I arrived in Budapest on Friday to deliver a speech at a conference for Christian communicators from around the world. At the last minute, conference organizers alerted some of us that Prime Minister Viktor Orban would like to meet with us privately at the end of the event. We boarded a bus and headed to Buda Castle, where he received us in a salon. I assumed it would be a quick meet-and-greet. Hardly! He spoke with us for about 90 minutes, and answered our questions frankly. Here’s a shot of the group, whose number included John O’Sullivan and Philip Blond, two names familiar to Anglo-American conservatives:
Mind you, I think I John O’Sullivan and I were the only professional journalists in the room, so this was not a press conference. I did not know that we would be offered to opportunity to speak to the PM beyond saying hello, much less that we would be able to ask questions. Therefore, I didn’t prepare for an interview, and in any case I only had the chance to put a single question.
I tell you this so you readers don’t ask me why I didn’t challenge Orban on this or that policy of his government. I am perfectly aware that he is a controversial figure who has done things and pursued policy goals that are highly controversial for a number of reasons. However, this was a completely unexpected opportunity to be in the presence of one of the most extraordinary world leaders of our time, and to get a sense of his mind.
If the only thing you know about Viktor Orban is from Western media accounts, you would think that he was nothing but some kind of mafia thug. The Viktor Orban you encounter in person is very, very different from the Viktor Orban shown to Americans by our media. In Orban — who speaks good English — was energetic, fiercely intelligent, funny, self-deprecating, realistic, and at times almost pugilistic in talking about defending Hungary and her interests. Orban is what Trump’s biggest fans wish he was (but isn’t), and what Trump’s enemies think him to be (but isn’t). If Donald Trump had the smarts and skills of Viktor Orban, the political situation in the US would be much, much different — for better or for worse, depending on your point of view.
Orban begin our session with extended remarks about Hungarian and European politics, and the role of his Fidesz Party in them. He said that when he was elected in 2010, he had one mission: to save Hungary from economic ruin. By the time Orban’s 2014 re-election bid rolled around, the economy was stable, and he described the mission of his second terms as “to say what I think.”
“I realized in 2014 that I was the only free man among the prime ministers of Europe,” he said, explaining that by “free,” he meant that he had a strong, united parliamentary majority behind him. He added, “In Western political life now, you can’t say what you think.”
When the migration crisis hit Europe in 2015, Orban famously shut Hungary’s borders to Middle Easterners. Orban said that Hungary’s was the only government in Europe to respond to the crisis in its own interests, and in the interests of Christianity in Europe. With a population of only 10 million, and as a country where Christianity, as elsewhere on the continent, is fragile, the Hungarians concluded that allowing large numbers of Muslims to take up residence here would mean the death knell of Christianity in time.
This scandalized the European political class. Orban doesn’t care. He told our group that he understands that he is dealing with elites who believe that being a post-Christian, post-national civilization is a great and glorious thing. Orban rejects this. He said the main political question in the West today is how fractious pluralities can live together peaceably. He said, “Here the most important question is how not to have the same questions as them.”
Orban pointed out that the UK and France were once colonial powers in the Middle East. He added, “But Central Europe was colonized by the Middle East. That’s a fact.” He’s talking about the Ottoman occupation of Hungary, from 1541 to 1699. Orban told our group that the room we were sitting was part of a Church building that had been turned into a mosque during the occupation.
Explaining his decision to shut the borders to Muslim refugees, Orban said what tipped the scales was consulting the Christian bishops of the Middle East. Orban: “What did they say? ‘Don’t let them in. Stop them.'”
Middle Eastern Christians, said Orban, “can tell you what is the [ultimate] end of a society you have to share with Muslims.”
Sitting at the table listening to the prime minister was Nicodemus, the Syriac Orthodox archbishop of Mosul, whose Christian community, which predates Islam by several centuries, was savagely persecuted by ISIS. Archbishop Nicodemus spoke up, thanking Orban for what Hungary has done for persecuted Christians. Nicodemus said that living with Muslims has taught Iraqi Christians that they can expect no mercy. “Those people, if you give them your small finger, they will want your body,” he said.
