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Caldwell Explains Orban

Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, in a meeting Friday afternoon with select attendees at a Budapest Christian conference

For those eager to learn more about Viktor Orban, I recommend this excellent primer from Christopher Caldwell, who is one of the best informed journalists on European matters. Orban is hated by the European political and media class primarily because of the stance he took towards migrants in 2015. Caldwell writes:

No English-language newspaper reported on it at the time, nor has any cited it since, but the speech Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán made before an annual picnic for his party’s intellectual leaders in the late summer of 2015 is probably the most important by a Western statesman this century. As Orbán spoke in the village of Kötcse, by Lake Balaton, hundreds of thousands of migrants from across the Muslim world, most of them young men, were marching northwestwards out of Asia Minor, across the Balkan countries and into the heart of Europe.

Let me break away from Caldwell’s article to quote directly from Orban’s speech, a transcript of which is here. Orban said in 2015:

I think that the phenomenon I’ve just described is no more or less than identity crisis. This seems to be bad news, but it is the first good identity crisis I’ve ever seen. Earlier we have talked about identity crises among ourselves: the Christian identity crisis, or the national identity crisis. But now, Ladies and Gentlemen, we are witnessing the liberal identity crisis. Viewed from the right perspective, the whole issue of asylum and mass migration, the whole problem of economic migration is nothing more than the identity crisis of liberalism. I’ll try to broadly summarize what it consists of. People in general – not only Europeans, but definitely Europeans – want to see themselves as good; but people can define “good” in a wide variety of ways. Liberals also want to see themselves as good. They also have an idea of ​​what it means to be a good person. And liberals can only live with themselves if they see themselves as good people. However, the liberal notion of what is “good”, as I described earlier, only exists at the level of phenomena: freedom of movement, universal human rights, and so on. Now this is producing disastrous consequences. But the particular quality of liberals is that while they want to be good people, they do not want to see their levels of welfare spending and standards of living falling; and so a crisis develops. This is the truly great challenge facing liberalism today: how to see themselves as good people according to their own principles, and at the same time how to protect the standard of living which they have achieved so far.

I am convinced that it is no longer possible in Europe to both see ourselves as good in the liberal sense and to live in prosperity. I might say that the most dangerous combination known in history is to be both rich and weak. There is no combination more dangerous than this. It is only a matter of time before someone comes along, notices your weakness, and takes what you have. This will definitely happen if you are unable to defend yourself. The liberal philosophy is a result of a Europe which is weak and which also wants to protect its wealth; but if Europe is weak, it cannot protect this wealth.

There is of course also a Christian misunderstanding. Like a sixteenth-century heretic, I must be careful in my comments on this, because I do not want to run the risk of offending our Catholic brothers and sisters; that would not be right, but all the same, if I consider the truly Christian voices – the really powerful Catholic voices – from the viewpoint of economic logic they confuse two different things. For if someone gives someone else something from their personal wealth, this is not only morally right, but it will not weaken the national economy. So to give someone something from my personal wealth will not cause economic problems. But if instead of giving from my personal wealth, I want the state to give something – for it to give care, welfare, jobs and benefits, and to guarantee a certain level of prosperity – I am ruining that which is ours, and I am likewise ruining our prosperity. Because the state has to either raise taxes or make cuts elsewhere in the usual social, welfare, cultural or other budgets; and the result of this is a shrinking economy. Helping others from one’s own pocket can also benefit the economy, but if we look to the state for this, and if we want redistribution by the state – shifting funds away from the state’s productive sphere and its economic resources – there can be no other result than weaker economic performance.

Therefore those Christian demands which are currently expressed as spiritual obligations are in my opinion correct when directed at citizens, but mistaken when directed at the state. And unfortunately I do not see a recognition of this difference in most of the statements from our spiritual leaders. Yet this is an important distinction, because the liberals are seeking to make sure that financial and moral expectations placed on individuals are instead placed on the state; this would, however, crush and destroy these states. It is therefore important to distinguish between personal, individual responsibilities, and those which belong to a modern state. We need to draw this boundary, because morally we will not find our way – we will not be able to both fulfil the Christian duty to help others – while at the same time expecting our state to defend what we have.

