Tuesday, October 4, 2016
The Gangs of the New World Order
Watching Hungarian PM Viktor Orban last night on television, I was struck by how similar his tactics are to Donald Trump, and to the right wing movement in general. There he stands with a phalanx of stone-faced ministers behind him telling the assembly how the referendum on barring Syrian refugees justifies his position. He projects himself as a strong man imposing his will on a weak nation. Yet, you have to ask yourself, if he is so strong why does he need this guard behind him?
Time and again, Trump has employed the same tactic on the campaign trail - loyal supporters standing or sitting in stone-faced silence behind him. He has mixed it up in recent weeks, using Sikhs, Blacks and other persons of color to try to give his phalanx the appearance of diversity, but usually it is his elder children and his closest advisers along with body guards.
It's what a gang would do when confronting a rival gang in a street or alley, showing they have their leader's back. This threatening tactic is used to intimidate opponents. It has been rarely used in American politics but one seen quite frequently in the European right wing movement, where Trump's tactics appear to owe its fascist origins.
Back in 1988, Costa-Gavras tried to find a connection between these groups in his movie Betrayed, focusing mostly on the right wing movement in the United States. These fringe movements have risen and fallen in Europe over the years. There was Jorg Haider in Austria and Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands. Marine Le Pen has picked up where her father left off in France, and Nigel Farage was one of the active members behind the Brexit movement in the UK. But Orban is the first to have successfully seized control of government in Hungary, although one could argue that the current government of Poland is also right wing in nature.
What drives all these movements is anti-immigrant sentiments. They believe their countries are for native-born citizens and that refugees and immigrants are diluting their national identity. The recent wave of Syrian and North African refugees has emboldened these movements and they have struck emotional chords in their countries, especially with the EU mandating how many refugees member countries should take to alleviate the crisis.
In the UK, it isn't just Muslim immigrants and refugees that stir anger, but Eastern European immigrants as well. The economic playing field in the EU is heavily tilted toward the West with Eastern European countries lagging far behind Western European countries in terms of salaries and pensions. This means a lot of Eastern Europeans seek greener pastures in Western Europe, resulting in growing Eastern European communities in Britain. Much of the violence in the wake of the Brexit vote has been directed toward Eastern Europeans.
These right wing movements have stirred up an ugly nationalism that is all too similar to that between World War I and II. Many European countries drifted toward autocratic regimes, not just Germany, during these inter-war years. Much of the anger was directed toward Jews, but Slavs and other Eastern Europeans felt this hatred as well. The EU finds itself struggling to tamp down these ugly sentiments in the wake of Brexit and Hungary's recent anti-refugee referendum.
Of course, these same feelings have long existed in the United States. Historically, we have had political parties like the Know Nothing Party with a staunch anti-immigrant platform. Demagogues play on the emotions of the working class, which feels itself threatened by all these new arrivals. We went through a particularly violent period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when we experienced a flood of European refugees and immigrants in the wake of collapsing European states.
This is particularly noteworthy because Donald Trump's grandparents arrived from Germany in 1885, escaping civil unrest in that country. Germany was going through a massive unification process that saw an autocratic state emerge. There was a literal flood of German immigrants at this time that greatly impacted American politics. The labor movement largely sprang from German socialists, hoping to achieve in the US what they had failed to do in their home country. The worst conflict arose at the Chicago Haymarket in 1886.
Rather than be sympathetic toward new immigrants, second-generation Donald Trump is highly antagonist toward new immigrants. He proudly cites his family heritage yet denies that they too were subject to reprisals. So much so that his father Fred often referred to himself as Swedish to avoid associations with Germany before and after WWII.
We are all children of immigrants. Of course there are those who proudly chart their lineage all the way back to the Mayflower, but these Pilgrims were escaping what they saw as a highly prejudiced British government that stifled their religious liberty.
The funny part about Trump's wall is that the persons he decries were here long before Brits or Germans made their way to the American shores. At one time, Spain controlled much of what is now continental United States. Russia actually controlled a large swathe of the West Coast, stretching down to Fort Ross, California. The Spanish countered by extending their missions all the way up to San Francisco. It wasn't until the mid-19th century that American interests spread west, claiming the Spanish territories by Manifest Destiny and purchasing Alaska from Russia. So, if we are going to play this game of who was here first, claiming a Mayflower birthright doesn't carry much weight.
To combat this rough patch in history, many Americans have come to pride themselves on what little "Native American" blood they can claim as if this gives them a special birthright. Yet, these earlier tribes were immigrants too, coming to this continent by the Bering land bridge or boat centuries before. The Athabaskans, which form by far the most dominant "native" groups in America, have strong Central Asian roots, and some believe came to America escaping the wrath of Genghis Khan in the 13th century. This would have been the time of the "little ice age" when the Bering Strait was believed to be frozen over. The Navajo and Apache were first sighted in the Southwest in the 14th century by earlier Pueblo nations, not long before the Spanish.
The Pueblo Indians believe they came to this continent by boat and some anthropologists have linked their culture with the Jomon culture, which goes back as far as the 10th millennium BC in Japan. The Zuni language shares remarkable characteristics to ancient Japanese. A very long heritage to be sure, but immigrants nonetheless.
We are all children of immigrants. European history amply illustrates that there is nothing ethnically pure about any of the current nation states. They are all confederations or rump states of previous confederations that owe their origins to a wide variety of cultural influences, much of it of Eastern origin. Sanskrit, not Greek or Latin, is the mother language. Yet, demagogues like Viktor Orban, Nigel Farage and Donald Trump continue to believe that we have some special birthright that makes us uniquely European or American, and that we should protect our countries from unwanted immigrants.
Our countries were shaped by immigrants. perhaps none more so than the United States. We have a rich history and should be proud of its great ethnic diversity, not try to homogenize it into a singular fictional identity and adopt a threatening gang mentality to enforce it.