When Donald Trump was elected President in 2016, Americans pledged in droves to flee to our northern neighbor, and some actually followed through. Others who rightfully feared what the future would bring in Trump’s America had no choice but to face it directly. For those already living paycheck-to-paycheck or struggling with job insecurity, fleeing the country was a mere fantasy that, if pursued, could have left them in a position of even more unsettling doubt. The circumstances of my own “flight” were peculiar: I graduated from college the same year that Trump was elected, and had decided before the election to consider going abroad for graduate school. As a student from a lower working class background, I was motivated more strongly by that all-too-familiar desire to minimize loan debt than by fear of the possibility of living under a Trump presidency. In fact, some of us who left may have been more inclined to stay if his victory had been more confidently anticipated. There is value, albeit modest in consequence, in being physically present in those spaces of political struggle that have demanded vast contributions of the left’s energy just to prevent one impending disaster after another.
The direct impact of the administration on my own life would have been negligible in comparison to the challenges of, say, migrant families facing separation and cagement in detention centers. While many undocumented immigrants living in the US prepared, perforce, to leave their homes there behind, I prepared at will to leave the country for the first time and make a new home in Hungary. With the expectation that this would be a temporary home, I was to be assigned the positively connoted status of an “expat” rather than an “immigrant:” the former seen as a symbiote, and the latter a parasite.
It would be inaccurate, however, to say that this move was unaffected by the international intensification of anti-immigrant attitudes that has transpired in recent years. The graduate institution I attended, Central European University (CEU), had come under vicious attack by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his right-wing populist party, Fidesz. The university, founded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros, was demonized as a center of liberal indoctrination, responsible for attracting migrants and spreading so-called gender ideology. The same year I attended, Orban introduced a modification to the Higher Education Law that would prohibit certain universities from operating in Hungary: specifically, those universities that offered accreditation in a foreign country without establishing educational programs there. The CEU, which offered both Hungarian and American degrees, was the primary target of this legislation.
In an effort to comply, CEU reached an agreement with Bard College in summer 2017, which led to the establishment of a graduate certificate program on its New York campus. Hungary’s Foreign Prime Minister made a public statement that the government was not aware of CEU’s US-based educational activity — to which students of the Bard program responded that they are living proof of its operation. A government spokesperson dismissed the program as a “Potemkin campus” that didn’t comply with the law. These statements implied demands that would have been impossible to satisfy within the allowed time frame. Given the government’s insistence that this was a politically neutral matter, it is surely strange that CEU was the only Hungarian university to be affected by the law, and that no university in a similar position would have been able to meet the conditions it imposed.
Public statements from the university insisted that it was committed to continuing its operations in Budapest, even as it later began to consider its options for establishing programs elsewhere in Europe. The Free University of Berlin and the European capitals of Vienna, Prague and Vilnius all offered themselves as alternative sites where CEU could seek refuge. Ultimately, the university made plans to establish a campus in Vienna, which is now on track to be fully operational in fall 2019.
The movement of CEU to Vienna is undoubtedly a defeat for academic freedom. It will not only serve to weaken academic and cultural life in Hungary, but will also pose additional financial barriers for students who are less able to cope with the cost of living in the Austrian capital. Students like myself, who have neither savings nor a family that can offer financial support, wouldn’t have been able to attend had we applied later to a Vienna-based program. This purportedly neutral legal development was, in fact, a symptom of a wider far-right campaign against immigrants and all whom Fidesz believes threaten traditional values in Hungary. In the same year, I watched as left-affiliated cultural centers in Budapest were forced to close or relocate. These spaces had importantly contributed to my own sense of community and social belonging in the city, and held even greater significance for many long-term local residents. The real motivation behind the shut-downs was also obscured by seemingly neutral legal justifications. Many venues fail to perfectly comply with building regulations and to ensure that clientele never violate drug laws on their premises. Yet it was only those venues that have been gathering spaces for immigrants, leftists, queer folks and other social pariahs that became victims of the government’s hawkish gaze.
I watched as Orban enjoyed another landslide victory in the 2018 parliamentary election. Waiting at the bus stop, I saw a government-sponsored poster depicting a long, crowded line of brown-skinned people, with a STOP sign cartoonishly plastered in the foreground. Riding into the countryside, I saw Soros’ face occupy every other billboard, next to Hungarian text that I never bothered to translate; the presence of government stamps of approval was enough to convey the gist of the signs’ message.
Months after my graduation, I learned that Fidesz banned public funding and accreditation for gender studies programs, insisting that the discipline is an ideology, not a science. The government also introduced a pro-natalist bill — completely innocent of gender ideology, of course — that would eliminate income tax obligations for women who have more than four children. Around the same time, in Bolsonaro’s Brazil, a bill was introduced that would ban the words “gender” and “sexual orientation” from professors’ speech entirely, while also targeting other language common to critiques of inequality. In Russia, a politician who spearheaded a national law against “gay propaganda,” called for building inspections at the European University at St. Petersburg, which led to a temporary revocation of the university’s license. Is it any coincidence that this university also operates the largest gender studies program in Russia? I’ll let readers decide for themselves.
