track of the political field, what actually happens, which often bears almost no resemblance to what we imagine might be animating Trump.

I noticed this last week in a panel discussion on Trump that I was a part of. There was a lot of discussion of the power of Trump’s tweets and communiques, what they revealed about his intentions. But as I pointed out, while Trump likes to make a big rhetorical to do of his antipathy to the courts, and likes to gin up his base and scare liberals with some terrifying plan to eliminate the autonomy of the judiciary, the actuality of his rule is that he has consistently been pushed back by the courts. And unlike FDR, who got so fed up with the judiciary’s challenges to his rule that he sought to completely restructure the Supreme Court, the most Trump has done is to threaten to appeal a court’s ruling. Which is exactly what most presidents do.

When Trump or Bannon is pushed back, the focus is not on their being pushed back but on what it is they wanted to do in the first place. (And again the same kind of discourse often dominated our discussions of Obama: not on the field of action in which he led, but on his deepest intentions and motives, what he really wanted or not.) That just seems like an extraordinarily unhelpful—and from an Arendtian view, entirely apolitical and antipolitical—way of viewing things.

In just a few passages in Eichmann, Arendt eviscerates that way of thinking: the point is not what one aims to do, it is what one does; the point is not the inner motive, but the field of action; not what your road is paved with, but whether it leads to hell.



  1. Howard Berman April 5, 2017 at 10:07 pm | #

    Trump and Bannon’s action gap might have to do with how power is configured in America compared to nazi Germany and that we’re really not in a revolutionary moment

  2. Anonymous April 6, 2017 at 1:05 am | #

    Extrapolation: The Obama & Hillary effort to ram through The Trans-Pacific Partnership with mainly Republican votes, even if the effort was motivated by a sincere belief that “no way exists to get a better deal for US blue collar demographics” is much more evil than a West Virginian voting for Hillary over Obama in 2008, even if the vote resulted from an intensely racist attitude.

    To be fair, much attention to actors’ intentions is motivated by a desire to predict each actor’s likely actions under other hypothetical scenarios, but the habit over-attention to intentions has become very destructive.

    The biggest test of these issues may be looming: If Bannon (motivated by racist and otherwise evil intentions) persuades Trump to pivot towards single-payer health insurance, Bernie and like-minded people will have to decide whether to help get it passed, while Hillary and like-minded people will predictably “resist” it (and will predictably argue that their resistance is not at all motivated by their addiction to donations from big donors who are enabled and motivated to be big by their profiteering from our existing health insurance system).

  3. Bill Michtom April 6, 2017 at 1:24 am | #

    Reading Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews makes one focus on the “almost comic lunacy” of Germany under the Nazis. Hilberg spends three volumes without ever dealing with motives, just process and the records of that process: what the Nazis did to exterminate the Jews.

  4. mark April 6, 2017 at 4:21 am | #

    Of Steve Bannon.

    When Bismarck threatened to resign, he had a whole generation before the Kaiser found him indispensable.

  5. Michael Licitra April 6, 2017 at 7:59 am | #

    Perhaps to inquire into peoples’ beliefs is to ask the wrong question. Psychologists note that, by and large, people see what they want to see, and believe what they want to believe.

  6. bob mcmanus April 6, 2017 at 8:27 am | #

    Inventing the “Political”: Arendt, Antipolitics, and the Deliberative Turn in Contemporary Political Theory
    Michael J. Thompson, in Radical Intellectuals and the Subversion of Progressive Politics
    The Betrayal of Politics, 2015

    “She blended with this reconstruction of the polis an existential phe-
    nomenology of consciousness that was crucial for her approach to the
    nature of thinking, freedom, and her own definition of what the ends
    of politics should be.

    Many currents in contemporary political theory have become domi-
    nated by a basic assumption rooted in Arendt’s ideas. It is an assumption
    that can be stated succinctly: that the essential contours of any ratio-
    nal and democratic approach to politics must consist, to a greater or
    lesser degree, in the deliberative actions of citizens; in the intersubjective
    exchange of opinion about the world. But there is another, perhaps more
    problematic aspect to Arendt’s influence. Her thesis that politics is a kind
    of action where opinions are shared, where we come to disclose ourselves,
    is conceived to exist outside of any other kind of social power.”

    • bob mcmanus April 6, 2017 at 5:41 pm | #

      Michael Fiorello, below: Not sure if that was meant to be ironic, but no.

