Home/Rod Dreher/‘Magyar Man Bad’

‘Magyar Man Bad’

Hungarian PM Viktor Orban

Sit down, folks, this is going to be a long one.

When we hear the term “Deep State,” we tend to think of people staffing the federal bureaucracy. I want to suggest to you that that is an incomplete way to think about it. The Deep State in Western liberal democracies consist not only of government bureaucrats, but also of the leadership in major corporations, leading universities, top media, medicine and law, science, the military, and even sports. A more accurate way to think about what we are dealing with comes from the Neoreactionary term “the Cathedral,” which NRxers use in more or less the same way that 1950s Beats used the term “the Establishment.” I like the term “Cathedral” because it entails the religious commitment these elites have to their principles. You can no more debate these principles with them than you can debate with a religious fundamentalist. They adhere to them as if they were revealed truths.

Yet they still like to pretend that they are liberals — that they favor open, reasoned discourse. This is, in fact, a lie. It is a lie that they depend on to conceal the hegemonic intolerance that they wish to impose on everybody under their authority.

Note these remarks by Prof. Carlo Lancelotti:

It is true that no society can tolerate everything. What the Cathedral is now doing is radically limiting discourse, and demonizing as heretics all those within its purview who dissent, no matter how reasonable their objections. (And now Facebook is incentivizing some of its users to report their friends as potential “extremists.” Please get off Facebook now!) The Cathedral seeks to make all of society over in the mold of a college campus. The Cathedral is growing ever more radical. In recent months, we have seen the US military embrace wokeness (to use the slang term for the most vibrant and activist form of the Cathedral’s religion). You would think that it makes no sense for the leadership of a racially diverse armed forces to embrace and indoctrinate its officers in a neo-Marxist theory that causes everyone to see everyone else primarily in hostile racial terms, but that is exactly what has happened. In time — and not much time, either — we are going to see young people who were once from families and social classes that once were the most stalwart supporters of the military declining to join the armed forces in which they are taught that they are guilty by virtue of their skin color.

We have watched the Cathedral’s militant votaries sack universities and render once-mighty media institutions into Cathedral parish newsletters. I wrote last week about the disgusting op-ed in Jeff Bezos’s Washington Post, in which a degenerate mother in Philadelphia wrote about how excited she was for her small children to see gay sadomasochists whipping each other at the local Pride parade:

It was good to see lots of people in the comments under that op-ed objecting to it. The point is, though, that the leadership of the Post‘s newsroom judged that a piece of filth like this belonged in the paper, because it is a reasonable part of our discourse. In this part of the Bezos empire, a writer is allowed to advocate for public BDSM displays for children; in another part, Ryan T. Anderson’s book critical of transgender ideology is not allowed to be sold.

That’s the Cathedral and its values. The Cathedral has also taken over corporate America, and the professions. I hardly need to elaborate on this further, not for regular readers of this blog. It was a hard knock this past week to see that the US Supreme Court, which some of us had thought would be the last line of defense for anybody traditional in this soft-totalitarian Cathedral theocracy, refused to take on the Gavin Grimm case, and the Barronelle Stutzman case. The Cathedral line in favor of privileging LGBTs over religious people and secular people who don’t accept the full LGBT gospel is hardening.

The Supreme Court is not going to save us. Nor is Donald Trump. The more people on the Right perseverate over Trump, the weaker we will remain in the face of hardening soft totalitarianism.

I realized over the weekend why I have been so affected by the experience of being here in Hungary these past three months. It has clarified for me the nature of this conflict. First, take a look at this powerful piece by Angela Nagle, writing about the views of Irish intellectual and cultural critic Desmond Fennell. Excerpts:

To this day we are still grasping around for words and concepts to describe the thing we sense we are living under – liberalism? neoliberalism? technocratic capitalism? libertinism? authoritarianism? woke-something? – and we still haven’t quite found it. Years ago Fennell wrote an essay in which he tried to theorise the general sense many now feel intensely, that we live under a nonsensical and absurd regime, a permanent revolution of rules built upon a shaky moral and metaphysical foundation that is self-contradictory and mysterious to us or which may not exist in any stable sense. Some now call it Clownworld. Conspiracy theories abound in an attempt to grasp what it is.

Although its vision was distinct from the other utopias and kept American exceptionalism intact, in his view it was the most profoundly radical of the revolutionary utopian experiments, which benefited from having never formally recognised the end of the old regime and the arrival of a new. He compares this to ancient Rome, in which the Republic’s replacement with the Empire was not spoken of as having amounted to a revolution until Ronald Styme’s 1939 book The Roman Revolution. The second American Revolution began in the 1930s, he argues, and was complete by the early 1970s. All the other radical 20th century experiments perished, he says, “only that resulting from the Second American Revolution – the system in which we now live in the West – remains.”

