It’s time to study up on Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. Trump’s people have. The paleoconservative bloggers have. And so have the leaders of Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, plus the center-right candidate for President of France, the mayor of Rome, and the bunch now running the United (at the moment) Kingdom.
Hungary’s man may be the first foreign guest of the Trump white House. As Democratically elected leaders go, Orbán career has been exemplary of political flexibility—starting with a full-on embrace of liberal internationalism for a while after the Communists lost power, moving to a brief moment in the political wilderness, but since 2010, on to a quasi-authoritarian “illiberal democracy” that has succeeded at the polls thanks to relentless campaigns against Muslims who appear not on the streets of Budapest, but at the southern border.
Pay attention to the man who built an actual wall to keep the Muslim refugees out (even though they don’t want to actually go to Hungary, but just pass through on their way to Germany, Sweden, France, and the UK).
Americans have paid attention to Hungary’s fights since the days in 1851 and 1852 when crowds of Americans welcomed Lajos Kossuth, the exiled president of the first short-lived Hungarian republic. There are lots of American places named after Kossuth. A Buffalo crowd of 20,000 came to hear him; the city’s population was just over 40,000 at the time. In a sad preview of how illusory American “help” to Hungarian democracy has been, Kossuth’s American tour guides fleeced him out of all the money he raised in his astoundingly popular US speaking tour.
Fast forward to 1956 and the Hungarian uprising. The tragic heroes of 1956 also captured the American popular imagination, but not our government’s support. President Eisenhower’s agents and provocateurs may have encouraged Hungary’s reform-minded Communists, intellectuals, and local officials to join students and just plain folks to rebel against Stalinism in late October 1956, but Eisenhower refused to start World War III, instead standing by while the Soviets crushed the Hungarians. Over 200,000 refugees, including a few who deserved the name “Hungarian freedom fighters” that our media used, left their homeland, and were welcomed in Eisenhower’s America.
Once more in 2016, we got our Magyar on again—but this time, it was with Donald Trump’s echoes of Orbán’s nationalist rhetoric of the confrontation of civilizations, Trump’s critique of NATO and of the European Union, Trump’s positive messaging about Vladimir Putin, and what many have seen as dog-whistle anti-Semitic code language when it’s not outright anti-Semitism—Orbánisms all. A vigorous English-language Hungarian emigre press, especially the websites Hungarian Spectrum and Hungarian Free Press, have published dozens of articles quoting Orbán and his allies using both direct and indirect language that shows up in Trump speeches and in Trump tweets.
What’s there is suddenly here. But Hungary is very, very much not the United States.
Confident cities versus scared countrysides
Not 30 miles from Budapest is Višegrad, a medieval palace and a hilltop fortress. In the courtyard of the palace there’s a lovely marble fountain, sculpted by Italians for the Hungarian king who convened the rulers of all of Central Europe into the Višegrad alliance. But when the Turks invaded in 1544, they smashed everything—alliance, palace, fortress, fountain—and occupied Višegrad and the rest of the country until they were driven out in 1685. Everything about that history is active now. Viktor Orbán reconvened the Višegrad alliance last year as a message to the rest of Europe that the Poles, the Czechs, the Slovaks, and the Hungarians all agree, as they did 600 years ago, that Europe is for the Europeans.
In the big city downriver from the wrecked medieval fortress is Budapest. It is an urbanist’s fantasy come true. With its efficient streetcars, its artful subway stations, its human-scale walkable neighborhoods, and its tidy and handsome public spaces, there is an easy functionality. We can only dream of such a sophisticated home-grown retail culture set amidst downtown universities, museums, offices, cathedrals, and one of the largest synagogues in the world. It’s not Orbán country any more than Manhattan or San Francisco is Trump country. But just beyond the glow of city lights lies a vast swath of territory occupied by people who distrust liberal internationalism, who don’t feel secure in their homes while murderous chaos rages in Middle East wars, and who pay attention to media messaging that asserts, relentlessly, that their cultural identity is under attack. Visegrad is Orbán country. Budapest is not.
Hungary is a small country, only twice the land area of New York State, but with less than half the population of New York State.
It’s mainly invisible to Americans, but its position as a European Union member has given Hungary a platform. Everybody in Europe knows that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is for immigration and refugee resettlement quotas, and that Viktor Orbán is not—and further, that Orbán has built an international movement that challenges the very existence of the post World War II international order that the US built and still leads.
