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Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller are very possibly advising President Trump to follow the Hungarian Model in confronting refugees at the southern border, in order to win wider support for his far-right authoritarian policies. Trump is now exactly following the playbook of far-right Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who in 2015-16 deployed national police and army troops to the southern contiguous boundary of the EU, on the Serbian border. They interned Syrian and other Muslim refugees in cages, police beat refugees, troops built a barbed-wire fence, and fascist vigilantes threatened other migrants. A media photographer who tripped a Syrian father at the border was arrested, but last week had her conviction overturned. To respond to police violence and harassment as they tried to board trains at the Eastern Train Station in Budapest, and to find greater safety in numbers, the Muslim refugees held a dramatic march to a refuge across the Austrian border, in a scene that closely resembles the Central American refugee caravan.
Before 2015, the far-right in Hungary only had their old stand-by enemies, the Roma (Gypsies) and Jewish liberals, to blame for the country’s problems. But now they had Muslim immigrants to scare the voters, just like the far-right movements in Western Europe. Orbán’s standing in polls and elections increased, so much so that his Fidesz party eclipsed the even-farther-right Jobbik because it had stolen its signature issues. Steve Bannon has visited Hungary, and sung the praises of Orbán, who openly idolizes Trump. Orbán has felt confident enough in the past year to launch a hate poster campaign against Hungarian Jewish philanthropist George Soros, blaming him for underwriting the refugee crisis (with the tacit endorsement of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu), and closing the Central European University that he founded. Using coded anti-Semitism is exactly how Trump’s followers at Fox have connected Soros to the Central American refugee caravan. Because some Hungarian Christian and Jewish citizens had aided the Muslim refugees, Orbán outlawed such humanitarian assistance, so we can expect that same move by Trump.
Just as in Hungary, what happens to the refugees along the southern border will be a precedent for how the regime treats any dissenters. Just as the Hungarian left-liberal parties did not stand up to Orbán on the border fence, the Democratic Party has accepted the premise that the debate today is about “illegal” immigration. Yet seeking asylum from violence, in the U.S. as in the EU, is completely legal, particularly for people feeling systematic violence in countries such as Syria or Honduras. Trump and Orbán are not opposing illegal immigration, but using racist xenophobia to stop legal immigration. Many leaders and media are engaged in Fascism Denial that minimizes the threat as merely a pro-Trump fever that will be cooled with an election.
My own Hungarian family lived through a similar situation before and during World War II. My Jewish grandfather was born in New York, and so had birthright citizenship in the U.S., and married my Hungarian Jewish grandmother there. He returned back to his family’s hometown in Czechoslovakia in the mid-1930s, where my father was born in 1938. When the Nazis soon afterwards took over Slovakia, my father was enslaved in a rock quarry, and the U.S. State Department refused to renew his passport so the family could escape (by insisting he had to travel to the embassy to do so, even though Jews were banned from traveling). This is the same era when the U.S. refused Jewish refugees to land here, or to bomb the rail lines leading from Hungary to Auschwitz.
My family became refugees in fascist Hungary, which was taken over by Nazi Germany in 1944. They were then interned in an enemy alien camp, whereas the rest of my family was sent to Auschwitz. When the Allies bombed the camp, my Jewish family was interned in a school that is only a block from the same Eastern Train Station where the Muslim refugees sought freedom 70 years later. On New Year’s Eve 1945, as the Soviets closed in on the city, my grandfather was marched with other Jewish men to the Danube, and executed in an infamous massacre. My Grandmother and 6-year-old father were moved to the Ghetto, where they later escaped. Only because of my grandfather’s U.S. birthright citizenship did they survive the Holocaust, and I would not exist otherwise.
My 80-year-old father passed away in July, and I am glad he is not seeing these horrible scenes unfold in the country he’d called home since he was 11. So in my heart and mind, the massacre of Jews in Pittsburgh and the deployment of troops to confront a refugee caravan are part and parcel of the same threat of fascism rearing its ugly head in my birth country, which is supposed to be a haven of religious freedom and refuge for immigrants fleeing persecution. We should all be raising our voices, votes, and fists to stop these atrocities before they start, rather than responding to them after the fact.
We should be sending messages to the facebook pages of the military units being deployed to the border, pointing out that they have the legal right to refuse illegal orders to brutalize unarmed civilians, or to misrepresent the facts to the public. The Uniform Code of Military Justice (Article 92) establishes a duty to obey lawful orders, and therefore a duty to disobey unlawful orders to that are clearly contrary to the Constitution. If personnel are unsure of the legality of an order to brutalize civilians, they can always kneel for guidance.
If we really believe in the values of “Never Again,” we cannot trivialize the current crisis as just another uncivil partisan squabble. Though we all need to vote, this isn’t just about the midterms, but the future survival of any semblance of democracy in our country.