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The Barbarian Solution
The GOP's loving embrace of the fascist right
There is a poem by Constantine Kavafy called Waiting for the Barbarians, that describes the city of Rome waiting for the imminent arrival of the barbarians—their arrival that very day. The citizens gather in the forum to do nothing but wait. The senators do not legislate, the emperor sits enthroned at the city gate, the orators don’t make speeches, and high officials don their finest regalia, dressing to impress.
They’re all waiting, waiting, waiting, but the barbarians never arrive. By evening, the citizens are bewildered and confused. The forum empties, and the people shuffle home, anxious and lost in thought, “Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come. And some people have arrived from the borderlands, and said there are no barbarians anymore.” “And now what’s to become of us without barbarians,” they wonder, because “Those people were a solution of a sort.”
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Despite their unreality (or rather, because of it) barbarians are good to do fascism with. Convince the public that barbarians are massing at the gate, and they are putty in one’s hands. The strategy is even more effective if the barbarians are said to be already in our midst, poisoning the minds of the young, and gnawing away like malevolent termites at the foundations of Western civilization.
The barbarian solution is evergreen. Nothing in the authoritarian rhetorical toolbox is more effective than cultivating feelings of paranoia and helplessness in the public, and then offering them salvation from the phantasmic existential threat.
Re-reading Kavafy’s poem this morning,called to mind the slide of the GOP towards unapologetic fascism, and their newest crush—the “illiberal democracy” of Hungary, embodied in the person of prime minister Viktor Orbán.
Orbán is master of the barbarian solution. He presents himself as a white knight rallying forces to battle the barbarian hordes, a champion of the war on woke. On July 23 he spoke to a crowd of thousands at an event in central Romania. He told them, "We move, we work elsewhere, we mix within Europe, but we don't want to be a mixed race," a "multi-ethnic" people who mix with "non-Europeans."
This is why we [Europeans] have always fought: we are willing to mix with one another, but we do not want to become peoples of mixed-race. This is why we fought at Nándorfehérvár/Belgrade, this is why we stopped the Turks at Vienna, and – if I am not mistaken – this is why, in still older times – the French stopped the Arabs at Poitiers.
It’s not coincidental that all of these were battles against Muslim enemies.
In the same speech, Orbán made a Holocaust joke. Alluding to the EU’s plan to reduce gas consumption in the wake of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, he remarked “I do not see how it will be enforced — although, as I understand it, the past shows us German know-how on that." This juxtaposition of the rhetoric of racial purity with a light-hearted quip about Nazi extermination camps was not lost on Jewish and Romani groups, and was rightly condemned as echoing Nazi ideology.
Orbán and his Fidesz party have a solid record of just-barely-under-the-radar antisemitism, these included honoring Miklos Horthy, who authorized sending nearly half a million Jews to Auschwitz in 1944. There’s worse. Let me introduce you to journalist Zsolt Bayer, co-founder of Fidesz. He is Orbán’s friend, ally, advisor, and a recipient of the Knight’s Cross Order of Merit, one of Hungary’s highest state honors.
Bayer traffics in explicitly dehumanizing and exterminationist rhetoric. He has claimed that every Muslim refugee over the age of fourteen is a “potential killer,” described refugees as “wild beasts,” characterized Black Lives Matter protesters using the n-word, referred to Jewish critics of the regime as “stinking piles of excrement” and Jewish US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as “rootless,” a bog-standard Nazi antisemitic slur. In a 2013 op-ed entitled “Who should not be,” Bayer claimed, “a significant portion of the Gypsy population is not fit for coexistence. It is not fit for living among people. These Gypsies are animals and behave as animals,” adding that “they are incapable of any kind of communication that could be called human. Most often inarticulate sounds surge forth from their animal skulls and the only thing that they understand in this miserable world is violence.” And the crescendo: “These animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist. In no way. That needs to be solved—immediately and regardless of the method.” In another screed, he said that a driver running over a “Gypsy” child should “step on the gas.”
