Why Hungarys Viktor Orbn is the American rights favorite strongman – Vox.com

At dawn last Tuesday morning, the police took a man named Andrs from his home in northeastern Hungary. His alleged crime? Writing a Facebook post that called the countrys prime minister, Viktor Orbn, a dictator.

Andrs has a point. After winning Hungarys 2010 election, the prime minister systematically dismantled the countrys democracy undermining the basic fairness of elections, packing the courts with cronies, and taking control of more than 90 percent of the countrys media outlets. He has openly described his form of government as illiberal democracy, half of which is accurate.

Since the coronavirus, Orbns authoritarian tendencies have only grown more pronounced. His allies in parliament passed a new law giving him the power to rule by decree and creating a new crime, spreading a falsehood, punishable by up to five years in prison. The Hungarian government recently seized public funding that opposing political parties depend on; through an ally, they took financial control of one of the few remaining anti-Orbn media outlets. This month, the pro-democracy group Freedom House officially announced that it no longer considered Hungary a democracy.

Andrs was detained for hours for daring to criticize this authoritarian drift. The 64-year-old was ultimately released, but the polices official statement on the arrest noted that a malicious or ill-considered share on the internet could constitute a crime. Andrs, for one, got the message.

I told [the cops] their task had achieved its result and would probably shut me up, he told the news site 444.

Andrss arrest is an unusually naked display of what Hungary has become a cautionary tale for what a certain kind of right-wing populist will do when given unchecked political power. Yet among a certain segment of American conservatives, Orbn is not viewed as a warning.

Hes viewed as a role model.

Orbns fans in the West include notable writers at major conservative and right-leaning publications like National Review, the American Conservative, and the New York Post. Christopher Caldwell, a journalist widely respected on the right, wrote a lengthy feature praising the strongman as a leader blessed with almost every political gift.

Patrick Deneen, perhaps the most prominent conservative political theorist in America, traveled to Budapest to meet Orbn in his office, describing the Hungarian government as a model for American conservatives. Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist and right-wing cultural icon, also made a pilgrimage to the prime ministers office.

Chris DeMuth, the former head of the American Enterprise Institute, interviewed Orbn onstage at a conference, praising the prime minister in opening remarks as not only a political but an intellectual leader. The event was organized by Yoram Hazony, an Israeli intellectual widely influential on the American right and another vocal Orbn fan.

The Hungarian government has actively cultivated support from such international conservatives. John OSullivan, an Anglo-American contributor to National Review, is currently based at the Danube Institute a think tank in Budapest that OSullivan admits receives funding from the Hungarian government.

Pro-Orbn Westerners tend to come from one of two overlapping camps in modern conservatism: religiously minded social conservatives (Deneen, for example) and conservative nationalists (Caldwell, Demuth).

Religious conservatives find Orbns social policies to be a breath of fresh air. Orbn has given significant state support to Hungarys churches, officially labeling his government a Christian democracy. He provided generous subsidies to families in an effort to get Hungarian women to stay at home and have more babies. He launched a legal assault on progressive social ideals, prohibiting the teaching of gender studies in Hungarian universities and banning transgender people from legally identifying as anything 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, Orbn was the most prominent opponent of German Chancellor Angela Merkels open borders approach; he built a wall on Hungarys southern border with Serbia to keep refugees from entering. He has repeatedly denounced the influence the EU has on its member states, describing one of his governing aims as preserving Hungarys national character in the face of a globalist onslaught led by Brussels and philanthropist George Soros.

For Western conservatives of a religious and/or nationalist bent, Orbn is the leader they wish Donald Trump could be smart, politically savvy, and genuinely devoted to their ideals. Hungary is, for them, the equivalent of what Nordic countries are for the American left: proof of concept that their ideas could make the United States a better place.

Yet while the Nordic countries are among the worlds freest democracies, Hungary has fallen into a form of autocracy. This presents a problem for Hungarys Western apostles, as they do not see themselves as advocates of American authoritarianism. Their encomia to Orbn tend to either overlook his authoritarian tendencies or deny them altogether, claiming that biased Western reporters and NGOs are unfairly demonizing Budapest for its cultural and nationalist beliefs.

