His election that November came as a surprise. The conservative intellectuals had made telling arguments against his racism and conspiracy thinking. Rival nationalists had mocked his affection for a foreign tyrant. Businessmen had explained that economic isolation could only harm an export economy. All to no avail.
His followers had faith, of course. They had roared at his rallies and echoed his slogans. They had come out to vote, in higher numbers than expected, especially working-class men and women. Even so, the results of the election were paradoxical. The left received 1 million more votes than his party. But due to the vagaries of the electoral system he was called upon to form a government. His followers exulted, but the various right-wing elites preserved their calm. Although they had failed to keep him from power, they were sure that they could control him. He was good at convincing his followers that he was a revolutionary and convincing others that he was harmless.
His administration was at first a coalition of the old right and his new right. The members of the major left-wing party, historically larger than his, had a sense that something was afoot. But the left was divided upon itself and unsure about its leadership; its own conflicts could, from moment to moment, seem more pressing than the affairs of the country as a whole. He did not invent the highway, as his propaganda claimed, but he did support public works. This sort of thing helped to confuse the left and the workers.
Among much of the ordinary citizenry there was a certain faith that the political elite had matters under control. Among the elite there was a certain faith that state institutions would somehow protect themselves, that the rule of law and administrative habit would somehow maintain themselves. It was a minority that exulted in his power and a smaller minority that broke the windows and painted the symbols. Somehow, amid the misplaced hopes, his followers set the tone. As the mood changed, much of the citizenry began to think ahead about what he would want and make adjustments in advance. This made his task infinitely simpler.
Writers reflected upon how he was changing the language. He defined the world as a source of endless threat and other countries as cradles of countless enemies. Global conspiracies were supposedly directed at his country and its uniquely righteous people. His left-wing opponents and the national minorities, he insisted, were not individuals but expressions of implacable international enmity to the righteous demands of his own people. He said that he spoke for his people, that he was their voice. He had no concern for factuality; what he said about others was meant to generate a certain fiction. In some measure, he was working within the philosophical conventions of his time. Important thinkers of the era had declared that the idea of facts understood by individuals was humbug, opening the way for a sense of identity to be confused with the apprehension of truth. But he was also aware that mass media created the possibility to project big lies with such force that they drowned out the small truths. He had a certain undeniable charisma, and he was the first major politician of a new media age.
The terrorist attack came as a surprise. It was unclear whether he planned this himself, but it hardly mattered. He blamed the left, banned its parties, and had its leaders put in camps. A state of emergency was declared and never lifted. A one-party state emerged. The division of powers vanished. The parliament became a rubber stamp. The bureaucracy proved loyal to him. Bright and ambitious men with law degrees were found. For many lawyers and judges, professional ethics were somehow submerged in an understanding of the greater good of the nation, state, or race. Intelligent people found ways to place their own intellectual and moral evolution within this or that philosophical or legal tradition. The legal stigmatization of a chosen minority had the political consequence of binding everyone else closer to the state. The moment citizens did not oppose this measure, they were in effect supporting it. The moment they took advantage of it (by enrolling their children in schools that suddenly had empty places, for example), they were co-opted by it.
Many of those lawyers wore uniforms of a certain special kind. They were elite members of a certain institution, his bodyguard. He had called upon them to throw out dissenters at his rallies and to beat up opponents. An odd thing had happened when he had come to power. Suddenly people who had always presented themselves as being in opposition to the state were comfortable bearing arms for their personal leader. The process was of course an unruly one; some of these people had to be purged. He claimed, falsely, that a coup d’état had been staged against him and had one part of his bodyguard murder the leaders of another (and some of the old right-wing leaders in the bargain). Now his bodyguard started to seem like a means of social advance. Trained in racism and conspiratorial thinking, its men penetrated the organs of state, especially the police. If anyone had a chance to resist at this point, it was the commanders of the military and the directors of intelligence. A few of them were inclined to do so, but they overestimated themselves, failed to seek allies and counsel, and waited too long. Once the war started, it was too late.
The war came as a surprise. Although he had spoken endlessly about the need for struggle, it had not been so easy to find the pretext or the partner. In the beginning he had to concentrate on breaking treaties and pressuring neighbors. But then another strongman was happy to offer him an alliance. This brought what seemed like an easy beginning to conquest, and during combat political opposition became all but unthinkable. The bodyguard and the corporations negotiated exploitative public-private partnerships in conquered lands, known as “ghettos” or “camps.” The army was followed into the field by the paramilitary, which had its own tasks, such as mass murder. In the setting of war, not just the paramilitary but the police, the army, and even civilians carried out mass killings on a stupendous scale.
These crimes bound them all to him and to his mission and guaranteed that they would fight to the end. Having done great evil, they found it easy to imagine that the world was against them. His war would be lost. Only his crimes would be immortal. Before he killed himself he blamed his own country for his failures. And a nation that had once seemed destined to shape a century fell into the shade.