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The Situation With Viktor Orban

Hungary's emergency law is flawed -- but doesn't justify the Western liberal freakout
Hungary's Orban Meets Italian PM In Rome

I have hesitated to write about Viktor Orban’s recent moves in Hungary, though I have (understandably) been under pressure to do so, given my praise of him in the past. The reason for my hesitation has been wanting to learn  reliable details about what’s happening in Hungary, and being extremely reluctant to write without being confident that I have a reasonable hold on what is actually going on there. I have learned over the past couple of years that you really cannot trust the Western media to report consistently with fairness and accuracy on Hungarian politics, or, more broadly, the politics of the European populist right. In my experience, things are usually far more nuanced than the presentation we get in the West. There have been instances in which information I personally knew to be true, but which contradicted the Western liberal media spin (that all the right-wing populist parties of Europe are vanguards of fascism), was ignored by Western journalists. One is correct to be very cautious about what we hear, see, and read in the Western media about Hungary and the other Visegrad countries.

And yet, I still don’t feel that I know enough about what’s going on in Hungary to have a confident opinion. But here’s what it looks like to me right now. Tl;dr? I think the emergency law is defensible, and that Orban’s critics are flipping out unnecessarily — but I agree with the critics that the law’s open-ended nature (that is, lack of a definite end date, and requirement for parliamentary re-approval) is deeply concerning, for its obvious temptation to authoritarian abuse.

Now, the longer version. It’s very long, but remember, writing about things is how I think through them. I beg your indulgence.

You might have seen Damon Linker’s column last week calling out me and other American conservatives who have spoken well in the past of Orban. He writes:

Bestselling author Patrick Deneen has spoken of Orbán’s Hungary serving as a model for conservatives in the West and even sat down for a photo op in a book-lined office with the statesman himself. Prominent blogger Rod Dreher has written numerous posts plugging Orbán’s anti-liberal political project and passionately defended him against the supposedly malicious smears of Western critics. Author Christopher Caldwell has penned a highly literate essay explaining that Orbán should be considered the “future of Europe.” And in the most astonishing example of all, journalist Sohrab Ahmari allowed Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó to use the pages of the New York Post as a megaphone for spreading Fidesz Party propaganda directly to American readers.

I know and respect all of these authors. I count some of them as longstanding friends. I’m therefore eager to know what they think of the alarming (but also completely unsurprising) events of recent days — days during which the Hungarian legislature, which Orbán’s party controls with a strong majority, approved an open-ended extension of the previously declared COVID-19-related state of emergency, suspending parliament and elections, giving Orbán the power to rule by decree, and pronouncing that the spreading of “fake news” would be punished by up to five years in prison.

Linker says that we might be horrified, and realize we were duped all along. Or we might go on being Orban’s “useful idiots,” defending him even when he does the indefensible.

I don’t want to be too quick to answer, for the reason I mentioned above, but I also don’t want to stand by actions that I think are wrong. My personal experiences in Russia and the former Soviet bloc countries (the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary) have taught me that the Western version of liberal democracy is not a universal model. Writing in the (left-wing) New Statesman this week, the political theorist John Gray says:

In the view of the future to which progressive thinkers cling, the future is an embellished version of the recent past. No doubt this helps them preserve some semblance of sanity. It also undermines what is now our most vital attribute: the ability to adapt and fashion different ways of life. The task ahead is to build economies and societies that are more durable, and more humanly habitable, than those that were exposed to the anarchy of the global market. …

With all its talk of freedom and choice, liberalism was in practice the experiment of dissolving traditional sources of social cohesion and political legitimacy and replacing them with the promise of rising material living standards. This experiment has now run its course. Suppressing the virus necessitates an economic shutdown that can only be temporary, but when the economy restarts, it will be in a world where governments act to curb the global market.

He continues:

Few ideas are so scorned by higher minds than sovereignty.

