The Revenge of the Defeated

This piece from the New York Review of Books about the unique nature of German rightist populism — it has more academics, professionals, and intellectuals than do other populist political expressions — says something very interesting about what it means to be a conquered people:

The Alternative [für Duetschland] scores best in what we still loosely call East Germany, that is, the territory of the former German Democratic Republic. There is a striking inverse correlation between the number of immigrants (or people of migrant origin) in an area and the populist vote: East Germany has the fewest immigrants and the most AfD voters.

As I was reading the piece, it struck me that there was an interesting resemblance between some White Americans, post-Soviet Russians and the German states that once comprised the German Democratic Republic — they are dealing with a (real or imagined) sense of defeat. Not long into Obama’s first term, I was in a cop/firefighter bar on the far south side of Chicago, and one off-duty firefighter says: “It doesn’t pay to be a white man anymore.” It did, and still does (mostly), but the sense of defeat — of the overturning of a system in which that man could take pride and had some prestige and position — was palpable.

Post-Soviet Russians, and the Germans of the former GDR, also live in a world where prestige, pride, and positions were taken away. In Dubai, I did a series of stories on a group of Georgians who were stranded there when a tour company ripped them off, and a Syrian travel agent (who had studied in Moscow in the 1980s) said: “Look at what you Americans did! You should be very proud of yourselves. These people once ran an empire, and now they can’t even scrape together the money for airplane tickets.”

(The Georgians were running a scam, and I got used, but that’s another matter for a different day.)

So, Ash goes on to write:

It would require a longer essay to explore the collective psychology of this East German vote, but its ingredients certainly include the poisonous legacy of a society behind the Berlin Wall that was anything but open and multicultural. There is also a resentful feeling among East Germans that they have been treated as second-class citizens in united Germany: not given enough attention, not paid due respect. When a street protest in a small town in Saxony was totally ignored by the visiting Chancellor Merkel, a protester complained, “She doesn’t look at us even with her ass!” One can imagine a Trump voter saying something similar about Hillary Clinton. In explaining the populist vote in many countries, the inequality of attention is at least as important as economic inequality.

And then, to add insult to injury, these bloody foreigners—Muslims to boot!—are welcomed in Germany with open arms and “get everything for nothing.” As in other European welfare states, the knowledge that “everything” includes generous welfare provisions only sharpens the resentment.

In effect, the sons of the GDR never really got over the loss of the East German state. They didn’t have any say in their fates — the GDR was doomed the moment the Berlin Wall came down and Mikhail Gorbachev committed the Red Army to leaving. They got to live in a more affluent world, with more freedom. But meaning was taken away from them, and many were simply passed by like a Trabant puttering down the autobahn.

But where do the defeated people go? Nowhere. And what do the defeated people do? They stew, some of them. They tend their resentments. They remember every slight, real or imagined, and they remember they once mastered their own fates. Where they now beg, they could once threaten. And where they now bluster, they could once exact a precise revenge.

Revanchism — the revenge of the defeated — is probably the greatest political force of our age. It is driving the AfD, it is driving the Russian state, and it has propelled Donald J. Trump into the presidency. In the case of Russia, we are reaping the whirlwind of the neoliberal looting of the post-Soviet state and the immiseration of Russian society in the 1990s, though I suspect treating the Russians with more magnanimity and dignity was likely out of the question.

And what you do with white men who have well-paying jobs amply provisioned with benefits who express a resentment grounded more in imagination than anything resembling a real defeat is beyond me. There is no magnanimous enough short of the reinstatement of chattel slavery that would likely suffice. Yet they, too, are having their revenge as they seek to dismantle a society that gives anyone but them any kind of benefits or advantage.

There are no answers to much of this — I want to gloat that this disproves any notions of progress, but sadly, forward or backward, the world sinks lower toward violence and dictatorship, especially as those who once thought the arc of the universe inevitably bent in their direction now plot their vengeance. So I don’t know. I just don’t know.