More — this is important, because it outlines why the Christian’s moral responsibilities begin with his family, and those closest to him:

Then came the need to incorporate another word, another term alongside Christian compassion: the expression of responsibility. It should be clarified that we did not do this from a liberal point of view – we know that the liberal feels responsible for the whole world because they are a good person, everything happening in the world causes them pain, and their soul feels heavy with the burden. In opposition to this approach, how does our identity stand up? I think that the Christian identity – although there are some here who can express this with greater theological accuracy than I can – reveals to us a completely clear order of importance or priority. First of all, we are responsible for our children, then for our parents. This comes before all else. Then come those with whom we live in our village or town. Then comes our country, and then everyone else may come. Christian thinking is not reflected in the kind of politics which invokes compassion and understanding, but which does not recognize this order of priorities; it is not reflected in the kind of politics which, in the name of responsibility for the world, destroys that which we can nurture in our children, the dignified old age we can give our parents, and, when possible, the protection we can give our country and culture.

Here Orban touches the third rail of liberal politics:

The second lesson. Hungary – and now I do not want to speak for other countries, but I would like to think that most of Europe thinks as we do – must protect its ethnic and cultural composition. This needs to be explained, because in the eyes of liberals today this is the main sin. Allow me to mention a conversation I had with a talented, experienced, but not very hopeful European politician, who was no longer in frontline politics, and who asked me to explain what I meant when I said that we do not want a significant Muslim community in Hungary. I said that the meaning of this sentence was the normal, everyday one. The reply I received was that one cannot say such a thing. I asked why not. Why can we not talk about the right of every state and every nation to decide on whom they want living on their territory? In Europe, many countries have decided on this – for example the French or the British, or the Germans with regard to the Turks. I think they had the right to make this decision. We have a duty to look at where this has taken them. We cannot even say whether the results are good or bad. We only have the right to say that this is something which we do not want – but we do have the right to say this. And we can say that we like Hungary just as it is. It is colourful and diverse enough.

I am convinced that Hungary has the right – and every nation has the right – to say that it does not want its country to change. One can argue whether or not this is the correct position; on whether or not this is fair; on whether or not this is humane. One can argue about many things. But we should not argue about whether a community has the right to decide if it wants to change its ethnic and cultural composition in an artificial way and at an accelerated pace. And if Hungarians say that they do not want this, no one can force them to do so. In the end – and keep this in your sights – in the very end this will be the battle which we must win. The question is whether there will be enough of us in Europe who say that every country has the right to change its ethnic and cultural composition as it likes, and no country or the Union has the right to force others to do this. We are now in a good position, and we must defend this position. In the end this is what will decide this entire battle. It is therefore very important who comes in. In the modern spirit of the age, if someone has come in and if you have let them in, from that point on what they represent is seen as a value. You will have to relate to the new situation, you will have to live with it and establish a form of coexistence, and you must also respect it and accept life alongside it.

And this part:

Finally, the fourth thing, which I think follows on from all this. Do not misunderstand me when I put it like this: everyday patriotism. This is not something of an intellectual nature, but a vital instinct, a daily routine: going into a shop and buying Hungarian products; when I want to employ someone, employing a Hungarian. It will not work if we cannot make this an everyday instinct, and if it simply remains a spiritual need for our national-minded intellectuals on the right. It will not work without you, of course, because for something to become everyday, it must be formulated to a high degree, something which can be expressed, and which will give us, its representatives, dignity, strength and self-confidence. But then it must be implemented on a daily basis, as I said: in workplaces, in shops, in conversations, and so on. I do not know in how many areas we have retreated; I do not know where, instead of healthy patriotism, some unrestrained, liberal, confused babble has taken over, and where we ourselves are unable to say why we make the decisions we do, rather than right, patriotic, national everyday ones.

