Tucker In Budapest: Blowing People’s Minds
I see now that Tucker Carlson’s being here in Hungary for this week has blown the minds of liberals and Establishment conservatives. I’m going to keep a running tally in this spot of some of the remarks I’m seeing online.
Well, look, if one of the leading neoconservative intellectuals who advocated for disastrous America’s war on Iraq, and who attempted to excommunicate from the Right the “unpatriotic conservatives” (his phrase) like Pat Buchanan, who opposed the war, hasn’t discredited himself enough, this tweet is the cherry on top. The idea that there is anything remotely comparable in democratic Hungary to those gruesome Communist regimes is revoltingly stupid. And it shows just how unhinged Establishment US thinking on Hungary is. Given how much Hungarians suffered under Soviet domination, that Frum made that comparison is deeply insulting.
He goes on:
He visited Hungary. I’ve lived in Hungary since April. I have never seen that, even when talking with people who despise Orban, and who had no qualms about saying so. I imagine it could happen in certain contexts … but then again, a DC friend told me about his Trump-voting federal bureaucrat who was afraid that the people he worked with in his Washington office would discover that he supported their boss, the sitting president of the United States. This kind of thing happens in woke institutions — academic, journalistic, corporate, etc — all the time. All. The. Time. Does that bother Frum? Has he used his platform to attack those soft totalitarians in his (our) own country who make people afraid to say what they think?
Anyway, a Budapest based journalist and journalism professor comments:
I live and work here and have never seen anything remotely like that – as a journalist, interviewing countless people. https://t.co/C5lU8keRNO
— Boris Kálnoky (@bkalnoky) August 3, 2021
And this great riposte from a libertarian:
— Ilya Shapiro (@ishapiro) August 3, 2021
Frum calls Orban a “foreign dictator.” You know how the Hungarians got Orban? They’ve voted for him in every election since 2010. There’s another election in 2022. They might vote him out. Because Hungary is not Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, or Castro’s Cuba. It is a democracy in which people vote the way folks like David Frum wish they would not. They vote for Orban because they’re doing better under his government economically than they were before. They vote for Orban because he defends Hungarian identity and sovereignty by opposing open borders immigration. They vote for Orban because like most Hungarians, he’s a social conservative whose views mirror theirs (though unlike most Hungarians, he is a practicing Christian).
Elsewhere in his tweetstorm, Frum said Orban is corrupt, having allegedly stolen a bunch of money. I don’t know how accurate that allegation is, but it seems clear from talking to many people here, even supporters of the government, that corruption is a big problem. That said, I have spoken to plenty of Hungarians who assume — as many people in the post-communist countries of this region do — that their leaders are going to indulge in corruption. I shared a taxi with a couple of young women not long ago, and asked them about the election coming up. One of them said that she doesn’t like the government’s corruption, but believes that Hungary can live with it. What it can’t live with, she said, is the kind of corruption that says it’s okay to teach children that they might be one of fifty genders. That form of corruption can destroy a society.
You ought to read a good book by the liberal academics Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, titled, The Light That Failed. It’s a very well-written analysis of why liberal democracy has failed to take off in post-Communist Europe and Russia. Here’s a key segment, from pages 65-6 in the paperback editions:
Orban’s break with liberalism is often explained as either pure opportunism (he moved to the right because that was where the votes were) or as a result of his growing contempt for the liberal Budapest intellectuals whom he had initially admired, but who looked down on him with a transparent sense of superiority. The moment that best captures Orban’s tense relationship with Hungarian liberals who, unlike him, came from Hungary’s urban intelligentsia, is the widely reported story of how, during a reception, the well-known Free Democrat MP Miklos Haraszti went up to Orban, who was dressed like the other guests, and adjusted his tie with a supercilious gesture. Everyone present remembers that Orban blushed and was visibly flustered. The young and aspiring political leader was mortified at being treated as an uncouth relative from the countryside. Stendhal would have known how to describe what the young provincial felt at that moment.
