Rubio’s “Totalitarians”

Prominent in the revived Republican War Party I wrote about this morning is, of course, Sen. Marco Rubio, who is apparently seeking to re-establish the conservative street cred he lost on the immigration issue by becoming a preeminent purveyor of “muscular” foreign policy views.

But there’s a serious problem with Rubio’s efforts to bring back Cold War rhetoric in today’s global environment, and it was pinpointed today by Peter Beinart at The Atlantic:

Rubio’s CPAC speech began typically enough: with a list of the various regimes that Americans should worry about: Russia’s, China’s, North Korea’s, Venezuela’s, Iran’s. Then came this stunner: “All the problems of the world, all the conflicts of the world, are being created by totalitarian regimes….”

Rubio simply has no idea what “totalitarian” means. “Totalitarian” is not a synonym for “dictatorship.” Dictatorial regimes seek to stamp out behavior that actively challenges the state. Totalitarian regimes seek to stamp out behavior that does not actively support the state. A totalitarian regime, explained Irving Howe, “tries to give the state total power over all areas of human life, to destroy civil society entirely, and to extend state ownership over all things and all people.” As Hannah Arendt put it, “If totalitarianism takes its own claim seriously, it must come to the point where it has ‘to finish once and for all with the neutrality of chess,’ that is, with the autonomous existence of any activity whatsoever.”

What makes Rubio’s misuse of the “T-word” so ironic is that a careful distinction between “totalitarian” and “authoritarian” regimes was very central to the neoconservative tradition with which Rubio seems to identify. Neocon icon Jeane Kirkpatrick made it the focus of a very influential 1979 Commentary piece on “Dictatorships and Double Standards” in which she scored the Carter administration for failing to understand that support for right-wing authoritarian regimes was essential to the eventual emergence of democracy as a line of resistance against (Marxist) totalitarian regimes that would snuff out any hope of democracy forever. Kirkpatrick’s “doctrine” on this distinction became the standard Reagan administration rationale for its indifference to the human rights records of our authoritarian allies in the Cold War.

Somebody needs to school Rubio on his terminology.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.