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The elephant and the lone star

The message from Barack Obama’s victory in the 2012 election was that Latino America holds the balance of power. But in Texas, it seems — despite Bush’s best efforts — that hasn’t yet sunk in to Republican minds.

Eddi Regolado still cries when he hears the national anthem: not that of his native Nicaragua, from which he fled with his family during the long civil war when he was seven, but of his new and adoptive home, the United States of America. He and his family settled in Texas in the state capital, Austin, but the citizenship process was arduous. It took Regolado nearly 20 years to naturalise but he doesn’t mind. “Every single member of my family loves the US,” he says. “We’re proud to be here.”

He works two and a half blocks north of the state capitol building in Austin – practically in the shadow of its hulking red dome – as the general manager at El Mercado, an airy and pleasant Mexican eatery. Over chalupas (a sort of stuffed taco shell salad) and margaritas, he tells me he still feels nostalgic about Nicaragua. “Going back is like going to my mother’s house. America is like, our wife. But it’s good to see Mother from time to time.”

Regolado is a Democrat. His parents are Democrats. Pretty much his whole family votes Democrat. He says Latinos lean that way because the Democrats “tend to help out more with immigration. When you’re new, from a different country – how do I put this? – a lot of families have a hard time assimilating. The Democrats help out with that. It’s not loyalty, exactly, but that’s why they tend to vote the way they do.”

He feels the Democrats are just making more of an effort to reach his community. “All the minorities, really.”

He thinks that as the Latino population of Texas increases in size, there will be a process of realisation of power for his community, a realisation that engagement with the political system can help Latinos get their voices heard. If they wake up in this way – and if the Republicans continue to alienate Regolado and his family in the way they are doing – at some point soon the Democrats could take Texas. Here’s how important this is: in a presidential election, Texas has 38 electoral college votes, the second most of any state, behind only California. If the Democrats turn Texas, that’s it for the Republicans. Game over. Lights out. Unless the Republican Party reforms beyond all recognition, there might never be a Republican president ever again.

***

Texas was annexed from Mexico by colonists from the US in the 1830s, birthing the short-lived independent Republic of Texas after a short but bloody conflict, the most famous battle of which was the Alamo in 1836. It was pretty much the last battle Texas lost, a massacre of 187 troops holed up inside a mission in San Antonio, routed by General López de Santa Anna’s army of more than 5,000. Outside the capitol building, two blocks from El Mercado, is a statue commemorating the heroes of that battle. The fight begat a rallying call that Texan patriots remember to this day: “Remember the Alamo!”

In some parts of the population, especially among the older white males and especially in more rural areas, there is a kind of inherited memory that still attaches great importance to the Battle of the Alamo. They see Texas as a white bastion, and their sense of the loss of the 1836 republic, a sense that in some intangible way they are being overrun, is a powerful political force. It most often emerges in the form of an obsession with policing the borders and finding and deporting illegal immigrants.

During last year’s presidential election, to avoid being outflanked on the right by competitors such as Herman Cain and Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney engaged in antiimmigrant rhetoric, making much-criticised proposals about “self-deportation”. Unsurprisingly, Romney’s support among Hispanics on election day was catastrophically low, 44 points behind Barack Obama – yet he was seen as a moderate candidate by current Republican standards.

“I’m not in the crystal ball business,” says Bill White, a former mayor of Houston and Democratic gubernatorial candidate who ran against Rick Perry for governor of Texas in 2010 and who, despite losing overall, received a greater share of the vote than any Democrat in the state’s history. “But if the Republican Party continues on its present course, then they will become a minority party in Texas.”

Latinos today make up 38 per cent of the electorate in Texas, a proportion that is growing swiftly, but they are under-represented in the Republican Party; out of a GOP delegation of 95 in the Texas House of Representatives, only three are Hispanic, while Latinos form an absolute majority of the Democratic delegation: 29 out of 55. This is a good sign for the Democrats. Latino voters represent a segment of the population that is increasing sharply both in size and in political engagement, and the Republican Party seems hellbent on alienating them.

