Orban: A Hungarian For Hungarians
Election Day here in Hungary is on Sunday. Today I had coffee with a Hungarian, and asked him how it was going to go, in his view. He’s not sure. Fidesz (Viktor Orban’s party) is up by seven points in the polls, but he said they were predicted to win (according to the polls) in the 2020 elections, but ended up losing seats in all the major cities. I can’t find any Fidesz supporters who think this is a sure thing. That’s probably good, from a conservative point of view. Don’t want to be overconfident.
I mentioned an AP story I had seen today faulting Orban for not joining the European chorus of maximalist condemnation of Russia. The story said, in part:
Widely seen as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest ally in the European Union, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has sought to assert Hungary’s neutrality in the war in Ukraine, even as his allies in the EU and NATO assist the embattled country and punish Russia for launching the largest armed conflict in Europe since World War II.
Arguing that providing such assistance to Ukraine would draw Hungary into the war, Orban — while avoiding ever mentioning Putin by name — has portrayed himself as the defender of his country’s peace and security while insisting that EU sanctions against Russia not be extended to its energy sector, of which Hungary is a major beneficiary.
“The answer to the question of which side Hungary is on is that Hungary is on Hungary’s side,” Orban wrote Saturday on social media.
While his approach has gained traction among many of his supporters, Orban’s reluctance to act unambiguously in support of Ukraine and his insistence on maintaining his Russian economic interests has led to frustration and outrage among other European leaders — not least the Ukrainian president himself.
Orban’s position is actually popular here in Hungary. Imagine that: a leader who puts the best interests of his own people first. Hungarians overwhelmingly sympathize with Ukraine, but they adamantly do not want to be drawn into a wider war. With their Polish neighbors champing at the bit to confront Russia, and with the US president idiotically shooting off his mouth about regime change in a nuclear-armed superpower, the Hungarians are quite anxious.
My interlocutor said that Viktor Orban’s greatest gift, one not matched by any other politician in Hungary, is that he knows how ordinary Hungarians think, and he knows how to communicate with them. “He’s a sophisticated guy, but he can go to a market in any small town in the country, and talk to people,” said this man. Orban, as you may not know, comes from the countryside, and that’s where his base of support is. The election is very much a city-vs-country thing.
The man pulled out his smartphone and showed me a formal photo of the leaders of Austria, Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, and Hungary standing side by side at a conference. Orban stood out as slovenly, wearing a wrinkled, ill-fitting suit. “This picture was a big deal for the Left in Budapest,” he said. “They thought Orban looked like a hick compared to the others. And they were right. But I know for a fact that Orban has expensive suits. He wore that bad suit that day because he knew this would be the picture that made the papers, and he wanted to send a message to his voters that he was one of them.”
I recalled a famous story about Orban from early in his political career. The firebrand orator who had stood up to the ruling Communists was trying to build a name for himself. He appeared onstage at a political event in Budapest, and one of the older liberal politicians went over to Orban and straightened his tie. It was a humiliating gesture, one meant to put the country boy in his place. Orban never forgot it.
My new friend said that there’s a reason why Orban has never had a personal scandal attached to him. He has allowed those in his circles to get rich, but he is careful about managing his own money (Orban is a lawyer, by the way). He’s not a wealthy guy, said this man. But he has deliberately tried to build up a base of conservative rich people to help keep conservatism alive in Hungary when the day comes that Fidesz loses power.
“You have to understand that until the last ten years, Hungary has never had a political base of wealthy conservatives,” he said. “There’s something about Hungarian culture that makes most of us not very good with money. So we never had many rich people to begin with,” he said. “The Nazi occupation killed off wealthy Jews who were establishment conservatives, and forty years of Communism did the same with the old aristocracy and industrialists. Orban has made sure that we now have a class of wealthy conservative donors to continue his work. Will he succeed? I don’t know. Some of these guys will flip to the Left when power changes, because they aren’t really conservatives. But that’s what he has been trying to do.”
The rich Left here in Hungary are mostly people who were Communist insiders who used their connections to get wealthy in the immediate aftermath of Communism’s fall. Ryszard Legutko tells this story well about his own country, Poland, in his must-read The Demon in Democracy. When opportunities opened up for Western investment in the 1990s, the former Communists were the ones who had the networks in place, and knew how things worked. They easily made the transition to progressive Eurocrats. This is a story that is barely known in the West, but it really happened. The former Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, whom Orban defeated in 2010, is one of those people. From his Wikipedia biography:
In 1981, he assumed function in the KISZ, the Organisation of Young Communists, where he mostly handled organizing student programs at the beginning. Between 1984 and 1988, he was the vice president of the organisation’s committee in Pécs. Then between 1988 and 1989, he was the president of the central KISZ committee of universities and colleges. After the political change in 1989, he became vice-president of the organisation’s short-lived quasi successor, the Hungarian Democratic Youth Association (DEMISZ).
From 1990 onwards, he transferred from the public to the private sector, working for CREDITUM Financial Consultant Ltd. until 1992, serving as director of EUROCORP International Finance Inc. in 1992. Gyurcsány then took the position of CEO at Altus Ltd., a holding company of which he was owner, from 1992 to 2002 and thereafter as chairman of the board. By 2002, he was listed as the fiftieth-richest person in Hungary.
