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Home/Rod Dreher/Why Hungary Matters To American Conservatives

Why Hungary Matters To American Conservatives

I imagine Orban saying, 'Seriously, Americans, are you satisfied with the leadership you have?' (Screenshot from Tucker Carlson's interview with Viktor Orban)

I woke up this morning to four different people in two countries sending me this:

 

Second from top is the Hungarian translation ofThe Benedict Option. Not gonna lie, it’s cool to know a world leader has read one’s book.

Today I’m talking to a reporter for the New Yorker, who is coming to spend the afternoon with me to find out why wingers like me are interested in Viktor Orban. If you add up my blog posts, I have written a small book about that topic over the last month in this space. Still, I’ll go at it again. I expect to have to deal with the charge that we want to lift Orbanism, or whatever you call it, out of Hungary and implant it into American political life. No, no, no. It is not possible, even if it were desirable. As I have tried to say, over and over, here is what we like about Orban:

  1. He values localism, particularity, and sovereignty, believing that each nation should have the right to decide its own way of life, in accord with its own values
  2. He understands the Realpolitik of the current moment, and the barely-concealed illiberalism of liberals
  3. He grasps clearly the threats to social cohesion and societal thriving from racial and gender politics
  4. He defends the traditional family, and supports it with policies encouraging family formation
  5. He believes in the free market, but will not defend its claims at the expense of the common good
  6. He understands immigration as a potential threat to the stability and cultural continuity of the nation
  7. And in all these things, he is willing to fight hard for the things he believes in

This is not very different from why conservative intellectuals who liked Trump did so. The problem was that Trump had no real principles, and certainly no genuine intention of fighting for these things (as opposed to appearing to fight for these things). He never had a real and consistent agenda, which is why the GOP Congressional establishment ended up doing the heavy lifting for him. And those who did share his agenda, like Attorney General Jeff Sessions, he cast aside for petty personal reasons.

One interesting thing about all this is that the same illiberalism that Orban’s American critics accuse him of is pretty much a fact of life in contemporary America, under liberalism. It can sometimes be worse. In Orban’s Hungary, you are perfectly free to criticize the government’s stance on gender ideology, and you will not have to worry about being cancelled at your job or in any other way. Is that true in the US? Of course not, not for many millions of us.

Orban opposed the Hungarian national soccer team taking the knee, because he rejected attempts to bring American culture war issues to European sport. If you disagreed with him, it was no big deal. But prominent Americans who disagree with taking the knee had better think hard before speaking their mind.

He believes that traditional families having children is a good thing, and his government has adjusted tax policy to reward family formation. If we had this kind of debate in the US Congress, anyone who said that the policy should only target traditional families — that is to say, not families with same-sex parents, or polyamorous families — would be denounced as the worst kind of bigot.

Orban is widely criticized for the heavy hand he has taken in creating a space in Hungary for conservatives in media. From my point of view, this does indeed look bad. But here in the US, our major media is almost entirely in the hands of liberals (even Fox, on its reporting side, is not a friend to social conservatives), and it shows. I would not support Orban’s smashmouth politics that led to the creation of a more ideologically level playing field on Hungarian media, but most conservatives here would just roll our eyes at the idea that this is some kind of ghastly deed. We are quite used to our perspectives being ignored or misrepresented by our ideologically monochromatic national media. When Hungarian journalists told me this past summer that if not for what Orban did, there would be no voice for conservatives in their national media, I find that easy to believe.

Along those lines, when American liberals complain about Orban’s gerrymandering, I would remind them that we have been gerrymandering Congressional districts for decades to achieve court-ordered racial balance. A few years ago, I was living in an absurdly shaped Congressional district here in Louisiana, stretching from the south of the state, where I lived, to the very north. Why was it carved out like that? To put more black people in it. The left is perfectly happy to rig any system it has to for the sake of achieving what it calls Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. I have very little interest in hearing them complain that Viktor Orban adjusts the rules to favor outcomes he likes.

You could turn that around, though: if I hate this kind of thing at home, why do I find it acceptable in Orban’s Hungary? Fair point. And this is where it gets down to the hard part. As I have said repeatedly, in most respects, I am an old-fashioned liberal. I don’t want a public square where people on the Left are treated the way they treat us on the Right today. I am in favor of defending the free speech of all. I am in favor of judging people on the basis of the content of their character and their ability to do the work, not on the color of their skin or any measure like that. I’m old enough to remember when those were things that both conservatives and liberals in America could agree on. We don’t live in that world anymore. I have lived to see an illiberal, even “soft totalitarian,” regime arise within the structures and language of liberalism, to inhabit it parasitically — and use that power against the liberties of people like me. And it’s getting worse.