Professor Mark Jones, who chairs the political science department at Rice University in Houston, warns that the Democrats can’t just wait for the demographic shift to come to them. “If the Democrats sit back and do nothing, they’re depending on the Republicans continuing to commit the same errors they’ve been making up until now,” he says. “The worst-case Democrat scenario is, they do nothing, and the Republicans bite the bullet and kick the immigration issue. If that happens, then the Republicans can cling on to dominant status here for 20 to 30 years.”

But, Jones says, if the Republicans don’t rid themselves of their anti-immigrant rhetoric, even if Democrats continue to sit back and do nothing, the state could shift sooner than that: perhaps within 15 years. “The third scenario, the best-case scenario for Democrats, is that Republicans continue the same way – adopting a very hard line on immigration; allowing that to dominate the image of the party – while Democrats get their act together and do a good job of mobilising and registering Hispanics. Then we could see a shift even sooner: in, say, eight years.” That means Texas would flip to the Democrats more or less “by the end of the decade”.

***

In the 2010 census, Texas had grown sufficiently to merit the addition of four seats in Congress – the number of federal senators is fixed at two per state regardless of size but the House of Representatives uses a metric based on population. That growth was almost exclusively in the Hispanic population.

However, it is important to note the differences within that community. National political strategists have usually lumped all Hispanic interests together, but this is wrong. Even at a casual glance, the Mexican-American population is very different from the Cuban Americans, who lean more conservative. Most of the Republican Party’s highprofile Hispanic candidates: Marco Rubio in Florida, Ted Cruz in Texas – candidates on whom the party pins its hopes for winning over the entire Latino community – are Cuban-American and will struggle to win over the Hispanic voting bloc en masse. To win the primary for his Senate race, Cruz ran to the right on many issues that the Latino community finds troubling, promising to build a wall at the border, for instance, and to triple the size of the border patrol. This has not found him favour with many Latino voters. Eddi Regolado, for one, says that he thinks they would be much more likely to support a white Democratic presidential candidate such as Hillary Clinton than someone like Cruz or Rubio.

“It’s interesting in Texas that the reputation of the state is [that] it’s overwhelmingly Republican,” says Joe Holley, the political editor of the Houston Chronicle. “And yet every one of its big cities are Democratic.” To some extent, Texas has always been a oneparty state, and it was actually a Democratic stronghold from the Reconstruction era – the 1860s and 1870s – right up until the 1980s, as Holley explains. It gradually began to change in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and by the 1990s Texas was still a one-party state, but that was now the Republican Party.

Now, once again, the demographic change is slowly loading weight back on the other side of the see-saw.

“This is sort of, in kind of a quirky way, the second Texas Revolution,” says Holley, smiling. “And this time, the Mexicans are going to win.”

***

Jon Greene teaches English as a foreign language in downtown Houston, and he invites me to sit in with him on the course. It’s a chilly Thursday night, the last lesson of the term. There are ten people here, some young and some old, all Hispanic. Immigration is a sensitive subject in Texas, so the status of the students – illegal or legal – is off the table, as are names. I will lend some of the classmates a nom de guerre for the purposes of this article. The class is split about half and half between those of Mexican and El Salvadorean origins. Most say they came to America looking for work, or as children with their parents doing the same. A few of the El Salvadoreans say they came fleeing violence; a civil war raged in El Salvador from 1979 to 1992.

Many are educated professionals in their country of origin but struggle to find work in the US – one, Sofia, a lawyer back in Mexico, has been working as a babysitter. Many of the students are here because speaking English helps in the search for work, but many are also here to help them communicate with younger, more integrated members of their families. Cristina, who came to the US in 1980, is one of the latter: her daughter is an opera singer and her son is a trainee journalist, and for both of them their first language is English.

I ask a few questions about politics. Greene, their teacher, had warned me that the English of some of the students was pretty basic, but we make impressive progress as the class warms to the subject.

