Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Why I’m a bit worried right now

This isn’t going to be a learned, academic piece. It’s my gut reaction to a news story, and so entirely subjective. Perhaps I’m being needlessly hysterical here — and if it’s any consolation, I really hope I’m badly mistaken. For once in my life, I would be really happy if, some time in the future, I have to stand up and say, “I was wrong, and I apologize to anyone who took my word for it.”

A few days ago, a man called Richard Spencer stood up in front of a small crowd of white men (I suppose there were some women there as well, but I didn’t notice any), told them their nation was created for them and for them only, and led them in a chorus of “Hail Trump”. Cue Nazi salutes.

A lot of people, on seeing that, will have felt shudders down the spine. I certainly did: there’s something very unsettling about witnessing the sort of scene you might expect in satirical comedy when it isn’t satire. The nearest thing you get to a laugh is watching an American trying to pronounce the “ü” in “Lügenpresse”.

It’s not the mere existence of people like this that worries me — they’ve always existed, and usually there aren’t enough of them to be more than a slight irritant. It’s the fact that they are uncomfortably close to power.

To be sure, I don’t think President Elect Trump is deliberately racist, or a Nazi. I think he’s a hopeless politician who lacks all the necessary skills to play the game, and he will lose. He certainly does have some very unpalatable views, and his despicable attitude towards women (to pick one example) doesn’t seem like an act. But I actually believe him when he says he condemns Spencer’s Alternative Right movement: it’s just that he doesn’t understand why it’s so important to nip that sort of thing in the bud, rather than wait for a journalist to ask him about it a few days later.

But it seems that the “alt-right” view Trump as their route to the White House, and it looks as if they’ve secured their first victory by installing their PR man as one of Trump’s key advisors. I am referring to Steve Bannon.

Until recently, Bannon ran Breitbart News, an online news platform that leans so far right it’s less of a platform and more of a slippery slope. This organisation appears very much to be the mouthpiece of the “alt-right”, in much the same way that Der Stürmer was the mouthpiece of the Nazi movement.

Would you rather your child had Nazism or Alt-Rightism?

Of course, I can’t find any official link between Breitbart and Spencer. But that doesn’t matter, because there was no official link between Der Stürmer and Hitler; indeed, for a brief period, the Nazis banned Der Stürmer (not for its content, but for its crude and borderline pornographic style). But Breitbart has no problems supporting Trump and echoing Spencer’s rhetoric, just as Der Stürmer had no problem introducing the wider public to Nazi propaganda.

Both publications criticized their champions for being “too soft” (Hitler was not ruthless enough against the Jews, Trump has gone soft on illegal immigrants), both purport to tell the truth while the evil “mainstream media” pander to elitist interests. The differences are that Breitbart looks superficially more respectable, and its former chief now has the President Elect’s ear.

Of course, Spencer’s movement is small, and most people — including most, I am sure, who voted Trump — would be horrified by it. But that’s basically the position the National Socialist German Workers’ Party — the NSDAP to give it its German abbreviation, also known as the Nazi Party by its detractors — was in less than 15 years before Hitler was appointed Chancellor: it was a small protest group based in Munich, whose members brawled in pubs. Its membership was so pitifully small that when it began issuing membership cards, it started the numbering at 500 just for the sake of saving its own embarrassment.

But it grew. It grew for many reasons, but feeding off the resentment of the masses was a big one. It benefitted from national emergencies, some fabricated (the Communist plot to burn down the Reichstag building), most not (the Great Depression). In fact, these national emergencies were exactly what the party needed, as it made it easier to bypass all the usual democratic checks and balances that should have stopped Hitler eventually — and illegally — assuming the role of President to become absolute ruler.

Looking at America today, there are plenty of national emergencies waiting in the wings. One of the first may well happen when it dawns on about 60 million Americans that Trump isn’t going to deliver half of what he promised. I have a very nasty suspicion that in later years, historians will point to how, in the decades leading up to whatever is about to be leashed upon us, large numbers of the citizenry weaponized themselves while the police became militarized to a degree that had even the military shaking its head in disbelief.

Of course, all of this is entirely speculative. I have no idea what will happen. Perhaps it will all blow over and we’ll all come to our senses. I hope it does. This is one of those rare moments when I actually hope that I end up looking like an ignorant idiot.