Close encounters of the populist kind

·17 min read

People around the world watched aghast as hundreds of swarming insurrectionists infiltrated the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

A bastion of democracy overrun by thugs who believed a conspiracy theory that their vote was co-opted in last November’s election, allowing Joe Biden to steal the presidency.

Biden is now tasked with the gargantuan responsibility of bringing a broken country together. A country that can’t agree on the American identity. A country that can’t agree on its core moral principles. A country that can’t agree on how events, whether historical or present-day, occurred.

Citizens are shouting past one another. Scarcely, it seems, they are speaking the same language.

It’s hard to know how America will bridge the chasm. But one of the first steps is to learn from the political tactics that brought the country to its breaking point. And it’s critical to recognize democracies are fragile, and good policy and bedrock institutions must be nurtured if they are to endure the tests of time, politics and strife.

Countless factors led to the carnage on Jan. 6 but one that has been replicated in other countries is the implementation of populist, nationalist rhetoric and the manipulation of historical identity narratives for political gain.

While it seems America is likely to come back from the brink of a fractured democracy, other countries may not fare so well.

It often begins with something benign. Rallying the support of the people to a cause. But often that cause is pitted in distortions of truth, manipulated historical events that give people a common purpose and identity — often a common enemy. Sometimes the historical manipulations involve a specific, iconic event; other times it is more vague and nebulous. It is always built on emotion rather than reason.

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Elizabeth Domokos, 94, lives alone on the top floor of an old downtown Winnipeg apartment building. The floors creaked as she shuffled through the kitchen and the sitting room preparing coffee for her visitor, a nosy journalist. She lit up a cigarette as she got to reminiscing.

Domokos was interviewed in late 2019 about her life growing up in Hungary and Romania as part of a larger project looking at political events and troubling trends in Eastern and Central Europe. Many of the interviews in this piece were conducted at that time.

Domokos was happy to talk about the history of her home country, describing how she kept a lifelong connection to her ancestral roots. Visits to Budapest were common until her husband’s passing. She still boots up her old desktop computer every day to read the news from home in Hungarian.

“After the First World War, so many things changed in Europe. I was born in Romania, of Hungarian parents, and spoke Hungarian,” Domokos said. Her entire life was shaped by the Treaty of Trianon, signed in 1920, which mandated that three-fifths of Hungarian territory be reassigned to other countries and territories as the borders of Eastern Europe were redrawn. Today, the land principally belongs to Romania, Croatia, Serbia and Slovakia.

During the Second World War, Hungarian soldiers attempted to reclaim the territory in Romania where Domokos was born. This is how she met her soon-to-be husband Alex. But their engagement was cut short; they rushed to the altar as Soviet troops closed in on Hungary. For their “honeymoon,” she remembers spending weeks crowded with her extended family in a small basement in Budapest as bombs fell, destroying the Hungarian capital at the end of 1944 and the early months of 1945. The killing and destruction was indiscriminate.

“When we came out of the basement, I didn’t know where I was anymore because it was so damaged,” she said. “As soon as the Soviets came in, my husband was taken. And he was in a Soviet prison camp for six years.”

The 20th century was not kind to Hungary, but such was the price for being aligned with the Axis powers during the Second World War. Today, cast-iron shoes are placed along the shores of the Danube River that snakes through Budapest; a memorial to the lives of Jews lost at the hands of fascist Hungarian Arrow Cross soldiers during the war.

The Cold War then saw Hungary turned into a Soviet satellite state in the Eastern Bloc. In the case of the Domokos family, it meant being separated and spread out around the world, as some members fled for safety in other western countries, some stayed in Budapest and Alex Domokos served out his time in a Soviet prison camp.

Now the pain of the people who lived through these periods, and those who grew up hearing about it from their parents, is being used to stoke emotional responses for political purposes.

Before I left her apartment, Domokos pulled out a postcard she purchased on one of her last trips to Hungary, a map with a pull tab. It starts with a map of present-day Hungary with its current borders. As the tab is pulled, pieces of land appear from the corners and converge on the original borders, demonstrating, she said, the land that is truly Hungarian that was ripped away from them during the 20th century. The map bears the words “Justice for Hungary” at the top.

Adorning the wall of the Hungarian Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto, that same map, this one carved in wood, keeps alive the narrative that Hungarians have been robbed of land that is rightfully theirs.

Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s populist, right-wing leader, didn’t create this narrative, but he’s certainly capitalized on it to rally nationalist sentiment for years. When he came to power in 2010, one of his first acts in office was to create a “day of national unity” on June 4, the day of the Treaty of Trianon’s signing. The significance of the treaty and its perceived injustices to the Hungarian people has since been perpetuated through many channels, including a rock opera in 2018.

A monument commemorating the loss of the territories was erected last summer, marking the 100th anniversary of the treaty’s signing. In May, Orbán posted a photo of “Greater Hungary” on his Facebook page, which worried leaders in some of Hungary’s neighbouring countries.

This narrative is being entrenched for generations to come, as the school curriculum is being altered to reflect this version of history. A progressive and neutral rewrite of the history, literature and science curriculums was rejected by the Orbán government, says László Miklós, the head of the Hungarian Association of History Teachers. And over time, control of the school system, all the way down to the textbooks, has been undertaken.

