Last Tuesday morning at dawn, police took a man named András from his home in northeastern Hungary. His alleged crime? Writing a Facebook post calling the country’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, a “dictator.”
András is right. After winning the 2010 elections in Hungary, the Prime Minister has systematically dismantled the democracy of the country – undermining the fairness of the elections, saddling the courts with henchmen and taking control of more than 90 percent of the media in the country . He has openly described his form of government as “illiberal democracy,” half of which is correct.
Since the corona virus, Orbán’s authoritarian tendencies have only intensified. His allies in parliament have passed a new law that empowers him to rule by decree and create a new crime, “spreading a lie,” punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment. The Hungarian government has recently seized government funding that opposition parties depend on; through an ally, they took financial control of one of the few remaining anti-Orbán media outlets. This month, the pro-democratic Freedom House group officially announced that Hungary is no longer considered a democracy.
András was detained for hours because he dared to criticize this authoritarian drive. The 64-year-old was eventually released, but the police issued an official statement about the arrest is noted “A malicious or thoughtless share on the internet can be a crime.” András, for example, received the message.
“I said [the cops] their job had accomplished the outcome and would probably shut me up, ”he said news site 444.
András’ arrest is an unusually naked representation of what Hungary has become – a warning story of what a certain right-wing populist will do if he gains uncontrolled political power. But among a certain segment of American conservatives, Orbán is not seen as a warning.
He is seen as a role model.
Orbán fans in the West include notable authors of major conservative and right-wing publications such as National Review, the American Conservative and the New York Post. Christopher Caldwell, a journalist respected on the right, wrote a long function praising the strong man as a leader “blessed with almost every political gift.”
Patrick Deneen, arguably the most eminent conservative political theorist in America, traveled to Budapest to meet Orbán in his office and described the Hungarian government as a ‘model’ for American conservatives. Jordan Peterson, Canadian psychologist and also a right-wing cultural icon made a pilgrimage to the prime minister’s office.
Chris DeMuth, former head of the American Enterprise Institute, Orbán interviewed onstage at a conference, commending the Prime Minister on opening comments such as “not only a political but also an intellectual leader”. The event was hosted by Yoram Hazony, an Israeli intellectual who has a great influence on the American Right and another Orbán vocal fan.
The Hungarian government has received active support from such international conservatives. John O’Sullivan, an Anglo-American National Review employee, is currently based at the Danube Institute – a think tank in Budapest that O’Sullivan admits receives funding from the Hungarian government.
Pro-Orbán Westerners usually come from one of two overlapping camps in modern conservatism: religiously-minded social conservatives (e.g. Deneen) and conservative nationalists (Caldwell, Demuth).
Religious conservatives find Orbán’s social policy a relief. Orbán has given significant state aid to Hungarian churches, his government officially declared a “Christian democracy”. He provided generous subsidies to families in one effort to get Hungarian women home and have more babies. He launched a legal attack on progressive social ideals, banning the teaching of gender studies in Hungarian universities and banning transgender people from legally identifying as something other than their biological sex at birth.
Conservative nationalists focus on the Hungarian approach to immigration and the European Union. During the 2015 migrant crisis, Orbán was the most prominent opponent of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s open borders approach; he built a wall on the southern border of Hungary with Serbia to prevent refugees from entering. He has repeatedly denounced the EU’s influence on its Member States, and described one of its government goals to preserve Hungary’s national character in the light of a globalist attack led by Brussels and philanthropist George Soros.
For Western conservatives with a religious and / or nationalist streak, Orbán is the leader Donald Trump would like to be – smart, politically savvy and genuinely committed to their ideals. For them, Hungary is the equivalent of what Nordic countries are to the American left: proof of concept that their ideas could make the United States a better place.
But while the Scandinavian countries are among the freest democracies in the world, Hungary has fallen into a form of autocracy. This poses a problem to the Western Apostles of Hungary as they do not see themselves as advocates of American authoritarianism. Their encomia with Orbán tends to overlook or completely deny his authoritarian tendencies, claiming that biased western reporters and NGOs falsely demonize Budapest for its cultural and nationalist beliefs.
