Viktor Orban & The Postliberal Right
The New York Times finally published a long piece its reporter, Elisabeth Zerofsky, has been working on for a long time. It’s about the postliberal American right and its (our) interest in Viktor Orban’s Hungary.
Zerofsky interviewed me in early May, I think it was, in Budapest, for the piece. I did not imagine that it was going to be so centered on me, nor did I think that it would have a lot especially to do with Hungary. My guess is that after our four-hour conversation, and after Tucker Carlson’s subsequent visit to the country late in the summer, she had no reasonable alternative than to make it about Hungary. Anyway, aside from a few shots she takes at us, I think it’s a very fair piece, much fairer than I expected from the Times, to be honest. She clearly does not agree with our politics, cultural or otherwise, but I think this is a good job of explanatory journalism. Times readers will not like us any more after reading the piece than they did before, but they will have a much better idea of where we stand and why we stand there.
I’m going to make a few comments about it below, but let me say at the outset that the piece does a very good job of summarizing the basic things we on the postliberal Right believe, and why Hungary matters to us. Young conservatives reading this piece should take away from it the fact that Viktor Orban’s Hungary, whatever its flaws, and whatever his flaws, is the place to be right now. If right-of-center politics has a future in the West, Hungary and Poland are where it’s being worked out now. I’m so pleased to be giving a speech about Hungary at the upcoming National Conservatism meeting in Orlando (you should register for it here). Balazs Orban, no relation to the Prime Minister, but one of his top political advisers, will be at the conference, and so will other Hungarians. They are going to be the hot ticket in Orlando.
Here’s how the Times piece begins:
For one week this summer, Fox News beamed the face of Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary into the homes of Tucker Carlson’s 3.2 million viewers. In a two-tiered library adorned with dark wood and the Hungarian flag, Carlson sat across from the prime minister in Budapest with an expression of intense concentration, though he evinced little familiarity with the internal affairs of Hungary. The trip was hastily arranged after Orban agreed to the interview: Carlson dined at the prime minister’s office the evening before the broadcast, and earlier in the week, he was taken in a military helicopter to a tightly controlled area along the country’s southern border, generally off limits to journalists, in the presence of a Hungarian minister. There, Hungary became the idealized backdrop for Carlson’s habitual preoccupations: Thanks to a barbed-wire fence, Hungary’s border area was “perfectly clean and orderly,” free of the “trash” and “chaos” that mark other borders of the world. Consequently, “There weren’t scenes of human suffering.” He did not bring up the fact that civic groups have repeatedly taken the Hungarian government to court for denying food to families held in immigration detention centers.
Carlson’s trip to Hungary was prompted, in part, by a text message from Rod Dreher, a conservative writer. Dreher, who spent the spring and summer there on a fellowship and helped Carlson secure the interview with Orban, understands, as the activist Christopher F. Rufo recently observed, that Carlson doesn’t report the news for American conservatives; he creates it. Bringing Carlson to Budapest was meant to persuade Americans to pay attention to Orban’s Hungary. The effort appeared to be successful: The following week, several Republican senators told Insider, an online news publication, that Carlson’s broadcasts from Budapest had given them a favorable opinion of Orban. In September, Jeff Sessions, the former U.S. attorney general, went to Budapest for a panel discussion on immigration, and Mike Pence traveled there to address a meeting on family and demographic decline, with Orban in the audience. Next year, the Conservative Political Action Conference, an influential annual gathering of conservatives in America, will be held in Budapest.
Dreher doesn’t speak in Carlson’s terms, and has sought to distance himself from Carlson’s vigorous endorsement of the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, which holds that Democrats are replacing white Americans with nonwhite immigrants in order to increase their vote tallies. But Dreher believes, as do many in his circle of right-wing intellectuals, that high levels of immigration threaten the “stability and cultural continuity of the nation.” He frequently points to the French, to the anger and isolation in their immigrant-populated banlieues, and argues that immigrants have a responsibility to adopt their new country’s culture and often decline to do so. He has even suggested that Orban’s restrictions on immigration have kept the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Hungary to a minimum. (While the number of reported incidents is indeed low, Dreher’s analysis belies Orban’s tendency to play to both sides; he has forged a close relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu while demonizing the Jewish liberal benefactor George Soros with anti-Semitic dog whistles at home.) Dreher believes Orban was right to refuse to take in Syrian refugees in 2015. “If you could wind back the clock 50 years, and show the French, the Belgian and the German people what mass immigration from the Muslim world would do to their countries by 2021, they never, ever would have accepted it,” Dreher wrote in his influential blog for The American Conservative. “The Hungarians are learning from their example.”