“The problem is that Western countries don’t accept our experience,” the prelate continued. “Those people [Muslims] pushed us to be a minority in our own land and then refugees in our own land.”
Under the Orban government, Hungary frequently extends a helping hand to persecuted Christians.The archbishop exhorted Orban to stay the course in defense of Christians. For 16 years, he said, Iraqi Christians begged Western leaders to help them. Addressing Orban directly, Nicodemus said, “Nobody understands our pain like you.”
Philip Blond, the British political economist, suggested to the prime minister that he has a mission to re-Christianize Europe. Orban, who is 56 and part of the country’s Calvinist minority, said that his generation’s mission was to defeat Communism. Religious rebirth is a task for Millennials, he said.
According to 2017 Pew research, though 59 percent of Hungarian adults say they believe in God, only 16 percent pray daily. As Hungary-based writer Will Collins wrote in TAC earlier this year, only 12 percent of Hungarians go to church — a number that is no doubt much smaller among Hungarians under 40. In my on the record interviews and background conversations with Hungarian Christians these past few days, there is an acute sense that the Christian faith is fast fading among the young, who, like their co-generationalists across the former Soviet bloc, are far more drawn to Western materialism.
Orban spoke frankly about the post-communist religious state of his country. “It’s still not a healed society,” he said. “It’s still not in good shape.”
I asked the prime minister if he saw evidence of a “soft totalitarianism” emerging in the West today, and if so, what are the main lessons that those who resisted communism have to tell us about identifying and resisting it.
He said that the Soviets and their servants in Central Europe tried to create a new kind of man: homo Sovieticus. To do this, they had to destroy the two sources of identity here: a sense of nationhood, and the Christian religion. In order to survive, said Orban, “we have to strengthen our national identity and our Christian identity. That’s the story.”
Western peoples have decided to create a post-Christian, post-national, multicultural society. Peoples in Central Europe do not. For Orban, re-establishing a sense of national identity and the Christian faith are the same project. It’s an attempt to reverse the damage done by Communism. The danger, obviously, is that Christianity becomes emptied of its spiritual and moral content, and is filled with nationalism. On the other hand, if a pro-Christian politician like Orban can at least keep the public square open and favorable to the ancestral religious beliefs of the nation, religious leaders can step into the space politics creates, and do their work of recovery.
Orban said that he wants Westerners and others who share these values to come to the Hungarian capital, where they will be free to speak their minds, and establish a base. “I’m trying to create a free place in Budapest,” he said. “Please consider Budapest as a kind of intellectual home.”
Last week, Orban’s government played host to a demography summit here. Reporting on it, the Guardian, as usual, called Orban a politician of the “far right.” Orban is certainly nationalist and populist (and popular here), but smearing him as some kind of right-wing extremist only demonstrates how cut off the liberal Western media are from common sense. One can certainly take issue with Orban’s illiberal methods of pursuing his policy goals — and the prime minister does not deny that he is an illiberal democrat — but the man understands his small country to be in a fight for national survival against globalist, anti-Christian multiculturalism coming from Brussels and other Western capitals. How, exactly, is he wrong?
Put in terms of contemporary American conservative politics, it seems to me that Viktor Orban’s party and movement is what you would see if Sohrab Ahmari’s side of the Ahmari-French debate actually won a mandate to govern. Ahmari’s integralism — as distinct from French’s classical liberalism — is a very hard sell in the United States, which is a truly pluralistic nation. Hungary, however, is far more culturally and ethnically homogeneous. As Orban told us, one of his goals is to make sure that the kinds of questions that are breaking multicultural Western polities never arise here. Again: is he wrong to want to protect Hungary from the disintegration that comes with Western-style liberal identity politics? Hungary has a million problems, but Parisian-style banlieues filled with angry and unassimilable Muslim migrants, vicious institutional combat around so-called “white privilege,” and endless fights in locker rooms and libraries over gender ideology are not among them.