The bad news is that when we do this, it must be characterized by the following words: modern, cool, trendy, sexy, upmarket. If we also try to cultivate everyday patriotism in language to the same level as that we use when talking to each other here, then the correct etiquette would be for us to all make the sign of the cross and simply look forward to the afterlife. But this is about the young generation. Our generation is fine the way we are, thank you very much, we have survived; but the situation is different for those coming along after us. If we cannot bridge the communication, cultural and other gaps, and if we cannot make everyday nationalism attractive to young people, rather than something chaotic, smelling of bad breath and the radical right, which sends shivers down people’s spines and puts them in a bad mood, if we cannot make it different from this with fresh and youthful language, then this is a battle we will not win. This is the biggest task. I cannot say exactly who are able to do this, because if I could, we would have already done it over the past few years; but the truth is that in this regard we have achieved the least success. We do not speak this language, this culture as we should, and those coming after us are somehow not strong enough or – heaven knows why – not effective enough. In this world, patriotic, nation-based, everyday life instincts, life advice and thoughts – together with the public opinions based on them – are not present in the debate. But we cannot avoid this battlefield, and if we do not rally to the call, it will be decided on the battlefield anyway.

Read the entire Orban speech here. It’s really important.

Now, back to the Caldwell essay. Caldwell says that Europe will either be ruled by Angela Merkel’s vision, or Viktor Orban’s.

As I said in yesterday’s post, the unexpected meeting my small group had with Orban on Friday was the first time I had ever heard him speak in English, or seen how he operates in person. I don’t follow Hungarian politics, but I know enough about European politics in general, and about how totally unreliable Anglo-American news media are on the subject, to assume that Viktor Orban had been unfairly presented by that media. The Anglo-American press portrays him like the Trump of the Magyars: brutal, aggressive, prejudiced, and so forth. I figured this was a lie, but I was not prepared for how much of a lie it is.

What I observed for 90 minutes was an extraordinary performance by a visionary politician who possesses raw intelligence and a palpable willingness to grapple with ideas, and their political implications, without diplomatic politesse. Caldwell writes:

He is blessed with almost every political gift—brave, shrewd with his enemies and trustworthy with his friends, detail-oriented, hilarious. …

His secret weapon, though, is his intellectual curiosity. As Irving Kristol did when he edited the Public Interest in the 1980s, Orbán urges his aides to take one day a week off to devote to their reading and writing. He does so himself, clearing his Thursdays when he can. Raised poor in a small town west of Budapest, preoccupied early by politics, he has had to acquire much of his education on the fly, as a busy adult. His ideas are powerful, raw, and unsettled. Orbán has changed his mind about a lot of things—unregulated free markets above all. Out of a regime of deep reading and disputation come his larger theories about the direction of Western civilization, and many people probably find voting for Orbán satisfying in the way that reading Jared Diamond or Yuval Noah Hariri is satisfying. Orbán believes that Western countries are in decline, and that they are in decline because of “liberalism,” which in his political vocabulary is a slur. He uses the word to describe the contemporary process of creating neutral social structures and a level playing field, usually in the name of rights.

Caldwell summarizes Orban’s problem with normative procedural liberalism like this:

This project of creating neutral institutions has two problems. First, it is destructive, because the bonds of affection out of which communities are built are—by definition—non-neutral. Second, it is a lie, because someone must administer this project, and administration, though advertised as neutral, rarely is. Some must administer over others.

Indeed, Orban told the small group of visitors of which I was a part that his core conflict with Europe’s liberal establishment is that they think it is a good thing for Europeans to become part of a godless, borderless, rootless mass — and he does not.

He might have added that when you put it that way (“liberals want Europe to become godless, borderless, and rootless”), it offends liberals, many of whom will deny it in good faith (that is, uncynically). Orban would reply that it doesn’t matter what their intentions are; this is the unavoidable effect of contemporary liberalism.

In his essay, Caldwell helpfully provides the economic back story for why Orban became so popular. First, Caldwell explains that the years 2002-10 saw the young Communist elites whose careers had been derailed by 1989 come to power in a new guise, led by Socialist multimillionaire Ferenc Gyurcsány . They wrecked the economy. Caldwell:

In 2006, Gyurcsány was captured on tape at a party congress explaining that “we lied, morning, noon and night” to stay in power. Protests arose. Police repressed them violently. Orbán’s detractors rarely mention any of this when they complain about the lack of an alternative to him. For most Hungarians, 2006 is the alternative.