Hungarian leadership … is more democratic than most countries that lecture Budapest on democracy, Catholic conservative Sohrab Ahmari writes the New York Post. “Hungarian leaders are fed up with Western liberal condescension and guardianship.”
In reality, the Orbán regime is not persecuted: they are ordinary Hungarian citizens like András. Orbán’s Western defenders are so preoccupied with the culture wars over gender and immigration that they overlook who they ended up in bed with.
Understand Orbán’s conservative case
Rod Dreher, senior editor at the American Conservative, is one of the few influential Western writers pursued by the Hungarian government. He met Orbán and even had plans to do that take a fellowship in Budapest before the coronavirus confused everyone’s life.
While Dreher has a number of views that liberals think too crazy or reprehensible, he is a talented writer who has a huge influence on the religious and nationalist right. When I asked Dreher for the strongest possible version of the conservative case for Orbán, he sent me a series of long and reflective notes on the subject.
“I want to be clear that I don’t want to be understood as approving everything Orbán does,” he told me. “My approval for Orbán is general, not specific, just as there are those who disagree with everything Trump does but generally endorse him.”
This “general approval” is rooted in the sense that the Hungarian leader challenges the liberal elite in a way few others do. According to Dreher, the dominant mindset in the West is secular and liberal – a political style that stifles traditional religious observance and crushes specific national identities in favor of a homogenizing, cosmopolitan ideal.
“He [Orbán] knew that in 2015, to allow all immigrants from the Middle East to settle in Hungary, a Hungarian future for the Hungarian people would be surrendered … and all the traditions and cultural memories they carry with them, “Dreher told me. Broadly, the ideology of globalism assumes that those traditions and memories are obstacles to creating an ideal world. That they are problems to be solved instead of a heritage to be cherished. ‘
This sense of persecution by secular globalist elites is central to Dreher’s mentality and much of modern intellectual law. The contemporary amalgamation of religious and nationalist ideas has created a unified field theory of global cultural politics, defined by the sense that cosmopolitan liberal forces threaten the survival of traditional Christian communities. This mindset inspires many prominent Trump supporters and allies who are Christian conservatives, including Attorney General Bill Barr.
For people like Dreher, who has written that ‘my politics are completely driven by fear [of] the woke left, “Orbán is Trump’s most admirable twin. The American president is, like Dreher once argued, “A small, ugly, wicked and merciless man” – although he prefers to function rather than a progressive democrat. The Hungarian leader, on the other hand, is both a true believer and a much more effective head of state.
“What I see in Orbán is one of the few great politicians in the West who seems to understand the importance of Christianity and the importance of culture, and who wants to defend these things against a very rich and powerful international establishment,” he said. . tells me. “I find myself saying about Orbán what I hear conservatives say when they explain why they instinctively love Trump: because he fights. The thing about Orbán is that, unlike Trump, he fights and wins, and his victories are substantive. ‘
What I find fascinating about Dreher’s opinion – which largely typifies the pro-Orbán arguments among both religious conservatives and conservative nationalists – is that the issue of democracy plays a minor role in the conversation.
Dreher does not admire Orbán’s more authoritarian tendencies; indeed, he admits that the man made mistakes, also in the case of András. “I have no doubt that Viktor Orban is not the philosopher-king of my Christian conservative dreams,” he tells me.
But whatever his concerns about threats to basic democratic principles such as freedom of the press and fair elections, they do not play a primary role in his thinking. His evaluation of Orbán focuses on cultural war issues such as immigration and religion in public life, an ideologically driven vision that conceals Hungary’s devastating democratic deficit.
In our exchange, Dreher compared his admiration for Orbán to the way Hungarian conservatives he met admired Trump. When he told his Hungarian acquaintances that he liked what Trump stood for in theory, but had serious problems with the man himself and the way he rules, they were incredulous: what’s not to like about someone so willing to keep the globalist liberal elites?
They read Trump through Hungarian ideological categories, not American reality – and it showed.