Viktor Orbán got out front, endorsing Donald Trump even before “Brexit” leader Nigel Farage and other nationalist, anti-immigration European politicians. Orbán was quoted, shortly after Trump’s win, that he’d be the first foreign leader to visit the Trump White House. Orbán has for the past several years been celebrated by the right, including the Alt RIght, for baldly stating that “every single migrant poses a public security and terror risk” to his country, and for asserting that Muslim refugees pose an existential threat to the cultural integrity of Europe.
In Budapest, city people roll their eyes at this politics of fear and scapegoating.
In the US, the divide between Red and Blue in 2016 was markedly rural versus urban. This same divide was evident on October 2 in Hungary, when most of the countryside voted for Orbán’s toughly-worded referendum proposition opposing the European Union’s immigration policy. (Hungary is mandated to take in all of 1,300 refugees a year; Buffalo alone resettles 1,500 refugees a year.) But just as about half of American eligible voters stayed home, six out of 10 Hungarian voters—and most voters in the big city—stayed home, thereby denying Orbán’s initiative the needed 50 percent turnout, which he’d characterized as a test of Europe’s resolve to retain its very identity.
It was an eerie foreshadowing of November 8. 2016 in the US, when Hillary Clinton and her progressive, secularist, internationalist supporters won a majority of the popular vote (at last count) by a margin of 48.2 percent to 46.4 percent.— thanks to big population centers on the East and West coasts—but lost in electoral votes from the heartland.
A battle of symbols
This year, Budapest’s huge July gay pride parade, like its huge August outdoor music festival, were all about the new Europe—inclusive, diverse, polyglot, tolerant. Elegant Andrassy avenue displays high-end brand-names from Milan, Paris, and New York alongside native luxury marques in a comfortable cosmopolitanism amplified by the presence of BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes, Alfa-Romeos, Citroens, and Jaguars parked outside.The many splendid public baths in Budapest (picture hot springs bubbling up inside tiled Late Baroque palaces) include a couple whose schedules accommodate gays, with men- and women-only days, especially at the 16th century Rudas Baths, which date to the Turkish occupation. Despite the existence of the far-right Jobbik party mayor whose small town has “banned” Muslims and gays, a recent attempt by Orbán’s party hacks to gay-bash a Jobbik leader has been ineffective because Hungarians are evidently not as enamored of Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay posturing as they may be of the rest of his program.
But there are identity battles aplenty underway, and they reach far past the boundaries of the current nation-state to the global Hungarian diaspora. Orbán’s positions have many fans, but still, the large Hungarian émigré communities in Cleveland, Toronto, Montréal, like those in the UK and Germany, have long since voted with their feet. Since the end of Communist rule in 1990, as many as 500,000 young Hungarians have left the low wages and linguistic isolation of home for opportunity in Western Europe. Despite plans by industrial firms like Volkswagen-Porsche-Audi to hire as many as 1,500 new manufacturing workers to produce next-generation electric cars in Hungary, there’s a persistent labor shortage. The economics are strange: technical jobs go begging, yet wages aren’t rising. Young educated people still leave, yet inexpensive housing, good family support systems, child-friendly public spaces, and a rational population density—plus a robust cultural environment—aren’t blunting the sharp projection that Hungary will continue to lose population, as much as 15 percent, by mid-century.
Meanwhile, for the elder generation especially, versions of history are in play now, and current politics is shaped by arguments about the history of World War II, of the Holocaust, and of the 1956 Uprising.
Orbán outraged many when his government inaugurated a new World War II monument right near Parliament. The site consists of outdoor sculpture that characterizes Hungary as a victim of Nazi aggression. The fact is that Hungary’s government was Nazi Germany’s ally, and subsequently, when Admiral Horthy’s governing coalition was overthrown by the Arrow Cross fascists, Hungary became Nazi Germany’s puppet.
But just as pro-Trump messaging includes petulant gripes like “now we can finally say Merry Christmas,” Hungary as a victim—of Mongols, of Turks, of Russians, of Communists—is a powerfully effective symbol, and Orbán uses it.