      The book cited above edited by Thompson is recommended, although I like most of what I read, and apparently am just serendipitously fortunate in what I pick up. The Thompson chapter on Arendt seems good, but not great or as good as the others, and confronts Arendt not on the superficial grounds of her relationship to Heidegger (at least directly) or treatment of Eichmann but on, and I am not even equipped to paraphrase the arguments, Arendt’s existentialism, subjectivism, localism, relativism, ahistoricism (?).

      Other targets (although most are critiqued sympathetically) include Butler and Irigaray, Habermas, the Situationists and their followers Tiqqun,, Chantal and Mouffe, neo-anarchists like Graeber etc for what might be considered a general theme of a critique of post-structuralist politics from a Marxian or communalist perspective.

    • Corey Robin April 6, 2017 at 7:53 pm | #

      I disagree with some of what Michael, who’s a former student of mine, says here. There is a quite vital current of Arendt scholarship that has actually demonstrated how those distinctions between the political and social life are much more porous than a simple reading of ARendt would suggest. But more important, nothing that’s said here addresses anything I said in my post. So the relevance seems to be just about nil.

      • bob mcmanus April 7, 2017 at 10:44 am | #

        Usually I find that a poster who complains about irrelevance is claiming an exclusivity to any generalizations or universals that can be derived from the arguments and evidence cited in a post.

        Your post to me not only dealt with criticisms or understandings of Eichmann and Trump, but included or implied the more positive or prescriptive parts of Arendt’s ontology and political theory. The discussion of intentionality and action in the post are clearly related to Arendt’s definitions and uses of the terms in The Human Condition. A focus on the individual remains throughout the post, no longer on motives or intentions, but on “what one does” and a closer re-reading of the Thompson quote I cited may show some of the problems I have with that.

        I will grant that this is very very difficult stuff for me, and where when and how Thompson’s attribution to Arendt of an “existential phenomenology of consciousness” comes into conflict (contradiction, dialectic) with a Marxian socially constructed and historically embedded false consciousness (and socially, not individually liberated) and the implications for a practical politics is probably above my pay grade.

  7. Michael Fiorillo April 6, 2017 at 11:41 am | #

    In other words, behavior is the most honest form of communication, and ultimately the only one that matters.

  8. jonnybutter April 6, 2017 at 2:14 pm | #

    I think it’s possible to generalize this lesson too much. Corey is talking about political life here, not Life. Even in political life, intention can matter a lot. If Eichmann’s intention had been something other than to rise professionally as fast as he could, his actions would have been different. His *path* would have been different.

    Intention matters crucially in creative or scholarly production; you can attempt (and succeed at) something for right reasons without necessarily understanding, or fully understanding, what you’ve done. There can be an intention behind the intention.

    But in something with trillions of moving parts, as it were – like a politics, with its millions of personalities, interests, et. al. – individuals’ intentions are more likely to be multiply refracted on their way to becoming actions. Doesn’t mean they are *unrelated*, though, just that their relation is not obvious or predictable – is not determinative of any particular thing. Arendt isn’t wrong to say interrogating Eichmann’s intentions is a distraction (and I agree w/CR re: Obama and Trump). But that isn’t to say that intentions ‘don’t matter’, even in politics. They certainly *do* matter, whether you are shockingly thoughtless about them and everything else, like Eichmann – a ‘blankness tearing a hole in the universe’ – or whether you are a Jain wizard. I would think Arendt would want humans to be as thoughtful as possible, including about our intentions.

  9. Howard Berman April 6, 2017 at 6:07 pm | #

    Corey, has the senate going so called nuclear changed your argument any at all?

  10. Murray Reiss April 6, 2017 at 7:44 pm | #

    Intention … how’s this for the relevance of “intention,” quoting form Fred Kaplan’s “Wizards of Armageddon”: “Even the 533 missiles targeted on cities would be aimed to knock out the control centers of the Soviet government and military structure. Although at least 30 percent of the population would be killed and half the industry destroyed, that was not the actual motivation behind the targeting.”

  11. Howard Berman April 7, 2017 at 12:11 pm | #

    Corey, the Senate just stole a Supreme Court seat by eliminating the break of the filibuster. Is that not in the tradition of Roosevelt rearranging the seats on the Supreme Court? Does that trouble you at all and why not?