When Fennell uses the term sense or sense-making he is describing a binding and holistic system of values through which a people make sense of the world and their lives, which is strong enough to outlast all the other changes and crises. He defines civilization as “a grounded hierarchy of values and rules covering all of life and making sense, which a community’s rulers and ruled subscribe to over a long period… because the community is motivated to keep reproducing itself by the sense, and therefore goodness, that it finds in its framework for life.”

Fennell argues that the first part of the 20th century began a revolution that was more utopian and effective than any other (cf. Philip Rieff, who argued in 1966 that the therapeutic revolution in the West was more significant than the Bolshevik Revolution). What we now have, says Fennell (in Nagle’s telling), is a society based on rules pronounced from on high, but without any real grounding. More from Nagle:

The ethos of the sexual revolution is today simultaneously ultra puritanical and ultra libertine depending on the context, so that the abandonment of your wife and children is now less of a social faux pas than asking someone out on a date at work – you can only get publicly disgraced and fired for the latter. Most just trundle along confused but hoping that we can survive unscathed through correctly intuiting what elites decide the new rules will be in any individual case. This now reaches into every aspect of life and the imposition of new rules is becoming ever more strange to us, which is already manifesting in ways that Fennell alludes to, and will one day bring the experiment crashing down, he claims.

“For the most part we experience it as senseless unreflectively, in that depth of our being where countless generations of human beings before us have trained us by heredity to assess – in a combined act of reason, feeling and intuition – any presentation purporting to be a framework for life. And that encounter with senselessness, when our minds and hearts are seeking sense, sends distress, a pain of the soul, pressing into our consciousness.” Nothing more natural, then, he says, than that we would want to stop reproducing this society altogether by becoming childless and sterile and to commit self-injury and the annihilation of consciousness through drugs, self-harm and suicide, even as we simultaneously believe this is the greatest model of life that has ever existed.

Having surpassed “its more conservatively post-western Soviet counterpart” he says “for as long as the buying and doing power of governments and consumers continues to increase, and the teaching that this contemporary western life is morally the best life ever known continues to have some force for some, the West’s senseless post-European system will continue to function.” But “with no sense-making respected set of rules to fall back on as a comforting matrix of order in the reduced material circumstances, the inevitable will happen. The chaos of the prevailing values and rules will be transformed into a violent social chaos without many precedents in history.”

Read the whole thing. I appreciate the reader who sent it to me.

Solzhenitsyn said, in his 1983 Templeton Address:

More than half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”

Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our Revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”

What is more, the events of the Russian Revolution can only be understood now, at the end of the century, against the background of what has since occurred in the rest of the world. What emerges here is a process of universal significance. And if I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire 20th century, here too, I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: “Men have forgotten God.” The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century. The first of these was World War I, and much of our present predicament can be traced back to it. It was a war (the memory of which seems to be fading) when Europe, bursting with health and abundance, fell into a rage of self-mutilation which could not but sap its strength for a century or more, and perhaps forever. The only possible explanation for this war is a mental eclipse among the leaders of Europe due to their lost awareness of a Supreme Power above them. Only a godless embitterment could have moved ostensibly Christian states to employ poison gas, a weapon so obviously beyond the limits of humanity.

This is where we are today. For example, only a godless nation can permit the sexual mutilation and sterilization of its children, and call it good.

What does this have to do with Hungary? Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his government have brought down the wrath of European Union leaders over Hungary’s recent law restricting sex education for children, and information about LGBT presented to children. The prime minister of the Netherlands, in extraordinarily bellicose language, threatened to “bring Hungary to its knees” over the law. I am reliably informed by an American source in a position to know that in Washington, even among conservative elites, Viktor Orban is seen as nothing but a fascist. I have been writing all summer about the radical disjunction between Hungary as it is, and Hungary as described by Western elite discourse (media and otherwise). This is by no means to say that Orban’s government is flawless — it certainly is not; corruption, for example, is a big deal here — but to say that there has to be some reason why Western elites of both the Left and the Right despise Hungary so intensely, and slander it so.

There’s a lesson in all this, I believe, for where conservatives and traditionalists in the West are, and where we are likely to go. I have come to believe that the standard left-liberal and right-liberal critiques of Orban — “Magyar Man Bad” — are just as shallow as the “Orange Man Bad” critique of Donald Trump. I say that as someone who was critical of Trump myself, though I credited him for smashing the complacent GOP establishment. I write this blog post in the spirit of Tucker Carlson’s excellent January 2016 Politico piece titled, “Donald Trump Is Shocking, Vulgar, and Right.”