Orban has been a tireless advocate of Hungarian national sovereignty. When I first visited Hungary, I found myself in conversation with a Hungarian who supports Orban. Her view — and I subsequently learned that this is widely shared in Hungary, among Orban’s supporters — is that after the fall of communism, Westerners came in and bought up what was left of Hungarian industry at fire sale prices. A big reason for Orban’s popularity is that he realized that as long as the country’s economy is controlled, or at least strongly dominated, by foreigners, Hungarians do not control their destiny. My Hungarian interlocutor told me that Orban clawed back those industries, and put them under Hungarian sovereignty. In her opinion, Orban can be fairly criticized for cronyism — redistributing controlling interests in those industries to his own supporters. But (she said), that is a lesser problem than foreign ownership — for those Hungarians who believe that Hungarians should determine Hungary’s future.

This accounts for Orban’s hatred of George Soros, by the way. This is something that Western liberals do not understand — or if they understand it, they don’t accept it. Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire, has poured a fortune into trying to turn Hungary and the other countries of the former Soviet bloc into Western-style liberal democracies. A small but telling example that I reported on in 2016: Soros teaming up with the Obama-era USAID to translate and publish Saul Alinsky’s Rules For Radicals into the Macedonian language. The idea in part is to undermine traditional sources of moral authority in that country, to turn it, politically, into a Western-style liberal democracy. Soros, as many of you know, has been a strong advocate of open borders.

Orban knows that Soros is rich and powerful, and represents the dominant point of view among Western liberals. This kind of thing really stood out to me last autumn, when I made a reporting trip to Poland, and learned from talking to Poles how much they resented US and Europe-based corporations forcing gay pride and transgenderism on them in the workplace. Poles are morally conservative, in general, and heavily Catholic. I talked to some Poles who worked for Western companies, and felt hard-pressed to violate their consciences by participating in Pride Month celebrations in the workplace. They see it as a form of Western cultural imperialism — and of course they are right. In Hungary, this kind of thing is where the anti-Soros sentiment comes from: the idea that the West sees the people of the former communist countries are morally and culturally backward, and deploy “soft power” against them, to undermine their traditional beliefs and practices.

Orban came in for a vicious lashing from Western liberals in the 2015 migration crisis, when he closed Hungary’s borders and refused to take in refugees invited into Europe by Angela Merkel. Hungary is a country of 10 million. It was ruled for over a century by the Turks, and was always on the front line during the many centuries of hostility between Christian Europe and the Muslim Ottoman Empire. These people, the Hungarians, have a history — and that history informs how and why they think the way they do about Islamic migration into Europe.

I tell you all this as background. Recall John Gray’s line: “liberalism was in practice the experiment of dissolving traditional sources of social cohesion and political legitimacy and replacing them with the promise of rising material living standards.” Orban, and Orbanism, is a reaction to this. He and his supporters believe that the cost of liberalism to the Hungarian people, and to what makes them distinct as a people and a nation, is too high. I believe he — and they — are correct. But then, I have long thought the European Union project was too costly to cultural particularity. Who are we to expect the Spaniards to live as the Danes, the Greeks to live as the Germans?

Now, none of this is a justification for what Orban and his parliamentary allies did with the new emergency law. I’m just offering it as context for readers who haven’t followed closely the politics here. A great book to read to understand the thinking behind the Orbanist right in those former Soviet countries is Ryszard Legutko’s The Demon In Democracy. Legutko is a small-d democrat, but his book discusses how the European Union bureaucrats, under the guise of promoting liberal democracy, have worked to delegitimize and dismiss national particularities that conflict with a secular progressive view of society.

When the news of Orban’s new powers under the emergency decree came down, my initial impulse was to think that this looks really bad. I don’t fault him, and wouldn’t fault any political leader, for assuming stronger powers during this emergency. The two things that jumped out at me as especially problematic about the new Hungary law were a) the fact that it has no time limit — that is, Orban could rule by decree indefinitely, and b) it seemed to give Orban the power to suppress criticism, under the guise of keeping rumor-mongering in check.

I wrote to several Hungarian friends to ask them what was happening, from their point of view. One of them wrote to explain that the debate over whether or not Orban’s move is a threat to Hungarian democracy is abstract to most Hungarians, who are much more worried about their economic future in the face of this destructive pandemic. She writes, “This tiny virus is already changing our lives a thousand time more brutally than Orbán would have ever been able to. And it will continue to do so.” She says that on balance, she has a favorable view of Orban’s governance.

We had subsequent correspondence, which she allows me to publish here.