Orban returned to power in 2010, and gained the trust and gratitude of ordinary Hungarians when he refused to accept the EU’s austerity plan, and kept banks from foreclosing on the houses of Hungarians who couldn’t pay off their loans. Orban’s Fidesz Party passed radical economic reforms, and began to buy back Hungarian industries that had earlier been sold to foreign investors at fire sale postcommunist prices. As one Hungarian explained to me, Orban did this to strengthen Hungary’s control of its own economic destiny.

Caldwell discusses in detail various constitutional controversies around Orban, and his party’s battles with the media. This is an interesting graf:

The opposition now turned to denying the legitimacy of the constitution altogether. Whenever thwarted in local political give-and-take, it summoned imperial help from outside the constitutional system: from the European Union and (when Barack Obama was in office) the United States. Last year the Dutch Green-Left party member Judith Sargentini submitted a motion to the E.U. Parliament alleging corruption and the violation of the rights of minorities and migrants. The Parliament condemned him for “a serious breach by Hungary of the values on which the Union is founded.” Orbán saw it differently: There was no clash of values, only of classes. He had kept Hungary from being bullied by bankers, bureaucrats, and other powerful rule-making foreigners. This naturally upset the powerful rule-making foreigners and their allies within Hungary.

I interviewed a pro-Orban intellectual this week in Budapest. He spoke about Hungarian politics in the language of culture war, though for him — and, clearly, for Orban — the culture war is much broader than the bounds we Americans place on the concept. The Orbanistas see Hungary as a little nation whose very existence as a distinct people is at stake. The Hungarian state was dismembered after World War I, and after World War II, the nation was dominated by a foreign power (the USSR) and a totalitarian ideology that attempted to destroy Hungarian national consciousness in the name of communist universalism.

So yeah, they’re sensitive. A Hungarian man I interviewed on Saturday afternoon recalled the communist propaganda films they were subject to in his 1960s youth. He said that they were all designed to make viewers hate Hungarian history, religion, and any source of identity outside of communism. Reading the Caldwell piece, I thought about this man’s words, and how Euroliberalism — which entails globalism, multiculturalism, and rigid secularism — is trying to accomplish the same thing, though not at the end of a Soviet bayonet. We in the West can’t see this clearly, because we think our own norms are neutral. The Hungarians don’t see it that way at all. For them, or at least for those who follow Viktor Orban, they are in a fight for their national life.

More Caldwell:

Still, since there would not be enough imported Hungarians to man the Hungarian economy, it seemed Hungary would need to do what western European countries had done: open the doors to mass immigration from the Arab world and Africa.

On this, Orbán would not budge. As he saw it, the combination of Anglophone Hungarian businessmen and waves of manual laborers disinclined to learn the beautiful, impossible Magyar language would mean the end of Hungary. Migration from the south, he believed, whether orderly or disorderly, would produce a special kind of country, of the sort that did not exist in western Europe until the most recent decades but which had been the norm in Hungary’s Balkan neighborhood until quite recently—not just in the Habsburg and Romanov empires but also in 20th-century Yugoslavia. Such countries, he told a group of Christian intellectuals in 2017, run the risk of having their culture wiped out:

They will become countries with mixed populations, with a Christian element and a non-Christian element which has a strong religious identity. And if I judge the laws of biology and mathematics correctly, the ratio between these two elements will continuously shift away from Christianity and towards the non-Christian religious communities…. [H]ow this will end is mathematically foreseeable.

Here’s a strong point:

Liberals in the immigrant-sated western E.U. countries found it bizarre that Hungary (like Poland) opposed immigration despite having very few immigrants by 21st-century measures. Orbán countered that it was perhaps only in low-immigration countries that one any longer had the freedom to oppose immigration. When he spoke with the leaders of western European countries where the migrant population exceeded 10%, they often confided that they were too fearful of rousing inter-ethnic hatred, or losing votes, to broach the subject. “If you’ve had such conversations,” he explained to a roomful of mocking journalists this winter, “you will have heard that they no longer talk about whether or not there should be migration. That is no longer a question for them: that ship has sailed.”