Miklós details the issues he sees in the state’s manipulation of the school system as he sips iced tea at one of Budapest’s many hip coffee shops. He speaks with the help of a translator.

“It’s entirely consistent with all of the other things that have been happening in the wider context. This government dislikes professional autonomy, free-thinking, and it seeks to imbue society with its own ideology.... The same thing is happening in academia and research sciences.”

In fact, one Hungarian university — Central European University — headed up by former Canadian Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, was (for the most part) forced out of Hungary due to Orbán’s continued demonization of university founder George Soros, an American-Hungarian philanthropist. Soros is demonized by the political right the world over in what is often described as an anti-Semitic slander campaign, again, giving people a common enemy to rally against.

Hungary’s perceived victimhood is a key rallying point for Orbán and his Fidesz party; a call to rise to greatness once again, fighting the external forces that keep them down. But this is not the end, but rather the means. It is also not the only example of historical manipulations at work.

Building a wall to keep migrants and refugees out might have garnered much attention in the United States, but it happened in Hungary before former U.S. president Donald Trump was elected. In 2015, razor-wire fences were erected along Hungary’s border with Serbia to stymie the flow of migrants. Legislation was passed making it a crime for Hungarian people or charitable organizations to offer help to migrants; they risked significant financial penalties as well as jail time in doing so.

To rationalize the prohibition of Muslims, Orbán references the Ottoman Empire’s conquest of the region in the 16th and 17th centuries.

“I think we have a right to decide that we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country,” Orbán told reporters in Brussels in 2015. “We do not like the consequences of having a large number of Muslim communities that we see in other countries, and I do not see any reason for anyone else to force us to create ways of living together in Hungary that we do not want to see. That is a historical experience for us.”

His transparently xenophobic efforts have been effective in garnering and maintaining support. In 2018, Orbán won his fourth term and, with his increasing power over the past decade, has rewritten the rules under which the Hungarian judiciary operates. Last year, with a two-thirds majority, Orbán was able to pass legislation that suspended regular elections, allowing him to govern without a term limit as long as the legislation remains in place.

In 2018, a member of the ruling Fidesz party, Zsuzsanna Szelényi, left office after growing increasingly frustrated with the party’s direction under Orbán’s rule.

“Hungary is not a democracy anymore,” she told Vox. “The parliament is a decoration for a one-party state.”

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The use of historical manipulations proved so effective as a political tool that Polish leaders of the right-wing Law and Justice arty decided to try their hand at it, too.

Leader Jarosław Kaczynski said as far back as 2011 that he idolized Hungary’s trajectory and hoped that one day Warsaw would be just like Budapest.

Dawning the doorway of countless businesses and homes in the Polish capital is the red-and-white flag with a black Kotwica symbol on it. The flag symbolizes the Warsaw Uprising and the underground resistance to German Nazi occupation during the Second World War.

The revival of pride in resistance to Nazi occupation seemed benign at first. However, darker implications soon became more evident.

In 2018, the Law and Justice Party passed legislation that criminalized any reference to Polish guilt and complicity connected to the atrocities that occurred under Nazi rule. Breaking the new law would result in jail time.

This development occurred at an interesting time, said Jonathan Ornstein, executive director of Krakow’s Jewish Community Centre. Because 30 years after the end of communism, more Poles are discovering their Jewish roots for the first time, coming to understand that their true heritage had been masked by the tragedies of the 20th century.

“We have a growing Jewish community, and the backdrop of that is a Poland that has been very welcoming, and nurturing of that Jewish revival,” Ornstein said. “It has been a rough few years, though. This government has taken some actions which have been difficult for us as a Jewish community, that have in some ways caused us to worry about the future of Jews here in Poland.”

The law was abandoned after coming under global scrutiny. After all, Poland is home to some of the most infamous, historically preserved Holocaust memorials, including the Auschwitz concentration camp and Oskar Schindler’s enamelled-goods factory.

“For the six months that it was the law of the land… it was a problem for us. It opened up this whole Pandora’s box of difficult, nasty, comments on all different sides and we really felt that we saw these anti-Semitic statements that we hadn’t seen here in a very long time,” Ornstein said.

Magda Blackmore, a professor of Polish studies at the University of Manitoba, says that the failed push to change the law was felt all the way back to Winnipeg. Inroads had been made between the local Polish and Jewish communities, but trust was broken when the Polish government tried to rewrite history by abdicating any complicity in the horrors of the war.

“I believe this was an attempt of a right-wing government to strengthen the national identity in the worst ways possible. That’s my personal opinion,” she said.

Blackmore suspects a big part of why Poland is ripe for manipulation of its past is the onset of the Cold War immediately after the Second World War. There was no time for the country to grapple with what had happened.

“There was no opportunity to learn the historical truth,” Blackmore said. She adds that this has strained relationships between Poles and Jews, Poles and Ukrainians. It took more than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 for the national consciousness and identity to begin to grapple with the events of the Second World War, she said.