Just a short walk down the Danube River embankment from the Parliament and the new World War II memorial is a memorial, the bronze shoes, that Orbán does not visit. The shoes are on the paved ledge above the busy Danube that the tour-boats, water-taxis, and barges ply. The shoes are bronzed shoes of the kind worn by the civilians, young and old, men and women, and children, who were lined up at that very spot above the river’s strong current, and shot dead by Hungarian Arrow Cross fascists in 1944 and 1945, their bodies pushed into the river and carried away forever.
Hungarian fascists carried out murders of their Jewish fellow Hungarians until the invading Red Army crushed them and their allies, the Nazis. This is the inconvenient part of Hungary’s recent history. Even though Admiral Horthy refused to participate in the Holocaust, and actually protected Hungary’s 800,000 Jews as long as he held power, his government was overthrown by home-grown fascists in 1944. The fascists appeared, and suddenly, 400,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered.
And then, like magic, the fascists disappeared. Some of them disappeared only to re-emerge as heroes of 1956.
A prolific Montreal Hungarian emigre blogger, to his horror, recently recognized that it was his late revered uncle, a man who always starred in family lore as a saintly victim of the evil Communists in 1956, who turned out to have been the man personally responsible for having turned the Hungarian police in 1944 into the force that went throughout all the small towns in the countryside, rounding up Jews, and herding 400,000 of them onto trains bound for murder at Auschwitz.
In an antique shop in Szentendre, just downstream from Višegrad on the way to Budapest, there were small portrait photos of Admiral Horthy reverently displayed in the most expensive of the silver frames for sale. At Gödöllő, the beautifully-tended former summer home of the Habsburg monarchy that went out of existence when Austria-Hungary lost World War I, the guides speak volumes about the great love of the Empress “Sisi” for Hungary, and one sees room after room of portraits of Austrian, Hungarian, Czech, Slovak, Croatian, Polish, and, yes, Jewish gentry ennobled in the pre-World War I glory days of that great empire. It was all so very pretty, polyglot, inclusive, peaceful, it seems.
At the end of that tour there is the room with only Hungarian-language labels, a room of memorabilia from Admiral Horthy, who reigned not as king but as the Regent or stand-in for the monarchy. Horthy led the government of Hungary from 1922 until his overthrow in 1944. He ruled from that former imperial palace.
Thanks in part to Orbán, there is nostalgia for Horthy today. There are portraits of Horthy here and there in shop windows in Budapest—Horthy, the king-like leader who kept what was left of the country together.
And the political bloggers of 2016 debate Horthy: he didn’t kill or deport the Jews, but did he plan to? Before Hitler’s Germany stopped Jews from attending universities, Horthy’s Hungary (like Pilsudski’s Poland) established Jewish admission quotas—so was or wasn’t anti-Semitism built into the Hungarian political vocabulary?
But events kept moving. Horthy was out, the Arrow Cross and the Nazis were in, and that’s when 400,000+ of the Jews of Hungary were deported to the gas chambers.
And the 1956 uprising came not even a dozen years after Hungarian official policy was to murder its own civilians because of their religion.
And then in 1989 and 1990, while the rest of the world was watching the Berlin Wall fall and the Soviet Union break apart, Hungary, too, shed Communism. Americans can be forgiven for not having followed all this very closely.
But it is noteworthy that today, the political opponents of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán call Orbán a fascist. When you call somebody a fascist in Hungary today, you’re calling that person a Jew-killing Nazi.
But to 1956.
The year Trump beat Clinton was the 60th anniversary of 1956.
Sixty years ago, Hungary 1956 became a symbol for Americans—a symbol that lasted in American political speech and in American policy for decades. In 2006, there were new books, many of them memoirs, much archival footage, many large-scale commemorations, and in the minds of many Hungarian-Americans who had escaped the Communist repression after the Hungarian Uprising in 1956, the story was and is simple and stark—good was vanquished by evil, freedom snuffed out by tyranny.
In the past few weeks, as the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian uprising was observed, Orbán and his government faced frosty refusals to send high-level officials to embassy receptions in Washington, Ottawa, and in western Europe.
This was a very large change: commemorating that tragic but stirring set of events in the fall of 1956 had been, for two generations, an occasion to celebrate the rebellion as a triumph of hope, courage, national self-awareness, and of grassroots democratic spirit against crushing, brutal odds. But because Orbán allies himself with racist thugs, and because he shrugged at investors who claimed that cash flow issues, not politics, closed the largest opposition daily newspaper, this easy annual celebration became so controversial, and so uncomfortable, that the usual array of presidents and prime ministers stayed away.