If you suppose Bayer is a pariah, then think again. He was honored as a guest speaker at this year’s Hungarian edition of the American Conservative Political Action Committee, where he shared the bully pulpit with Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, Candace Owens, Mark Meadows, Jack Prosobiec (of Pizzagate fame), and Hungarian holocaust-distorting historian Maria Schmidt (a favorite of Orbán) who described Bayer as “the Christian crusader who does not allow us to lose our values, traditions, sensibilities, and common sense!”
Of course, CPAC Hungary’s website describes their mission as defending the Western civilization from invasion and attack.
The question CPAC Hungary will pose is if we can protect our Western civilization, our true Western values, and face down the onslaught of the Left. The guiding theme of the conference will be the triune principle of God, Nation and the Family. We firmly believe that this is what connects all conservatives around the world. The Right has come to the realization that our most basic values have come under sustained and coordinated attack from the global Left.
This month, American right-wingers flocked to Texas for another CPAC jamboree, where speakers ginned up the crowd for a crusade against the barbarians. Ted Cruz mounted the stage. “My name is Ted Cruz,” he said, “and my pronouns are kiss my ass.” He went on to say, in a historically ignorant1 but rhetorically effective riff, “Every day I represent 30 million Texans, and my job, it's like the old Roman Colosseum where you slam on a breastplate, and you grab a battle ax, and you go fight the barbarians.” Then, in an abrupt switch to a more dehumanizing metaphor, he described Democrats as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” Steve Bannon told the crowd “We are at war,” and urged them to send “shock troops” to Washington. Chair of the American Conservative Union Matt Schlapp promoted his film The Culture Killers, which told viewers, “Anything that’s good, anything that’s holy, anything that’s truthful is being attacked,” by the left, and that “we are under siege from an enemy within.” The crowd swooned over he-man Orbán who, in full anti-barbarian crusader mode, urged US conservatives to "co-ordinate the movement of our troops, because we face the same challenge.,” which he identified as “the woke, globalist goliath.” He received rapturous applause when describing the movement Syrian refugees as an “invasion” and comparing them to the armies of Genghis Khan.
This is not a joke. This is dangerous. We should be afraid.
If I sound alarmist, bear in mind that even the most dangerous movements have small beginnings, and are often not taken seriously until it is too late to stop them. When the elderly Sigmund Freud learned that his books were consigned to the flames in the German book burnings of 1933, he quipped "In the Middle Ages they would have burned me, now they are satisfied with burning my books." And when his friends begged him to leave Vienna, he waved them away with the remark that National Socialism was just a passing fad. Little did he know that he would soon be a refugee from Nazi terror, living out the final year of his life in London, and that three of his sisters would be consigned to the infernal ovens of Treblinka, and the fourth would die of starvation in Theresienstadt.
Of course, books are not being burned in today’s America. We haven’t reached that extremity yet. But books are being banned, as conservative lawmakers and activists seek to purge school libraries of what they deem to be offensive content. Bizarre conspiracy theories promulgated by QAnon, which bear an uncanny resemblance to centuries-old anti-Semitic tropes and the delusional “stop the steal” movement spearheaded by our former president and his zealots are ravaging the minds of otherwise sane people. The longing to return to a glorious mythical past, and the anticipation of the rebirth of a purified nation—a nostalgia that has presaged nearly every authoritarian regime for the last century—is palpable in much of the current Republican rhetoric.
Perhaps my worries are unfounded, and my vision of our current political situation is clouded by my absorption in the horrors of the past. Perhaps this time of madness will soon pass, and everything will be alright. But if history has anything to teach us, it is that we should not pin our hopes on empty optimism, and close our eyes to what bears all the earmarks of a gathering storm.
Historically ignorant because gladiators were mostly slaves or socially marginalized people that fought other gladiators or wild animals in the arena, not barbarians.