After introductions, we go around the room namechecking highprofile Hispanic politicians. Many of them talk about Adrian Garcia, the popular sheriff of Harris County in metropolitan Houston. Rick Perry, the Republican governor, gets short shrift, but the Castro brothers – Joaquin and Julián, the former the new congressman for the 20th district of Texas and the latter the mayor of San Antonio, whose keynote speech at last year’s Democratic National Convention gave him a public profile across the country – are warmly approved. Maria cites the appointment to the Supreme Court of Sonia Sotomayor, a Puerto Rican, as another sign of a Hispanic political awakening.

“This is the first time a black person stands for president,” says Juana, from Mexico. “Maybe next time, a Hispanic?”

“Maybe a woman, too?” Cristina shoots back. Grins of female solidarity dart across the room. Some of the men – somewhat unwisely – giggle. Sofia the lawyer snaps at them in Spanish, and the debate descends into a lively row.

I ask if any of them is a particular fan of the Republican Party. That makes everyone go quiet. There is a long silence, broken by a cough. Cristina shakes her head slowly. How about Romney? “He don’t like the Hispanic people,” says Rafael, one of the younger El Salvadoreans. There are murmurs of agreement. “I vote for Democrats. I’m a Democrat,” Cristina says. The other classmates nod their assent.

***

The following day, as the storm cloud that has been hanging over Houston for days finally breaks into torrential rain, I drive out to an adjunct tower block near the Rice University campus to meet Steve Murdock, the director of the Hobby Centre for the Study of Texas, a professor of sociology, a former official state demographer for Texas and, before that, the director of the US Census Bureau.

Murdock, as his background would imply, is a man who loves his data. My interview with him involved the prolonged viewing of no fewer than 120 charts and visualisations showing projections of the Hispanic populations of Texas and the US. As he says to me with a grin when I sit down: “You have to watch out for a demographer – they always want to show you data.”

The numbers are staggering. In the age group 65 and over, there are many more Anglos – a Southern slang term for non-Hispanic whites – than Hispanics: 67.6 per cent to 20.5. But as age descends, the ratios switch over. In the 35-to-39 age group they are about equal and by the time you get to the under-fives there are considerably more Hispanics than Anglos – 50.6 per cent to 31.7 per cent. In total, Hispanics account for 48.3 per cent of the under-18s in the state and that figure is rising. By the time the current cohort of children is of voting age, Hispanics will be the majority in Texas.

“You really have, in the US, two populations,” says Murdock, as lightning streaks the sky outside: “an ageing set of non-Hispanic whites, whose fertility has been below replacement for over 20 years, and a young and growing minority population.”

Texas and other states that have had high levels of Hispanic immigration, such as California, are some decades ahead of the curve, yet the census data shows a similar trend in the US as a whole. “[What we’re seeing is] one of the largest changes to occur in US history in terms of broad changes in ethnic composition,” Murdock says.

He shows me another graph, this time of projections of the US population out towards 2050. It shows a dramatic shift. The non-Hispanic white population rises just seven million, from 196 million to 203 million. The Hispanic population, however, nearly quadruples, from 36 million to 133 million. The difference in percentage change is enormous. In Texas, the projection is even starker. Assuming zero net migration, the population of Texas will be majority Hispanic – just – by 2030. Assuming the same net migration as in the years 2000-2010, that will happen before the end of the decade, and the projection is that by 2050 Texas will have nearly three times as many Hispanics as Anglos – although, because that figure includes the under-18s, the switch-over from minority to majority in terms of the electorate will happen a little while later. Murdock is the first to note that long-term projections can be shaky – there is a wide margin of error at play – but according to even his most conservative estimates, the change is inevit able. “Demographically,” he says, “we’re not looking with much question at what the future is going to be.”

***

Demographics are different from politics. While the former may be changing swiftly and unstoppably, working out how this will affect the latter is a more complex endeavour. By no means should we take it for granted that a rising Hispanic population will lead to a corresponding rise in the Democrat vote – and the Democrats have been blasé in their approach to Texas.

