The Fidesz faithful usually gather on Election Night at a Budapest convention center called Balna — The Whale. In the belly of the Whale early last evening, the mood was cheerful but tense. They all knew the pre-election polls showed Fidesz, the political party co-founded by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, out ahead of the opposition by a few percentage points, but nobody wanted to be over-confident. “Polls have misled us before,” one Fidesz leader told me.
Mostly, though, the reticence came because they all knew they weren’t supposed to be on the verge of a fourth Orban victory. When I left Budapest late last summer, my Fidesz friends were not hopeful. It wasn’t anything in particular, but mostly the fact that in a democracy, people over time grow weary of leadership by one party. Fidesz has been in power since 2010. The general feeling was that 2022 would be the opposition’s year. Last fall, the opposition parties closed ranks and, in a primary vote, selected Peter Marki-Zay, a Catholic mayor of a small city, to be the united opposition’s standard-bearer.
When I returned in early February, the Fidesz mood was very different. On the campaign trail, Marki-Zay — or “MZP” as they call him here, a country where last names are stated first — had proven to be a disaster. Last night at the Whale, I listened as Hungarians regaled foreigners with stories of MZP’s haplessness. There was the time he bragged about opposition unity, saying “we’ve got everybody from Communists to Fascists in our coalition” — something that was true, but not something to boast of. On another public occasion, a journalist called out a question to him, and he rushed over to the reporter and had a massive freakout on camera. He seemed to be trying to capture some of the Trump energy from making the media the enemy, but he just looked deranged.
Then Russia invaded Ukraine, upending everything. Viktor Orban is well known to have been the closest to Vladimir Putin of any European leader. Would this bring him down now that Putin had launched a war on neighboring Ukraine? The Western media seemed to think it would.
Orban’s handling of the political challenges of the Ukraine war is a master class in political strategy. According to polls, nearly all Hungarians side with Ukraine against Russia, but a strong majority of them do not want Hungary to get involved in the war. Over and over for the last two months, I had conversations with Hungarians who talk about how terrible the 20th century wars were for Hungary, and how they don’t want their country dragged into another conflagration that will get a lot of them killed, and the country’s infrastructure destroyed.
One man in the Rudas baths, an Ottoman-era thermal bath at the base of the Buda hills, told me and a visiting Englishman who had been talking about the beauty of the capital city, “You should know that this is something that only happened in the last ten or fifteen years. Before then, things were a mess, and we didn’t have the money to fix them up.” Buda had been badly damaged in some of the worst fighting of the Second World War, as the Red Army fought house to house to dislodge the besieged Germans. Forty years of Communism left the state too poor to repair much of the damage.
Hearing stories like this, and stories by Hungarians talking about how their family members suffered in the Second World War and its aftermath, would make me angry when I would read in the Western media, or online, facile condemnations of Hungarians for not getting on board the hate-Russia train. As one well-informed Hungarian told me last night, “You can’t be Hungarian and love the Russians. But you have to be sensible about what’s in your country’s best interests.”
Aside from war, there is the matter of the Hungarian energy supply. The country gets 80 percent of its natural gas from Russia. The Hungarians prefer not to freeze in the dark next winter for the sake of Ukraine — a country with which they had sometimes-difficult relations before the war broke out, owing to what they regard as the Kyiv government’s mistreatment of the Hungarian ethnic minority in far-west Ukraine.
So, Orban withheld Hungary’s veto from European Union joint action against Russia, opened the borders to Ukrainian refugees, and sent humanitarian aid. He also criticized Russia’s invasion. But he would not allow NATO weapons to transit Hungary on their way to Ukraine, saying that he did not want to give Russia a casus belli for extending its war into Hungary. Though the Western media then, and this morning, are smearing Orban as “pro-Putin,” this was exactly the position that most Hungarian people supported. As usual, the liberal journalists mistake the opinions of their own class for the vox populi (a poll last month showed that the only demographic in Hungary favoring a more aggressive stance against Putin was — surprise! — educated professionals).
Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky, a darling of the West, has been calling out PM Orban for not doing enough to stand with Ukraine. It is understandable that Zelensky would want maximal commitment from the West, but he really overplayed his hand, earlier accusing Orban of the equivalent of complicity in the Holocaust. Zelensky kept up the smears even on election day yesterday:
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking early Sunday in his capital, Kyiv, described Mr. Orban as “virtually the only one in Europe to openly support Mr. Putin.”
Asked about Mr. Zelensky’s assessment after casting his vote in Budapest on Sunday morning, Mr. Orban said curtly: “Mr. Zelensky is not voting today. Thank you. Are there any other questions?”
A perfect answer! With that, the prime minister telegraphed that he will not be morally blackmailed by Zelensky, and that his responsibilities are first and foremost to represent the will and interests of the Hungarian people. As I said, today the Western media are reporting on the victory of “pro-Putin Viktor Orban,” which is the same kind of biased b.s. that has kept Western journalists from understanding what’s really happening here in Hungary. Orban was not voted back in yesterday because he is pro-Putin; he was returned to office because he is pro-Hungarian.
It is not often that the head of a right-wing party gets to run for re-election as a peace candidate, but that’s what Orban did, and it paid off. Over and over, talking to people in the streets, in pubs, in taxi cabs, I heard the same thing from people: however ready they might be for a change in government after twelve years of Fidesz, this opposition is incompetent, and besides, nobody wants to change leadership in a time of national crisis.
And then there was the LGBT media law referendum. Last summer, the Fidesz-controlled Parliament passed a law prohibiting certain expressions of pro-LGBT information aimed at minors. It caused a huge uproar among European leaders, who called it rank bigotry. Orban decided to put the questions to voters in a referendum yesterday. Hungarians were asked to approve or disapprove of the following questions:
- Do you support the promotion of gender reassignment treatments for minor children?”
- Do you support the display of media content showing gender reassignment to minors?
- Do you support the unrestricted depiction of sexual-themed media content to minors that affect their development?
- Do you support holding sessions on sexual orientation for minor children in public education institutions without parental consent?
It was a smart political move, because it meant that those who agree with the government would be more likely to turn out to vote. The opposition, knowing that they would lose the referendum, called on its voters to spoil their ballots, knowing that the referendum would be non-binding if fewer than 50 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.
In one sense, the opposition strategy paid off. Though 90 percent of those who voted in the referendum sided with the government, just under half voted for the referendum, making its result invalid. Practically speaking, it doesn’t matter, because the law remains in effect. Now, though, European leaders know that the government’s policy has strong popular support. And, for an opposition that loves to claim that Orban undermines democracy, urging people to void a national referendum via spoiled ballots was not a good look.
Well, as you will have heard by now, Fidesz won a massive victory, by even greater margins than predicted. Marki-Zay, who lost his own voting constituency to a Fidesz candidate, whined that it’s impossible to beat Orban, on the grounds that the prime minister gamed the election. This is the Left’s version of the Democrats blaming “Russian collusion” and other trickery for Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump. I expect this will be the line that American commentators take in the days to come — anything to avoid the fact that the Hungarian opposition ran a lousy campaign, and that Viktor Orban’s policies, however unpopular they might be in the Brussels, Washington, and among the media, really do represent the views of most Hungarians. At the Whale last night, the Fidesz faithful were over the moon. None expected such a big victory: a fourth landslide in twelve years.
What next? The prime minister faces immense challenges in this term. The economic effects of the Russia-Ukraine war will be overwhelming for Europe and the world — and Hungary is not a wealthy country with reserves to help absorb the coming economic shocks. The Hungarian health system is underfunded (a big reason why the Orban government took a hard line on Covid vaccinations), and needs help. Plus, Orban has to deal with a hostile European Union, which might ramp up punitive actions against Hungary — though now Brussels must know that the Hungarian government has the strong backing of its people, and that if pressed, Hungary could exercise the veto power EU member states have over collective action. Europe would do well to reset its relationship with Hungary, but a political class that views Hungary’s national-populist government as illegitimate — especially on LGBT questions — may not be in a mood to compromise.