As I’m writing this, I see that my train is about to pull into Vienna’s main station, so I’ll need to wrap up. Caldwell talks about the George Soros controversy. Orban famously demonizes Soros, the megabillionaire investor and philanthropist who devotes his fortune to spreading liberalism internationally. Soros, a Hungarian-born Jewish refugee from Nazism, was in a position to spend a lot of money to dominate Hungary’s intellectual life — and was doing it. More Caldwell:

Soros personified opposition to the nationalist outlook Orbán had wished for in his 2015 Kötcse speech. In the wake of Merkel’s invitation to migrants in 2015 Soros published a plan to bring a million refugees a year to Europe and distribute them rapidly among neighboring countries for settlement. The plan would, Soros wrote, “mobilize the private sector,” but only to run the project, not to pay for it. The funding of it would be done at taxpayer expense, through a €20 billion E.U. bond issue. Orbán published a six-point plan of his own, focused on keeping migrants out. Soros complained that it “subordinates the human rights of asylum-seekers and migrants to the security of borders.” That description was exactly accurate —provided one understands human rights as global philanthropists, political activists, and the United Nations have defined it in recent decades. But there is a competing understanding of human rights in the old law of nations, which makes any right to immigrate dependent on the consent of the receiving nation.


Orbán was very worried about the role of foreign money in his country’s politics. Some have mocked him for this. But obviously, when the most powerful country on earth has just brought its democracy to a standstill for two years in order to investigate $100,000 worth of internet ads bought by a variety of Russians, it is understandable that the leader of a small country might fear the activism of a political foe whose combined personal fortune ($8 billion) and institutional endowment ($19 billion) exceed a sixth of the country’s GDP ($156 billion), especially since international philanthropy is (through the U.S. tax code) effectively subsidized by the American government. An early version of the Stop Soros law proposed taxing foreign philanthropies.

Caldwell points out that the anti-Soros campaign arguably did traffick in anti-Semitic rhetoric, even though there was a strong element of truth in them:

Archetypally, the ads did resemble anti-Semitic campaigns of yore. They showed Soros as a puppet-master, a power behind the scenes. Of course Soros was a power behind the scenes. But Hungary was a country where 565,000 Jews—more than half the Jewish population—had been murdered after the Nazi invasion in May 1944, and a bit more circumspection was expected from its politicians.

Fair enough. Still, that completely justifiable circumspection should in no way justify averting one’s eyes from the fact that Soros really is using his considerable fortune to liberalize Europe, and to dilute European peoples. From Douglas Murray’s great book The Strange Death Of Europe:

In October 2015 the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, criticised Soros publicly as one of a circle of activists who “support anything that weakens nation states.” Soros responded publicly to confirm that the numerous groups he was funding were indeed working for the ends described by Orban. In an email to Bloomberg, Soros said that it was his foundation which was seeking to “uphold European values,” while he accused Orban of trying to “undermine those values.” Soros went on to say of Orban: “His plan treats the protection of national borders as the objective and the refugees as an obstacle. Our plan treats the protection of refugees as the objective and national borders as the obstacle.” The dialogues ceased before anyone could ask Soros how long those European values might last once Europe could be walked into by people from all over the world.

In 2016, I wrote about how Soros’s Open Society Foundation teamed with the US Agency For International Development to translate Saul Alinsky’s Rules For Radicals into the Macedonian language, and distribute copies there to undermine the conservative government and the conservative values of that society. Again, to many Westerners, this kind of thing looks like value-neutral liberalism. But to these small, weak, relatively poor countries, they’re fighting for their national existence against cultural imperialists.

Read the whole thing. Yes, Viktor Orban — democratically elected, and re-elected — is a self-described illiberal democrat. When you take stock of what he and his country are up against, it’s much easier to understand him, and why he does the things he does.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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