I ask Mark Jones at Rice if that attitude on the left is matched by a disbelief on the Republican side that they could ever lose Texas. “I think the Republican pragmatists get it,” he says. “Even privately, some of the right wing gets it; they just don’t want to say it publicly. But the problem they run into is convincing those people who vote in primaries, some of the real activists, who either don’t believe it – they just don’t see a linkage between their rhetoric and the Hispanic vote – or who believe Latinos are all hooked on welfare and they’re never going to win them over.”

Maria Baños Jordan is the executive director of the Texas Latino Leadership Roundtable, a group that aims to foster and encourage leadership and political engagement in the Latino community. She is of mixed Hispanic origin. Her father was a Cuban refugee who came to the US in the early 1960s after the rise of Fidel Castro; her mother was a Mexican immigrant. They met in Houston.

“I grew up in the change, in the time where Houston started to really just explode, and the population started to become more diverse. When I was a little girl, I was the only Latina in my class. So I know what that felt like, and I know what it felt like to be questioned about your culture, and your behaviours and your tradition.”

Today, by contrast, the public school system in Texas is overwhelmingly Hispanicmajority, a reflection of the changing demographics. In Houston, non-Hispanic whites account for just 7.8 per cent of enrolled students. Hispanic students account for 61.9 per cent. Jordan’s organisation, in parallel, has taken off in a big way in recent years. “The feel in Texas right now,” she says, “is that the state is ripe for more Latino leadership.”

I wonder why an established, resident and maybe second- or third- or even fourth-generation immigrant population still gets angry about legislation affecting new or illegal immigrants. “The immigration issue is such an emotional one,” Jordan says, “especially when there are so many families that are intermarried, whether documented or undocumented, or first-generation or second-generation.

“It’s not black-and-white. We all have close friends or relatives that have issues with immigration. We’re dealing with it on a daily basis, so we are very tied to it. And we know that the law’s the law, but we need to see respect and dignity brought into the conversation. And it just hasn’t gotten to that point yet.”

“To be honest,” says Eddi Regolado, “illegal immigration will never stop. People would rather take their chances than stay. A fence is not going to keep people out. This country was founded by immigrants. There has to be a way to help people.”

Hispanic-American support for the Democrats is not fixed; historically, it has fluctuated from election to election. Latinos came out in force in 2012 for Obama – 71 per cent of them voted Democrat, according to the Pew Research Centre, a level of support surpassed only in Bill Clinton’s 1996 race against Bob Dole, in which 72 per cent voted Democrat. But the Bushes, George and George W, clawed back a large part of the percentage point gap among Hispanics, so much so that where Obama was 44 points clear of Romney, George W Bush’s support in 2004 was just 18 points shy of John Kerry’s – still a big gap, but a much healthier margin.

Leonard Rodriguez, a San Antonio native, was partly responsible for this. He was George W Bush’s head of Latino outreach and later worked in the Bush White House as a strategist. It was Bush’s political mastermind, Karl Rove, who first got him involved with garnering Latino support, and that was from the very beginning of the primary season, at the Iowa straw poll.

By contrast, Romney didn’t have anyone working on speaking to Latinos until much, much later in the campaign – by which time, Rodriguez tells me, it was “way too late” to push for any possible victory.

Even though Hispanics in Texas voted in higher numbers than was expected in 2012, and even though they voted overwhelmingly for Obama, there’s still a question as to when they will reach optimal force and influence and, more pertinently, whether the vote will be so dissipated when that happens that it will become no more or less significant than the Italian vote or the German vote. Republicans are hoping that, as the Latino community becomes more assimilated, it will vote less on immigration and more on social and economic issues – issues that Republicans hope they can use to strike a chord with Latinos as a socially conservative Catholic community that places high emphasis on family values. But those same values will also mean Hispanics identify Republicans as being “not for them” long after they have assimilated.

Bush continued to be sensitive to Hispanic Americans throughout his campaign, saying in a speech during a campaign stop in Texas in 2000: “Family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande River . . . People are coming to America because they are moms and dads trying to feed their children. As long as people are coming to feed their families, our country must be mindful that they’re human beings as well.” Just imagine a Republican candidate winning in the primaries today after giving a speech like that.

