The Future is Not Set: Part 1

Note: this is part one of four of a very long blog post.  I decided rather than wait for it all to be finished to just serialize out the pieces I have mostly done. I’ll post Part 2 next week.

Prior to Trump being elected, back when everyone around me lived in a bubble of incredulity at the Republican candidate, conversations about the election would invariably pause at an ominous statement, “The problem isn’t just Trump, it’s the near majority of Americans who would vote for him.  Those voters aren’t going away.

Now that Trump is the president-elect many of us are deeply worried for the state of the country.  The truth is we should have been worried before the election.  Nationalism, Fascism, Alt-Right, whatever you want to call it has been on the rise in western democracies for a decade.  The National Front in France, which garnered 10% of the regional council votes in 1986, has steadily risen to 28% of the vote in 2015.  Freedom Party of Austria went from 10% of the national election results in 1986 to 21% in 2013, and nearly won the presidential election in 2016 (46%).  Nationalistic political parties now command European parliamentary seats (Country – Percent of vote from citizens of that country): National Front (France – 25%), Party for Freedom (Dutch – 13%), Freedom Party of Austria (Austria – 20%), Flemish Interest (Belgium – 4%), Congress of the new Right (Poland – 7%), Alternative for Germany (Germany – 7%).  These parties have joined together to form the “Europe of Nations and Freedom” voting block.  Their platforms will now be familiar to American voters: administrative detention (imprisonment to “prevent” crime), a strong stance against immigration, and a general skepticism of globalist institutions and policies;  [insert your country here]-first rhetoric.

The clearest writing on the wall that liberial (in the broad sense of the word) Americans chose to ignore is Brexit.  Just as with the 2016 presidential race, the pundits and pollsters were caught blindsided.  No one expected 52% of the UK population to vote to leave the EU, particularly when most polls were running 5% below this mark.  The hand wringing that occurred afterwards is familiar: Did pollsters have the sample correct?  Was the media and political leadership tone-deaf?  Are people not willing to fess up to being racist to a pollster?  The attempt to ignore the true scope of the loss is also familiar: a bare majority isn’t a clear mandate (“Trump lost the popular vote”), many of the Ramainders in The City didn’t bother to vote anyway because they never expected to lose (“Democrats didn’t go to the polls”), a vote for Brexit is a vote against immigrants (“Hillary lost because she is a woman”).  To cling to these explanations is to ignore the broader picture of what is going on globally in western democracies.

The Rise of Nationalism in the 1920s and 30s

To make sense of these times I’ve spent a lot of time looking to the most famous and extreme example of nationalism in the 20th century — the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.  The National Socialist German Worker’s Party (NSDAP) went from a fringe party in 1924 (6.5% of the vote), declining further to 2.6% in 1928 to a stunning rise (1930 – 18.3%) and then 37.3% in July of 1932 and 33.1% in November of 1932.  At this point Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany and a coalition government with the Germany National People’s Party (DNVP) was formed.  The DNVP can be summarized as nationalism-light, and competed with the NSDAP for the Chancellorship.

Key point #1: Hitler was elected.  He did not come by the Chancellorship through a coup d’Ètat.  And moreover the combined NSDAP (33%) and DNVP (8.3%) vote did not even break the 50% mark.  When a sizable minority of your countrymen want a nationalist government, you have a real problem on your hands.

Hitler did not come to power in a vacuum.  Nationalism was on the rise in the 20’s and 30’s throughout Europe.  The Fascist in Italy went from a failing political party in 1919 to a march on Rome with less than 1% of the population in 1922 that overthrew the government.  Franco’s government in Spain traces its roots to the Falange Española de la JONS in 1933.  Austria had the Fatherland Front also in 1933.  Greece came under Fascist rule in 1936 with the 4th of August Regime.  Sanation came to power in Poland with a coup d’Ètat in 1926.  Norway had the Nasjonal Samling which never managed to garner more than 2.5% of the vote, yet coarsened the political dialogue and opened the door for the subsequent Nazi invasion.

Key point #2: Nationalism comes as a global wave in the western world.   The United States in 2016 isn’t unique, and now we see, isn’t immune.

A Catalyst

In early 1933 Hitler (leader of the NSDAP) was Chancellor and Papen (leader of the DNVP) Vice Chancellor.  Germany still had a functioning democracy and a constitution that guaranteed certain fundamental rights – habeas corpus, freedom of the press, freedom of speech and association, and protections against the government seizing property or warrantless searches.

And then a terrorist strike happened.

Early on the morning of February 27th, 1933 the Reichstagsbrandveordnung, essentially the house where the government met, caught fire.  The fire was blamed on members of the KDP (communists).  In response, Hitler, who had been Chancellor for only one month, argued such an extraordinary event (“9/11”) was a clear sign the KDP communists (“Al Queda”) needed to be delt with as they presented a clear threat to the government, and hence the Reirchstag Fire Decree (“Patriot Act”) was necessary.

Key point #3: Politicians will exploit your fear because they know it’s when you are most likely willing to bargain away your principles.

The next few steps you can almost predict, but the timing of them is key to pay attention to.  Within two weeks the Nazi’s used the suspension of civil liberties to round-up and imprison nearly 10,000 of their enemies.  Unfavorable news and politicking were suppressed.  Then almost immediately afterwards, on March 5th 1933 the Germans voted again.  This time the NSDAP party increased their vote share to 43.9%.  Still a minority.

Having not achieved a legislative majority outright, Hitler continued to capitalize on the “communist threat”.  On March 24th 1933, less than three weeks after elections, the German government passed the Enabling Act.  This act essentially abdicated the role of the German parliament (the Reichstag and Reichstrat as it is known).  Except for limited restrictions, such as the need for it to be renewed, it gave the Hitler government free rein to pass laws and even change the constitution.  Hitler and the NSDAP did not think they would have the 2/3’s votes necessary to pass it, so they set about changing the rules and intimidating representatives.  But at the end of the day they cut a deal with the German Center Party (Zentrum) and passed the act.  By July the Nazis used their dictatorial powers to outlaw all other political parties and within a year the cabinet was effectively not being consulted anymore.  Hitler had become the dictator he always wanted to be.

Key point #4: Nations can change in the blink of an eye.  Hitler went from a contender (July 1932), to Chancellor (January 1933) to effective Dictator (March – July 1933) in less than a year.

This post is continued with Part two, available here.

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