What does this mean for American conservatism? You have to be careful not to overdraw the lessons. Hungary is a small, ethnically homogeneous country, with a particular history that sets the boundaries on politics here. For example, the Left opposition is still run by former Communists who profited immensely in the 1990s, using their connections with the former order to get rich off the sale of state-owned assets. As one Fidesz voter told me last night, if you go into the wealthy part of Buda, you will find many villas owned by former Communists who, despite their role in enslaving this country to the Soviet Union, made out like bandits in the aftermath of Communist dictatorship. We have nothing quite like that in the United States.
Nevertheless, there are some lessons to be drawn. The first one is already underway in the US. Orban does not shy away from fighting the culture war. In Hungary, gay couples have the legal right to form civil partnerships, and there is broad tolerance of gays and lesbians. But most people here reject transgenderism, and they especially reject the gender ideology propaganda liberal elites and their supporters in schools and media direct towards children. In my six months here in Budapest over the past year, whenever I talk to Hungarians about what has become routine in the United States regarding media, educational, and woke-capitalist indoctrination aimed at kids regarding transgenderism, they visibly struggle to believe that what I’m saying is true. But of course it is true. As we know from Christopher Rufo’s publication of videos from an internal Walt Disney Company session, Disney has been inserting pro-LGBT messaging into its children’s programming for years, and plans to double down on it.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s new law forbidding propagandizing children aged nine and under in schools with this stuff is a pale shadow of Hungary’s law, but it’s similar — and it is very popular nationally, even among Biden voters. Last week the Biden administration released new federal health guidelines on transgender “care” for children — and in them, openly laid the groundwork for the possibility of the state seizing children from their families to submit them to hormones and surgeries.
Orban has shown now that going against elites in the media, corporations, and foreign governments to protect children is a big winner. It is time for Republicans to be more faithful to the people they claim to represent than to the donor class on this issue.
Plus, Orban shows that national-populism is not dead. The liberal internationalist class has been hoping that Putin’s quagmire in Ukraine, and the apparent resurgence in Western alliance and resolve, would once and for all put an end to Trumpist populism. Hungarian voters showed them otherwise. Orban has made it clear that until and unless there is a populist victory in one of the bigger EU states, he and his Polish allies will be in a precarious position. However, if a nationalist-populist GOP president comes to power in 2024 with a GOP Congress behind him, and they realize that Hungary is poised to be a great ally to a national-populist America, things could change.
I have been saying for the past year that US conservatives should come to Hungary to learn from Orban and Fidesz. Orban is not a small-government Anglo-Saxon conservative. He believes in using the power of the state to strengthen families, the basis of any health society. But the most important thing US conservatives can learn is how to use political power to fight the culture war — and not in the most obvious ways, such as with the referendum. Orban is a country boy who knows very well how the Left dominates culture here in Hungary, especially cultural institutions. And he understands, in ways that elude American conservative politicians, how the soft power wielded by the Left in those institutions changes society in progressive ways. This is why for all the political victories the GOP has racked up over the past few decades, the broader society and culture has continued its accelerating drift leftward.
As I wrote last month, quoting the political scientist Eric Kaufmann and his research on American society, conservatives absolutely cannot afford to be complacent here, and mindlessly observe the old liberal habits of keeping the government’s hands off of non-political matters. As Kaufmann pointed out, the younger generation in the US is so far to the Left, and so hostile to old-fashioned liberal values like free speech and tolerance of diverse opinions, that if conservatives don’t find a way to stop or reverse these trends, there will be no place for us to exist in the America of the near future.
The call now among some Republican commentators for the state to take action against Disney, to revoke its special privileges on copyright to retaliate for its indoctrination of American children, is a pure Orban move. We need to see more of it. Republicans have been so prostrate before Big Business that they have sat there like idiots while Woke Capitalism organizes to turn conservative values of faith and the traditional family into pariahs among the young. Either we on the Right will learn from Viktor Orban how to use politics to fight this, or we will be defeated.
The Disney/transgender controversy in America now is a tremendous opportunity for conservatives to fight back against the liberal elites. The LGBT lobby controls the Democratic Party, and Biden’s HHS rules last week show how out of touch he and his party’s leadership class is from the concerns of ordinary Americans. When the Left is coming after your kids — and it really is — we cannot afford to stay out of the fight. And we cannot afford a Republican Party that mouths the right things, but when in power, does little or nothing to roll back the Left’s gains.