Within two decades, Gyurcsany went from being a leader in the Communist youth league to being one of the richest men in Hungary. Four years later, he was prime minister. How did that happen? This country is full of stories like that. One Hungarian friend whose parents fled to the West, where he was born, tells me that the Buda hills are full of villas owned by rich ex-Communists, expropriated from their original owners under Communism. These are the people who are Orban’s political enemies, and who are hated by country people who were the losers under Communist rule. If you want to understand why Orban remains popular here after so many years in power, and why so many ordinary Hungarians appreciate his hardball tactics with the Left, you have to understand that the past isn’t yet past in Hungary.
Anyway, it is only a shock to western Europeans and to Americans that Viktor Orban, while generally supporting EU sanctions against Russia, granting humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, and opening the borders to hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees, has not joined the militant anti-Russian bandwagon. If you don’t like it, your argument is not only with Viktor Orban, but with a majority of the Hungarian people, who don’t understand why this has to be their war too. They’re right. Orban is right.
Take a look at Michael Lind’s great essay in Tablet, talking about how strange it is that so many people in the US and Europe have become Ukrainian hyperpatriots. Excerpts:
As war fever swept America, progressives and conservatives joined in denouncing not only the enemy government but also the enemy people and their enemy music, enemy literature, and enemy cuisine. Americans displayed the national flag in every imaginable form and pledged undying hatred of the nation’s foes.
The nation that Americans celebrated was not their own, but rather Ukraine, following the brutal Russian invasion of the former Soviet republic. Liberal Americans who would have thought it vulgar if not fascist to wave the Stars and Stripes took selfies with the blue and gold of Ukraine’s national flag. Democrats and Republicans who routinely demonize the leaders of the rival American party engaged in a kind of sentimental, uncritical hero worship of Ukraine’s president, Volodomyr Zelensky, which would have been mocked had its object been Joe Biden or Donald Trump. Neoconservatives and centrist liberals used the Ukraine war as an opportunity to settle scores by accusing opponents in the rival party and rivals in their own parties of moral if not legal treason for less than total and uncritical support of a foreign country with which the United States does not even have an alliance.
Whether the war in Ukraine is a final aftershock of the first Cold War or the first major proxy war in Cold War II remains to be seen. The sudden outburst of vicarious Ukrainian patriotism on the part of many Americans—as well as people in similar North Atlantic democracies—seems like a Freudian “return of the repressed.” Taught that celebrating their own national traditions is racist and xenophobic, and deprived of opportunities to play a meaningful role in national defense, many Americans and Western Europeans have found an outlet for a lost sense of belonging by borrowing the national pride of another nation.
Lind goes on to talk about how the idea of national citizenship has disintegrated in the West today, to where it has been reduced to little more than being eligible for government benefits:
But even this is unsatisfactory to ethical cosmopolitan thinkers. After all, a purely national system of government-guaranteed health care or other national welfare programs benefit only those who happen to be citizens of particular nation-states. In a world characterized by extreme inequality among nations, and not merely within them, this seems unfair. Why should being born on one side of the southwestern border of the United States entitle you to a much better life than being born on the other side?
The classic nationalist answer is that national citizens either belong to, or aspire to belong to, a single people (if you approve of nationalism) or a single tribe (if you don’t approve of nationalism). Note that this is the answer of modern, post-18th-century nationalism, which holds out legal and political if not economic equality within the nation as an ideal. It was not the answer of the premodern city-state republics, in which the citizens were often a privileged minority or aristocracy within a population consisting mostly of peasants, serfs, or slaves, and had to earn their special civic privileges by special civic duties. Without any obligation on the part of citizens to earn their legal privileges or welfare benefits by serving the political community, the modern nation-state based on common culture or ethnicity becomes a tribal trust fund, rather like those managed by the U.S. federal government on behalf of Native American nations.
Lind says that goosed by our left-wing media, which, in its discussions of immigration, deliberately blurs the clear legal distinction between illegal immigrants and citizens, we are creating an idea of the State as a charitable organization whose purpose is to help worthy people in need anywhere. Thus have American elites betrayed the nation.
This is not a problem Hungary has with its prime minister and governing party.
Read the whole thing. You want to know why American conservatives like me are interested in Viktor Orban? Because he cares about his own people, and puts their interests first. Not the interests of the European Union, or the international financial class, or the World Economic Forum, or the media, or foreigners who claim the right to live in Hungary. The European Union and the media are trying to compel Hungary to open its children up to indoctrination in LGBT culture and gender ideology, but he fights for the rights of parents to decide for themselves how to raise their kids. Crazy, isn’t it? With the very honorable exception of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Republican Party in the US is led by people who are happy to throw children and families under the bus to appease the media and Woke Capitalism (read Jeremy Carl’s great piece on this).
Viktor Orban is one of the few elected politicians of the Right on the world stage today who actually understands that we are at war, and what the nature of that war is: to defend sovereignty, nationhood, faith, and family. No wonder they hate him. He gives less than total and uncritical support of a foreign country with which Hungary does not even have an alliance, and whose leader is trying to drag NATO into a shooting war with Russia. It is in Volodymyr Zelensky’s interest to have Hungary, and every other NATO country, enter the war on his nation’s behalf. But it is not in the interest of Hungary. This is one reason Viktor Orban, who is running as the candidate of peace and stability, will probably win a fourth term on Sunday.