    • Corey Robin April 7, 2017 at 4:00 pm | #

      I’m quite happy about the Senate getting rid of the filibuster. I hope they eliminate it entirely since its main contribution over the last century has been to repeatedly stop civil rights legislation that had passed the House. What any of that has to do with this post, I don’t know.

      • Howard Berman April 8, 2017 at 12:49 pm | #

        You brought up how FDR tried to stack the court and you mentioned how Trump’s actions are what count and that he has not resorted to unusual means (extra judicial) to have his way (I think that’s this post) and if Trump has the court he wants he’ll have (or might) the policies he wants (such as on immigration once the case lands in the Supreme Court)
        The Republicans want a Supreme Court that won’t block their extremist policy and Trump and the Senate are in tandem on this matter, so I take eliminating the filibuster as an action toward absolute power

      • jonnybutter April 17, 2017 at 4:38 pm | #

        The Dems never disappoint when the country needs a comedic twist on events ripped from the headlines

  12. Benjamin Tianen April 7, 2017 at 7:01 pm | #

    What i dont understand is how “thinking from the perspective of everyone else” relates to our emotional life. Arendt here insists on the unimportance of our inner life; yet, when she wrote about little rock, she criticized it (if i recall correctly) from the perspective of the girls mother, a position that came out of a sort of weberian empathy, where putting yourself in anothers shoes allows for a certain objectivity. Even though she doesnt say it, there has to be a certain emotional maturity and projection to understand the effects of these actions, even though she seems to point out that people are also capable of committing cruel acts against others who they empathize with. Maybe i am misreading this, but i find the ethical program she puts forth both extremely attractive and difficult to grasp.

  13. Edward April 10, 2017 at 10:34 am | #

    This reminds me of a remark I once read by a military analyst; the basic rule in military analysis is to look at capabilities and not intentions.

  14. Eric Apar April 11, 2017 at 11:29 am | #

    I’ve not read Origins of Totalitarianism, but I’m nearly finished with Eichmann in Jerusalem, and this post rings true to me. Not only does the kind of banal, systemic oppression evident in Eichmann in Jerusalem strike me as a more descriptively helpful guide to our current moment than the histrionics we hear from the liberal-left about totalitarianism and the erosion of “our institutions.” The focus on systemic features rather than the malign intent of individual actors also has profound strategic implications for the democratic left. The fixation with traditional totalitarianism gives the impression that Trump is a kind of menace, a cancer to be excised from the body politic, whereupon all will again be well. What we as leftists need to do is to make the case that, while thwarting the Trump agenda is the immediate aim, the long-term aim must be a transformation of the systemic conditions that gave birth to Trump. The “Trump as sui generis menace” meme has a kind of comic book character to it, with Trump cast as the malignant villain, and with the Democratic Party cast as the valiant hero defending our venerable “institutions” against evil. That narrative works for the Democratic Party and for capital, but it doesn’t work for those of us who want to make a new society.

    On a related note, it bothers me that 1984 has become the designated left-wing text for the Trump era. The kind of pulverizing totalitarianism that appears in 1984 seems to me a far cry from where this country is today. It’s still too fractious and vibrant a country to submit to overt tyranny of the Big Brother variety. For my money, Sheldon Wolin’s Democracy, Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism is a much more useful guide to our current moment.

    • Billikin April 12, 2017 at 1:12 pm | #

      “1984”? Trump is no Big Brother. He’s not even Hitler.

      Yes, systemic considerations are very important. But so are psychological considerations, at least in the short term. Despite the protestations of candidate Trump, the odds were high, given what we can tell about his psychology, that as President he would engage, or attempt to engage, in military adventures, to bolster his political standing. He did that with the Syrian bombing. Also characteristic of his psychology, he did not ask Congress for authorization, even though he knew, as he said when he was a candidate, that it was illegal and unconstitutional.

      As a political maneuver, the bombing worked. Politicos and pundits are praising Trump for being “presidential”, while it is nobodies like me who view his actions as alpha male display. Who is talking about Trump’s legislative and legal setbacks? Rally round the Donald.

      Continued in next note.