For the first time in more than a century and a half, the mention of Hungary in American politics, rare as it had become, is no longer synonymous with the Kossuth and 1956 “tragic heroic fights against oppression,” but with something else that we are still trying to digest. And the main news out of Hungary for the past couple of years has been about The Wall.
An actual anti-migrant wall
Viktor Orbán’s government has built a wall—not a virtual or figurative wall, but an actual chain-link fence topped with razor and concertina wire, patrolled by a much-enhanced special detachment of police, and accompanied with a vigorous propaganda campaign, along its borders with Serbia and Croatia. It’s a wall to keep the migrants out.
Unlike the Mexicans and the desperate Hondurans and Guatemalans who risk their lives to escape the murderous narco gangs and coyotes, who just want to work in peace in the US without being brutalized by criminals, the migrants Hungary officially acts to exclude don’t really even want to go to Hungary.
Orbán leads the way on what one Polish intellectual calls “illiberal democracy.” Orbán has also appointed unapologetic, outright anti-Semites to high public positions. Credible allegations of corruption swirl ever-closer to Orbán personally, not just to his cronies. Predictably, his anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic politics have been strongly condemned, notably when the late Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel returned a medal bestowed by the Hungarian National Academy because of the increasingly overt anti-Semitism of its spokesman.
This was all well underway before Trump won. Now that the United States will have a president who campaigned in English on Orbán’s anti-migrant wall, Orbán’s bucking of trade agreements, Orbán’s nationalism, and Orbán’s contempt for progressive intellectual elites, Orbán himself, and Hungary, too, begin to look familiar.
But it’s a weird message here. It doesn’t quite fit.
During a two-week stay this past summer, we saw a very few black and brown faces on the streets of Budapest, a city of 1.7 million where all the public transit announcements are made in English as well as in the national language. We arrived the week of the Brexit vote in a city that was comfortable in its European skin. The young people we spoke with liked our stumbling efforts at Magyar, but all quickly switched to English, and to a person, gently offered that the UK is nuts to leave Europe.
Hungary is in the Schengen Zone, so when landing at the airport, there were neither Customs nor border guards, and that’s how everyone seems to like it. Since accepting Christianity in the year 1000, Hungary’s rulers have sought what Hungary now has: acceptance as a part of Europe, even if the Magyars didn’t even arrive in Europe until well after the Muslim Moors had conquered much of Spain, and literally a millennium after the Jewish diaspora had extended to the Roman province of Pannonia, today’s western Hungary.
The enduring presence of Jews in Europe is a problem for some of Orbán’s partisans—because deciding what being “European” means is current politics, not abstract history.
Like Hungary, the United States has never been a mono-ethnic country, though we’ve been effectively monolingual. We have had various versions of the “melting pot,” and have achieved a universalizing culture that attracts the world—a culture based on the English language, on Constitutional guarantees of limited government and of personal freedom, and on a small-c cultural constitution, consisting importantly of a willingness to accept innovation. Americans quibble legalistically about policy, but the bedrock consensus is personal liberty—extended in the 1960s to include racial minorities, extended in the past few years to include LGBT as never before.
Hungarians and the other former Soviet-bloc countries also embrace personal liberty based on their own quite ancient national traditions. Scratch a Pole, a Hungarian, a Lithuanian, a Czech with a historical consciousness and stand back, because you might well get a lecture about the Hungarian movie industry that got transported to Hollywood, or about the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that was a successful, multi-ethnic state that accorded at least most males with voting rights in a representative parliamentary system—and story after story about the historical pattern of not only tolerance of but inclusion of Jews, Polish Tatars, Armenians, Sabbatarians, and other ethnic and religious minorities in polyglot, creative, progressive, and doomed countries that one can not now find on any map.
Why did the maps change? The short answer is that the racists arose, and it all collapsed.
Until this past election, American racists have had to lurk rather than exult here. American racists faced the explicit scorn of Presidents at least as far back as Harry Truman’s epochal Executive Order 9981, in 1948, desegregating the US armed forces. Until 2016, American political racists had to use use code language. The Trump campaign articulated the anxieties about The Other in language that the cultural elites eschewed, and got very explicit about Muslims and about criminal illegal aliens, and in so doing loosed the dogs of racism that the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington decried when his white opponent Bernard Epton asked for votes “before it’s too late.”