I’m supposed to feel compelled to defend this decadent illiberal progressive system, one in the grips of a crackpot ideology that is destroying the country, and one led by elites who dragged America into two foreign policy catastrophes this century — and supposed to think that we are so much better than Viktor Orban? Please.

Writing in the Telegraph (paywalled), Allister Heath tells some harsh truths. Excerpts:

No empire is eternal: all eventually fall amid hubris and humiliation. The heart-wrenching, humanitarian calamity that is the botched Afghan retreat is merely the latest sign that the American era is ending: Washington is no longer the world’s policeman, and an unsettling future of clashes between expansionist, authoritarian regional powers beckons. …

Twenty years on, America’s global plan lies in ruins, its elites confounded on almost every issue, the stupidity and incompetence on display over the Afghan withdrawal confirming that they don’t understand the rest of the world, and aren’t fit to govern their own country, let alone the globe. Blinded by a simplistic universalism, they no longer understand religion, tribalism, history, national differences or why countries want to govern themselves.

Wherever one looks, America’s blueprint has failed. Take Washington’s support for a United States of Europe with its army, constitution and “eurodollar”. Brexit signalled the beginning of the end of that dystopian construct: others will leave the EU, because of the coming migration crisis – tens of millions will seek to move from Africa and the Middle East, and there will be toxic attempts at “distributing” migrants across the bloc – or because of a populist uprising or economic implosion.

More:

America’s internal problems are immense: its constitution is broken, its predilection for second-rate gerontocrats such as Biden unrivalled. Racked with self-doubt, its elites in the grip of a bizarre “awakening” centred around a nihilistic, ungrateful self-loathing, it no longer has values to sell, neither capitalism nor democracy nor the American dream. How can people who live in terror of “micro-aggressions” find it in themselves to defeat real evils? As to the public, it doesn’t want to know about the rest of the world: how, under such circumstances, can the US empire not be in terminal decline?

… The West has lost control: there will be mass population movements, currency wars and battles over natural resources. The American empire at least believed in freedom and democracy; what replaces it won’t even pretend to be liberal.

Are we really sure we can double down on the leadership that has brought us to this point — or failed to prevent us from reaching this point? I’m talking specifically about wokeness. Any nation could find itself in a series of normal crises — economic, foreign policy, etc. — and would then face the challenge of healing itself. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about how we face multiple crises, without the political leadership — either on the Left or the Right — capable of meeting the challenges. And beyond politics, we have a ruling class that has taken poison like this, and insists that everybody has to drink the same Kool-Aid:

Bank of America Corporation has implemented a racial reeducation program that claims the United States is a system of “white supremacy” and encourages employees to become “woke at work,” instructing white employees in particular to “decolonize [their] mind[s]” and “cede power to people of color.”

Earlier this year, Bank of America’s North Carolina and Charlotte market president Charles Bowman announced a new “equity” initiative called United in Action, in partnership with the United Way of Central Carolinas. According to documents I have obtained from a whistleblower, BOA executives launched the initiative by encouraging employees to participate in their “Racial Equity 21-Day Challenge,” a race-training program funded in part by the bank and built on the principles of critical race theory, including intersectionality, white privilege, white fragility, and systemic racism.

One the program’s first day, Bank of America teaches employees that the United States is a “racialized society” that “use[s] race to establish and justify systems of power, privilege, disenfranchisement, and oppression,” which “give[s] privileges to white people resulting in disadvantages to people of color.” According to the training program, all whites—“regardless of one’s socioeconomic class background or other disadvantages”—are “living a life with white skin privileges.” Even children are implicated in the system of white supremacy: according to the program materials, white toddlers “develop racial biases by ages three to five” and “should be actively taught to recognize and reject the ‘smog’ of white privilege.”

Over the next three days, Bank of America teaches employees about intersectionality, unconscious bias, microaggressions, and systemic racism. “Racism in America idolizes White physical features and White values as supreme over those of others,” the program asserts. As a result of being part of the “dominant culture,” whites are more likely to “have more limited imagination,” “experience fear, anxiety, guilt, or shame,” “contribute to racial tension, hatred, and violence in our homes, communities, and world,” and, subsequently, “react in broken ways as a result.” People of color, on the other hand, cannot be racist, because “racism is used to justify the position of the dominant group . . . and to uphold white supremacy and superiority.” Therefore, the discussion guide claims, “reverse racism and discrimination are not possible.”

Read it all, and be grateful for Christopher Rufo for the work he does exposing this stuff. You should take whatever money you may give to candidates or political action committees, and redirect it to Chris, who is doing a lot of heavy lifting that Conservatism, Inc. won’t do.

We are seeding the next generation with insanity by normalizing this stuff. This comes from a preschool teacher in South Carolina. South Carolina! 

You know where they are determined to stop this insane ideology before it takes hold and destroys their society? Viktor Orban’s Hungary. Hungarians can look to the West and see where it leads, and be grateful that they have politicians who are willing to accept the contempt of bien-pensant Western Europeans over it.