It is tempting, then, to reduce Orban’s disappointment with liberalism to either political expediency or personal resentment at his condescending treatment by Budapest’s liberal intellectuals. But it cuts much deeper than this. Indeed, it goes to the heart of the liberal understanding of politics, including liberalism’s systematic ambivalence about the exercise of power. While Hungary’s liberals were preoccupied with human rights, checks and balances, a free press and judicial independence (all valued because of the constraints they place on power), Orban was interested in using power to upend the political order. While Budapest liberals wanted to win arguments, he wanted to win elections. His passion for football taught him that what matters in any contest, be it politics or sports, are killer instincts and unwavering loyalty. What matters especially is that your followers stick with you when you occasionally lose. The exemplary leader is not the one who is judiciously fair to everybody but the one who inspires and mobilizes his own team or tribe.
To rally his supporters, Orban harps single-mindedly on the standard list of liberalism’s sins perpetrated, he claims, by the servile imitators of liberal democracy who misgoverned Hungary for two decades after 1989. First, the liberal picture of society as a spiritually empty network of producers and consumers cannot capture the moral depth and emotional solidarity of the Hungarian nation. Liberals are basically indifferent to the history and fate of the nation. In Orban’s boilerplate anti-liberal rhetoric, liberalism’s language of human rights, civil society and legal procedures is described as cold, generic and ahistorical. Liberals are so blasé about immigration because they divorce citizenship from ethnic descent and replace the ideals of substantive justice and the public good with bland and abstract notions of procedural justice, the rule of law and individual utility. From the populist perspective, cosmopolitan distrust of ethnic bonds makes members of the vast ethnic majority in Hungary feel like foreigners in their own country. This is how universalism destroys solidarity. If everybody is your brother, then you are an only child. That is why Hungary’s reactionary nativists claim that no principled liberal can take a genuine interest in the fate of Hungarians living outside the country.
This is how all anti-liberals talk. But Orban’s recitation of the anti-liberal catechism also reflects some region-specific concerns. For example, liberalism’s focus on individual rights obscured the principal kind of political abuse in post-communist Hungary, namely the privatization of the public patrimony by former regime insiders, a kind of industrial-scale corruption that violated no individual rights and was indeed consolidated by the creation of individual rights to won private property. This is what Orban means when he says that “in Hungary liberal democracy was incapable of protecting the public property that is essential in sustaining a nation.” Liberalism, he also claims, ignored the social question and withdraws the state’s paternalistic protection from the citizenry, arguing that “fee” individuals should shift for themselves. This is why, in the two decades after 1989,
We constantly felt that the weaker were stepped upon … It was always the stronger party, the bank, which dictated how much interest you pay on your mortgage, changing it as they like over time. I could enumerate the examples that were the continuous life experience of vulnerable, weak families that had smaller economic protection than other during the last twenty years.
Krastev and Holmes go on to explain something that most Americans don’t realize. In the immediate aftermath of Communism’s fall, it was the regime insiders who made out the best. They refashioned themselves as small-d democrats, and took advantage of the money, position, and connections they had to get rich in the chaos after Communism ended. Krastev and Holmes said that liberal democracy and meritocracy got a bad name because it was widely seen as an ideological justification for defending the privileges acquired by the old communist elites.
They also explain that Orban’s hatred for liberalism has mostly to do with his resentment at the EU, which he believes (correctly, in my view) cares nothing for Hungary’s national identity, and wishes to dissolve it into a soulless megastate. You hear this all the time from populists in other countries. A couple of weeks ago in Budapest, I heard a visiting Italian passionately denouncing the EU for forcing farmers in the far south of Italy who have been growing oranges and olives since time out of mind to stop doing so, because the abstract economic planners in Brussels had other ideas. The technocrats of the EU only saw these farmers and those people are widgets and numbers. The Italian said that oranges and olives are at the basis of an entire way of life.
Anyway, I’ll stop. The point is that if you rely on David Frum and his sort of intellectual to tell you what’s happening in Hungary, and what it means, you will be badly informed. You don’t have to love Hungary or its democratically-elected ruler, but you should make your judgments about Hungary based on what is actually going on in this country, the good and the bad (for there is both).