Even though I feel less than capable I probably I need to give you a more coherent, constructive, practical and less rant-like answer that the previous one. I was already very frustrated that day; sorry about the tone. I am reluctantly writing this. Anyway, it won’t be all-encompassing either, but I want to give you a few more points:

1. Since 1990 Hungary has always been on the brink of a dictatorship — that is, if you relied on the reporting of Western media. I worked with foreign journalists for almost six years, and there was, if I remember correctly, only one case when the report was based on a premiss other than “Look everybody, Hungary is on the far-right (almost as a whole)”: when a toxic red sludge descended on a whole area.

But this was the case well before Orbán came into power, already in the early 1990s, at the time of the first Hungarian government — a conservative one, led by a real gentleman (József Antall), who was also very incompetent. There is a certain group of activists/journalists, accidentally almost all well-connected with the Soros empire, who run screaming to “alert” the international media whenever they get a chance. These journos/activists have good connections to international journalists — I happened to be present in some situations where this was evident. This is common knowledge — I am not saying this to brag.

You might as well say that there certainly has to be some truth to those claims — maybe, but here we are, thirty years later, and still no dictatorship. So, as a general rule, take these claims with a pinch of salt.

In this particular case, I think it is fair to say that the coronavirus situation warrants the measures that are being taken — the point of contention, even with the Hungarian opposition, is that this state of emergency (ruling by decrees etc.) does not have an end point. Given that the government has been handling the coronavirus situation quite well so far, and Hungarians are complying with the measures, my sense is that the general public trusts that the this is part of the government doing its job.

2. There is an intellectual debate to be had about democracy as the highest good. Maybe the French vs. Ahmari debate covers some of it, but as far asI can see, Americans as a whole are almost all fundamentally immersed in an enlightenment/liberal view of the common good (even conservatives). Does democracy in itself contribute to the common good? I do not have the tools or the capacity to outline the main skeleton of such a debate, but I sense a barrier between Anglo-Saxons and Continentals in this regard, most especially Eastern Europeans. Are people necessarily worse and worse off on the whole in a less democratic environment? Liberalism reigns supreme, whether they know it or not, even in the minds of most American conservatives in the sense that one’s individual freedom is considered to be the highest good. Also, I have a sense, which saddens me, that many liberals are vexed by what Orbán does or does not not out of care for Hungary and for the Hungarian people, but more as if the Goddess of Liberty has been dishonored (liberalism does seem to be a coming religion).

3. I do think the Orbán government is democratic in the sense that it enjoys the support of the majority of Hungarians (or the majority of voters). That is what I tried to convey, maybe not very successfully. Voters support Orbán for a variety of reasons. In a very general sense you can probably say they do because they think he represents Hungarians’ interest well. But we need to be careful here — Hitler enjoyed the support of the bigger part of Germans too, so in a sense, he was a democratically elected leader (Reichstag or not). So, again, democracy in itself is not a guarantee. For some reason this is difficult for liberals to grasp.

4. And now for the problematic part. It is not that Orbán will now crown himself king of the Huns, but what is happening already is that Fidesz will pass laws which it couldn’t get through Parliament in normal circumstances, not related to the actual state of emergency.

Point in case:  the City Park, an ambitious project of Fidesz. It’s the oldest park of the city, and has been in disarray for decades now. They want to rebuild it as a hub of cultural activities. This has been met with strong opposition from left-wingers. There are some arguments involved (they don’t want new buildings there, because it is a park), but mostly it is just out of political spite. So, the new liberal mayor of Budapest has had the works stopped. Now they will likely resume because now the government will pass new legislation.

Do I support the City Park plan? Yes, one hundred percent. It is the closest green area to where my family lives, and is truly in bad shape. Our quality of life, no kidding, would be definitely better if the park was a nice place for me to take the kids. Is this method sufficiently democratic though? I don’t think so.

I think the emergency situation, as per usual, is a mixture of needed leadership and an opportunity for the government to squeeze in some stuff they otherwise couldn’t have. What Orbán learned when he was a young politician in the early 1990s is that in this part of the world, you will get exactly nothing done (no good things!) if you play completely according to the democratic rules. There — it is what it is. Still, that’s not a dictatorship, if you ask me.