“Maybe I see Orbán in the same way that my Hungarian interlocutors see Trump. … If I lived in Hungary I might find a lot of dislike in his day-to-day management,” Dreher told me. “But he and other European politicians like him speak about needs, desires and beliefs about religion, tradition and national identity that the center-right politicians have ignored. “
But when it comes to modern Hungary, the authoritarian devil is really in the mundane details.
The authoritarian strategy of plausible denial
Orbán’s attempt to cultivate Western intellectuals – finance their work, invite them to meet him as honored guests in Budapest, speaking at their glitzy conferences – is part of a much more ambitious ideological campaign. He describes himself as the avatar of a new political model spreading across the West, which he calls “nonsensical democracy” or “Christian democracy.”
Proponents of illiberal democracy, such as Trump and European far-right parties, want to protect and deepen the specificity of the religious and ethnic composition of each European country – Hungary for the Hungarians, France for the French and Germany for the Germans. Orbán frames this goal in exactly the terms of the culture war that people like Dreher find so attractive.
“Liberal democracy favors multiculturalism, while Christian democracy prioritizes Christian culture,” he said a speech from 2018. “Liberal democracy is pro-immigration, while Christian democracy is anti-immigration.”
This language is at the same time incendiary and misleading. The rejection of “liberalism” enrages mainstream European and Western intellectuals, thereby convincing the right that Orbán is the enemy of their primary enemy. But by viewing his struggle as a conflict between two subspecies of democracy – between “liberal” and “Christian” democracy – Orbán obscures the fact that his regime is not a form of democracy at all.
This emphasis on wrongly referring to his authoritarian regime as democracy is vital for both his domestic and international project.
Orbán and much of his inner circle are lawyers by training; they have used this expertise to create a political system very similar to democracy, with elections and a theoretically free press, but it is not. This gives intellectually sympathetic Westerners some room for self-deception. They can explore Hungary, a country whose cultural politics they admire, and see a place that looks like a functioning democracy.
When such observers travel to Budapest to see what in action resembles a democracy, it becomes easier to dismiss the concerns about authoritarianism of journalists, pro-democratic NGOs and academic experts as mere cultural prejudice: the liberal elite who elected lawyer lubricates leader as authoritarian because they dislike his cultural politics. Orbán is not an authoritarian person in this regard, but the avatar of what the silent majority of Americans and Europeans really want.
An important part of these arguments is to emphasize that Orbán’s Fidesz party has won three consecutive elections.
“One of the strange things about modern political rhetoric is that Viktor Orbán must so often be described as a threat to ‘democracy’, although his power was won in free elections,” writes Caldwell, Europe’s eminently conservative reporter. Claremont Review of Books.
But after coming to power in 2010, Orbán rewrote the Hungarian constitution and electoral rules to make it almost impossible for the opposition to gain power through elections. Tactics, including extreme gerrymandation, rewriting campaign funding rules to give Fidesz a head start, appointing cronies to the country’s constitutional court and electoral bureaucracy, and seizing control of almost all media outlets have helped elections to functionally fail- have become competitive.
The controls here are so subtle (who outside Hungary cares about electoral staffing?) That it’s easy for an intellectually sympathetic observer to dismiss them as exaggerated. In Caldwell’s Claremont play, for example, he challenges concerns about freedom of the press by pointing out Lajos Simicska – a media mogul and former Orbán right-hand man who turned against him in 2015 and campaigned against him in the 2018 elections.
When Orbán’s friend Simicska broke up with him, he used his newspaper Magyar Nemzet Attacking Orbán in the most vulgar terms and comparing him to ejaculation, ”writes Caldwell. “Orbán’s powerful mandate, his two-thirds majority, gave him the power to change the country’s constitution at will. This was not the same as authoritarianism – not many journalists in Beijing compare Xi Jinping to ejaculation.”
There are not many more in Hungary either. After 2015, Orbán used his unlimited powers to demolish Simicska’s business empire, cutting off government contracts not only for his old friend’s media companies, but also for his construction and advertising agencies. Simicska’s businesses shrank and his personal fortune declined; the 2018 election was a final attempt to challenge a system he described as a “dictatorship. ‘
After Orbán’s unjustified victory in 2018, Simicska told allies that “it is clear that they [Fidesz] cannot be defeated by democratic elections. “He closed Magyar Nemzet; a government mouthpiece currently publishes under his name. Simicska eventually sold his entire media empire to a Fidesz ally, including the popular television station Hír TV – which after the sale proclaimed openly it would take a pro-government line.