But the appeal to ethnic self-awareness that happens in faraway, small, much-reduced nation-states like Hungary has been a part of the political vocabulary for a very long time. It was dormant in the great days of the Habsburg Empire, then crisis and wars brought it forward. The Communists drove it underground, and so did liberation from Communism—but with the crisis of Muslim refugees from Middle East wars, the vocabulary is once again spoken aloud.
That’s understandable in a geography shaped by conquests by The Other, in those now-little mono-ethnic polities that used to be parts of big, multi-ethnic empires.
The United States has been an inclusive, accepting, E Pluribus Unum sort of place—the place on earth where people come to be new, not renewed, but reinvented, changed, transformed from poor and afraid and vulnerable to rich and fearless and together. There wasn’t a United States until it was invented, and it’s still in process.
That’s why the political language that evokes past anguish in small nations is so discordant here—and why the non-nationalist politicians of small nations like Hungary, politicians who have until recently had success with American-style language about personal freedom, economic growth, and international standards, are shocked to their bootheels that their vision of a United States of Europe is under dire siege. It’s not the Left that Orbán defeated; it’s everybody who wanted to be more like the US.
Little Hungary is an ancient place where invasions—brutal invasions, by the Mongols in the 13th century, the Turks in the 16th century, and by the Soviet Union in the 20th century—left corpses, wreckage, and political legacies that linger in antique-sounding restatements of protecting a besieged ethnic monoculture.
What is built into the very landscape and in the very stones of the cathedral town of Esztergom, in the ruined palace of Višegrad, in splendidly functional Budapest, and even in the serene monastery of Pannonhalma, is the story of conquest by and recovery from invaders.
Invaders came to Europe’s vanguard borderland and smashed European churches, smashed European cities, smashed European families, after the Hungarians had made themselves Europeans—and then the invaders withdrew, leaving Hungarians behind to painstakingly reconstruct, again and again, what the eastern men on horseback or in tanks had destroyed, and to do it alone.
One sees this story written in stone in Esztergom, in the red-marble chapel tucked away in the cathedral where Saint-King Stephen (Szent István király) accepted the papal crown, thus institutionalizing Christianity, in the year 1000. Yes, the cathedral is grand (it’s 896 feet up, commemorating the foundation of the Hungarian state in the year 896 by Árpad, Előd, Ond, and the other heroes from east of the Urals), but it’s the chapel that draws so much devotion—because after the Turks smashed it to smithereens, Hungarians reassembled it.
They could only do their work after 1686, when a prince from France plus King Jan Sobieski from Poland and soldiers from all across Christian Europe joined the Hungarians and drove the Turks out of Budapest … and then massacred half the Jews of Budapest.
The Turks smashed the lovely Renaissance palace at Višegrad, and the hilltop fortress, too—and painstaking reconstructionists and archaeologists work to this day reassembling the royal, religious, and workaday buildings of the complex. It’s still mainly rubble, but it’s no accident that it was in the very comfortable restaurant high atop the hill overlooking the curve of the Danube that Viktor Orbán last year reassembled the coalition of the year 1335.
Invasion, and recovery: it’s the story of the great city of Budapest itself.
In the Castle District high atop another hill overlooking the Danube and the photogenic Parliament building and the beautifully-engineered city itself, the largest monument to a single person is the statue of the French nobleman Eugene of Savoy, the 1686 liberator—who at the end of his career in 1718 liberated the Christian Serbs in their capital Belgrade, farther south on the Danube River. The Turk is a figure wrought in bas-relief, put under by the Christian soldier who saved Christian Hungary.
The fancy villas on the Buda side of the river are in a neighborhood called Pasareti, the field of the pashas, where Turkish nobility enjoyed Hungarian plunder for over 140 years.
One literally cannot walk or ride or drive without being faced with this story.
And then there’s that other story, too.