I am grateful for the small role I was able to play in bringing Tucker to Hungary, though I should say that Tucker already had his eyes on Hungary. The only thing I did was to suggest to him that he should come to Hungary and see the place for himself, because the image of the country in the Western media is distorted and inaccurate. That, and that I believe that US conservatives have a lot to learn from Orban’s government. Tucker already had Hungary on his radar, he told me back then. The only problem was that it was difficult to get through the red tape to arrange a visit. Around that time, I had a meeting with one of the Prime Minister’s top advisers, and mentioned at the end of it that Tucker Carlson is a very big deal among US conservatives, and that if the Hungarians could cut through the red tape and make it easy for him to come over, that Tucker (and Tucker alone) had the power to bring more balance to the way Hungary is seen in America. That’s the extent of my involvement, but obviously I’m very glad it all worked out.
(About how I “have sought to distance” myself from the Great Replacement theory, that simply means that I don’t believe in it. I don’t have enough evidence to convince me that it’s true.)
Dreher’s motivations nonetheless differ somewhat from Carlson’s. In his daily blog posts, Dreher writes mainly against what he refers to as “wokeness” — ideas about racial justice and gender identity that he believes lead Americans to hate America and children to reject their parents. After Carlson’s visit, Dreher wrote that he admires Orban because he “is willing to take the hard stances necessary to keep his country from losing its collective mind under assault by woke loonies.” When I asked him what he was hoping to learn during his sabbatical in Budapest, Dreher told me that he wanted to observe “to what extent politics can be a bulwark against cultural disintegration.” Having seen how ineffectual the Republican Party has been, he told me, “I’m wondering, Can it be done somewhere else, and what is the cost, and is the cost worth it?” He didn’t want to force his view on others, he said. But such passivity, he felt, was becoming self-defeating. The turn toward illiberal democracy — a state that rejects pluralism in favor of a narrow set of values — seemed imminent to him. “I realize that we’re at a point now where we have such cultural disintegration in the U.S. that the choice might actually be between an illiberal democracy of the left or an illiberal democracy of the right,” Dreher told me. “And if that’s true, then I want to understand as fully as I possibly can what the implications are.”
Yep, that’s a faithful rendition of what I told Zerofsky. You can’t imagine what a relief it is to read a piece like this and to find oneself accurately quoted, and one’s ideas presented accurately.
This will not surprise any readers of this blog, but there will be people who see this Times story and think that the read people like me have on the state of things is correct. Good. The postliberals have the intellectual momentum on the Right now, both in the US and in Europe. Witness Eric Zemmour’s rise in France, and the fact that in Italy, the only Right that has anything important to say are the parties of Georgia Meloni and Matteo Salvini. And in Spain, only the Vox party offers a serious vision for the future.
I don’t want to quote much more of the piece, because I want you to read it. It’s not only about me, not at all. In it, you will find Patrick Deneen, Ryszard Legutko, J.D. Vance, Sohrab Ahmari, and Adrian Vermeule (though neither Vance, Ahmari nor Vermeule gave the reporter an interview). But I do want to quote this:
Dreher didn’t seem to be concerned about the violent potential of stigmatization. I told Dreher about Hungarian friends of mine who were helping immigrants and had been subject to lurid harassment by right-wing groups as “traitors” to the nation. In some instances, red stickers were plastered onto buildings by the youth wing of Orban’s party, labeling them as an “organization helping migrants.” One such house had been marked with a yellow star in 1944. “I find that appalling,” Dreher said. “But it’s hard for the American left to see how similar things are happening in America, not from the state, but from activists and institutions.” We were in the airy sitting room of the Danube Institute apartment, and Dreher took off his glasses, leaned forward and rubbed his eyes. This was why he had clung to classical liberalism, he said; he didn’t even believe in it as a philosophy, and yet here he was depending on it. “It’s an ironic and maybe even tragic position to be in,” he said. “If not for the First Amendment, then it’s all about power. And all the power in America now is against people like me.”