I’ve been reading lately a 2019 book, The Light That Failed, by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes. Both men are liberal scholars who undertake to explain why liberalism failed in Central Europe and Russia after the fall of the Cold War. It’s a remarkably insightful book, one that any conservative with an interest in the problem should read, even though its authors are liberal democrats. They write:

A refusal to genuflect before the liberal West has become the hallmark of the illiberal counter-revolution throughout the post-communist world and beyond. Such a reaction cannot be casually dismissed with the trite observation that “blaming the West” is a cheap way for non-Western leaders to avoid taking responsibility for their own failed policies. The story is much more convoluted and compelling than that. It is a story, among other things, of liberalism abandoning pluralism for hegemony. [Emphasis mine — RD]

You would have thought that in any reasonable pluralistic polity, a sovereign nation choosing to restrict what its children can learn about human sexuality would be of little interest to other nations within that polity. After all, Hungary is not France any more than Estonia is England. There is an immense amount of diversity in Europe. But see, the Cathedral’s liberalism — whether in America or in the EU — is not pluralistic, but hegemonic.

Krastev and Holmes (henceforth, “the authors”) point out that after 1989, the West expected Central European countries to imitate them in every way. The authors — who, remember, are liberals — write:

Without pressing the analogy too far, it’s interesting to observe that the style of regime imitation that took hold after 1989 bears an eerie resemblance to Soviet-era elections where voters, overseen by Party officials, pretended to “choose” the only candidates who were running for office.


A feeling of being treated disrespectfully was also fomented by what can be reasonably identified as the central irony of post-communist democracy-promotion in the context of European integration: the Central and East European countries ostensibly being democratized were compelled, in order to meet the conditions for EU membership, to enact policies formulated by unelected bureaucrats from Brussels and international lending organizations. Poles and Hungarians were told what laws and policies to enact, and simultaneously instructed to pretend that they were governing themselves. Elections started looking like “a trap for fools,” as Rudyard Kipling would have said. Voters regularly threw the incumbents out, it is true, but the policies — formulated in Brussels — didn’t substantially change. Pretending to rule themselves while being ruled by Western policy-makers was bad enough. The last straw was being disparaged by visiting Westerners, who accused them of merely going through the motions of democracy, when that was exactly what political elites in the region thought they were being asked to do.

The authors explain that the reforms demanded by the West weren’t like “grafting a few foreign elements onto indigenous traditions,” but rather “put inherited identity at risk” and stoked “fears of cultural erasure.” From my perspective, this is what you see when you get over here and start looking more closely at what George Soros and people like him, both within and outside of government, did, and seek to do. And so, as the authors put it:

[P]opulism’s political rise cannot be explained without taking account of widespread resentment at the way (imposed) no-alternative Soviet communism, after 1989, was replaced by (invited) no-alternative Western liberalism.

Here’s something I bet you didn’t know about Viktor Orban. After the 2008 crash, Western governments bailed out banks left and right. When Orban came to power in 2010, he chose not to do that, instead taking the side of hard-pressed Hungarian homeowners who had been allowed to take out home loans in Swiss francs. He and his party passed a law to protect homeowners at the expense of the banks. Excerpt from the NYT report:

Speaking in Parliament earlier this month, the prime minister, Mr. Orban, said he “expected that international organizations will attack us in international forums.” He said that “in case of unfavorable judgments, we will react with suitable countermeasures.” He did not say what those might be.

But even if Hungary is slapped down, Mr. Orban has captured an antibank and antifinancier spirit that is much more widespread.

And from a follow-up in the Times:

The government says half the households in the country ended up with foreign currency loans. And the situation was made worse by a lack of effective bank regulation. That enabled the banks to make a lot of money — until the disaster left them weak and the public furious.

But most of the loans were denominated in Swiss francs, simply because interest rates — and therefore initial monthly payments — were lower. When the Swiss franc appreciated relative to the euro after the financial crisis began in 2008, those borrowers were in even more trouble than those who borrowed in euros.

In nearby Poland, the government imposed some regulations. Foreign currency borrowers had to be better off than many borrowers and therefore better able to withstand the risk. The banks were limited in their discretion in choosing exchange rates and had to follow market interest rates in making adjustments — something that has helped tremendously. Polish borrowers have still suffered, but nothing like those in Hungary.

There, it turned out, only the banks were paying close attention to the details of the loan agreements people were signing. They gave the banks considerable discretion in determining the exchange rates they would follow and the interest rates that would be charged. The banks used that discretion to their own benefit.

