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Issue #1847      November 7, 2018


A global struggle

Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right candidate once considered an absurd apologist for the horrors of Brazil’s past military junta (1964-1985) came close to winning the presidency in an election on October 7. Garnering 46 percent of the vote, he almost prevented an end-of-October run off with Fernando Haddad, the candidate for the Worker’s Party.

Jair Bolsonaro has openly sought to make the election a referendum on democracy itself.

“Let’s make Brazil Great! Let’s be proud of our homeland again!” has been his slogan.

Bolsonaro, an Army captain, has praised the use of torture during the years of the junta, only suggesting that leftist critics of the regime should have been killed rather than simply maimed. He has threatened to rape female political enemies. He has openly sought to make the election a referendum on democracy itself, threatening free speech by attacks on the press, warnings about socialism, and a religious message that, though a conservative Catholic, has resonated with Brazil’s large minority of evangelical Christians.

His reactionary message resonates for a variety of reasons. Economic doldrums in Brazil have caused general discontent and unemployment has climbed to 13 million. Crime rates, for similar reasons, resemble the American ‘70s and ‘80s when police departments across the country engaged in the counterproductive and counterintuitive strategy of neglecting entire neighbourhoods in urban areas and then suddenly invaded those same communities with tactical assault teams. Bolsonaro has promised to flood the streets with firearms so the people can “defend their homes and families.”

Bolsonaro plays rhetorical games with the complex racial politics of Brazil, essentially using black Brazilians in the way Trump and Hungary’s Orbán have used Muslim immigrants, as the enemy.

The would-be strong man of Brazil is a latecomer to this right-wing populist message, the same message that had created a cyclone of political change in the 1930s. Trump’s ascendance has had a ripple effect as he has moved to strengthen some of the world’s most repressive regimes, with arms sales to Saudi Arabia (the nesting ground of Al-Qaeda and SIS) being only the most scurrilous example.

We see much the same in Europe where Victor Orbán has ruled as head of the Fidesz Party in Hungary since 2010. In that time Orbán changed the constitution of the fragile Hungarian Republic in ways that make it almost impossible to unseat him. He’s created a Fox News Channel-style of state television that shapes opinion of the nation’s ten million citizens while giving the appearance of offering just another free market option for information. Even the European Union, not known as the world’s foremost booster of democracy, has raised questions about whether or not he has so degraded democracy in his country that Hungary must face sanction. Orbán thrives off this since he insistently seeks to move, rhetorically at least, the centre of gravity from Brussels to “Prague, Budapest, and Bucharest.”

Orbán has had a good year. During the summer, amid uproar over the American government’s malicious detention policy, the separation of families, and the building of internment camps, Trump had a call with Orbán – the subject of which focused on the favourite topic of demagogues these days; closed borders, the horror of refugees, and the need for a homogenous state.

Seemingly energised, Orbán’s party dictated terms to the Hungarian parliament, closing every possible loophole for immigrants entering the country. In fact, Fidesz forced through legislation that Stephen Miller only ponders in his most expansive moments of villainy; it’s now illegal to provide aid for immigrants in Hungary. Aid here has been given a broad definition. You are in legal jeopardy if you simply provide information to asylum seekers.

Don’t be at all surprised if we see a similar measure introduced in the United States in a bid to crush sanctuary cities.

Other parts of Europe have recently moved in Orbán’s direction. Italy has formed a right-wing coalition government under Giuseppe Conte, a former lawyer who has never previously held political office. His anti-immigrant, anti-EU tone has been called populism when nativism makes much more sense. Not surprisingly, Italy became the one member of the G7 to take Trump’s part during the combative conference in May.

Meanwhile Orbán seems to have directly inserted himself into the recent election in Slovenia. In late May voting, the anti-immigrant Slovenian Democratic Party won a quarter of the vote, enough to create a coalition government. Various centre and left parties came in at around ten percent. Billionaire supporters of Orbán largely control the Hungarian news services.

A political analysis of Orbán’s concentration of power in Hungary would show a familiar story of economic dislocation and anxieties combined with the failure of leftist parties to unite behind a single candidate. Moreover, one of the dangerous aspects of most of post-Communist Eastern Europe has been the ease with which constitutions have been changed to suit governing parties (and the ruling classes that fund them).

Orbán’s support in Hungary and his largely successful bid to become a regional power has little to do with any real dislocations brought about by immigration. In fact, it’s long been what’s called a “transit country.” Immigrants, many of them from the Balkans or Russia, once passed through in relatively large numbers on their way to other EU states. Muslims, the focus of Orbán’s demagoguery, are a tiny part of the country’s population; there are about 5,000 Muslims in a population of ten million. Most claim “Hungarian” as their ethnicity. This has not prevented them from becoming the focus of street violence and harassment.

I discovered on a trip to Budapest in the spring of 2018 that something older, and frightening, stands in the shadows behind these political and social realities. Hungary labours under the burden of its memories and what it has chosen to do with them.

Ghosts of the Reich

The inability of Hungary to face its own history plays a much greater role in the success of Fidesz than economic anxiety or simple prejudice. Orbán’s political stratagems are closely allied with Hungary’s current cultural history.

The politics of Budapest have made the ugly invasion of consumerism all the more jarring. The golden arches in Budapest are a garish gravestone to the utopian sentiments of the 1990s, Francis Fukuyama and a chorus of free-marketers claiming “the end of history” in which neo-liberal market economies would spontaneously bring democracy. Consumerism, open markets, and the monopolies and gangsterism that inevitably follow have come to Hungary. So has authoritarianism.

Neo-fascist politics, like the more familiar version of the 1930s, depends on historical memory wounded by a sense of grievance. Most travellers in Central and Eastern Europe are aware of the “Museums of Communism” that have sprung up in the region’s major capitals. Less well known may be the role they play in creating nativist and nationalistic narratives. Such public history sites, if they deserve the name, receive funding from sources with very specific conservative agendas. An American restaurateur started the “Museum of Communism” in Prague.

Orbán’s Hungary does something particularly strange with its historical memory of communism. The “House of Terror” opened in 2002, while Orbán remained an influential opposition leader. The director of the museum, Dr Marie Schmidt, served at the time as one of Orbán’s advisors. Controversy greeted the opening of the site in Hungary even in 2002 when critics pointed out that it seemed to serve a right-wing version of Hungary’s political history, conflating socialism with Stalinism, and downplaying Hungary’s collusion with Nazi Germany.

Nowhere in this presentation do we learn that the Hungarian conscript and Arrow Cross Party thugs joined the Wehrmacht and SS forces ensuring that the city would become a ruin by their decision to make a concerted a suicidal stand against Soviet forces on the Danube. They acted on the orders of the Fuhrer himself who saw the city as symbolic of the old Austrian Empire into which he had been born.

The “House of Terror” does not inform visitors that Hungarian troops largely maintained the death camp Bergen-Belsen. Visitors are confronted with Hungary as the victim of the Soviet Union, and receive only the most subtle introduction into the Hungarian government’s collaboration with the Nazis.

People’s World

Next article – Common ground on Syria

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