It didn’t stop after Bush’s victory, either. In 2001, one of his first actions as president was to change the custom of a new White House administration inviting the Canadian leader to be the guest at its first state dinner: Bush’s first state dinner was with the president of Mexico. “Compassionate conservatism” was to be at the heart of his administration’s domestic policy, and that meant credible immigration and domestic reform. At last, here was a conservative willing – even eager – to reach out to the Latino community.

“And then,” Leonard Rodriguez says, “we got hit with 9/11. No longer was that [domestic and immigration reform] agenda we’d been working on a top priority . . . since then, [Republicans have] been hijacked by this very right-wing, anti-immigrant dialect, and that’s one of the things the party’s been struggling with ever since.”

Maria Baños Jordan says that when Romney started to speak out against immigration and talk about imposing “self-deportation”, she “immediately know it was over. It showed that, whatever advice he was receiving, he was absolutely out of touch with what was happening across the nation.

“It was sad, in the sense that I felt that there were many Latinos waiting for someone to step up and speak to them with respect and in a way that translated, and at that point it was obviously not going to happen. And I don’t think he ever recovered.” T here is no doubt that it is the Republicans’ stance on immigration that is destroying them. At present, there is little discernible sign of interest in the party in doing anything about it.

Rodriguez is deeply saddened by this. “If you look at the structure of the Republican Party, I doubt they’ll go back to what Bush was trying to teach them, even when the party gets its leadership together. They’ll go back to the bad habits. I don’t expect that there’s going to be any Hispanic personnel in the next Republican Party.”

***

Towards the end of my time in Texas, I finally make the pilgrimage to San Antonio to see the Alamo. The shape of the old building – actually the original chapel, where the women and children took shelter – is instantly familiar. Outside, schoolchildren, most of them Latino, are gathering. A preacher, old and bearded and spitting vigorously, harangues the crowd. It is December but it is still very hot outside. A sign says “Welcome to the Alamo: the shrine of Texas liberty”.

Inside, it is cooler. Tourists study the displays of banners and scale models of the battle that are scattered about. I speak to one, a US army veteran and third-generation Mexican American who is visiting with his family. I ask what this place means to him, and he nods over his shoulder at the elderly white couple gazing at a glass case with Davy Crockett’s leather pouch in it.

“To a white Texan, it means everything,” he says. Then he asks if I can quote him anonymously. Yes, I say, absolutely.

“Me personally?” He leans in towards me conspiratorially. “I don’t give a shit about this place.”

Nicky Woolf is a contributing writer to GQ and reports for the New Statesman from the United States

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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A nervous breakdown in the body politic

Are we too complacent in thinking that the toxic brew of paranoia and populism that brought Hitler to power will never be repeated?

The conventional wisdom holds that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, in Edmund Burke’s familiar phrase; but this is at best a half-truth. Studying the biography of a moral monster triumphantly unleashed on the political and international stage points us to another perspective, no less important. What is necessary for the triumph of evil is that the ground should have been thoroughly prepared by countless small or not-so-small acts of petty malice, unthinking prejudice and collusion. Burke’s axiom, though it represents a powerful challenge to apathy, risks crediting evil with too much of a life of its own: out there, there are evil agencies, hostile to “us”, and we (good men and women) must mobilise to resist.

No doubt; but mobilising intelligently demands being willing to ask what habits and assumptions, as well as what chances and conditions, have made possible the risk of evil triumphing. And that leads us into deep waters, to a recognition of how what we tolerate or ignore or underestimate opens the way for disaster, the ways in which we are at least half-consciously complicit. If this is not to be the silly we-are-all-guilty response that has rightly been so much mocked, nor an absolution for the direct agents of great horrors, it needs a careful and unsparing scrutiny of the processes by which cultures become corruptible, vulnerable to the agendas of damaged and obsessional individuals.

