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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán delivers a speech in Budapest in February.
Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images

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The American right’s favorite strongman

Viktor Orbán dismantled Hungary’s democracy. Conservatives love him.

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

At dawn on a Tuesday in May, the police took a man named András from his home in northeastern Hungary. His alleged crime? Writing a Facebook post that called the country’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, a “dictator.”

András has a point. After winning Hungary’s 2010 election, the prime minister systematically dismantled the country’s democracy — undermining the basic fairness of elections, packing the courts with cronies, and taking control of more than 90 percent of the country’s media outlets. He has openly described his form of government as “illiberal democracy,” half of which is accurate.

Since the coronavirus, Orbán’s authoritarian tendencies have only grown more pronounced. His allies in parliament passed a new law giving him the power to rule by decree and creating a new crime, “spreading a falsehood,” punishable by up to five years in prison. The Hungarian government recently seized public funding that opposing political parties depend on; through an ally, they took financial control of one of the few remaining anti-Orbán media outlets. In May, the pro-democracy group Freedom House officially announced that it no longer considered Hungary a democracy.

András was detained for hours for daring to criticize this authoritarian drift. The 64-year-old was ultimately released, but the police’s official statement on the arrest noted that “a malicious or ill-considered share on the internet could constitute a crime.” András, for one, got the message.

“I told [the cops] their task had achieved its result and would probably shut me up,” he told the news site 444.

András’s arrest is an unusually naked display of what Hungary has become — a cautionary tale for what a certain kind of right-wing populist will do when given unchecked political power. Yet among a certain segment of American conservatives, Orbán is not viewed as a warning.

He’s viewed as a role model.

Orbán’s fans in the West include notable writers at major conservative and right-leaning publications like National Review, the American Conservative, and the New York Post. Christopher Caldwell, a journalist widely respected on the right, wrote a lengthy feature praising the strongman as a leader “blessed with almost every political gift.”

Patrick Deneen, perhaps the most prominent conservative political theorist in America, met with Orbán in his office during a trip to Budapest. He has described the Hungarian government as a “model” for some American conservatives. (Responding to a request for comment after this piece was published, Deneen clarified: “I have not endorsed the Orbán government ... mainly because I do not know Hungarian politics well enough to praise or condemn.”)

Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist and right-wing cultural icon, made a pilgrimage to the prime minister’s office. Chris DeMuth, the former head of the American Enterprise Institute, interviewed Orbán onstage at a conference, praising the prime minister in opening remarks as “not only a political but an intellectual leader.” The event was organized by Yoram Hazony, an Israeli intellectual widely influential on the American right and another vocal Orbán fan.

The Hungarian government has actively cultivated support from such international conservatives. John O’Sullivan, an Anglo-American contributor to National Review, is currently based at the Danube Institute — a think tank in Budapest that O’Sullivan admits receives funding from the Hungarian government.

Pro-Orbán Westerners tend to come from one of two overlapping camps in modern conservatism: religiously minded social conservatives and conservative nationalists.

Budapest, Hungary in pictures
The Hungarian parliament building in Budapest.
Valery Sharifulin/TASS/Getty Images

Religious conservatives find Orbán’s social policies to be a breath of fresh air. Orbán has given significant state support to Hungary’s churches, officially labeling his government a “Christian democracy.” He provided generous subsidies to families in an effort to get Hungarian women to stay at home and have more babies. He launched a legal assault on progressive social ideals, prohibiting the teaching of gender studies in Hungarian universities and banning transgender people from legally identifying as anything other than their biological sex at birth.

Conservative nationalists focus on the Hungarian approach to immigration and the European Union. During the 2015 migrant crisis, Orbán was the most prominent opponent of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open borders approach; he built a wall on Hungary’s southern border with Serbia to keep refugees from entering. He has repeatedly denounced the influence the EU has on its member states, describing one of his governing aims as preserving Hungary’s national character in the face of a globalist onslaught led by Brussels and philanthropist George Soros.

For Western conservatives of a religious and/or nationalist bent, Orbán is the leader they wish Donald Trump could be — smart, politically savvy, and genuinely devoted to their ideals. Hungary is, for them, the equivalent of what Nordic countries are for the American left: proof of concept that their ideas could make the United States a better place.

Yet while the Nordic countries are among the world’s freest democracies, Hungary has fallen into a form of autocracy. This presents a problem for Hungary’s Western apostles, as they do not see themselves as advocates of American authoritarianism. Their encomia to Orbán tend to either overlook his authoritarian tendencies or deny them altogether, claiming that biased Western reporters and NGOs are unfairly demonizing Budapest for its cultural and nationalist beliefs.