Meanwhile, the stupidity and bad faith of the Hungary haters is made manifest:
They announce Hungarian democracy dead while also closely covering Hungarian elections hoping the right side wins. pic.twitter.com/Kgs0yekVao
— Richard Hanania (@RichardHanania) August 3, 2021
I feel like we should all talk more about how conservatives’ dream is to make America more like this much poorer, rinky-dink little country in Central Europe. pic.twitter.com/oWkvHmGUB1
— Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) August 3, 2021
But this is a solid point:
WRT to Hungary and so much else, the central problem is that the ruling class has confused their policy consensus of the last 30 years with “liberal democracy”
— Inez Stepman ⚪️🔴⚪️ (@InezFeltscher) August 3, 2021
Orban doesn’t want Hungary to be woke, because he sees what that is doing to America. He doesn’t want to open the borders to migrants, because he fears that a country as small as Hungary could lose itself. He doesn’t want Muslim immigrants because he looks at the problems the rest of Europe has assimilating them, and says, “No, thanks.”
I was present at a 90-minute interview he did with a group of visiting journalists and intellectuals back in 2019. None of us had prepared for the session, because we didn’t know we were going to meet the Prime Minister. I wrote about it here. Excerpt:
Orban begin our session with extended remarks about Hungarian and European politics, and the role of his Fidesz Party in them. He said that when he was elected in 2010, he had one mission: to save Hungary from economic ruin. By the time Orban’s 2014 re-election bid rolled around, the economy was stable, and he described the mission of his second terms as “to say what I think.”
“I realized in 2014 that I was the only free man among the prime ministers of Europe,” he said, explaining that by “free,” he meant that he had a strong, united parliamentary majority behind him. He added, “In Western political life now, you can’t say what you think.”
When the migration crisis hit Europe in 2015, Orban famously shut Hungary’s borders to Middle Easterners. Orban said that Hungary’s was the only government in Europe to respond to the crisis in its own interests, and in the interests of Christianity in Europe. With a population of only 10 million, and as a country where Christianity, as elsewhere on the continent, is fragile, the Hungarians concluded that allowing large numbers of Muslims to take up residence here would mean the death knell of Christianity in time.
This scandalized the European political class. Orban doesn’t care. He told our group that he understands that he is dealing with elites who believe that being a post-Christian, post-national civilization is a great and glorious thing. Orban rejects this. He said the main political question in the West today is how fractious pluralities can live together peaceably. He said, “Here the most important question is how not to have the same questions as them.”
Orban pointed out that the UK and France were once colonial powers in the Middle East. He added, “But Central Europe was colonized by the Middle East. That’s a fact.” He’s talking about the Ottoman occupation of Hungary, from 1541 to 1699. Orban told our group that the room we were sitting was part of a Church building that had been turned into a mosque during the occupation.
Explaining his decision to shut the borders to Muslim refugees, Orban said what tipped the scales was consulting the Christian bishops of the Middle East. Orban: “What did they say? ‘Don’t let them in. Stop them.’”
Middle Eastern Christians, said Orban, “can tell you what is the [ultimate] end of a society you have to share with Muslims.”
Sitting at the table listening to the prime minister was Nicodemus, the Syriac Orthodox archbishop of Mosul, whose Christian community, which predates Islam by several centuries, was savagely persecuted by ISIS. Archbishop Nicodemus spoke up, thanking Orban for what Hungary has done for persecuted Christians. Nicodemus said that living with Muslims has taught Iraqi Christians that they can expect no mercy. “Those people, if you give them your small finger, they will want your body,” he said.
“The problem is that Western countries don’t accept our experience,” the prelate continued. “Those people [Muslims] pushed us to be a minority in our own land and then refugees in our own land.”
Under the Orban government, Hungary frequently extends a helping hand to persecuted Christians.The archbishop exhorted Orban to stay the course in defense of Christians. For 16 years, he said, Iraqi Christians begged Western leaders to help them. Addressing Orban directly, Nicodemus said, “Nobody understands our pain like you.”