Viktor Orban, the populist who has been Hungary’s prime minister since 2010, has tried a variety of measures to reduce the pain for the borrowers, including a moratorium on evictions of destitute homeowners and a scheme that reduced monthly payments but increased the amount owed. The government has imposed taxes on banks based on their assets, not their profits, of which there are not many.

The authoritarian tendencies of the Orban government have drawn criticism in other European capitals, but its promise to hold the banks accountable has not hurt its popularity at home.

(I know this sounds digressive, but I’m trying to show you where Orban’s popularity comes from, and to give an illustration of what Krastev and Holmes are talking about.)

Krastev and Holmes say:

Being an imitator is often a psychological drama. But it becomes a shipwreck if you realize midstream that the model you have started to imitate is about to capsize and sink. Fear of catching the wrong train is commonly said to haunt the collective psyche of Central Europe. Thus, political and economic instability in the West has both energized and justified the revolt against liberalism in the East.’

Remember, they wrote this in 2019, but think of this principle applied to now. If you are Viktor Orban, and you look to the West in 2021, you see a United States that is destroying itself with Critical Race Theory wokeness, which is starting to come to Western Europe. You see the Left here in Hungary starting to embrace it (e.g., the Black Lives Matter statue the liberal Budapest city government erected earlier this year), and you know that it will be bad for your country if this poisonous ideology takes root. So you encourage Hungary’s national soccer team not to take the knee before matches.

You also see Western countries destroying themselves and the next generation with this insane transgender ideology, which in the UK alone saw the number of kids being treated for gender dysphoria rise 4000% in a decade. You can perfectly well see how this gender ideology is being spread in the schools and in the media, especially media directed to children. You may also recognize that transgenderism is not the same thing as homosexuality, but that in the West, the two are deemed inseparable, and to accept one has meant accepting the other. You don’t care what the rest of Europe does, but you don’t want that for your country, so you pass a law against it.

And so, the disintegrating West, headed towards shipwreck, is going to bring Hungary to its knees for trying to protect itself.

Then there’s the immigration issue. Here are Krastev and Holmes on the 2015 decision by German chancellor Angela Merkel to open Germany’s doors to a million migrants from the Middle East:

“I think it is just bullshit,” commented Maria Schmidt, Viktor Orban’s intellectual-in-chief, adding that Merkel “wanted to prove that Germans, this time, are the good people. And they can lecture everybody on humanism and morality. It doesn’t matter for the Germans what they can lecture the rest of the world on; they just have to lecture someone.” But this time Central Europeans were not about to curtsy submissively as their German neighbours lectured them condescendingly. National sovereignty means that every country has a right to decide about its own absorption capacity. This was the moment, in response to what they saw as Merkel’s decision to roll out the red carpet to cultural diversity, when Central Europe’s populists issued their declaration of independence not only from Brussels but also, more dramatically, from Western liberalism and its religion of openness to the world.


The underlying weakness of political liberalism, according to these “counter-revolutionaries,” is revealed by the West’s inability to take seriously the difference between members and non-members of a nation and therefore to invest aggressively in hardening the territorial borders that give the member/non-member distinction its practical significance. The facile optimism of liberals who believe that different ethnic and cultural groups can be assimilated, American-style, into European civilization is proving to be the undoing of the West, they assert. From this deeply anti-liberal perspective, a society with a post-national identity into which non-European migrants are welcomed has unilaterally disarmed and risks losing whatever remains of its cultural coherence.

The authors go on to say that what it means to be a good Western liberal is changing so fast that people in the East never know for sure what vision of society they are supposed to imitate. Think about what it was like for us Americans. I was born in 1967, and educated by schools, by the media, and by every aspect of culture to believe in Dr. Martin Luther King’s colorblind vision. I took it seriously, and I believed in it, and do believe in it. But now the same liberals who argued for that are now arguing that this vision was wrong — that to truly be against racism, you must train yourself to think in exactly the same categories that white segregationists used prior to the Civil Rights revolution. It makes no sense. You come to understand that you have been conned. Never, ever believe liberals: they will change the rules on you, and blame you for your own confusion.

The authors go on to say that sex education in the schools has been a huge flashpoint of conflict within Central and Eastern European societies. It has to do with parents losing the ability to transmit their values to their children. In the flush of post-1989 enthusiasm, young people didn’t so much rebel against their parents as to feel pity for them, and to stop listening to them. The young took their catechism from the Western cathedral. Sex ed was a neuralgic point of the overall struggle between Central European populists, who believed that the traditions and the national heritage of these countries were in danger of being wiped out by the West. Imagine, then, what Hungarian voters must think when they hear the Dutch prime minister threaten to bring their country to its knees because he knows better what they should be teaching their children than they do.

