This article is published in collaboration with Bilten: a regional online portal.
The proposal for a referendum to amend the constitution in order to inscribe the definition of family as the union between a woman and a man is dividing opinion in Romania and it represents a platform for the affirmation of a Romanian version of Trumpism and alt-right. It also offers, inadvertently, the occasion of an unlikely conjunction. The following details might seem too arcane for a foreign public but they are worth the patience in order to grasp the larger picture. The point is significant because it shows the impossible mission the left faces.
The initiative to amend the constitution was promoted by conservative neoprotestant groups with a strong social basis in Transylvania, especially among the urban middle classes, but with a significant reach in the rural and less affluent constituencies. Publicly, this is known as the Coalition for Family (CFF) and it involves a host of groups and initiatives, from parishes to NGOs. The neoprotestant connection ensured significant American backing, especially in terms of funds, ideological material and mobilization techniques. Locally, the neoprotestant networks are firmly embedded in the National Liberal Party, the second largest and now in opposition. Many leaders of the liberals come from neoprotestant strongholds and supported the CFF initiative. The Liberal party is thus in name only. Few years ago, it abandoned the liberal group in the European Parliament and switched to the conservative in an attempt to get closer to the Christian Democrats. Now, under the neoprotestant pressure the party resembles more the traditional conservatism of the American Republicans before Trump.
When the CFF began collecting signatures for the referendum the Romanian Orthodox Church felt obliged to join in. Partly, this was an outcome of the competition between the Orthodox and the neoprotestants, especially in Transylvania, so the Orthodox Church tried to put its stamp on the initiative. A series of ”normality marches” led by orthodox priests were organized in the biggest cities. At the same time, this represented a good opportunity for the Romanian Orthodox Church to get involved in an issue that seems largely popular in order to boost its own standing. Rocked by several scandals in the past few years, from corruption to sexual ones, including gay sex, affirming the traditional family values and becoming militant on the issue offered a good occasion to conduct some PR business. But this maneuver, however, opened the door for the more conservative and right-wing elements within and around the Church to have a louder voice and come out publicly more prominently. The Orthodox Church’s involvement was crucial to spread out nationally a movement that initially was fairly geographically confined. Also, it diversified the social base of the initiative, reaching deep into small poor cities in Moldova and in rural areas in the south, already socially conservative. It also helped logistically because of its institutional reach thus more than 3 million signatures were collected and sent to the Parliament. Earlier this year the Parliament approved that the conditions for the referendum had been met.
However, without the strong support of the Social Democrats, now in power and the biggest party in Romania, this initiative would have never reached the point of calling a referendum. Paradoxically, the Social Democrats are now even to the right of the National Liberals, especially with regards to social issues. The leader of the party, Liviu Dragnea, tries to style himself in the Trump mold – he paid to be a guest at the American’s President inauguration – and is frequently espousing the same conservative views that are part of today’s American right repertoire. He declared himself an orthodox fundamentalist, rejects mandatory vaccination and has his own personal war with George Soros. In fact, the entire party, especially after coming to power, exacerbated the conservative agenda by proposing a sui generis mixture of Ceausescu-style folkloric nationalism and American-derived rhetoric of making Romania great again against foreign interference and conspiracy through their local agents. He always points to occult foreign forces that prevent the party to govern and, pretty much Trump-style, promises to strike back with vengeance against them. The Social Democrats support for the referendum was cornerstone since they have the majority in the parliament. With few exceptions, all Social Democrat MPs voted for the referendum. Dragnea publicly defended the referendum and he vowed to go ahead with it despite being aware, he claimed, of the many enemies he will gain in Europe.
Given the support the party enjoys countrywide and across social classes and the fact that the threshold for validating the referendum was lowered from 50% plus 1 to 30% there are strong chances that the referendum will pass if the Social Democrats mobilize for it. Most likely, they will since such a stance would reap important political benefits: it will take the steam out of the liberal’s agenda and thus confine them to irrelevance; it will reinforce the electoral base of the party by reaffirming traditional and conservative values; and the referendum will function as a good distraction from the botched governing. This, of course, will only strengthen the conservative and traditionalist vibe and will force political competitors to adopt even more extreme position towards the right in order to differentiate one from another.
Another group of people that supports the referendum and the ban on gay marriages in no equivocal terms is what can be called for lack of a better term the Romanian alt-right. The term is not entirely unsuitable. This is a loose network, active mostly on social media, of intellectuals, academics, priests, journalists and like-minded professions. They are not formally organized, albeit some of them were previously part or closely affiliated with the neoliberal and neoconservative party of former president Basescu. They might even diverge on several important issues. But they do share a core set of ideas, most importantly anti-communism and anti-leftism, anti-Russianism, anti-political correctness, anti-gay, minority rights and feminism and like-minded approaches. Trump’s victory and the ascension of the alt-right in the US offered a huge boost to these groups and networks and they explicitly take inspiration from what is happening in the US in terms of ideology, rhetoric and tactics. One prominent figure of this orientation even wrote a book-length eulogy to Trump after he won the presidency, after which he was invited to join the Liberal party, thus suggesting a possible alt-right switch of the liberal party itself under the twin pressure of its internal neoprotestant networks and external competition from the Social Democrats.
