In ancient Rome, grabbing power was the default way to become emperor. Even in the Republic, achieving consulship required some serious bribery and corruption, subverting the process, whipping up the emotions of the people with simplistic slogans and the like. Power rarely passed cleanly or without disruption. Even my favourite emperor, Vespasian, seized power, although he was one of the ‘good guys’.
In the modern era, we had seemed to have learnt at last from world wars and politically totalitarian regimes that consensus and moderation are the preferred, if imperfect, way. I’m not a political scientist, but a translator/historian-turned-novel writer. My MA in history examined German women in the armed services during the Third Reich and demanded a fair amount of background research on how such a regime came to power. Richard Evans’ trilogy on the Third Reich is brilliant on the minutiae, but his first, The Coming of the Third Reich: How the Nazis Destroyed Democracy and Seized Power in Germany should be required reading for any modern historian or would be democratic politician. The essential takeaway is that Hitler was elected to power. His movement grew in a period of anger, instability and uncertainty. His promise was national pride, Germany first and doing away with ‘foreign’ influences.
I really hope I’m not drawing facile parallels, but in 2016, I saw populist emotion, backed rationally or irrationally by fear and fuelled by misconceptions, half-truths, platitudes, and downright lies come to the fore and produce some very strange outcomes, albeit through the electoral systems. Of course, excitement, challenging the establishment, a desire for change that will “solve all problems” or take us back to a (completely mythological) golden past are much more alluring than boring old plodding in a forward direction slowly making incremental improvements. It’s only when such “slow” progress is threatened or cut lose that we see how far we have come and what is in danger of disappearing.
And once an incumbent is in power, we naturally risk-averse human beings are very adaptable and try to ignore the things we know either intellectually or instinctively wrong. It takes a great deal of courage to make a stand in such circumstances.
If you want a really scary political thriller about subverting a presidential election, read Ted Allbeury’s The Twentieth Day of January…
A spookily prescient espionage thriller from one of the masters of the genre. What if the Soviet Union gained control over the US Presidency? SIS agent James Mackay fears that this may already be happening when he realises the newly elected president’s press secretary is a former communist radical with links to the KGB. When the witnesses who support his suspicions are systematically eliminated, MacKay must race against time to prove that the President-Elect is not his own man before Inauguration Day and avoid a national catastrophe.
Pointing no fingers, it does look like a lot of coincidences in 2016. Or The Twentieth of January could just be a made up ‘what if’ story…
When I was drafting my first three Roma Nova thrillers, I referred to the main character’s love interest’s background when he had been brutalised by a cousin who had grabbed power twenty-three years before the start of the first book. It was a writerly technique to round out that character as a damaged soul behind a very tough exterior. And that cousin was the ‘bogeyman’ who reached out from the past to exert more and more influence in my character’s inner life.
Of course, I then had to write that story. I began drafting the rise of this power grabber at the end of 2015, charting the rise of a nationalist and populist movement complete with marches, simplistic slogans, a charismatic leader with a gift of communication and a will of iron. He attracted people uncertain under a weak ruler, and one night he seized power in the Roman way, by coup d’état. Although repressive, the new regime favoured one section of the population who were very pleased and things seemed to settle down on the surface, although internal repression was severe.
I confess I was modelling this regime on the Third Reich, but as political and national decisions developed in 2016, I felt slightly uneasy. We know better than to have people seize power by waving guns as in stories. The electoral system is so much less disruptive and appears more legitimate.
Now we have another 51% populist ‘power grab’, this time in Turkey. It’s all legal, of course, as other ones have been. The Netherlands stepped back from the temptation. Here in France, the first round of the presidential election takes place this coming weekend. We have les doigts croisés for a rational outcome.
Warning – commercial content follows. If after all my opinionating, you are interested in the Roma Novan power grabber’s story and his personal vendetta against my heroine, here’s the trailer:
Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO, AURELIA and INSURRECTIO. The sixth, RETALIO, is due out on 27 April 2017. Audiobooks now available for the first four of the series
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