Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Just in time for election season: A new biography

Posted By on Wed, Sep 28, 2016 at 6:04 PM

click to enlarge KNOW HIM: A New York Times book review today brings him to mind.
  • KNOW HIM: A New York Times book review today brings him to mind.

Catching up on my reading this afternoon, I spied a New York Times review by Michiko Kakutani of a new biography on a towering political figure. Excerpts follow  of what sounds like a great read, except that I've disguised the book, subject and author by a variety of snips:

How did this politician — described by one eminent magazine editor ... as a “half-insane rascal,” a “pathetic dunderhead,” a “nowhere fool,” a “big mouth” — rise to power ....? What persuaded millions of ordinary [citizens]  to embrace him and his doctrine of hatred? How did this “most unlikely pretender to high state office” achieve absolute power in a once democratic country?

• He  was often described as an egomaniac who “only loved himself” — a narcissist with a taste for self-dramatization and ... a “characteristic fondness for superlatives.” His manic speeches and penchant for taking all-or-nothing risks raised questions about his capacity for self-control, even his sanity. But.... he had a “keen eye for the strengths and weaknesses of other people” and an ability to “instantaneously analyze and exploit situations.”

• He was known, among colleagues, for a “bottomless mendacity” that would later be magnified by a slick propaganda machine that used the latest technology ....  to spread his message. A former finance minister wrote that he  “was so thoroughly untruthful that he could no longer recognize the difference between lies and truth” and editors of one edition of [his biography] described it as a “swamp of lies, distortions, innuendoes, half-truths and real facts.”

• He was an effective orator and actor, adept at assuming various masks and feeding off the energy of his audiences. Although he concealed his anti-Semitism beneath a “mask of moderation” when trying to win the support of the socially liberal middle classes, he specialized in big, theatrical rallies staged with spectacular elements borrowed from the circus. Here, “He adapted the content of his speeches to suit the tastes of his lower-middle-class, nationalist-conservative, ethnic-chauvinist and anti-Semitic listeners." He peppered his speeches with coarse phrases and put-downs of hecklers. Even as he fomented chaos by playing to crowds’ fears and resentments, he offered himself as the visionary leader who could restore law and order.

• He increasingly presented himself in messianic terms, promising “to lead the country to a new era of national greatness,” though he was typically vague about his actual plans. He often harked back to a golden age for the country,  the better “to paint the present day in hues that were all the darker. Everywhere you looked now, there was only decline and decay.”

• His repertoire of topics was limited, and reading his speeches in retrospect, “it seems amazing that he attracted larger and larger audiences” with “repeated mantralike phrases” consisting largely of “accusations, vows of revenge and promises for the future.” But he virtually wrote the modern playbook on demagoguery, arguing in his book that propaganda must appeal to the emotions — not the reasoning powers — of the crowd. ....

• His rise was not inevitable... He benefited from a “constellation of crises that he was able to exploit cleverly and unscrupulously” — in addition to economic woes and unemployment, there was an “erosion of the political center” and a growing resentment of the elites. The unwillingness of political parties to compromise had contributed to a perception of government dysfunction and the belief of his supporters that the country needed “a man of iron” who could shake things up. ... 

• His ascension was aided and abetted by the naïveté of domestic adversaries who failed to appreciate his ruthlessness and tenacity, and by foreign statesmen who believed they could control his aggression. Early on, revulsion at his style and appearance led some critics to underestimate the man and his popularity, while others dismissed him as a celebrity, a repellent but fascinating “evening’s entertainment.” Politicians, for their part, suffered from the delusion that the dominance of traditional conservatives in the cabinet would neutralize the threat of abuse of power and “fence him  in.” “As far as his long-term wishes were concerned,” the author observes, “his conservative coalition partners believed either that he was not serious or that they could exert a moderating influence on him. In any case, they were severely mistaken.”

• The politician, it became obvious, could not be tamed — he needed only five months to consolidate absolute power .... 

• He had a dark, Darwinian view of the world. .. He would become the avatar of what Thomas Mann identified as a turning away from reason and the fundamental principles of a civil society — namely, “liberty, equality, education, optimism and belief in progress.”

I don't think this was a book review. I think it was an editorial. You can guess the subject of the biography in question. And the parallel.

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