[guest post by JVW]
I have in the past expressed admiration for the forthright and clear-headed conservatism of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. What has attracted me to Mr. Orbán and to other right-leaning governments in Central European is their staunch defense of their national cultures, with traditions and a history that stretch back to the Middle Ages, against the current Eurocrat obsession with homogenization rendering the entire continent a sterile version of Germany, Belgium, or France. I appreciate that these smaller and poorer nations, most of whom were dominated by Germany and Russia for much of the previous century, aren’t too keen on untrammeled immigration (especially by refugees); progressive obsessions regarding issues of gender, sex, and the family; or the economic hegemony of Berlin, Brussels, and Paris. In short, I think Hungary should be Hungary, Poland should be Poland, Slovakia should be Slovakia, and so on.
But I’m also not totally blind to some of the problems that the aggressive nationalism and insular attitude of the conservative ruling parties has brought about. Almost a couple of years ago I reported on some criticisms that James Kirchick had leveled against Mr. Orbán, especially his enmity towards Hungarian-American activist George Soros, which strays uncomfortably close to antisemitism. I’m also aware that Poland’s President Andrzej Duda has been a figure of some controversy, initiating efforts to consolidate power and subtly seeking to dictate Polish history.
So I read with great interest an article in National Review Online in which Dalibor Rohac, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, argues the case that conservatives should not ally themselves with Viktor Orbán in Hungary, comparing and contrasting them to a controversial figure who resides within our own borders:
Much like Trump’s, Orban’s political success has been based on rhetorically exploiting the failures and the corruption of the Left and on feeding the most atavistic and conspiratorial impulses of the electorate. Unlike Trump, who has been mostly a paper tiger throughout his presidency, Orban is a skilled political operator who, in a way that is without parallel in the region, has used the past decade to entrench himself, his political party (Fidesz), and the economic elite surrounding the party.
Many Western conservatives have cheered him on in the process. According to Mike Gonzalez of the Heritage Foundation, the U.S. administration “must befriend Hungary’s populist leader.” Even the late Sir Roger Scruton (in his own words “neither a friend nor an enemy of Orban”) claimed that Hungary’s prime minister was “not the kind of demagogic tyrant that the liberal establishment in Europe want to make him out to be,” although he did throw “his weight around more than most Western politicians would.” Some conservatives have even speculated about emigrating to Budapest to escape the decadent West.
To be sure, Gonzalez had a point — the United States needs a constructive relationship with Orban’s Hungary. Yet it is also true that the Hungarian government has played the current administration like a fiddle, extracting favors such as the Defense Cooperation Agreement, while avoiding any accountability for its domestic behavior and overtures toward Russia and China. More important is that the perceived ideological affinity that conservatives feel with Orban is misplaced. Yes, Orban has a record of “winning,” but has he advanced conservative principles or made Hungary a better, more successful country?
Playing the U.S. off against its allies and adversaries is nothing new. Raúl Castro of Cuba successfully hoodwinked Barack Obama; Ayad Allawi of Iraq hornswoggled George W. Bush; Yasser Arafat of the PLO hosed Bill Clinton; and during the Cold War the practice of double-crossing the U.S. might as well have been an Olympic sport, open to all nations. But Mr. Rohac, a Czech citizen educated in Prague, Fairfax (VA), and London, sees Mr. Orbán’s massive influence as inviting internal corruption and thus keeping Hungary from prospering:
While some have done extremely well under Fidesz [Hungary’s ruling party, headed by Mr. Orbán], the gap between Hungary and its neighbors has widened since 2010. Once the second-most prosperous of the four Visegrad countries, trailing only the Czech Republic, Hungary now comes last, behind Poland. Budapest used to be home to the leading academic institution in Central and Eastern Europe, the Central European University (CEU), founded by George Soros. CEU provided a home not only or even mostly to “grievance studies” but also to top-notch scholarship in social sciences relevant to post-Communist transitions. Since Orban chased the CEU and its surrounding intellectual ecosystem away on petty legalistic grounds, while bringing the Hungarian Science Academy under political control, Budapest today is an intellectual backwater. Perhaps a wave of immigration by Western conservative intellectuals will fill the void, but as of now there is more evidence of a brain drain. As many as 600,000 Hungarians (from a nation of fewer than 10 million), overwhelmingly young and educated, have settled in Western European countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and Austria.