This can be uncomfortable. It raises the awkward issue of what philosophers have learned to call “moral luck” – the fact that some people with immense potential for evil don’t actualise it, because the circumstances don’t present them with the chance, and that some others who might have spent their lives in blameless normality end up supervising transports to Auschwitz. Or, to take a sharply contemporary example, that one Muslim youth from a disturbed or challenging background becomes a suicide bomber but another from exactly the same background doesn’t. It is as though there were a sort of diabolical mirror image for the biblical Parable of the Sower: some seeds grow and some don’t, depending on the ground they fall on, or what chance external stimulus touches them at critical moments.

If what interests us is simply how to assign individuals rapidly and definitively to the categories of sheep and goats, saved and damned, this is offensively frustrating. But if we recognise that evil is in important respects a shared enterprise, we may be prompted to look harder at those patterns of behaviour and interaction that – in the worst cases – give permission to those who are most capable of extreme destructiveness, and to examine our personal, political and social life in the light of this.

***

It would be possible to argue that the anti-Semitism of a lot of German culture – as of European Christian culture overall – was never (at least in the modern period) genocidal and obsessed with absolute racial purity; limited but real possibilities of integration were taken for granted, converts to Christianity were not disadvantaged merely because of their race, and so on. Yet the truth is that this cultural hinterland offered a foothold to the mania of Adolf Hitler; that it gave him just enough of the permission he needed to identify his society’s problems with this clearly definable “alien” presence. In his new book, Hitler: the Ascent, Volker Ullrich compellingly tells us once again that no one could have been under any illusion about Hitler’s general intentions towards the Jews from his very first appearance as a political figure, even if the detailed planning of genocide (lucidly traced in the late David Cesarani’s recent, encyclopaedic Final Solution) took some time to solidify. Yet so much of the German public heard Hitler’s language as the slightly exaggerated version of a familiar trope and felt able to treat it as at worst an embarrassing overstatement of a common, even a common-sense, view. One of the most disturbing things about this story is the failure of so many (inside and outside Germany) to grasp that Hitler meant what he said; and this failure in turn reinforced the delusion of those who thought they could use and then sideline Hitler.

To say that Hitler “meant what he said”, however, can be misleading. It is one of the repeated and focal themes in Ullrich’s book that Hitler was a brazen, almost compulsive liar – or, perhaps better, a compulsive and inventive actor, devising a huge range of dramatic roles for himself: frustrated artist, creative patron, philosopher-king (there is a fine chapter on the intellectual and artistic circle he assembled frequently at his Berchtesgaden residence), workers’ friend, martyr for his people (he constantly insinuated that he believed himself doomed to a tragic and premature death), military or economic messiah and a good deal else besides. His notorious outbursts of hysterical rage seem to have been skilfully orchestrated as instruments of intimidation (though this did not exactly indicate that he was otherwise predictable). Ullrich devotes a fair measure of attention to the literal staging of National Socialism, the architectural gigantism of Albert Speer which gave the Führer the sophisticated theatre he craved. In all sorts of ways, Hitler’s regime was a profoundly theatrical exercise, from the great public displays at Nuremberg and the replanning of Berlin to the various private fantasies enacted by him and his close associates (Göring above all), and from the emotional roller coaster he created for his circle to the dangerously accelerated rate of military-industrial expansion with which he concealed the void at the centre of the German economy.

Theatre both presupposes and creates a public. In the anxiety and despair of post-Versailles Germany, there was a ready audience for the high drama of Nazism, including its scapegoating of demonic enemies within and without. And in turn, the shrill pitch of Hitler’s quasi-liturgies normalised a whole set of bizarre and fantastic constructions of reality. A N Wilson’s challenging novel Winnie and Wolf, a fantasia on Hitler’s relations with Winifred Wagner, culminates in a scene at the end of the war where refugees and destitute citizens in Bayreuth raid the wardrobe of the opera house and wander the streets dressed in moth-eaten costumes; it is an unforgettable metaphor for one of the effects of Hitlerian theatre. Ullrich leaves his readers contemplating the picture of a vast collective drama centred on a personality that was not – as some biographers have suggested – something of a cipher, but that of a fantasist on a grand scale, endowed with a huge literal and metaphorical budget for staging his work.