However, aren’t these sorts of abuses of power present in Western democracies to some degrees? Maybe to a lesser degree — I am not an expert on this, certainly. I have said it a million times, so it must be boring, but the transition period was maybe equally catastrophic for Hungary than was forty years of communism. Democracy and free market capitalism arrived in Hungary with quite the birth pangs — and not in the least because of the action of big corporations, the IMF, the World Bank, and forces within major Western economies which somehow favored keeping Hungary feeble. So, Hungarians, especially the older generation, are not so keen on any of these institutions.

5. Which leads me to my final point. I don’t feel like I am in a position to give you advice. As far as I can recall, you have written about Orbán on your blog in terms of his actions to help persecuted Christians. I don’t see anything wrong with that. And, again, even if it makes zero sense for Westerners he might be somewhat unsavory in terms of his political means AND AT THE SAME TIME a great hero for persecuted Christians. There is no black and white here. Which is why, if I had to say something resembling a piece of advice, I’d say probably it is best to stay clear of Orbán. You will never, ever win the argument with liberals in favor of him, and people hate him with so much passion that you will be in trouble forever for voicing support for even the least significant of his policies.

I also don’t feel capable of passing a complete and final judgment on him and his policies. Only time will tell. I think friends and foes are fascinated by him for several reasons, one of which might be that he could serve as a model. But I do not think that will be the case – the world is too much in turmoil for that, and I fear that the usual course of Hungarian history will repeat itself: that it is only a series of calamities to be born. Usually there is very little time for building for us Hungarians, and with this next crisis upon us, I don’t see any other way.

6. Most of all, I still stand by my observation that liberal democracies are headed for a more-or-less totalitarian future. It is only an inkling of mine, maybe not a very original one. It may come about from ideological zeal (SJWs), or some other combination of factors, but I do think that this pandemic, whether we like it or not, will contribute to this. I am thinking about mass surveillance upgraded, and so on and so forth. That is why it feels a bit absurd, even if in some ways justified, that some people are having a hissy fit over Orbán in these circumstances.

One other thing about Orbán is that he is very astute, but also quite direct — he is clever but not cunning. I feel like much more sinister things are going on in the world, but they are cloaked by the darkness.

So that’s one view from Budapest.

Here’s another, from government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs, who says, in part:

Q: Does it give PM Orbán unlimited power?

No. The government can exercise these extraordinary powers only to prevent, treat, eradicate and remedy harmful effects of the human epidemic [2§ (2)]. And the government must still answer to Parliament (see below).

Furthermore, the Fundamental Law makes it clear that during a state of danger, the application of the Fundamental Law cannot be suspended, the operation of the Constitutional Court cannot be restricted, and the government cannot restrict the most fundamental rights.

Q: Does the law establish a state of emergency that can last without limit?

No. The parliament can lift the state of emergency – state of danger, as we call it – at any time. Furthermore, the state of danger applies specifically to the coronavirus epidemic. We all hope the epidemic will end soon, and with it so will the state of danger and these extraordinary measures.

“At any given moment, Parliament must be in a position to take back the right of decision from the government,” Prime Minister Orbán told the National Assembly during last Monday’s debate. “I don’t need a fixed deadline. You can take it back tomorrow morning if you consider it inadequate.”

Q: Does the law dissolve Parliament?

No. In fact, it requires the government to regularly inform Parliament about measures being taken to counter the emergency as long as said measures remain in force. If Parliament is not in session or lacks a quorum, the government must provide information to the House Speaker and the heads of the parliamentary political groups.

By the way, as Miklós Szánthó pointed out in his guest post, the governing parties have a two-thirds majority in the democratically elected parliament – a mandate given to them by the Hungarian voters.  So why would the government want to dissolve parliament?

Q: Does the law create prison terms for spreading fake news and rumors?

No. It introduces sanctions for acts far more specific and more dangerous than “spreading fake news and rumors.” The law makes it a criminal act to intentionally spread false information and distortions that could undermine or thwart efforts to protect the public against the spread of the virus. It’s in force only during the state of danger. It’s about intentionally reporting false information that endangers.

When it comes to restrictions on intentionally reporting false and dangerous information the legal precedents are many.

Q: What does the Hungarian public say about the state of danger and the extraordinary measures?