“Hungary’s leadership ... is more democratic than most of the countries that lecture Budapest about democracy,” Catholic conservative Sohrab Ahmari writes in the New York Post. “Hungary’s leaders have had it with Western liberal condescension and tutelage.”

In reality, it’s not the Orbán regime that’s being persecuted: It’s ordinary Hungarian citizens like András. The Western defenders of Orbán are so preoccupied by the culture wars over gender and immigration that they’re overlooking who, exactly, they’ve gotten in bed with.

Understanding the conservative case for Orbán

Rod Dreher, a senior editor at the American Conservative, is one of a handful of influential Western writers courted by the Hungarian government. He’s met with Orbán and even had plans to take up a fellowship in Budapest before the coronavirus scrambled everyone’s lives.

While Dreher has a number of views that liberals find either kooky or reprehensible, he’s a talented writer who’s hugely influential on the religious and nationalist right. When I asked Dreher for the strongest possible version of the conservative case for Orbán, he sent me a series of lengthy and reflective notes on the subject.

“I want to be clear that I don’t want to be understood as approving of everything Orbán does,” he told me. “My approval of Orbán is general, not specific, in the same way that there are people who don’t agree with everything Trump does, but who generally endorse him.”

This “general endorsement” is rooted in a sense that the Hungarian leader challenges the liberal elite in a way few others do. In Dreher’s analysis, the dominant mode of thinking in the West is secular and liberal — a political style that suffocates traditional religious observance and crushes specific national identities in favor of a homogenizing, cosmopolitan ideal.

“He [Orbán] knew that in 2015, to allow all the Middle Eastern immigrants to settle in Hungary would have been surrendering a Hungarian future for the Hungarian people...and all the traditions and cultural memories they carry with them,” Dreher told me. “Broadly speaking, the ideology of globalism presumes that those traditions and those memories are obstacles to creating an ideal world. That they are problems to be solved rather than a heritage to be cherished.”

Orban giving a speech during an ecumenical service in August 2019.
Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images

This sense of persecution at the hands of secular globalist elites is at the center of the mindset held by Dreher and much of the modern intellectual right. The contemporary fusion of religious and nationalist ideas has created a unified field theory of global cultural politics, defined by a sense that cosmopolitan liberal forces are threatening the very survival of traditional Christian communities. This line of thinking animates many prominent Trump supporters and allies who are Christian conservatives, including Attorney General Bill Barr.

For people like Dreher, who has written that “my politics are driven entirely by fear [of] the woke left,” Orbán is Trump’s more admirable twin. The American president is, as Dreher once argued, “a small, ugly, godless and graceless man” — though one he’d rather have in office than a progressive Democrat. The Hungarian leader, by contrast, is in his view both a true believer and a much more effective head of state.

“What I see in Orbán is one of the few major politicians in the West who seems to understand the importance of Christianity, and the importance of culture, and who is willing to defend these things against a very rich and powerful international establishment,” he tells me. “I find myself saying of Orbán what I hear conservatives say when they explain why they instinctively love Trump: because he fights. The thing about Orbán is that unlike Trump, he fights, and he wins, and his victories are substantive.”

What I find fascinating about Dreher’s take — which largely typifies the pro-Orbán arguments among both religious conservatives and conservative nationalists — is that the issue of democracy plays a secondary role in the conversation.

Dreher doesn’t admire Orbán’s more authoritarian tendencies; indeed, he admits that the man has made mistakes, including in András’s case. “I have no doubt that Viktor Orban is not the philosopher-king of my Christian conservative dreams,” he tells me.

But whatever his concerns about threats to basic democratic principles like freedom of the press and fair elections, they don’t play a primary role in his thinking. His evaluation of Orbán centers culture war issues like immigration and religion in public life, an ideologically driven view that obscures the damning democratic deficit in Hungary.

In our exchange, Dreher compared his admiration for Orbán to the way Hungarian conservatives he’s met admired Trump. When he told his Hungarian acquaintances that he liked what Trump stood for in theory, but had serious issues with the man himself and the way he governs, they were incredulous: What’s not to like about someone who’s so willing to stick it to the globalist liberal elites?

They read Trump through Hungarian ideological categories, not American reality — and it showed.

“Maybe I’m seeing Orbán in the same way my Hungarian interlocutors see Trump. ... If I lived in Hungary, perhaps I would find a lot to dislike in his everyday governance,” Dreher told me. “But he and other European politicians like him are speaking to needs, desires, and beliefs about religion, tradition, and national identity, that the center-right politicians have ignored.”