All of this prompts questions about how it is that apparently sophisticated political systems succumb to corporate nervous breakdowns. It is anything but an academic question in a contemporary world where theatrical politics, tribal scapegoating and variegated confusions about the rule of law are increasingly in evidence. On this last point, it is still shocking to realise how rapidly post-Versailles Germany came to regard violent public conflict between heavily armed militias as almost routine, and this is an important background to the embittered negotiations later on around the relation between Hitler’s Sturmabteilung and the official organs of state coercion. Ullrich’s insightful account of a de facto civil war in Bavaria in the early 1920s makes it mercilessly plain that any pretensions to a state monopoly of coercion in Germany in this period were empty.

Yet the idea of such a state monopoly is in fact essential to anything that could be called a legitimate democracy. In effect, the polity of the Third Reich “privatised” coer­cion: again and again in Ullrich’s book, in the struggles for power before 1933, we see Nazi politicians successfully bidding for control of the mechanisms of public order in the German regions, and more or less franchising public order to their own agencies. A classical democratic political philosophy would argue that the state alone has the right to use force because the state is the guarantor of every community’s and every individual’s access to redress for injury or injustice. If state coercion becomes a tool for any one element in the social complex, it loses legitimacy. It is bound up with the rule of law, which is about something more than mere majority consent. One way of reading the rise of Hitler and National Socialism is as the steady and consistent normalising of illegitimate or partisan force, undermining any concept of an independent guarantee of lawfulness in society. It is the deliberate dissolution of the idea of a Rechtsstaat, a law-governed state order that can be recognised by citizens as organised for their common and individual good. Rule by decree, the common pattern of Nazi governmental practice, worked in harness with law enforcement by a force that was essentially a toxic hybrid, combining what was left of an independent police operation with a highly organised party militia system.

So, one of the general imperatives with which Hitler’s story might leave us is the need to keep a clear sense of what the proper work of the state involves. Arguments about the ideal “size” of the state are often spectacularly indifferent to the basic question of what the irreducible functions of state authority are – and so to the question of what cannot be franchised or delegated to non-state actors (it is extraordinary that we have in the UK apparently accepted without much debate the idea that prison security can be sold off to private interests). This is not the same as saying that privatisation in general leads to fascism; the issues around the limits to state direction of an economy are complex. However, a refusal to ask some fundamental questions about the limits of “franchising” corrodes the idea of real democratic legitimacy – the legitimacy that arises from an assurance to every citizen that, whatever their convictions or their purchasing power, the state is there to secure their access to justice. And, connected with this, there are issues about how we legislate: what are the proper processes of scrutiny for legislation, and how is populist and short-view legislation avoided? The Third Reich offers a masterclass in executive tyranny, and we need not only robust and intelligent counter-models, but a clear political theory to make sense of and defend those models.

***

Theatre has always been an aspect of the political. But there are different kinds of theatre. In ancient Athens, the annual Dionysia festival included the performance of tragedies that forced members of the audience to acknowledge the fragility of the political order and encouraged them to meditate on the divine interventions that set a boundary to vendetta and strife. Classical tragedy is, as political theatre, the exact opposite of Hitlerian drama, which repeatedly asserted the solid power of the Reich, the overcoming of weakness and division by the sheer, innate force of popular will as expressed through the Führer.

Contemporary political theatre is not – outside the more nakedly totalitarian states – a matter of Albert Speer-like spectacle and affirmation of a quasi-divine leader; but it is increasingly the product of a populist-oriented market, the parading of celebrities for popular approval, with limited possibilities for deep public discussion of policies advanced, and an assumption that politicians will be, above all, performers. It is not – to warn once again against cliché and exaggeration – that celebrity culture in politics is a short route to fascism. But a political theatre that never deals with the fragility of the context in which law and civility operate, that never admits the internal flaws and conflicts of a society, and never allows some corporate opening-up to the possibilities of reconciliation and reparation, is one that exploits, rather than resolves our anxieties. And, as such, it makes us politically weaker, more confused and fragmented.