Tucked away along a Pasareti tramway that efficiently whisks daily commuters and visitors out to the Budapest suburbs is a monument to Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who rescued thousands of Budapest Jews when the fascists overthrew the old Horthy government in 1944. There could be, but is not, a similar monument to the Buffalo resident Tibor Baranski, who did the same, rescuing former George W. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer’s auntie by his deft forgery of documents, papers defying both the Hungarian fascists and their Nazi bosses. Baranski was at the time a seminarian studying for the priesthood. He worked for the Papal Legate, himself another forgotten Holocaust hero. After the war, Baranski left Budapest, and because of his wife’s credentials as a researcher, he was able to make Buffalo his home. Baranski’s children attended Calasanctius school in Buffalo, a school founded by other émigré Hungarians. Baranski’s stepson, Buffalo ophthalmologist Peter Forgách, personally endows the Calasanctius scholarship fund for US-bound Hungarian students, expressly because after 1990, Forgách wanted a new generation of Hungarians to understand the benefits of reconnecting to the West.
There’s a Budapest subway station named after the Forgach family. The roots go so very, very deep. Buffalo is connected via the émigrés, but perhaps this could seem temporary to families with almost a millennium of footprints.
In parsing the present, It’s tempting to simplify this history: bad Turks, good Hungarians. But it gets complicated.
Good Europe for letting Hungary into the EU and the Schengen Zone, but bad Europe for requiring that Hungary accept 1,300 refugees?
Bad Russians who crushed the freedom fighters of 1956, but good Russians who crushed the Jew-murdering Hungarian fascists of 1945?
And good Russians of 2016 who fight against Isis in Syria?
And good Russians because Putin’s Russia nearly borders Hungary while the feckless Obama’s USA is a 9-hour flight from Budapest?
And good Russians today because Trump says that Putin didn’t interfere with the US election the way that Obama, Clinton, the U.S. Senate, the FBI, the CIA, and every journalist in the world say it did?
One gets quite dizzy, because some days, we Americans are invited to be the model for the world, and then we are blamed for failing to rescue all the Hungarians of 1956—including the reform-minded Hungarian Communists, freedom-minded students, diverse intellectuals, labor unions, and just plain folks who faced down the guns and, for a couple of weeks, defeated the collaborationist Hungarian secret police, and with the help of countless selfless patriots briefly succeeded in demonstrating what a popular uprising against oppression looks like. Then the Russians came roaring back in—allegedly using troops from Central Asia, like the Turks and the Mongols before them, to brutally suppress any and all.
That’s all very interesting to visitors. The European drama of self-definition is once again playing out as geopolitics while the prosperous Americans ride river-cruises down the Danube past the photogenic cathedrals, ruined castles, handsome parliaments, and lovely parks where even along the bike-paths, history and identity are omnipresent. On Margitsziget, in the most kid-friendly archaeological site ever, lies the tomb of Saint Margaret, who died in 1271. Margaret’s father was King Bela, who bravely fought the Mongol invaders, briefly repelling them until they came back in 1286 and burned the Pest side of the great city to the ground and smashed the church where Margaret prayed, the archaeological site where in summer,kids can walk on limestone walls. Margitsziget is a great playground now, home to a great music festival, a great playground, a spa and thermal water park, and the national training complex for Hungary’s many Olympic medal-winning swimmers. And nothing there is very far from a monument to recovery from invasion.
Hungarian sentiments, American politics
My Facebook friend Gene is a veteran of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. He arrived in the USA as a refugee, having been advised, in the days after the Soviets crushed the short-lived rebellion in November 1956, that he’d become a marked man for his heroic gesture—which was helping to rip down the huge Communist red star hanging in the railroad station in the city of Györ, about halfway between Budapest and Vienna.
Most Hungarians saw the red star as the symbol of their country’s subjugation to and conquest by Moscow, and wanted freedom from both the Russians and their local Communist collaborators—especially their hated and feared secret police. That act had gotten Gene photographed, his picture printed in the newspaper, and had made him a bit of a media star, like the Tienanmen Square kid in 1989, the one who faced down the tanks.
Then came the Soviet tanks.
Gene, the teenager who’d been the first in his family ever to go to high school, was told that the secret police were going to catch and kill him. So Gene left Hungary, along with 200,000 other political refugees. Imre Nagy and his reform-minded Communists were removed, executed, and replaced by pliant Communists under Janos Kadar and his successors. Gene was not allowed to return to Hungary for 34 years.
He and the other 1956 refugees went to Austria, then west, to the UK, to Canada, to the US. This particular teenage refugee found a home with exiled Hungarian priests of the Piarist Order, at Graycliff in Derby. He finished his adolescence at the former summer estate of Darwin Martin, which the Piarists had acquired the year the Larkin building was demolished, when nobody else wanted Graycliff, in the days when the Buffalo structures designed by Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t attract restoration campaigns. The Piarists gave him and 46 other refugees a home, helped him finish school and attend college, then gave him a job teaching math at their school, Calasanctius, which they ran from 1957 to 1991.