      • Billikin April 12, 2017 at 1:14 pm | #

        Well, not all pundits approve. As Isaac Chotiner said on Slate:

        “But Trump is not—and will never be—a normal president. He is an uninformed and dangerously unstable one. If he wants to conduct military action without congressional approval, he should be challenged, not lauded. The prospect of someone with Trump’s limited focus and understanding immersing the United States more deeply in another foreign conflict is unnerving—especially when that conflict is taking place in a region that predominantly practices a religion Trump despises. And, as my colleague Jamelle Bouie noted Thursday night, there is something additionally terrifying about a petty and insecure man who seeks nothing more than praise … receiving praise for military action.”

        One of our Senators asked constituents whether Congress should authorize the President to conduct military action against the Assad regime. My wife replied that she favored a US military response to Assad gassing people, but that Trump cannot be trusted with such authorization.

        • Eric Apar April 17, 2017 at 11:38 am | #

          So we agree that 1984 is not a useful guide for the current moment, correct?

          The problem with thinking of the Trump administration’s foreign policy as the product of a reckless, trigger-happy president is that the Trump administration’s foreign policy has thus far been Republican boilerplate. Would a President Cruz or Rubio have reacted any differently to Assad’s use of chemical weapons? We know for a fact that a President Hillary Clinton would not have. Would a Cruz or Rubio or Clinton administration have followed a more temperate course regarding North Korea? We can’t know for certain, but my guess is that the approach would not have been appreciably different.

          To my mind, one of the more telling moments of this presidency so far came after the U.S. dropped the “mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan last week. When asked to comment, Trump plainly wasn’t prepared and offered some boilerplate praise of the military. This past weekend, it came out that Trump didn’t even authorize the attack. Apparently, the attack was launched under a broad, pre-existing delegation of power to military brass.

          So, that begs the question: is Trump actually driving his administration’s foreign policy? Or has he ceded his foreign policy to military brass? If the latter, we need to reassess the “Trump as rogue actor” thesis that the Democratic Party is so eager to implant in the public mind.

          This, again, is why it’s so important to separate the tweets and the bombast from the stuff that’s actually happening. It may well be that the administration’s foreign policy has nothing whatever to do with Trump’s instincts or personality, and that it has everything to do with the realization of the ideal that Republicans (and not a few Democrats) have been clamoring for for decades: an unfettered military, freed from all those nettlesome civilian constraints.

  15. James P April 23, 2017 at 4:49 pm | #

    I agree with your point that Arendt’s focus was on action, I don’t get a sense from Arendt that inner motive doesn’t matter. One of the most fascinating parts of the book, for me, was the end of the war, where Himmler (now casting himself as a ‘moderate’) attempted to dismantle the machinery of the Final Solution – whereupon Eichmann “sabotaged his orders as much as he dared” (‘Duties of a Law Abiding citizen, p145 in my copy).

    For one thing, Arendt discusses Himmler’s ‘moderation’ scathingly; it’s clearly a gambit to survive the end of the war by discarding the survivors of the Holocaust as though the Holocaust itself never happened. You might say that Himmler’s crimes far outweigh his release of tiny amounts of prisoners (and of course they do) but she still feels the need to deride the ‘moderate faction as “those who were stupid enough to believe that a murderer who could prove he had not killed as many people as he could have killed would have a marvellous alibi” (144-5), in other words, Himmler’s intentions compound his crimes by being so flagrantly mercenary. Arendt then argues that Eichmann’s proximate disloyalty to Himmler is caused by his ultimate loyalty to Hitler – his conception of the law is based on that of the word of the Fuhrer. “Himmler was now giving “criminal” orders that determined his actions”, as he saw it, “But the personal element undoubtedly involved was not his fanaticism, it was his genuine, “boundless and immoderate admiration for Hitler” (149).

    I don’t think that the point here is that both men are damned by their actions despite their opposing intentions. Himmler is treated somewhat worse for pursuing his own agenda (for literally granting himself greater agency), while Eichmann somewhat better for gullibly following the agency of another. That he never broke outside this agency is not a defence, it is a moral and intellectual failure.

    Bringing that up to date, I get the impression that Trump genuinely believes he is making the world a better place. That he is grievously mistaken, I have no doubt. His mind, for what it is, has been captured within the imagination of others (people like Bannon, and the alt-right world in general) – his former friendliness with the Clinton administration confirms that he adapted equally well under a different political environment that his presidency eclipsed. Far from judging him from his mere actions, it ought to inform our judgement of how he will operate in the future – as a sort of Henry VIII figure, constantly surprised at the bad grace his help is received.

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