Hungarys leadership ... is more democratic than most of the countries that lecture Budapest about democracy, Catholic conservative Sohrab Ahmari writes in the New York Post. Hungarys leaders have had it with Western liberal condescension and tutelage.

In reality, its not the Orbn regime thats being persecuted: Its ordinary Hungarian citizens like Andrs. The Western defenders of Orbn are so preoccupied by the culture wars over gender and immigration that theyre overlooking who, exactly, theyve gotten in bed with.

Rod Dreher, a senior editor at the American Conservative, is one of a handful of influential Western writers courted by the Hungarian government. Hes met with Orbn and even had plans to take up a fellowship in Budapest before the coronavirus scrambled everyones lives.

While Dreher has a number of views that liberals find either kooky or reprehensible, hes a talented writer whos hugely influential on the religious and nationalist right. When I asked Dreher for the strongest possible version of the conservative case for Orbn, he sent me a series of lengthy and reflective notes on the subject.

I want to be clear that I dont want to be understood as approving of everything Orbn does, he told me. My approval of Orbn is general, not specific, in the same way that there are people who dont agree with everything Trump does, but who generally endorse him.

This general endorsement is rooted in a sense that the Hungarian leader challenges the liberal elite in a way few others do. In Drehers analysis, the dominant mode of thinking in the West is secular and liberal a political style that suffocates traditional religious observance and crushes specific national identities in favor of a homogenizing, cosmopolitan ideal.

He [Orbn] knew that in 2015, to allow all the Middle Eastern immigrants to settle in Hungary would have been surrendering a Hungarian future for the Hungarian people...and all the traditions and cultural memories they carry with them, Dreher told me. Broadly speaking, the ideology of globalism presumes that those traditions and those memories are obstacles to creating an ideal world. That they are problems to be solved rather than a heritage to be cherished.

This sense of persecution at the hands of secular globalist elites is at the center of the mindset held by Dreher and much of the modern intellectual right. The contemporary fusion of religious and nationalist ideas has created a unified field theory of global cultural politics, defined by a sense that cosmopolitan liberal forces are threatening the very survival of traditional Christian communities. This line of thinking animates 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 driven entirely by fear [of] the woke left, Orbn is Trumps more admirable twin. The American president is, as Dreher once argued, a small, ugly, godless and graceless man though one hed rather have in office than a progressive Democrat. The Hungarian leader, by contrast, is in his view both a true believer and a much more effective head of state.

What I see in Orbn is one of the few major politicians in the West who seems to understand the importance of Christianity, and the importance of culture, and who is willing to defend these things against a very rich and powerful international establishment, he tells me. I find myself saying of Orbn what I hear conservatives say when they explain why they instinctively love Trump: because he fights. The thing about Orbn is that unlike Trump, he fights, and he wins, and his victories are substantive.

What I find fascinating about Drehers take which largely typifies the pro-Orbn arguments among both religious conservatives and conservative nationalists is that the issue of democracy plays a secondary role in the conversation.

Dreher doesnt admire Orbns more authoritarian tendencies; indeed, he admits that the man has made mistakes, including in Andrss case. 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 like freedom of the press and fair elections, they dont play a primary role in his thinking. His evaluation of Orbn centers culture war issues like immigration and religion in public life, an ideologically driven view that obscures the damning democratic deficit in Hungary.

In our exchange, Dreher compared his admiration for Orbn to the way Hungarian conservatives hes met admired Trump. When he told his Hungarian acquaintances that he liked what Trump stood for in theory, but had serious issues with the man himself and the way he governs, they were incredulous: Whats not to like about someone whos so willing to stick it to the globalist liberal elites?

They read Trump through Hungarian ideological categories, not American reality and it showed.