Some 90 percent of Hungarians, according to recent polls, say that the state of danger that introduced the extraordinary legal measures should be extended. On the question of how long, nearly 60 percent say that the state of danger and the extraordinary measures should be extended until the end of the pandemic.

The liberal media and its noisy Twittersphere have been posting furiously about this legislation, but most of the reporting is based on poor information or simply unadulterated bias.

That’s what the government spokesman has to say. Here is a summary explanation of the law by a liberal Budapest media outlet. It concludes:

The bottom line is that according to the bill, Parliament can terminate the extraordinary decrees, but cannot force the government to revoke the state of emergency, but there are enough opposition MPs to initiate the constitutional review of the government’s actions. So in the end, it all comes down to these two institutions – and whether or not one trusts that Fidesz’s third supermajority in Parliament will revoke the government’s authorisation when needed and that the judges they elected to the Constitutional Court will uphold legality during the state of emergency.

Now, to remind you where I am, generally. I count myself an admirer of many of the things Viktor Orban has done, especially his moves to protect Hungarian sovereignty, the particularity of its culture, and to resist migration being forced upon Hungary. This does not mean I support everything he does — I honestly don’t follow Orban closely enough to have an informed opinion — but I think on balance, he has been good for Hungary, and for Europe. I would have a lot more confidence for the future were I living country governed by Viktor Orban than by Angela Merkel. For that matter, I would be far more confident living in a country governed by the Fidesz party than by the Socialists now running Spain. Nevertheless, I don’t want to be a “useful idiot” either for Orban, or for the Western liberal media. What I am trying to figure out here is whether or not Orban’s emergency law move is in line with what other national leaders are doing in this unprecedented crisis, or if it exceeds that, and constitutes an authoritarian attempt to consolidate power — if coronavirus has been, as Damon Linker pungently put it, Orban’s Reichstag fire.

Last week I decided that I would consult my friend John O’Sullivan, the British conservative journalist, who actually lives in Budapest, and is watching this play out as a local story. I figured if anybody could tell me straight what was happening, it’s John. As I was starting to write my e-mail to him, John published a terrific piece in National Review commenting on the Orban story. Excerpts:

I don’t justify the emergency law as it stands.

As an old classical liberal of a conservative disposition, I accept there will be occasions when a crisis is so severe that a government needs emergency powers to deal with it outside the regular law. The coronavirus threat is plainly such a challenge. If a law granting emergency powers to the government to deal with it is proposed, however, I would submit it to certain tests before supporting it.

The tests are those most people would impose. Is this emergency law within the constitution or a violation of it? And there’s no doubt that it’s constitutional. It was passed by the super-majority that such a law requires. Are there safeguards in it? There are two. First, the constitutional court could reject it in whole or in part, either today or after the epidemic has receded. That is unlikely since all the required constitutional procedures were fulfilled in its passage, but constitutional courts are unpredictable. The second is that Parliament can vote to end the state of emergency at any time by the same two-thirds majority by which it passed the law. I would not entirely rule out that happening if the Orban government were to abuse these powers, but I judge both serious abuse and a parliamentary rebellion against it to be unlikely. Third, are the emergency powers granted to the government too broad? Some of them may be. The fines and prison sentences for breaking quarantine and spreading false rumors, though not unreasonable in themselves when panic and plague are in the air (the latter quite literally), look to me to be too high. But those sentences won’t be imposed arbitrarily; courts will determine them; and the terms of the legislation are tightly written to prevent its being used for political censorship or anything unrelated to the pandemic. So I would urge moderation on the courts and government, and leave it at that. Finally, shouldn’t the legislation have a sunset clause — say of one year on the British model — rather than staying in force indefinitely or until ministers judge the epidemic to be over? And there I think that it should.

John explains why — and in this, he’s 100 percent right — and then goes on to criticize as hysterical and wrong a tweet Anne Applebaum sent out, which read:

And there it is: The European Union’s first dictatorship. None of these powers is needed to fight the virus. But they will help distract and deter opposition, especially when it becomes clear that the government has no better plan.

(Incidentally, I had not realized that Applebaum jumped on Your Working Boy over Orban until I read about it in John’s essay.)

In his response to this, John O’Sullivan says, in part:

I magnanimously concede that the Orban government will rule by decree in this time because a “state of emergency” is the term of art for a government ruling by decree. Macron is already ruling by decree, and both Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel are doing the same in effect, through primary and secondary legislation.