We covered the Hungarian government’s dust-up with Mr. Soros in which the Hungarian parliament restricted the ability of Soros-affiliated groups to operate in the country. The CEU — I’m struggling to find any source other than Mr. Rohac who claims it is “the leading academic institution in Central and Eastern Europe” — came under fire not just because of its association with Mr. Soros, but because Fidesz objected that a majority of its faculty came from outside of Europe and because they have a curious accreditation issued by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education here in the U.S. despite CEU running no equivalent higher education operation within the United States. Though they were co-accredited by the Hungarian government starting in 2004, Fidesz put an end to the practice of a foreign-based university operating in Hungary without also having a similar institution in its home country. But there is also little doubt that the prime minister and his cabinet also objected to CEU attempting to bring in American-style left-wing university indoctrination into Hungary. As to the brain drain of talented Hungarians, that is sadly an aspect of all of the poorer EU nations in the east, from Greece to Estonia and all places in-between.
When the COVID-19 virus arrived in Hungary at the end of March, Mr. Orbán’s doubters expressed grave alarm when the prime minister consolidated power in his office in order to lead Hungary through the pandemic scare. Though this was done via an official act of parliament, unlike for example how Gavin Newsom has seized emergency powers for months without any formal authorization from the legislature, the legislation that Fidesz pushed through alarmingly contained no sunset clause. On the other hand, the two laws that Mr. Orbán immediately announced, though horrific to the ears of civil libertarians, would be quite welcome by the Andrew Cuomos and Gretchen Whitmers of the world: the criminalization both of “interfering with the quarantine” and of spreading false information about the emergency and thereby causing panic. Michael Brendan Dougherty took to the pages, er, screens at National Review Online two months later to scoff at Mr. Orbán’s critics, noting that the Orbán Dictatorship, such as it was, would last a total of 82 days, having been slated for an announced June 20 end date. By way of contrast, we’re now 156 days into the reign of Gavin I, Rex Californium.
Mr. Rohac’s main quibble with Viktor Orbán seems to be that the latter is wholly uninterested in embracing modern and trendy social values that are so popular in Western Europe and North America. He’s no fan of abortion, gay marriage, out-of-wedlock births, feminism, transgenderism, or any of the other items over which Western societies currently obsess. Complaints that Hungary cultivates close ties with ethnic Hungarians in Romania, Slovakia, and Ukraine probably mean very little to Americans who continually see the same sort of scheming from China and Mexico. It’s understandable that the imposition by Fidesz of a retroactive 98% tax on severance pay handed out to public employees might raise some eyebrows. Without knowing the exact details, why does a voice in my head tell me that the “severance pay” was quite likely the typical “honest graft” that craven politicians hand out to their supporters in return for votes, and thus a legitimate target for claw-back? Fidesz lowered the mandatory retirement age for judges in order to appoint their allies to the bench, but that doesn’t seem much different than Pete Buttigieg’s vow to expand the Supreme Court with brand-new left-leaning justices, nor do the election reforms implemented by Fidesz seem any more self-serving than Democrats’ calls for abolishing the Electoral College and mandating mail-in voting. It’s simply the nature of the game to try build in advantages once you have won home field.
That said, there are some areas in which even an admirer should want to keep a wary eye on Prime Minister Obrán. He is now serving his fourth four-year term as prime minister — and third consecutive term — and will next stand for election in 2022. Should Mr. Orbán remain the prime minister beyond that, he owes it to his countrymen and countrywomen to begin preparing Hungary for a post-Orbán government. Though still a relatively young man at 57 (he first served as prime minister from 1998-2002, shortly after his 35th birthday), he needs to demonstrate that Hungarian democracy is resilient and does not depend upon one extraordinary man to function. Critics claim that Fidesz is working to disrupt and isolate rival parties; supporters claim that rival parties and critical media are tolerated and left unmolested, and that the Hungarian left is simply disorganized and unattuned to the desires and dreams of ordinary Hungarians.
I appreciate that Dalibor Rohac has taken the time to provide a quasi-libertarian criticism of Prime Minister Orbán, and I acknowledge that my knowledge of Hungarian politics is limited to what I read in various publications. That said, I didn’t see anything in his litany of complaints that isn’t applicable to political parties here in the U.S. or for that matter virtually any other democratic nation, and nothing that rises to the level of grave concern for Hungarian democracy. But I have always believed that Cincinnatus must one day return to his farm, and Mr. Orbán should soon enough pave the way for the next generation of Hungarian leadership.