Maybe Im seeing Orbn in the same way my Hungarian interlocutors see Trump. ... If I lived in Hungary, perhaps I would find a lot to dislike in his everyday governance, Dreher told me. But he and other European politicians like him are speaking to needs, desires, and beliefs about religion, tradition, and national identity, that the center-right politicians have ignored.

Yet when it comes to modern Hungary, the authoritarian devil is truly in the everyday details.

Orbns effort to cultivate Western intellectuals funding their work, inviting them to meet with 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 terms illiberal democracy or Christian democracy.

Advocates of illiberal democracy, like Trump and European far-right parties, aim to protect and deepen the specificity of each European countrys religious and ethnic makeup Hungary for the Hungarians, France for the French, and Germany for the Germans. Orbn frames this goal in precisely the culture war terms people like Dreher find so appealing.

Liberal democracy is in favor of multiculturalism, while Christian democracy gives priority to Christian culture, he said in a 2018 speech. Liberal democracy is pro-immigration, while Christian democracy is anti-immigration.

This language is at once incendiary and misleading. The rejection of liberalism infuriates mainstream European and Western intellectuals, thus further convincing the right that Orbn is the enemy of their primary enemy. But by framing his struggle as a conflict between two subspecies of democracy between liberal and Christian democracy Orbn obscures the fact that his regime is not any kind of democracy at all.

This insistence on falsely referring to his authoritarian regime as a democracy is vital to both its domestic and international project.

Orbn and much of his inner circle are lawyers by training; they have used this expertise to set up a political system that looks very much like a democracy, with elections and a theoretically free press, but isnt one. This gives intellectually sympathetic Westerners some room for self-delusion. They can examine Hungary, a country whose cultural politics they admire, and see a place that looks on the surface like a functioning democracy.

When such observers travel to Budapest and see what looks like a democracy in action, it becomes easier to dismiss concerns about authoritarian drift from journalists, pro-democracy NGOs, and academic experts as mere cultural prejudice: the liberal elite smearing a right-leaning elected leader as an authoritarian because they dont like his cultural politics. Orbn isnt an authoritarian, in this view, but the avatar of what the silent majority of Americans and Europeans really want.

A staple of these arguments is to make the point that Orbns Fidesz party has won three consecutive elections.

One of the strange things about modern political rhetoric is that Viktor Orbn should so often be described as a threat to democracy, although his power had been won in free elections, Caldwell, the eminent conservative Europe reporter, writes in the Claremont Review of Books.

But after coming to power in 2010, Orbn rewrote Hungarys constitution and electoral rules to make it nigh impossible for the opposition to win power through elections. Tactics including extreme gerrymandering, rewriting campaign finance rules to give Fidesz a major leg up, appointing cronies to the countrys constitutional court and election bureaucracy, and seizing control of nearly all media outlets have combined to render elections functionally non-competitive.

The mechanisms of control here are so subtle (who outside of Hungary cares about staffing choices at its electoral administration?) that its easy for an intellectually sympathetic observer to dismiss them as overblown. In Caldwells Claremont piece, for example, he challenges concerns about press freedom by pointing to Lajos Simicska a media magnate and former Orbn right-hand man who turned on him in 2015 and campaigned against him in the 2018 election.

When Orbns friend Simicska broke with him, he used his newspaper Magyar Nemzet to attack Orbn in the most vulgar terms, comparing him to an ejaculation, Caldwell writes. Orbns powerful mandate, his two-thirds majority, gave him power to amend the countrys constitution at will. This was not the same thing as authoritarianism there arent a lot of reporters in Beijing likening Xi Jinping to an ejaculation.

There arent that many left in Hungary, either. After 2015, Orbn used his unfettered powers to demolish Simicskas business empire, cutting off government contracts not only for his old friends media holdings but also for his construction and advertising firms. Simicskas businesses shrank and his personal fortune declined; the 2018 electioneering was a last-ditch effort to challenge a system that he himself described as a dictatorship.