This Scotsman is telling the truth. Viktor Orban speaks for him. How many American GOP politicians do?
I tweeted this last night, when I got home late from the event:
Make no mistake: #ViktorOrban is the leader of the West now — the West that still remembers what the West is.
— Rod Dreher (@roddreher) April 3, 2022
It’s getting badly ratio’d on Twitter, which I expected. And true, it was said in a moment of exuberance. But I stand by it. Any Western conservative who understands that we are caught up in a civilizational struggle must understand that Viktor Orban is our champion.
UPDATE: I had lunch with my friend Gyula Pal, a philosopher and former student of Roger Scruton’s. Before we met, he sent me this analysis he wrote for his Facebook followers:
“Where did the new two thirds [Fidesz] majority come from and why is it good?There are two things on which everyone in our divided political community can probably agree: never before have the stakes of a referendum and a general election been as high as they were this Sunday, and never before has a governing power been under such attack (from the right and the left, from within and without, etc.) as they were now. What could be the reason for the attacks? Why, in spite of the attacks, did the FIDESZ-KDNP win another large majority? What should be done after the elections?My answers are very brief:1. on the issue of child protection, the government is attacked from the left because it goes against the western left-liberal-progressive political consensus that children’s rights cannot be linked to parents’ rights, while from the right-liberal side this problem is simply not visible and appears to be shadow fighting. However, the FIDESZ-KDNP has recognised that the future will be decided in the cultural sphere, and within this sphere, most of all in the area of value transmission and education and the majority of Hungarian society has also come to this realisation. However, political and legal measures – including the referendum – are only necessary but not sufficient conditions for a civilisational reform capable of reversing the decline in social relations, social institutions and communities that has been observed in modern societies for decades (or even centuries).2. The policies of the national-conservative FIDESZ-KDNP coalition and its position on geopolitical issues are attacked from the left for refusing to dissolve national self-determination in the EU bureaucratic machine (see also child protection issues) and from the right (see Polish conservatives) for being even more ‘spun on our own axis’ than ‘Atlanticism’ can bear. But on this issue, and there is a national majority behind the FIDESZ-KDNP, the world that is changing from unipolar to multipolar could easily become so chaotic that someone further away from the North Atlantic centre of power (where Hungary is also located) could easily become a “collateral victim”, especially in economic terms, from which Article 5 of the NATO Treaty does not protect anyone. And in the new world order, new opportunities will find only those actors with room for manoeuvre between the poles, while the others are more exposed to the changing balance of power. The task of the new FIDESZ-KDNP government, therefore, is to rebuild Hungarian national sovereignty in the emerging multi-polar post-liberal world order, where the West is only one of the centres of power, but in such a way that it includes everything that was valuable in our culture (and in European culture) before, during and after Christianity.
This was not supposed to happen.
Having veered off reservation by refusing to open up Hungary to migrants from Africa and Asia, Orban violated the ever-changing “core values of Europe”, leading to a sanctions regime that denies Hungary billions of Euros by way of COVID-19 relief. This pettiness is par for the course for Brussels, with Poland being another victim of the sanctions regime for having a judiciary that reflects those in other western countries, but which also violates the “core values of Europe”.
Fidesz’s win in a democratic election is a “dark day for democracy, for Hungary, and for the EU”:
It now looks virtually certain that Viktor Orban has been reelected as Prime Minister of Hungary in elections that were dubiously free and barely fair.
It’s a dark day for democracy, for Hungary, and for the EU.
— Yascha Mounk (@Yascha_Mounk) April 3, 2022
Even worse, it’s simply not democracy at all when the people vote to choose who governs them:
Magyars simply cannot be trusted with the ballot box. Ideally, Fidesz should be forcibly removed from power, and only parties vetted and approved by Brussels and by the US State Department should be permitted to run in a new, free, and fair election that will generate the correct democratic result in spite of what the people of Hungary actually want. This is what it means to be a democracy.