Gene’s Facebook posts are mostly about family, but they’re also, like everyone else’s this season, about politics. Gene reposts memes about spending public money on veterans before spending on refugees. He posts memes about prayer in schools, and photos of injured police that invite one to “share” to show that you agree that defending injured police officers is a good thing to do. Around Thanksgiving, he posted a video of a political commentator who used hundreds of gumballs to illustrate his anti-immigrant lecture. I haven’t asked who he voted for, but the pattern reflects the Trump campaign: anti-refugee, pro-police, anti-immigrant.
Gene is a passionate commemorator of the 1956 Uprising. He recently visited Hungary and participated in 60th anniversary events there. For Gene, it’s simple, not complex: the Russians were not the heroes who stopped the Hungarian fascists from murdering Hungarian Jews in 1945, but rather the villains who stopped Hungarian freedom fighters in 1956.
And that name, Gene. The Prince of Savoy was Prince Eugene, whom the Hungarians call, in Magyar, Jenö, which is the name of one of the seven Magyar tribes that crossed from the ancestral homeland east of the Ural Mountains (i.e., not in Europe at all, but in Asia) and settled in what is now Hungary in 896—several hundred years after the Jews settled in what is now Hungary, back when it was the place where Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius composed his Meditations.
Marcus Aurelius called his camp Aquincum. It’s an archaeological site now, a 15-minute electric train-ride from downtown Budapest.
The next message?
So why did Trump’s Hungarian-sounding messaging work in 2016?
After all, we’re not a small country with a history of conquest, subjugation, and competition for a hearing within a vast multi-ethnic, multi-lingual empire. The US has been victorious, until recently anyway—having created the largest economy in the world, and the most sought-after destination for capital, talent, and asylum. The shorthand for differentiating the old imperialists like Britain and France and Russia from the American empire has ever been quite persuasive: that the US model is about the values of personal liberty is enshrined in law, with an expansive, victorious, generous, inclusive vocabulary, and an attractive trajectory of self-confident greatness.
To the extent that our political discourse becomes inward looking, exclusive, retrospective to an imagined era of lost greatness, the US takes on the attributes of a marginal nation state.
But that’s the rhetoric that won the day in 2016.
We heard it first in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. Maybe the guide to what we’ll hear next is awaiting translation from the Magyar.
Some are not waiting.
What passes for the Left in the US is in a tizzy these days over identity politics, especially since former presidential candidate Senator Bernard Sanders’s post-election remarks. While endorsing the need for more minorities and women in elective office, Sanders emphasized his view that the economic issues facing working-class Americans must be the paramount concern of political activists. Sanders is making an appeal that is about modernity. Not an ethnic or racial appeal premised on communal victimhood.
“It is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘I’m a woman, vote for me.’ No, that’s not good enough,” Sanders said. “What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.”
And yet class appeals, like ethnic-group targeting, will probably have limited political success here. According to several analysts, at least 75 percent and as much as 80 percent of participating US voters are non-Hispanic whites. White voters have historically crossed the boundaries of economic self-interest to express their own version of identity politics. And to the chagrin of political activists and consultants who count on demographic change alone presaging an inevitable progressive ascendancy, racial and ethnic minorities tend to sort by income levels, leaving identity politics behind to vote as if they are white people…who in 2016 voted, when they bothered to vote, as if they were aggrieved survivors of ancient invasions by the murderous Other.
The fact remains that Orbán, currently the voice of the anti-immigrant European, is finding echoes here. And in France, with the ascension of the strongly Catholic politician Francois Fillon. And in the UK, with pro-Brexit, anti-immigrant Prime Minister Theresa May. And in Denmark, with the statement of a Parliament member that refugees crossing into “European space” should be fired upon, or near. And in the UK, with the anti-immigrant Brexit vote. Orbán’s language is Trump’s, Fillon’s, May’s, the Dane’s, and just this week, it’s also the language of the Italians who voted against the European Union.
Expect more echoes of Orbán soon.
Bruce Fisher is visiting professor at SUNY Buffalo State and director of the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.