After Orbns unfairly won 2018 victory, Simicska told allies that it is clear that they [Fidesz] cannot be defeated through democratic elections. He shut down Magyar Nemzet; a government mouthpiece currently publishes under its name. Simicska eventually sold his entire media empire to a Fidesz ally, including the popular television station Hr TV which, after the sale, openly proclaimed it would adopting a pro-government line.

Today, Simicska lives in an isolated village in western Hungary. His only remaining business interest is an agricultural firm owned by his wife.

This is obviously not a story about democratic resilience in Hungary: Its an instructive tale in the precise and subtle ways Orbn uses political patronage and the powers of the state to maintain political control. The Hungarian government is a species of authoritarianism just a less coercive and more elusive version of its Chinese cousin.

Clearly, Hungary is not a democracy. But understanding why requires a nuanced understanding of the line between democracy and autocracy, Lucan Ahmad Way and Steven Levitsky, two leading academic experts on democracy, write in the Washington Post.

This subtlety is what allows his conservative fan club in the West to operate with a clean conscience. Its also what makes it so disturbing.

There are examples throughout history of people on both left and right blinding themselves to the faults of their ideological allies. The great British playwright George Bernard Shaw saw Josef Stalin as a shining example of Shaws own egalitarian values. Friedrich von Hayek, arguably the defining libertarian economist, defended Augusto Pinochets murderous dictatorship in Chile on grounds that the dictator was friendly to the free market.

Orbns crimes, of course, pale in comparison to Stalins or Pinochets. If such great thinkers in history can trick themselves into forgiving much more egregious assaults on human rights and democracy, its understandable that modern conservatives might fall prey to the same tendency to see the best in ideologically simpatico authoritarians.

But the fact that this tendency is understandable doesnt mean its excusable or without its own set of dangers.

In the United States, the Republican Party has shown a disturbing willingness to engage in Fidesz-like tactics to undermine the fairness of the political process. The two parties 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 gerrymandering, voter ID laws, purging nonvoters from the voting rolls, seizing power from duly elected Democratic governors, packing courts with partisan judges, creating a media propaganda network that its partisans consume to the exclusion of other sources all Republican approaches that, with some nouns changed, could easily describe Fideszs techniques for hollowing out from democracy from within.

In this respect, Hungary really is a model for America. Its not a blueprint anyone is consciously aping, but proof that a ruthless party with less-than-majority support in the public can take durable control of political institutions while still successfully maintaining a democratic veneer.

Conservative intellectuals bear a special obligation to call attention to this dangerous process. Its always easier for writers and intellectuals to criticize the opposing side precisely because its less effectual: Your targets already dont pay attention to you, and your audience already agrees with your critique. When your team is crossing lines, criticizing it is much more likely to ruffle feathers but also more likely to change minds.

The Hungary situation has been a trial in this regard, a way of assessing conservative intellectuals ability to perform this vital form of self-policing.

I find Orbans attack on trans rights and treatment of migrants reprehensible, but I dont expect those on the broader right to agree with me. I do, however, believe they ought to have a baseline commitment to democratic norms: a sense that disagreement itself is not illegitimate, and that governments that use their powers to crush their opponents can never be fundamentally admirable.

Yet thats not what has happened. Much of the conservative leadership cannot break out of their sense of victimhood; the world is a struggle between righteous conservatives and oppressive secular progressives. It does not compute, to them, that a traditionalist regime might actually be the one mistreating its opponents and attacking democracy; they come up with excuses for whatever Orbn is doing, offering misleading half-truths that at times literally echo government propaganda.

If these thinkers continue to insist that Hungary is just another democracy despite copious evidence to the contrary how can we expect them to call out the same, more embryonic process of authoritarianization happening at home? If American conservatives wont turn on a foreign countrys leadership after it crosses the line, what reason would we have to believe that theyd be capable of doing the same thing when the stakes for them are higher and the enemies more deeply hated?

The admiration for Orbn has convinced me that, no matter how far down the Fidesz path the GOP goes, many conservative intellectuals will use the same culture war uber alles logic to justify its trampling over American democracy.

Hungary is a test for these American thinkers. And they flunked it.

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