Philip Blond, the British political economist, suggested to the prime minister that he has a mission to re-Christianize Europe. Orban, who is 56 and part of the country’s Calvinist minority, said that his generation’s mission was to defeat Communism. Religious rebirth is a task for Millennials, he said.
According to 2017 Pew research, though 59 percent of Hungarian adults say they believe in God, only 16 percent pray daily. As Hungary-based writer Will Collins wrote in TAC earlier this year, only 12 percent of Hungarians go to church — a number that is no doubt much smaller among Hungarians under 40. In my on the record interviews and background conversations with Hungarian Christians these past few days, there is an acute sense that the Christian faith is fast fading among the young, who, like their co-generationalists across the former Soviet bloc, are far more drawn to Western materialism.
Orban spoke frankly about the post-communist religious state of his country. “It’s still not a healed society,” he said. “It’s still not in good shape.”
I asked the prime minister if he saw evidence of a “soft totalitarianism” emerging in the West today, and if so, what are the main lessons that those who resisted communism have to tell us about identifying and resisting it.
He said that the Soviets and their servants in Central Europe tried to create a new kind of man: homo Sovieticus. To do this, they had to destroy the two sources of identity here: a sense of nationhood, and the Christian religion. In order to survive, said Orban, “we have to strengthen our national identity and our Christian identity. That’s the story.”
Western peoples have decided to create a post-Christian, post-national, multicultural society. Peoples in Central Europe do not. For Orban, re-establishing a sense of national identity and the Christian faith are the same project. It’s an attempt to reverse the damage done by Communism. The danger, obviously, is that Christianity becomes emptied of its spiritual and moral content, and is filled with nationalism. On the other hand, if a pro-Christian politician like Orban can at least keep the public square open and favorable to the ancestral religious beliefs of the nation, religious leaders can step into the space politics creates, and do their work of recovery.
Orban said that he wants Westerners and others who share these values to come to the Hungarian capital, where they will be free to speak their minds, and establish a base. “I’m trying to create a free place in Budapest,” he said. “Please consider Budapest as a kind of intellectual home.”
Last week, Orban’s government played host to a demography summit here. Reporting on it, the Guardian, as usual, called Orban a politician of the “far right.” Orban is certainly nationalist and populist (and popular here), but smearing him as some kind of right-wing extremist only demonstrates how cut off the liberal Western media are from common sense. One can certainly take issue with Orban’s illiberal methods of pursuing his policy goals — and the prime minister does not deny that he is an illiberal democrat — but the man understands his small country to be in a fight for national survival against globalist, anti-Christian multiculturalism coming from Brussels and other Western capitals. How, exactly, is he wrong?
Look, whether you are on the Left or the Right, or somewhere in between, if you have a chance to visit Hungary, you should. I can’t say it enough: the reality on the ground is very different from what you read in the US media, or hear from American and Western European talking heads. I had three months to go wherever I wanted here. Nobody told me what to see, or what to say. I wouldn’t have come if that were the deal.
UPDATE: Reader Peter Balogh, who is Hungarian and who lives in Hungary, comments:
Thank you, Mr. Dreher. It irritates me to no end when, some self-appointed Western “experts” on Hungarian affairs call Orbán as President; or when in their report on Hungary everything begins in 2010, and not a single word is uttered to describe how and why the “liberal-social” opposition as direct continuation of Soviet puppet system servants have gained influence, including their media connections. Look at former PM Gyurcsany’s net – himself a high-ranking former member of Communist Youth organization (and as such, an informer who had denounced his university classmates for their anti-Soviet peace activism in in the early 1980’s); wife is the granddaughter of one of Kadar’s henchmen; mother-in-law an influential figure of a bank, providing preferential loans for privatization of Kadarist clientele (that is, free robbery), and the nicest of all, the whole family lives in a villa confiscated from its wealthy Jewish owner first by the Nazis, then by the Stalinists. These people feel that they have a naturally guaranteed entitlement for wealth, political influence and power at the same time. And they have had to put up with Orban’s streak of winning and winning and winning…. you can only imagine their frustration and simmering hatred.