Let me clarify that bit about me not believing in classical liberalism as a philosophy. I have lost faith in it because I agree with Deneen: liberalism has failed because it succeeded so brilliantly in liberating the individual from all unchosen constraints. Now that it has done that, people find themselves lost and adrift. The soft-totalitarian Left has emerged into the vacuum, and has marched through the institutions of liberal democracy, turning them, and the language of liberal democracy, into an instrument of oppression. I write about this in Live Not By Lies, as you know. My basic argument is that the Left has ceased to believe in liberal democracy — and they hold most of the power in the West today. In the US, the Right is getting its clocked cleaned, over and over, because it wants to play by the standard rules of liberal democracy, but the Left has no interest in doing that, except insofar as it can consolidate hegemonic power. If the Left still believed in liberal democracy, American campuses and the American news media would be very different.
As I told Zerofsky in our very long interview, I would like to live in a liberal democratic world. I still believe in liberal democratic ideals like free speech and freedom of religion. But the Left does not, and the Left in power is doing all it can to crush people like me. Where does that leave us? Well, Viktor Orban has taken the measure of the illiberal Left in a far more realistic way than American conservative politicians. Do I like all of the illiberal things Orban is doing? No, I do not — and I have made that clear in my writing. But on the whole, the Hungarian prime minister is doing the right thing, and deserves our unapologetic support. If we on the Right are not going to be smashed, we are going to have to learn some lessons from Viktor Orban, and make them work in our American context.
The conservative intellectuals who have already gone over to the Left on race and LGBT don’t have anything to worry about from the regime (by “regime,” I mean the leftists who hold state power, but also — and in fact moreso — the soft totalitarians in Big Business, academia, media, law, medicine, sports, the military, and every other major institution in American life. The rest of us do have to worry, and ought to understand where we truly stand vis-à-vis power as it is actually exercised in the US. Regular readers know that I am in the uncertain middle on the famous French-Ahmari debate: I think Ahmari understands the realities of how weak the Right’s position is in America culture better than French does, but French understands better than Ahmari does that the principles, laws, and structures of liberal democracy are the only thing we have to protect us at this point. Therein lies the irony.
One more thing:
In Hungary, Dreher and others claim, there is true freedom; no online vigilante mob is waiting to deprive people of their livelihood for uttering a wrong word. (This freedom does not extend to the journalists who’ve had their phones surveilled by the Hungarian government or been taken in for questioning by the Hungarian police.) It comes from a reversal of the cultural and institutional tilt: Orban pushed out the Soros-backed Central European University and used hostile takeovers to transform the media, outlet by outlet, into a conservative (and government-friendly) landscape. American conservatives might not use the same methods, but they would have “no compunctions about using state power,” Linker said, “to impose a different set of moral views than the default ones that we’ve lived with for 50 years.”
Dreher seemed to confirm this. “If the right should somehow gain that kind of power, I don’t trust us with it,” Dreher told me. He seemed uncomfortable with the way this sounded like a threat, even as he articulated it. “I don’t trust us to be judicious and fair to the others in victory,” he went on. “The left is not being that way to us. And we’re not going to be that way to them.”
I’m trying to figure out the context of that quote from me, which sounds odd. I don’t dispute its accuracy, but my guess is that I was talking about the corrupting nature of power unrestrained by classical liberal principles. As I said, I prefer to live in a liberal democracy. In my perfect world, people would be broadly free to say what they wanted, for example. But as I explained to Zerofsky, in a very short time we have gone from gender theory being an extreme academic and cultural niche to the point where transgenderism is being written into civil rights law, and even people as powerful and as consequential as J.K. Rowling are being tarred and feathered for questioning the ideology. Viktor Orban is exactly right to have defunded and disaccredited gender studies programs in Hungary. And he was exactly right to have banned its propagation among children and teenage minors. Look around you at the chaos all this has caused in our country, and how the Left in power is stigmatizing and demonizing anyone who dissents. Same on the sham “anti-racism” business. My sense is that I was trying to explain to Zerofsky my belief that we are not going to be fair according to liberal democratic principles to the Left, should we gain power, because having seen how they treat us, and having seen how destructive their ideas are in practice, we are going to have to push back hard. My concern is that given human nature, we will misuse that power.