Seriously, though: as the Telegraph columnist avers, we don’t have a ruling class capable of guiding America out of this crisis. They all live by lies. Our civilian and military leadership have been on TV this week trying to avoid accountability for the disaster in Afghanistan. We had all better pray to God that the Americans that the Biden administration — I’m looking at you, Gen. Mark Milley and SecDef Lloyd Austin — left behind don’t get taken hostage by Taliban factions. We could be looking at Iran 1979 all over again. Michael Anton’s guide to regime propaganda explains well why we cannot take seriously what fools of the Cathedral say.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not opposed to our Constitutional system at all. I’m saying simply that we need a much stronger, more visionary, and determined leader who is able to right the ship. Hungary is not the United States. I get that. We need an American version of Viktor Orban: a small-d democrat who can read the signs of the times and has the wisdom and the fortitude to right the listing ship. If I were a conservative politician in this country who aspired to leadership in these crisis times, I would be reading and studying him. There’s an English-language manuscript of a book by Balasz Orban (no relation), a political strategist and top member of the Fidesz party, called The Hungarian Way of Strategy. It’s being looked at by publishers. Given the fast-changing circumstances, I think it could be one of the most important US political books of 2022, if it finds a publisher.

Finally, I’ll leave you with a piece I’ve been meaning to write about for a week or so. It’s by Erik D’Amato, an American journalist who lived in Budapest for fifteen years, and ran a small news service. He does not come off as pro-Fidesz. In it, he lists twenty things that Westerners don’t get about Hungary. Here are the most important ones, in my view:

2. The lingering presence of Western-fêted ex-Communist elites was tragically corrosive.

The other big mistake that I and other Westerners made during the transition was not foreseeing how much bitterness and cynicism would be produced by allowing communist apparatchiks to escape punishment. They then reinvented themselves overnight as “socialist” millionaire business figures—often on the basis of egregious self-dealing—while continuing to proclaim their leadership of the country’s Left. Indeed, many longtime Orbán-watchers believe his uncompromising style and hostility to the West partly flows from his unexpected electoral loss to a Socialist-led coalition in 2002 and 2006. The first of these defeats was at the hands of a communist finance minister-turned banker (Péter Medgyessy) and the second was to a communist-youth-league-organizer-turned-private-equity-honcho (Ferenc Gyurcsány), both of whom positioned themselves as favorites of the West. Today, there are Hungarians who intensely dislike Orbán but cannot bring themselves to pull the lever for an opposition still tied to servants of a genuine dictatorship who were never brought to justice.

His point is that Orban rose in opposition to these reconstructed Communists. If you’ve read the Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko’s great book The Demon In Democracy, you will understand this dynamic. Legutko talks about how the Communist elite refashioned itself into a Eurocrat-friendly liberal cadre. A lot of ordinary voters in those countries resented the hell out of this.

More:

5. Fears of demographic decline and “population replacement” should not be scoffed at.

In the mid-2000s, there was a big digital counter on the side of a building a few doors down from me in Budapest, which tracked Hungary’s population as it dropped toward the key milestone of 10 million. I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but I should have, since the fear of demographic decline has clearly fed many Hungarians’ sense of becoming a vanishing people. So, while even many conservatives in the West tend to dismiss fears of a “great replacement” as a crude racist conspiracy theory, average people in societies with stagnating or declining populations are likely to think and vote differently. This is especially true if, as in Central and Eastern Europe, history is full of nearby examples of populations actually being replaced. Fidesz capitalized on this with an effective rhetorical campaign against mass immigration into Europe, and a lesser-known set of popular pro-natal incentives such as lifetime exemption from income taxes for women who have a certain number of children. These have helped increase the fertility rate by almost a quarter in the last decade, while nearly doubling the number of marriages. Knocking or mocking this concern won’t make it go away.

This is what all the Orban-haters do: construe his opposition to immigration as racist. They cannot imagine — sorry, they refuse to imagine what the world looks like to people who live in a small, culturally and linguistically distinct country, in a region with a brutal history (post-WWII) of population transfers. Again, this is one thing I like about Orban: he sees the world as it is, not as it appears through rose-colored ideological glasses. He risked the contempt of all of Europe to protect his country from Madame Merkel’s 2015 folly.

And:

7. It will also co-opt minority groups.

While routinely trafficking in forms of white nationalism, Fidesz has for years forged unlikely alliances with institutions and politicians representing various ethnic minorities, including Jewish and Roma (Gypsy) groups, having discovered that they (or their leaderships) often aren’t particularly liberal, either.

8. …and speech curbs initially cheered by the Left.