Today Simicska lives in an isolated village in the west of Hungary. His only remaining business interest is a farm owned by his wife.
Clearly, this is not a story of democratic resilience in Hungary: it is an educational story of the precise and subtle ways Orbán uses political protection and the powers of the state to maintain political control. The Hungarian government is a kind of authoritarianism – just a less coercive and elusive version of its Chinese cousin.
“Hungary is clearly not a democracy. But to understand why a nuanced understanding of the boundary between democracy and autocracy is necessary, Lucan Ahmad Way and Steven Levitsky, two leading academic experts in the field of democracy, write in the Washington Post.
This subtlety allows his conservative fan club in the West to work with a clear conscience. It is also what makes it so disturbing.
The Hungarian model for America
Throughout history, there have been examples of people who both left and right blind themselves to the mistakes of their ideological allies. Great British playwright George Bernard Shaw saw Josef Stalin as a shining example of Shaw’s own egalitarian values. Friedrich von Hayek, perhaps the defined libertarian economist and defended Augusto Pinochet’s murderous dictatorship in Chile on the grounds that the dictator friendly to the free market.
Orbán’s crimes are, of course, pale in comparison to those of Stalin or Pinochet. If such great thinkers in history can deceive themselves into forgiving far more blatant attacks on human rights and democracy, it is understandable that modern conservatives fall prey to the same tendency to see the best in ideologically simplistic authoritarians.
But the fact that this tendency is understandable doesn’t mean it’s an excuse – or without its own dangers.
In the United States, the Republican Party has shown a disturbing willingness to engage in Fidesz-style tactics to undermine the fairness of the political process. The two sides evolved independently for their own domestic reasons, but seem to have converged on a similar willingness to undermine the fairness of elections behind the scenes.
Extreme crying, ID laws for voters, removing non-voters from the voting reels, seizing the power of properly elected democratic governors, wrapping courts with partisan judges, creating a media propaganda network that its supporters use to the exclusion from other sources – all Republican approaches that, with some nouns changed, could easily describe Fidesz’s techniques for eroding democracy from within.
Hungary is really a model for America in that respect. It is not a blueprint that someone is consciously pursuing, but proof that a ruthless party with less than a majority in the public can gain lasting control over political institutions while still successfully maintaining a democratic spirit.
Conservative intellectuals have a special obligation to draw attention to this dangerous process. It is always easier for writers and intellectuals to criticize the other side precisely because it is less effective: your targets don’t pay attention to you and your audience agrees with your criticism. If your ‘team’ crosses the line, you are much more likely to deform the springs, but also change your mind more.
The situation in Hungary has been an ordeal in this regard, a way of assessing the ability of conservative intellectuals to carry out this essential form of self-control.
I think Orban’s attack on trans rights and treatment of migrants is reprehensible, but I do not expect those with a broader right to agree with me. However, I believe that they should adhere to democratic norms at baseline: the sense that disagreement is not illegal in itself, and that governments using their powers to crush their opponents can never be fundamentally admirable.
Still, that’s not what happened. Many of the conservative leaders cannot let go of their sense of victim; the world is a struggle between righteous conservatives and oppressive secular progressives. It does not calculate for them that a traditionalist regime could in fact be the one who mistreats its opponents and attacks democracy; they make excuses for what Orbán is doing, and sometimes offer misleading half-truths literally an echo of the government.
If these thinkers insist that Hungary is just yet another democracy – however abundant evidence to the contrary – how can we expect them to proclaim the same, more embryonic process of authorization at home? If American conservatives will not cross the leadership of another country after it crosses the border, what would we believe they would be able to do the same if the stakes for them are higher and the enemies more hated?
The admiration for Orbán has convinced me that many conservative intellectuals, no matter how far the Fidesz path goes, will use the same culture war uber everything logic to justify its trampling on American democracy.
Hungary is a test for these American thinkers. And they lowered it.