Nevertheless, this is a matter of survival. So many on the American Left don’t grasp how illiberal they have become. There’s a reason that Live Not By Lies has become a very big seller, despite having zero attention in the mainstream media (to my knowledge, Zerofsky’s piece is the first time the book has been mentioned in any mainstream publication): so very many of us on the political and cultural Right are facing persecution within our companies and institutions for our beliefs — beliefs that were perfectly mainstream yesterday, and that still are mainstream today, outside of the ruling class. We understand our enemies better than they understand themselves — and we have to figure out how to protect ourselves and the things we value from what they want to do to us. I wrote Live Not By Lies under the assumption that this soft totalitarian wave is not going to be stopped, and we on the Right — and even on the anti-woke Left (Boghossian, Weiss, Weinstein, Heying, et al.) — are going to have to prepare ourselves for the long resistance. Having spent this past spring and summer in Hungary, if I were writing the book again, I would include a part about political hope via Hungary and Poland. Perhaps I will add that in the new chapter for the paperback edition, whenever it comes out. Put another way, if the Left in the West were still classically liberal, you wouldn’t see so much interest on the American Right in figures like Viktor Orban. But it’s not, and therefore we must pay attention to Orban, and learn from him, unless we want to prepare to submit.
I don’t think that at the time Zerofsky interviewed me I had met with the liberal Hungarian academic who is a leading critic of Orban. He had mentioned in our conversation his support for gay rights, which the Orban government opposes in some instances (e.g., it supports gay civil partnerships, but not marriage and adoption). But he said that he does not understand “the logic” of transgenderism. He was not opposing it, necessarily, but only mentioning that it didn’t make sense to him. This is perfectly normal in Central Europe, even among liberals. At the end of our talk, the academic told me that for all his criticism of the Orban government, he could stand in his Budapest classroom and say whatever he wanted to about Orban, and nobody would bother him. I mentioned to him that this is a huge contrast to the situation in US academia, where his freedom of speech would be highly constricted, not by the state but by the hysterically illiberal, even totalitarian, cultural norms within those institutions. For example, I said to him, in some places, the slightest hesitation to fully and vocally endorse transgender rights could easily spark a mob protest, leading to the university administration taking action against the offending professor, and that professor even risking his or her career. This is exactly how soft totalitarianism, having marched through the institutions, is eliminating dissent.
This is not liberalism. This is something else. This is what wokeness has done to our liberal democracy. Unlike so many of us American conservatives, Viktor Orban lives in the real world.
Read the entire Zerofsky piece. I found especially interesting the section in which Patrick Deneen and others speak of Catholicism becoming the religion of the conservative intellectual elite. I liked too this nice picture they published of Self. See, Aging Hipster can clean up well when he needs to!
UPDATE: An Asian-American reader writes:
I don’t think it’s possible to be agnostic about “The Great Replacement.” [Here’s something Matthew Boose wrote]:
As Carlson correctly pointed out, the Left gets so rattled when the Right talks about the “Great Replacement” not because it is false, but precisely because it is true. Not only is it true, but it is an incredibly important goal of the Left, which is why, more than almost any other topic they consider verboten, it excites them so much.
When it comes to demographic change, Democrats try to play it both ways. On the one hand, they brag constantly about the imminent, irrevocable “browning” of America (or, if they are a little more subtle, the “blueing” of red states through mass migration.) But they condemn anyone who points out their gloating as a racist.
Michael Anton has a term for this: the “celebration parallax.” The Left is permitted to celebrate their success in radically transforming the country, but anyone who objects to their designs is forced to pretend that change is not happening at all. They are mocked as paranoid conspiracy theorists for noticing the very things the Left hopes, vocally, to accomplish. If anyone dares to notice the Left is winning, the Left passionately reminds us all that they are actually struggling underdogs fighting against “structural racism”—regular freedom riders.
Whatever you think of the Great Replacement, almost nobody, Right, Left, or center, believes any longer that it is not happening. It is widely acknowledged that, within a few decades, whites will become a minority in America. The only people required to pretend that this is not the case, oddly, are white people.
Whether this demographic shift is a good, bad, or neither, Democrats are not withholding judgment. For them, having fewer white people around is definitely a good thing. It’s their political Rapture. Here’s Joe Biden in 2015:
“Folks like me who are Caucasian, of European descent, for the first time in 2017 we’ll be in an absolute minority in the United States of America, absolute minority,” he said. “That’s not a bad thing, that’s a source of our strength.”
Biden is not alone in his belief that white displacement is an inexorable destiny worth celebrating. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) in July said pointedly that the Republican Party is doomed because the “the new voters in this country are moving away from them.” When the latest census found that the white population is shrinking for the first time, Jennifer Rubin called it “fabulous news.”
You won’t find bigger supporters of the Great Replacement theory than on the Left. They’ve been saying quite openly for years, even if that’s not the term they use.