The extraordinary mixture of farce and menace in Donald Trump’s campaign is a potent distillation of all this: a political theatre, divorced from realism, patience and human solidarity, bringing to the surface the buried poisons of a whole system and threatening its entire viability and rationality. But it is an extreme version of the way in which modern technology-and-image-driven communication intensifies the risks that beset the ideals of legitimate democracy.

And – think of Trump once again – one of the most seductively available tricks of such a theatre is the rhetoric of what could be called triumphant victimhood: we are menaced by such and such a group (Jews, mig­rants, Muslims, Freemasons, international business, Zionism, Marxism . . .), which has exerted its vast but covert influence to destroy us; but our native strength has brought us through and, given clear leadership, will soon, once and for all, guarantee our safety from these nightmare aliens.

***

This is a rhetoric that depends on ideas of collective guilt or collective malignity: plots ascribed to the agency of some dangerous minority are brandished in order to tarnish the name of entire communities. The dark legacy of much popular Christian language about collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus could be translated without much difficulty into talk about the responsibility of Jews for the violence and poverty afflicting Germans in the 1920s. (Shadows of the same myths still affect the way in which – as recent reports suggest – sinister, vague talk about Zionism and assumptions of a collective Jewish guilt for the actions of various Israeli politicians can become part of a climate that condones anti-Semitic bullying, or text messages saying “Hitler had a point”, on university campuses.)

Granted that there is no shortage of other candidates for demonic otherness in Europe and the United States (witness Trump’s language about Muslims and Mexicans), the specific and abiding lesson of Nazi anti-Semitism is the twofold recognition of the ease with which actually disadvantaged communities can be cast in the role of all-powerful subverters, and the way in which the path to violent exclusion of one kind or another can be prepared by cultures of casual bigotry and collective anxiety or self-pity, dramatised by high-temperature styles of media communication.

Marie Luise Knott’s recent short book Unlearning With Hannah Arendt (2014) revisits the controversy over Arendt’s notorious characterisation of the mindset of Nazism as “the banality of evil”, and brilliantly shows how her point is to do with the erosion in Hitlerian Germany of the capacity to think, to understand one’s agency as answerable to more than public pressure and fashion, to hold to notions of honour and dignity independent of status, convention or influence – but also, ultimately, the erosion of a sense of the ridiculous. The victory of public cliché and stereotype is, in Arendt’s terms, a protection against reality, “against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence”, as she memorably wrote in The Life of the Mind. Hitler was committed to the destruction of anything that challenged the simple self-identity and self-justification of the race and the nation; hence, as Ullrich shows in an acutely argued chapter of Hitler: a Biography, the Führer’s venom against the churches, despite their (generally) embarrassingly lukewarm resistance to the horrors of the Reich. The problem was that the churches’ rationale entailed just that accountability to more than power and political self-identity that Nazi philosophy treated as absolute. They had grounds for thinking Nazism not only evil, but absurd. Perhaps, then, one of the more unexpected questions we are left with by a study of political nightmare such as Ullrich’s excellent book is how we find the resources for identifying the absurd as well as for clarifying the grounds of law and honour.

The threats now faced by “developed” democracy are not those of the 1920s and 1930s; whatever rough beasts are on their way are unlikely to have the exact features of Hitler’s distinctive blend of criminality and melodrama. But this does not mean that we shouldn’t be looking as hard as we can at the lessons to be learned from the collapse of political legality, the collective panics and myths, the acceptance of delusional and violent public theatre that characterised Hitler’s Germany. For evil to triumph, what is necessary is for societies to stop thinking, to stop developing an eye for the absurd as well as the corrupt in language and action, public or private.

Hitler: a Biography – Volume I: Ascent by Volker Ullrich is published by the Bodley Head

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism