Suddenly, for some weird unaccountable reason that has nothing to do with recent political developments, because obviously fascism is totally in the past and has nothing to do with our current post-racial post-nationalist utopia, I’ve become interested in the history of totalitarian regimes. Earlier in the year, I read quite a bit about Stalinist Russia (from which my takeaway was that it was astonishing how non-cynical and genuinely idealistic so many of those communists, including the leaders, happened to be–at times they would’ve achieved much better outcomes if they’d been a little more realistic), and now, over my honeymoon, I’ve made my way through William Shirer’s immense Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich.
In some ways I don’t know that this book is that great as an actual analysis of the reasons why Nazi Germany rose and developed the way it did. The book was written in the 50s, and it relies very heavily on the diaries and other communications by/from Germany political, military, and social leaders. As such, it tended to be more of a history of things people told themselves, rather than of things as they actually were.
However, I still was incredibly fascinated by all the little facets of Hitler’s rise that I wasn’t familiar with. Shirer begins with Hitler’s birth and upbringing, and he goes through to the establishment of the Nazi Party, and then his consolidation of power. There was just so much great stuff. All through our honeymoon, I kept going to Rachel and being like, “Wow, Hitler is doing some really insane stuff!”
For instance, I think one of the most fascinating things is that, after the abortive Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler transformed the Nazi Party into a genuine political party: one that contested and fought elections. They used strong arm tactics, it’s true, but they actually campaigned and won real elections, in which the terms were largely set by their political opponents. But then, the moment Hitler became Chancellor, and I mean literally on that day and on that week, he systematically dismantled his country’s democracy! I mean this is like if Donald Trump had, within his first year in office, said that there were gonna be no more state governments–the states would all be under the direct control of the federal government–and no more elections–and no more uncensored speech–and established a single party state–and created a secret police–and–and–
It was an astonishingly nimble maneuver. I would think, just sitting at home in my armchair, that organizations designed to contest elections would, necessarily, be democratic, and that they would be unwilling to accept this sort of totalitarian dominance. But nope the Nazi Party was an entire organization that was as cynical as Hitler and as committed to pursuing power by any means.
I also realized that much of Hitler’s success just came from the fact that he was willing to take astonishingly large gambles. Other people might move cautiously when it comes to taking power, but nope, Hitler is like I’m gonna get appointed dictator within a few months of taking office. And in the early years of his expansion, Hitler routinely left his border with France totally uncovered in order to invade the Sudetenland or invade Austria or invade Poland. He took massive risks, of the sort you’re really not supposed to take. But I think his reasoning was that he was in an inherently weak position, and the only way for the weaker party to win is to be willing to risk more than the big guys.
Which put a lot of things in perspective for me. There are in this world so many seemingly incompetent people who are huge successes, and the temptation is to be like, well, maybe they’re secret geniuses. But they’re not! Really they’re just gamblers. Like Trump, every time he opened his mouth, he bet big. Other politicians would backpedal and avoid the shit he said, because they might be able to win by playing it safe, but Trump could only win if he was able to set himself apart.
I don’t think this is an analysis Trump made though! I think that there have ALWAYS been gamblers in American political life: Ralph Nader, Bernie Sanders, Jesse Jackson, Lyndon LaRouche, George Wallace, Theodore Roosevelt (the third time he ran), William Jennings Bryan, Abraham Lincoln. And when the historical moment has been right, and the Republic has been at its weakest and most troubled, these gamblers have tended to win.
I was explaining this to Rachel and she was like, “Hmm, so we need to be willing to take big risks, then?”
And I was like, “I don’t know if that’s the takeaway.”
The problem is, you don’t know if now is your moment. Nobody does! Most gamblers fail! Political life contains a hundred thousand Donald Trumps who never went anywhere. And there’s no way, a priori, of knowing if you’re going to be the one who wins or the one who loses. The thing about gambling is that in the long run, you usually lose.
And it was the same with Hitler. He never really changed throughout his regime. Up to the last days of the war, he was still making big gambles. But the numbers eventually told against him.
The smart advice is “Don’t risk anything you can’t afford to lose.” But, historically, the most successful gamblers have risked plenty they couldn’t afford to lose. Lincoln and the Republican party risked the entire American experiment. They wagered with the lives of millions of people, free and enslaved. But the secessionists were big gamblers too. They risked even more than Lincoln, and they lost big. Hillary Clinton, when fighting the election, knew she was wagering not just her political future but with our entire nation’s, and she chose to play it safe. But the mere fact that she lost doesn’t mean she was wrong to do so! The things she did, and the way she fought, were designed to minimize Donald Trump’s chances of victory. If she’d gambled bigger, it would’ve entailed risks that, in the long run, probably would’ve eroded her chances of winning.
I think in any contest, assuming all you want is to win, I think what makes sense the most sense is for stronger opponent–the one who has the weight of money and institutional support–to play it safe, and for the weaker opponent to gamble.
The problem is that most big contests in real life don’t have repeats. What happens is what happens, and you either win or you lose. But if you view all American elections as being a continuation of the same contest, you see that playing it safe tends to be the better choice. Like what if, in 1992, either Clinton and Bush, seeing Perot temporarily in the lead, had pivoted and turned into insurgents? Well, probably the other major-party candidate would’ve won. But if Perot had won (which, for a while, you’ll remember, looked VERY possible), there’d have been a bunch of post-facto analysis about how the major party candidates dropped the ball.
A lot of pollsters got shit for not predicting Trump’s victory, but I, like everybody I know, was checking 538 every single day, and Nate Silver put Trump’s chances of victory at, like, 25 percent. He crunched the numbers and showed that there was high variability in some key states, which is why Trump had a higher chance of winning than Romney had had 4 years earlier, despite having the same poll numbers. And the mere fact that Trump won doesn’t invalidate his analysis.
Similarly, people are calling for major changes in what the Democratic party stands for and in how it fights elections, and I think those are merited, both for political and moral reasons, but not because of this election. In fact, if anything, the Democratic party is much stronger than the Republican party in presidential politics, and it is well-served by playing it safe. The Democratic party is weak because of the nature of our federal system, which gives seventy senators to thirty percent of the population. That’s a structural weaknesss, of exactly the sort that merits gambling.
In this, as with everything, what works best is to have actual principles and beliefs. If you have true moral beliefs then you don’t need to decide whether to gamble or to play it safe, because you’re not simply playing to win: you’re playing to win right. If you have real moral beliefs, then there are terms on which you’d refuse to win and there are things for which you believe it is truly important to speak out for. Unfortunately, I think having real, deeply-felt moral beliefs is generally a gamble in political life. Which is not to say that no moral people exist in politics! In fact I think politics is full of moral people: it’s just that the winners tend to be those with moral systems that are compatible with the, to me, abhorrent things that an American politician (wage aggressive war, support the prison state, maintain universal surveillance, etc) needs to espouse in order to win elections.
That’s the problem with gambling. You are not unique and special, and you don’t get to win just because you’re a risk-taker. No, if you gamble, then you’re giving yourself over to the zeitgeist, and you will only win if your particular gamble happens to fit the needs of the people.