I’m also perplexed when Ms. Applebaum writes that “none of these powers is needed to fight the virus” and that they’re in the legislation to confuse the opposition because the Hungarian government has “no better plan.” Is that true? After all, it has more or less the same plan as most European governments — social distancing, lockdown, quarantine, extreme hygienic care when meeting people, and so on — and these regulations are a direct attempt to halt the spread of the virus. The most draconian loss of freedom under the emergency — requiring people to stay at home except for exercise and shopping — is the same in those countries. If that strategy were to “fail,” i.e., be abandoned because its costs proved too high economically and humanely, Hungary would then doubtless be in trouble, but so would most every other country.

Then follows a really interesting analysis in which O’Sullivan points out that the emergency measures that are already in place in France, Germany, and Britain are barely distinct from what the Hungarians are doing. So why the freakout? The point (as I read O’Sullivan) is not that small-l, small-d liberal democrats should not be worried about what Orban is doing, but that they should be concerned about what all governments do with the extraordinary powers the pandemic response grants to them — powers that are justly claimed and deployed for the sake of defeating this virus. Why are people like Applebaum holding Orban to standards that they don’t hold other European nations?

O’Sullivan repeats his belief that the Hungarian parliament should put an unambiguous sunset provision into the law. And note well his statement early in the piece that the legislation’s ban on rumor-mongering is legitimate in an extreme crisis (in wartime, these laws are common), and it may be here. But it could easily be abused to stifle proper political criticism, though there is no evidence yet that it has been.

Please read the whole thing. 

It’s a superb piece, one I wish I had written, but one I couldn’t have written because John O’Sullivan is right on the scene. It confirms my initial intuition — that the law was basically fine, but needs a sunset provision, and should be more sensitively written to protect legitimate criticism. But here too, remember what the government spokesman said:

The law makes it a criminal act to intentionally spread false information and distortions that could undermine or thwart efforts to protect the public against the spread of the virus. It’s in force only during the state of danger. It’s about intentionally reporting false information that endangers.

Hungary has a significant Roma (Gypsy) population. They are not the most popular people in Hungary, to put it mildly. What if one of the far-right websites in Hungary — and believe me, there are activists there who think Orban is a liberal — started a rumor that the Roma were responsible for spreading coronavirus. That could very quickly result in pogroms. In that case, wouldn’t we want the Hungarian government to have special powers to suppress and punish that kind of thing? These powers could certainly be abused by the state, and if so, the state should be criticized harshly. But so far, they have not been, as far as I am aware.

If you’ve gotten this far, then you’ll want my answer, and it’s the same as John O’Sullivan’s: I don’t support the law as it stands now, but I am far less concerned about it than Western liberals, who leap at any opportunity to trash Viktor Orban. I probably would have been better off just waiting to see what John O’Sullivan said. But I’m glad I didn’t, because I learned something through corresponding with Hungarian friends. Specifically, I was reminded of why Orban became popular in the first place, and remains popular in Hungary, and how little we in the West understand this.

You might have noticed that the Budapest correspondent whose e-mail I quoted at length apologized for her first e-mail, which I didn’t quote. It was an angry response, and it came from someone who is sick and tired of what she believes is a double standard that Western liberals apply to Hungary. She conceded in that first e-mail that “Hungary will never be Switzerland,” by which she meant, I think, that the things that the Hungarian people believe, and their ways of living, do not fully conform to a neat, clean Western model of democracy — and this is not something for which they should have to apologize. More deeply, though — and this is something that she and I have discussed at some length, in person, in my visits to her country — she says that Western liberals conceal from themselves the authoritarianism and intolerance for popular sovereignty within their own beliefs and actions. Look, for example, how long it took for Brexit, based on a free democratic vote of a popular majority, to be implemented over the objections of liberal, globalist British elites.

It makes my Budapest friend angry because these liberals hold the high ground in European institutions, especially in the media, and assume that their views are neutral and normative, when they are anything but. On migration, for example, George Soros and other socialist, left-liberal, and right-liberal elites have been for open borders, even though it means the de facto dissolution of sovereignty, and the dissolution of European peoples. Politicians of the so-called “far right” — Orban’s Fidesz Party, Germany’s AfD, Poland’s Law and Justice party, Spain’s Vox, and others — have stood up to this, and have been smeared consistently in the media as proto-fascists. This is why a lot of Europeans take liberal criticism of Orban with a grain of salt: because they see the coerciveness of liberalism, and its consequences. We Western media consumers are rarely if ever shown this side of things.