In the months before Orbán returned to power in 2010, Hungary’s lame-duck center-Left government passed a law criminalizing denial or trivialization of the Holocaust. It ought to have been obvious that Fidesz would use this new form of criminalizing speech for its own devices (until then Hungary was unusual in Europe for having no official curbs on speech). Sure enough, within weeks of its return to power, Fidesz broadened the law to include denial of communist crimes. It isn’t difficult to see how the initial law helped the government’s later moves to degrade free expression.

Me, I don’t like criminalizing speech of any kind. I would oppose the Orban government on this (while admitting that I could be wrong; given the enormity of the crimes of the Holocaust and Communism, it is not crazy to ban speech denying either). But when the Left in Western Europe or the US comes down on Hungary for banning LGBT propaganda aimed at minors, it has no free-speech principles to stand on, given that it is perfectly happy to criminalize speech that it doesn’t like. This is another example of the Left’s hypocritical “who, whom” approach to Hungary.

This is good:

10. The West’s own example hasn’t always been exemplary.

Orbán was introduced to many in the West in 2015 when he tried to halt a wave of Syrian refugees traveling to Germany and other points in Western and Northern Europe via Hungary. While the move was widely denounced as lawless, it was actually German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s sudden decision to admit more than a million such migrants that was in stark contravention of EU law. This and similar cases in which Western governments or bodies have twisted their own statutes or regulationshave made protests against Hungary’s real rule-of-law abuses all too easy for Orbán and his supporters to brush off. Likewise, there’s more than a little truth to Orbán’s claims that multinational companies have gotten the better of Hungary, and even that the billions of euros in EU subsidies was just Brussels sending some money “back” to Budapest. As Thomas Piketty has pointed out, between 2010 and 2016, the flow of profits leaving Hungary to Western European companies as a percentage of GDP was more than 50 percent higher than the amount the country received in EU transfers. Meanwhile, some “multis” have operated in Hungary in ways that they never would have done in their own markets. Banks, in particular, have been doing things—such as pushing high risk residential mortgages denominated in foreign currencies—that left no one feeling sorry for them when Orbán dropped the boom on them.

11. It takes good lawyers to really mess with the rule of law.

Contrary to the image of populist movements being staffed by provincials unconcerned with legal niceties, Fidesz is actually manned by a vast cadre of skilled and creative lawyers, who pay great attention to making sure everything Orbán’s government does is technically legal. They are adept at finding ingenious ways of flatfooting their opponents.

12. The efforts of Western NGOs and media can backfire spectacularly.

The promotion by Western governments and NGOs of certain aspects of cultural liberalism—notably on gender identity—has had mixed results in post-communist and developing countries. An illiberal backlash was inevitable. Meanwhile, a crusading international media—the New York Times has gone so far as to print an exposé on EU subsidy fraud in Hungary in Hungarian—has left some centrists nodding along when Orbán claims their country is under attack from a biased foreign press.

Yes, an on that last point, all those US and Western European pundits screaming bloody murder about how poor old George Soros is being demonized because he’s Jewish, and because he only wants to do good in the world, ought to realize that the kinds of things Soros actually pays for — that is, the social and political change in which he invests his billions — are really bad from a nationalist conservative point of view. In other words, on Soros, Orban is not making it up.

This is a small but important point:

18. On the ground nationalist conservatism looks more liberal than you might think.

The Hungarian capital has changed a lot since it became a Mecca for global right-wingers—it’s more international and lively than ever. Most striking is the flourishing of the former Jewish quarter, home to Europe’s largest synagogue and now one of its most hopping bar scenes. Just as populist economics do not immediately cause market mayhem, rule by Christian nationalists doesn’t necessarily make everything drab and provincial.

Anybody who has actually been to Budapest lately — as you know, I lived there from mid-April until early this month — has to laugh at Westerners who assume that it’s an austere, buttoned-down conservative capital. It really is cosmopolitan. There are many reasons for liberals to criticize the government of Viktor Orban, but the supposed gloominess and repression of life in the capital city is very much not one of them. One night pub-crawling in the Jewish Quarter, or gadding about the fancy restaurants of downtown, will cure you of that mistake.

Anyway, read the whole thing. D’Amato is fairly critical of Orban in parts. The overall point you should take is that Hungary is a normal country, with its own history, its own strengths, and its own weaknesses. It is neither a national-conservative paradise nor an authoritarian hellscape. It’s a place led by a very talented and principled politician who is as flawed as anybody else. I believe strongly that the leaderless and depleted conservative politicians of the United States can learn a lot from studying this man, what he believes in, and how he has governed and campaigned. They can take the things he has done that have worked for Hungary, and figure out how to translate them into the very different American context, if that is possible. And they can discard the rest.

One of the first things they should do, though, is to look around them and to realize how broken our ruling class is, and how they continue to lead America into crisis. Something has to change. Something has to change now, and change in a big way. Who can doubt it?

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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