The recent revival of such groups was indeed magnified by Trump’s election but also by the right-wing success elsewhere in Europe. Anti-Muslim and anti-emigration tropes are part of the rhetoric of the Romanian alt-right, even though these are definitely complete removed from local realities. Recently, the specter of Sexo-Marxism, imported from the global alt-right, was invoked in Romania too. But these local groups and ideas did not come from nowhere. The ground was set by the previous generation of conservative anti-communist intellectuals who already, as early as the mid-90s, professed some of the key elements of today’s discourse. For example, the denunciation of political correctness as a new form of Stalinism was de rigueur among public intellectuals of the transition, together with the condemnation of feminism, leftism and other elements that might smack of progressivism and thus communism. Therefore, Trumpism and alt-right rhetoric, themselves infused by neoconservative influences, found a fertile ground in the Romanian right, prepared by a quarter century of unchallenged hegemonic anti-communism.
Two things have changed, however. First, the proponents of the contemporary alt-right are openly more aggressive than their predecessors and exhibit a powerful sense of entitlement. Secondly, in contrast to the previous generation, they are ready to talk more openly about their masculinity with pride and also affirm a white-race superiority. These, of course, are mostly American imports but they do articulate with a wider Eurocentrism and a duty to protect the European civilization perceived to be under attack. What has remained taboo, however, is the debate around abortion, even though the drive to control women and women bodies is still there. Since in communist Romania abortions were illegal and came at a cost of huge sufferance this legacy prevents an open endorsement of the practice.
This group of people, its strength and reach being hard to quantify given its presence mainly online, is also heavily supporting the referendum. Some are directly linked with the neoprotestant networks mentioned above, others simply out of conviction and anti-LGBT politics. But they do, by and large, hate the Social Democrats, considered to be offspring of the Communist party. Anti-communism plays its part here too, preventing an alliance between the party and these loose networks, even though their positions are putatively identical.
Friends and foes alike support the referendum which might not be such a big issue in and of itself but it does bespeak a wider conservative and alt-right turn, which is impossible to ignore. So far, whatever is still left of the left has been fairly paralyzed by the entire situation. It supported the mobilization of the LGBT community, naturally, but this mobilization was not itself void of controversy and contradictions. To increase numbers, centrist iberal arguments were invoked, concerned with rights and liberties. Worse still, the resistance movement enlisted the help of the old neoliberal civil society elites of the 1990s and 2000s, which were in utter connivance with the anti-communist and conservative forces, supporting the referendum. Therefore, while the conservative camp is growing and encompassing ever larger segments of the population, the resistance movement is weak, fragmented and fairly disarticulated so far. Certainly, in case of a referendum, its impact will be negligible and perhaps confined to the two or three bigger cities.
Beyond this contemporary local-global conjunction I believe that there is a wider historical legacy that explains the current solidification of conservative and alt-right elements in the Romanian society of which the struggles around the referendum are only symptoms. Again, Ceausescu’s legacy is crucial here. As it is widely known Ceausescu’s regime, especially after mid-1970s veered toward an aggressive form of nationalism that was uncharacteristic for the rest of the socialist countries. But it did more than that. More or less officially, it abandoned the enlightenment drive, which represented one of the pillars of communist ideology. Reason, science, secularism were all part of the common communist core of principles, irrespective of the particular political formations in respective countries. These core elements became increasingly absent in the last decade of Romanian communism and were replaced by more conservative elements. The pedagogic drive of communism also lost its power. History was mythologized, religion came back in, the social sciences were dismantled in early 1970s, Marxism was marginalized in the 1960s and the natural sciences defunded by the austerity programs of the 1980s. In Romania, communism was now a bland of mythological thinking, cult of personality and abandonment of reason as a central element of politics and society. Moreover, the opposition to the region took increasingly irrational, mythical and spiritual aspects. Late 1970s and 1980s represent the gold era of yoga, oriental spiritualism, return to nature and to Orthodoxy. Such practices will explode even more during the transition years, when the censorship of the party, lax as it was, became defunct and when the uncertainties of the era bred even more escapist ideologies.
To put it differently, what is characteristic of the Romanian situation today is basically the complete exhaustion of the communist enlightenment project. Even faint memories of it are gone. People between 25 and 50 today, that is, the bulk of politically active population, were either formed in the context of Ceausescu’s nationalism or missed communism altogether. In any case, they were never exposed to the rational core of early communism. In conjunction with other causes, this legacy offers a fertile ground for the blossoming of more and more conservative attitudes. And it is not strictly connected to the issues discussed above. In a country that took pride in its professional engineers and mathematicians, there are more and more people who claim that the earth is flat, that modern medicines (vaccines in particular) are a sham, and that reason and science are somehow a leftist plot. This points to something more ominous than a simple referendum or a wider conservative turn.