Yet when it comes to modern Hungary, the authoritarian devil is truly in the everyday details.

The authoritarian strategy of plausible deniability

Orbán’s effort to cultivate Western intellectuals — funding their work, inviting them to meet with him as honored guests in Budapest, speaking at their glitzy conferences — is part of a much more ambitious ideological campaign. He describes himself as the avatar of a new political model spreading across the West, which he terms “illiberal democracy” or “Christian democracy.”

Advocates of illiberal democracy, like Trump and European far-right parties, aim to protect and deepen the specificity of each European country’s religious and ethnic makeup — Hungary for the Hungarians, France for the French, and Germany for the Germans. Orbán frames this goal in precisely the culture war terms people like Dreher find so appealing.

“Liberal democracy is in favor of multiculturalism, while Christian democracy gives priority to Christian culture,” he said in a 2018 speech. “Liberal democracy is pro-immigration, while Christian democracy is anti-immigration.”

This language is at once incendiary and misleading. The rejection of “liberalism” infuriates mainstream European and Western intellectuals, thus further convincing the right that Orbán is the enemy of their primary enemy. But by framing his struggle as a conflict between two subspecies of democracy — between “liberal” and “Christian” democracy — Orbán obscures the fact that his regime is not any kind of democracy at all.

This insistence on falsely referring to his authoritarian regime as a democracy is vital to both its domestic and international project.

Orbán and much of his inner circle are lawyers by training; they have used this expertise to set up a political system that looks very much like a democracy, with elections and a theoretically free press, but isn’t one. This gives intellectually sympathetic Westerners some room for self-delusion. They can examine Hungary, a country whose cultural politics they admire, and see a place that looks on the surface like a functioning democracy.

When such observers travel to Budapest and see what looks like a democracy in action, it becomes easier to dismiss concerns about authoritarian drift from journalists, pro-democracy NGOs, and academic experts as mere cultural prejudice: the liberal elite smearing a right-leaning elected leader as an authoritarian because they don’t like his cultural politics. Orbán isn’t an authoritarian, in this view, but the avatar of what the silent majority of Americans and Europeans really want.

Orbán voting in a 2019 local election in Budapest.
Ferenc Isza/AFP/Getty Images

A staple of these arguments is to make the point that Orbán’s Fidesz party has won three consecutive elections.

“One of the strange things about modern political rhetoric is that Viktor Orbán should so often be described as a threat to ‘democracy,’ although his power had been won in free elections,” Caldwell, the eminent conservative Europe reporter, writes in the Claremont Review of Books.

But after coming to power in 2010, Orbán rewrote Hungary’s constitution and electoral rules to make it nigh impossible for the opposition to win power through elections. Tactics including extreme gerrymandering, rewriting campaign finance rules to give Fidesz a major leg up, appointing cronies to the country’s constitutional court and election bureaucracy, and seizing control of nearly all media outlets have combined to render elections functionally non-competitive.

The mechanisms of control here are so subtle (who outside of Hungary cares about staffing choices at its electoral administration?) that it’s easy for an intellectually sympathetic observer to dismiss them as overblown. In Caldwell’s Claremont piece, for example, he challenges concerns about press freedom by pointing to Lajos Simicska — a media magnate and former Orbán right-hand man who turned on him in 2015 and campaigned against him in the 2018 election.

“When Orbán’s friend Simicska broke with him, he used his newspaper Magyar Nemzet to attack Orbán in the most vulgar terms, comparing him to an ejaculation,” Caldwell writes. “Orbán’s powerful mandate, his two-thirds majority, gave him power to amend the country’s constitution at will. This was not the same thing as authoritarianism — there aren’t a lot of reporters in Beijing likening Xi Jinping to an ejaculation.”

There aren’t that many left in Hungary, either. After 2015, Orbán used his unfettered powers to demolish Simicska’s business empire, cutting off government contracts not only for his old friend’s media holdings but also for his construction and advertising firms. Simicska’s businesses shrank and his personal fortune declined; the 2018 electioneering was a last-ditch effort to challenge a system that he himself described as a “dictatorship.”

After Orbán’s unfairly won 2018 victory, Simicska told allies that “it is clear that they [Fidesz] cannot be defeated through democratic elections.” He shut down Magyar Nemzet; a government mouthpiece currently publishes under its name. Simicska eventually sold his entire media empire to a Fidesz ally, including the popular television station Hír TV — which, after the sale, openly proclaimed it would adopting a pro-government line.