The authors tell a story about how Viktor Orban, at the time an up-and-coming liberal from the countryside, was publicly humiliated by a well-known liberal MP from Budapest’s urban intelligentsia, who adjusted Orban’s tie at a reception, as if doing a favor for a hick cousin.

They go on to explain Orban’s illiberalism by quoting his criticism that liberalism is “basically indifferent to the history and fate of the nation.” Liberal universalism “destroys solidarity,” Orban believes. (“If everybody is your brother, then you are an only child.”) Orban believes that liberal policies will lead to the dissolution of the Hungarian nation because liberals by nature think of the nation as an impediment to the realization of their ideals.

The authors go on to say that Orban has long campaigned on the abuse of the public patrimony by the regime that governed Hungary after 1989, when Communist insiders used their connections to plunder what was left of the public purse, and left the weak to fend for themselves. This attitude explains Orban’s hostility to the banks after the 2008 crash. “[I]n Central and Eastern Europe, defending private property and capitalism came to mean defending the privileges illicitly acquired by the old communist elites,” they write.

(Readers, did you know any of this context about Orban and other critics of liberalism from Central Europe? Doesn’t it make you wonder what more you’re not being told?)

Krastev and Holmes talk here about something illiberal Polish president Andrzej Duda said in a 2018 speech:

Poland’s national sovereignty and Catholic heritage are being erased by the EU’s project of incorporating the country in its post-national and anti-religious confederation [said Duda]. Seen from this preposterous perspective, there is no real difference between communist authoritarianism and liberal democracy. Both “impose,” with or without tanks, the will of a godless foreign minority on “ordinary Poles.”

What’s preposterous about it? I know these guys are liberals, but what Duda identifies is the difference between soft totalitarianism and hard totalitarianism. In both cases, the Poles don’t get to decide for themselves.

There’s more to the book, but I’ll stop here for today. You don’t have to believe that Viktor Orban or any of these other politicians are saints in order to understand why they believe what they believe — and why people vote for them. The Cathedral did the same thing to Trump and to Trump’s supporters. Yes, there were some Trump voters with disreputable motives, and in any case Trump was by and large not an effective president. But the anti-Trump opposition’s passionate belief in its own righteousness rendered it helpless to understand why so many people hated it, and do hate it still. Trump’s own incompetence made it harder to take that critique seriously.

Trump lost, and most everything he did was wiped away by his successor. Viktor Orban wins — and that is the unforgiveable sin in the eyes of the Cathedral.

Here is the radicalizing thing, though. As you will know if you’ve been reading this blog, Viktor Orban appears to be building a conservative deep state in Hungary. His government has transferred a fortune in public funds and authority over some universities to privately controlled institutions. It is difficult to accept this, at least for me. At the same time, it is impossible for me to look at what has happened in my own country, with the Cathedral now extending its control over every aspect of American life, and to criticize Orban for this. The alternative seems to be surrendering your country and its traditions to the Cathedral, which pretends to be liberal, but which is in fact growing even more authoritarian and intolerant than anything Orban and his party stand for.

It is becoming harder to think of liberalism in the sense we have known it as viable anymore. Me, I would actually prefer to live in a more or less liberal, pluralistic society, where California was free to be California, and Louisiana free to be Louisiana, and so forth. This is not the world we live in. I remind you of liberal commentator Kevin Drum’s point: that the Left is responsible for the culture war:

Drum warns that the Left — his own side! — is courting political disaster with its extremism. This dovetails with the radicalizing point. For those with eyes to see, Orban’s moves only reveal the illiberalism of those on the Left who still think of themselves as proper liberals. They can’t, or won’t, see how they have discarded pluralism for woke hegemony, but Orban understands that, and is not prepared to play by their rules. With the Left having become so illiberal, and exercising hegemonic power across society, the only effective pushback to it seems to be right-wing illiberalism. The only conservatives who will be spoken well of by liberals today are those who surrender. The liberals — including conservative liberals (e.g., UK Tories and establishment Republicans) — believe that everybody accepting their view of the world is in the natural order of things. Magyar Man, for all his flaws, is an extremely tough and competent politician who is not for surrendering. If we in America are not to be absorbed by the Cathedral, we are going to need our own version of Magyar Man. Given how deep our own Deep State goes, it is unreasonable to think that a single political leader, no matter how brave and skilled, can turn things around. But at least we would have a fighting chance.

The controversy around Viktor Orban is not only about an obstreperous Hungarian politician who doesn’t play well with others. It’s about the future of the West.

UPDATE: To put it succinctly, we might need soft authoritarianism to save us from soft totalitarianism.



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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