Favourite state of mind: “insulted”

The authoritarian path is a learning programme from Hungary, Poland and elsewhere. The first step is to mobilise feeling against minorities. They may be refugees, or Roma – in any case, groups who are suited to being made into “others”. Researchers call this process “othering”. The evil-doers come from outside, that is the basic pattern. In step two, people affected by poverty are harassed. Homeless people in Budapest, those on minimum security here, unemployed people there. Fundamental social rights are suspended or deliberately avoided for those at the bottom of the social heap. Step three on the authoritarian path means restricting the right to demonstrate and undermining supreme courts. We are familiar with that from Poland, but also from Spain after the protests against social cutbacks following the financial crisis. Step four targets NGOs and civil society, attempting to denounce and weaken them. That is a constant pattern from Poland, Hungary, Russia or Turkey. In the fifth step, pressure is put on critical journalists.

“Every step was so tiny, so unimportant, so plausibly justified, that no one understood on a daily basis what the whole thing was to mean in principle, and where all these ‘tiny steps’ would one day lead.” Milton Mayer wrote this in his study of the experiences of people in the 1930s in Germany. And added: “On a daily basis no one understood, just as little as a farmer in his field sees his grain grow from one day to the next. But every action is worse than the last one, yet only a little bit worse.” Meyers study is shot through with eerie observations and exact descriptions of daily life:  “The outward forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring: houses, shops, meals, visits, concerts, movies, holidays. Only you live in a world of hate and fear, and people who hate and fear do not even know themselves that, when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. You have accepted things that you would not have accepted five years ago, or one year ago.”

Don’t engage in anticipatory obedience. Defend institutions. Search. Learn from people in other countries. And talk to one another, a lot. Those are some of the twenty principles that Timothy Snyder cites in his slim volume “On Tyranny”. A processor of history at Yale University, he observes authoritarian paths for a living. His small book reads like the instructions for use of a medication, that citizens should always have at hand as an antidote. Take a deep breath. Don’t drift. “Every story is ‘breaking’ until it is displaced by the next one. So we are hit by wave upon wave but never see the ocean,” Snyder writes, describing the hysteria trap into which authoritarian policies are driving us. Or: “terror management”, that is the oldest of all tricks. After the terror attacks of 1999, 2002 and 2004, Putin squeezed the democracy out of institutions, always exactly in the weeks afterwards.

Them or us. In the pre-war of those obsessed with their identity there is only either-or. They themselves and their inflated egos see themselves as being always on the brink of annihilation. For that purpose, there is always a selected trauma of the past: the Nazis chose the Treaty of Versailles, Milošević the Battle of Kosovo 600 years before, Orbán the Treaty of Trianon after the First World War, etc. If there is no suitable threat of annihilation for the collective to take from the past it can also be projected into the future.

Orbán is waging a visible battle against European “foreign countries”, against threatening “internal enemies” and against the critical parts of civil society. If Orbán were criticised for it he would immediately makes himself out to be a victim of “foreign groups” and “internal traitors of the fatherland”. That is how the victim cult of the powerful works. It is a feature of authoritarian figures that they treat criticism as an insult. Being insulted is the most favourite state of mind of authoritarian nation states. Whether Orbán in Hungary, Kaczyński in Poland, Erdoğan in Turkey: criticism is always “insulting the people”. On the authoritarian path, victim narcissism meets megalomania.

Published in: Der Standard, Album, 15.Juli 2017

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