None of which is to say that Hungary’s emergency law is 100 percent solid — I have said where I dissent from it, and I strongly believe that we have to be vigilant that emergency laws and decrees in all democracies aren’t used by those in power to extend illicit control over us, and to take away our liberties. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. But don’t for a minute believe that that vigilance should only be exercised against Hungarians. Contra Anne Applebaum, this is not “whataboutism”; it’s the plain truth.

Forgive me for the length and the meandering nature of this post. I honestly have been struggling to figure out what is happening in Hungary. I’ve tried to lay out for you as best I can what my thinking has been.

UPDATE: Just received this e-mail from a political scientist:

It must be said that the people sounding the alarm about this are the usual suspects. It drives me a bit batty that people can cite Anne Applebaum as a responsible journalist, when she’s the wife of former Polish foreign minister, architect of Poland’s pro-EU strategy who was thrown out of office by Law and Justice, Radosław Sikorski (https://www.ft.com/content/9939e514-2b90-11e9-88a4-c32129756dd8). I don’t begrudge her her point of view, but she’s not exactly a neutral party.
It annoys me the extent to which none of these people have been seriously studying democratic backsliding. There is a copious academic literature. I recommend Ivan Krastev’s latest work for a serious and rigorous version of the standard liberal interpretation (it is remarkably how much it has in common with The Demon in Democracy). https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/24/western-liberalism-failed-post-communist-eastern-europe The motivations of Hungarians are not that distinct from other post-Communist states. A disappointment about how things turned out with the West, a recognition that part of the EU/WTO bargain is substantial limitations on freedom, and the feeling (more than justified) that the West was more interested in privatization than economic investment and democratization, and the result was probably the biggest transfer of wealth in world history, from the people’s of Eastern Europe to well-connected investors (often former Communist affiliates) both foreign and domestic.
But the critical theory of this emergency law makes no sense. As I’ve mentioned before, I can’t find a single case where pandemic powers led to a serious erosion of democratic norms, unlike terrorism, war, or other kinds of emergencies. Moreover, in this case, Fidesz already has a super-majority. What does Orban need a dictatorship for? Besides, the academic literature is clear that dictatorship of this kind (emergency powers etc) is becoming much rarer. Why? Well if you are expert at controlling political competition, and you have a genuinely popular agenda, dictatorship is all downside. You would get held responsible for everything, you would be an international pariah (sanctioned quickly), and you would have no more real power than you could obtain at the ballot box, where you would already have an advantage due to manipulation of electoral rules, media ownership, etc. So the trend everywhere is to maintain meaningful elections as a tool of less-than-democratic rule, even as other aspects of democracy decline.
In this case my prediction is that Orban will yet again make a fool of his critics. He won’t abuse his powers, though may make an example of some quarantine violators etc to appear tough and in charge. He’ll give emergency powers back and end the state of emergency…and then use hysterical reporting from both domestic and Western critics in campaign ads about the double standard Hungary is held to, how deranged his critics are, etc.

UPDATE: James C. comments:

[Quoting an earlier comment:] Macron is already ruling by decree

Yes he is. And in his country a couple of days ago, something lovely happened yet again. Something the poor Hungarians never get the privilege of experiencing thanks to that evil Viktor Orban.

In a small town southeast of Lyon, French people were waiting their turn outside the butcher and the baker on Saturday morning. A Sudanese ‘refugee’, housed and cared-for at French taxpayers’ expense and welcomed by Macron, suddenly started butchering them right on the street, screaming Allahu Akbar.

The ‘refugee’ asked one of his victims if he was North African. He responded, “I’m French.” And thus the “refugee” ran his knife through him. When police arrived, the “refugee” was found kneeling on the sidewalk, praying in Arabic.

So far at least two have died. Others are in critical condition. I’m sure, as they fight for life in hospital, they are thanking Emmanuel Macron for not being such a fascist about immigration like that awful Viktor Orban.