Today, Simicska lives in an isolated village in western Hungary. His only remaining business interest is an agricultural firm owned by his wife.

This is obviously not a story about democratic resilience in Hungary: It’s an instructive tale in the precise and subtle ways Orbán uses political patronage and the powers of the state to maintain political control. The Hungarian government is a species of authoritarianism — just a less coercive and more elusive version of its Chinese cousin.

“Clearly, Hungary is not a democracy. But understanding why requires a nuanced understanding of the line between democracy and autocracy,” Lucan Ahmad Way and Steven Levitsky, two leading academic experts on democracy, write in the Washington Post.

This subtlety is what allows his conservative fan club in the West to operate with a clean conscience. It’s also what makes it so disturbing.

The Hungary model for America

There are examples throughout history of people on both left and right blinding themselves to the faults of their ideological allies. The great British playwright George Bernard Shaw saw Josef Stalin as a shining example of Shaw’s own egalitarian values. Friedrich von Hayek, arguably the defining libertarian economist, defended Augusto Pinochet’s murderous dictatorship in Chile on grounds that the dictator was friendly to the free market.

Orbán’s crimes, of course, pale in comparison to Stalin’s or Pinochet’s. If such great thinkers in history can trick themselves into forgiving much more egregious assaults on human rights and democracy, it’s understandable that modern conservatives might fall prey to the same tendency to see the best in ideologically simpatico authoritarians.

But the fact that this tendency is understandable doesn’t mean it’s excusable — or without its own set of dangers.

In the United States, the Republican Party has shown a disturbing willingness to engage in Fidesz-like tactics to undermine the fairness of the political process. The two parties evolved independently, for their own domestic reasons, but seem to have converged on a similar willingness to undermine the fairness of elections behind the scenes.

Extreme gerrymandering, voter ID laws, purging nonvoters from the voting rolls, seizing power from duly elected Democratic governors, packing courts with partisan judges, creating a media propaganda network that its partisans consume to the exclusion of other sources — all Republican approaches that, with some nouns changed, could easily describe Fidesz’s techniques for hollowing out from democracy from within.

Orbán and Trump.
Daniel Mihaelescu/Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

In this respect, Hungary really is a model for America. It’s not a blueprint anyone is consciously aping, but proof that a ruthless party with less-than-majority support in the public can take durable control of political institutions while still successfully maintaining a democratic veneer.

Conservative intellectuals bear a special obligation to call attention to this dangerous process. It’s always easier for writers and intellectuals to criticize the opposing side precisely because it’s less effectual: Your targets already don’t pay attention to you, and your audience already agrees with your critique. When your “team” is crossing lines, criticizing it is much more likely to ruffle feathers — but also more likely to change minds.

The Hungary situation has been a trial in this regard, a way of assessing conservative intellectuals’ ability to perform this vital form of self-policing.

I find Orban’s attack on trans rights and treatment of migrants reprehensible, but I don’t expect those on the broader right to agree with me. I do, however, believe they ought to have a baseline commitment to democratic norms: a sense that disagreement itself is not illegitimate, and that governments that use their powers to crush their opponents can never be fundamentally admirable.

Yet that’s not what has happened. Much of the conservative leadership cannot break out of their sense of victimhood; the world is a struggle between righteous conservatives and oppressive secular progressives. It does not compute, to them, that a traditionalist regime might actually be the one mistreating its opponents and attacking democracy; they come up with excuses for whatever Orbán is doing, offering misleading half-truths that at times literally echo government propaganda.

If these thinkers continue to insist that Hungary is just another democracy — despite copious evidence to the contrary — how can we expect them to call out the same, more embryonic process of authoritarianism happening at home? If American conservatives won’t turn on a foreign country’s leadership after it crosses the line, what reason would we have to believe that they’d be capable of doing the same thing when the stakes for them are higher and the enemies more deeply hated?

The admiration for Orbán has convinced me that, no matter how far down the Fidesz path the GOP goes, many conservative intellectuals will use the same culture war uber alles logic to justify its trampling over American democracy.

Hungary is a test for these American thinkers. And they flunked it.

Clarification, August 10: An earlier version of this article reported political theorist Patrick Deneen as saying that the Orban government was a “‘model’ for American conservatives.” After publication, Deneen responded to Vox’s request for comment to explain that he was referring to the views of “some conservatives who view the Orbán regime as a model,” but did not see himself as part of that group.

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