“Some of the events were very difficult to suddenly accept, especially blame for some of the World War II atrocities. So this process, we only started it not even 20 years ago. It takes a while to process it,” she said.

Ironically, last summer the Polish government accused the Russians of whitewashing Soviet crimes during the Second World War and in the years that followed. “A nation’s greatness and international relations may not be built upon lies and by falsifying history,” a resolution from the country’s parliamentary house read.

Marcin, a Krakow-based medical doctor who wished not to disclose his surname, agreed to chat about politics over coffee one afternoon. He said over the course of his career he watched the medical system improve but more recently decline, with hospitals closing and fewer supports for people, as the government shifts its focus elsewhere.

One of his key worries is that the ruling party’s stoking of nationalist sentiments is emboldening citizens to become more extreme and vocal, believing that their points of view are now more widely accepted.

“It’s like how fascism was born in Germany before World War II. It became stronger and stronger. And those kinds of ideas are happening right now in Poland, I would say. I would not say as strong. But it’s moving that way.”

The summer before Poland’s last national election in 2019, a conservative Polish magazine, one that supports Law and Justice, distributed stickers for readers to place on their homes or businesses declaring those areas LGBT-free zones.

“So you can buy a newspaper, you can put up a sticker that LGBT people cannot buy something here,” said Dawid Wojtyczka, a gay-rights advocate living in Krakow. “Come on; this is something that happened with Jews. This is the same story on repeat, and we know how that ended. The world knows how that ended,”

The party did not condemn the distribution of the stickers, instead saying it stood by the right to freedom of the press.

Emboldened citizens engaging in right-wing nationalistic displays passively and actively condoned by the ruling party. That would never get out of hand. Right?

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Rewriting historical narratives has been used for as long as political minds have tried to manipulate a populace.

Author and journalist William Shirer wrote in his book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich that Germans came to believe they had been betrayed by their political leadership at the end of the First World War when an armistice was signed at great cost to the country.

It didn’t matter if the political leadership was following the urging of the military leaders. By creating an enemy of the political leadership, the Nazis were able to come to power in 1933 through legitimate means, while tearing apart the country’s budding democratic roots.

“One had to live in Germany between the wars to realize how widespread was the acceptance of this incredible legend by the German people,” Shirer wrote.

“They had to find scapegoats for the defeat and for their humiliation and misery.... The gullibility of the Germans is a subject (Adolf) Hitler often harps on in Mein Kampf. He was shortly (after writing the book) to take full advantage of it.”

This is not to suggest the leadership of Nazi Germany and current-day Hungary or Poland are guilty of the same crimes, but only that they used the same political techniques to achieve their own ends. For an example closer to home, one perhaps even more potent, look no further than south of the border and the four years of the Trump presidency.

Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan harkens back to a golden age that is non-descript and thus infallible. But surely, Americans don’t want to go back to a time marked by the indiscriminate death of the world wars. And they probably don’t long for the economic hardships of the Great Depression. Those who care in earnest about equality and justice wouldn’t want to return to the era of Jim Crow laws that enforced the segregation and disenfranchisement of Black Americans. During what time period was America so great?

It’s hard to say what time in history these people yearn for. But that yearning is powerful. It became a demand for more than what they have; a plea based in emotion rather than reason and civic engagement.

Márton Gyöngyösi is a Hungarian member of the European Parliament and executive vice-president of Hungary’s right-leaning Jobbik party. In years past, Jobbik had been the country’s right-wing party before Fidesz pushed ideology further right on the political spectrum. Jobbik continues to hold a place in Hungary as the opposition. The political events there have led to Gyöngyösi becoming an unlikely man to sound the alarm on the distortions of power in Eastern Europe.

“From now on, Donald Trump, the role model for the world’s populist leaders, will be represented in the history books as the man who thought that he could use his tweets to single-handedly control the sophisticated system of checks and balances that forms the very core of the United States, and when he failed, he instigated his followers with conspiracy theories and sparked a skirmish that eventually led to human casualties in the Capitol,” Gyöngyösi said in an online blog post last month.

While Trump was forced to hand over power, he warns other populist leaders will not fold the same way.

“Just as Hungary is much smaller than the United States, our political system is that much more vulnerable, which allowed Orbán to completely shape the state administration to his own liking over the past 11 years. Trump could only dream of what Orbán has already put into practice,” Gyöngyösi said.

“This is especially frightening because while the U.S. political system clearly determines what happens when a president’s mandate expires, Orbán has built a country where the leaders occupying nearly all key institutional positions are loyal to Orbán and Fidesz rather than Hungary or the Hungarian people. We can only hope that Hungary’s 2022 elections will not bring such events that we saw in Lukashenko’s Belarus.”

The creation in our collective minds of far-off enemies is a unifying force — and one that’s not always unreasonable. But we must not cherry-pick narratives to understand our place in the world.

Trump systemically eroded political and judicial institutions — the underpinnings of the country’s democracy — in his time in office. And yet, he earned 74 million votes in November.

On Jan. 20, Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States, leaving Americans to decide what historical truths they’re willing to face.

In his inaugural address, Biden affirmed just that:

“Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear and demonization have long torn us apart.”

Sarah Lawrynuik, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press