Seeing these events unfold in real-time while in Hungary placed me — and other leftist students, I imagine — in the peculiar position of feeling compelled to actively defend a billionaire. Perhaps it can be said that as the power of a common enemy grows, we become more willing to invite others into the fold of those we consider to be our friends: or, at least, those alongside whom we are willing to share our sorrows and wage our struggles. I remember, in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election, feeling a vast sense of affinity with everyone who was mourning at the same time, for the same reason. The full implications of this sentiment for how we ought to move forward in the struggle against far-right power are still are not clear to me. It seems, however, that there may be value in turning to it as the left continues to grapple with the difficult, nuanced work of carrying out its internal debates. In other words, we should not allow our efforts to form broad alliances — which can have decisive consequences in such realms as policy and electoral politics — to be stymied by a fear of compromising our political purity. This is not a trite gesture toward “setting aside our differences,” but rather toward confronting them more intimately: emerging from any silos we may still occupy, and being prepared to articulate and refine our beliefs in the face of all sincere opposition.
I eventually left Budapest for a stint back in the states, before making my way to Madrid — with plans to learn Spanish, teach English, and wrestle with my share of post-graduation anxiety about the future. This experience has been radically different from that of my time in Hungary or the US northeast. Everyday life seems to move at a much slower pace, which is hardly a novel claim about Spain. Many of my attempts to turn public café tables into an office desk have resulted in me being shown the door: a kind of rejection I’ve been at once frustrated by and grateful for. This change in pace isn’t explained wholly by the special character of Spanish culture, but also by my new distance from academic life. Academic institutions can lend themselves to the easy formation of communities, and maybe when we leave them, all the joys and burdens of building a community around us become more fully our own. I have felt no pressure for this process to be rushed, and have instead settled temporarily into a state of romantic solitude: reading, running, wandering and wondering in a largely unstructured, yet deliberate way. This is a privilege that would not have been afforded to me if it weren’t for my native English tongue, which, paradoxically, I stayed abroad to try to unlearn. The moments where I’ve noticed the greatest progress have been those when I’ve tried to learn like a child who is innocent of nearly all language, and thereby more eager to experiment with it.
I’ve delighted in this experience of discovering language in a tabula rasa state all over again, while also coming to lament how much it is undervalued in the states. Some of my students grew up in other countries — including Morocco, Russia, and Romania — and have gracefully accepted the challenge of moving between not two, but three, languages in their daily lives. When they or I lack the words we want to convey, we speak with our bodies, with our surroundings, with elementary descriptions in the words we do share, and failing all else, with Google’s helping hand. This awkward and joyous stumbling toward common meaning, which has also colored my conversations outside the classroom, has strengthened my sense that life is moving more slowly. My ignorance has demanded that I make no assumptions about what others mean to say, and that I think with greater care about the meaning of my own words: a kind of care that might enrich all exchanges, including those in language we’re believed to have “mastered.”
Even in Spain, however, the freedom to move at a slow pace linguistically and culturally, and not feel pressured to assimilate, takes a level of generosity that is more often extended to expats than immigrants. There’s no such thing as taking too much time, so long as you’re not thought to be taking too many resources. Immigrants, conversely, are sometimes thought to take without giving anything whatsoever in return. Such a thought can only be bought by those who deny that human beings have social value, which isn’t wholly determined by their wealth, education, or any other superficial measure of worthiness.
Nativist hostility toward particular groups of outsiders hasn’t dominated the Spanish political scene, but there’s no doubt that its influence is also growing here. Like Fidesz, Spain’s far-right Vox party has demonized Soros as a driver of undesirable immigration and the “Islamization of Europe.” In addition to promoting an anti-immigration message, Vox has taken a strong stance against feminism, same-sex marriage, multiculturalism and progressive taxation. In the recent Spanish elections, Vox became the first far-right party to hold multiple seats in the national parliament since the end of the Francoist dictatorship in the 1970s. Party leader Santiago Abascal has expressed support for building “insurmountable walls” along the Morocco–Spain border, and has suggested that Morocco should be responsible for paying for it — sound familiar? Any immigration to Spain, insisted Vox executive member Rafael Bardají, should be immigration that Spain “wants and can benefit from.” In other words: tolerate symbiotes, slam the door on parasites and spread nativism like a virus.
The stories of these countries only scratch the surface of the international scope of nativism. As is the case with all seemingly infectious political phenomena, there is no single explanation that can be universally applied to understand the current rise of right-wing nativism in countries around the world. This sentiment is grounded in a great variety of fears: foreigners replacing a declining native population; foreigners being a burden on social welfare systems; foreigners bringing drugs and crime and being rapists; foreigners banding together with native ideologues to promote the destruction of precious gender and sexual hierarchies — the list goes on. The role of nativism in each country’s politics is guided by a particular set of fears about how something valuable is under threat of being ripped away by outsiders. One of the continuities across all these fears is that they represent an externalization of blame for social, economic, and political problems that are also — if not exclusively — internal.
Ask any ordinary outsider and you’ll find a separate set of fears that leads them to live through most days as though they’re walking on eggshells. Not even the most privileged “parasites” are spared from the pressure to prove, every day, that they are earning their stay rather than taking it for granted. If there is anything I have learned from my interaction with immigrant communities both in the US and throughout Europe, it is that this pressure is widespread and often unjustly demanding. It doesn’t stop simply at learning a new language (or two). It can mean keeping your head down when your boss spews racist comments, refraining from making your political sympathies known in public, tolerating dehumanizing conditions at work or school, trying desperately to work longer and harder than your colleagues, staying in abusive relationships with people who support you— all thanks to the ever-looming fear of losing your residency.
All for the sake of a little hospitality. For the sake of earning, against all odds, the treasured status of a symbiote.