Rethinking Hungary’s Orbán
[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.
The title in retrospect seems a bit like clickbait. I didn’t really intend it that way.JVW (ee64e4) — 8/7/2020 @ 6:52 pm
Soros is an anti-humanity individual who has manipulated currencies to destroy nations and who currently funds organizations and AG’s to destroy our nation from within.
There is nothing religious or spiritual about the man unless you consider inhumanity to be a religious virtue. If I looked at it honesty, I’d say he was possessed.NJRob (eb56c3) — 8/7/2020 @ 6:58 pm
@2 People mostly aren’t all one thing or another. Soros did a lot of anti-communist work in Hungary.Nic (896fdf) — 8/7/2020 @ 7:24 pm
Well back in the 80s he was anticommunist, thats how he attracted orbans attention, but since then his perspective has gome decidedly left and hes bought almost all the intellectuals in a host of areas, that would otherwise object.Narciso (7404b5) — 8/7/2020 @ 7:30 pm
Ouch. Orban’s “clear-headed conservatism” was not that. His authoritarian predilections are too apparent.Paul Montagu (f2aab5) — 8/7/2020 @ 7:34 pm
Two, I think it’s fair to be critical of Soros’ political efforts in the United States, but his Open Society efforts against the USSR and Warsaw Bloc have been admirable. Regrettably, Orban has been more like “here’s to the new boss, same as the old boss”, and Soros has been facing that hypocrisy in Hungary, part of which has been Orban’s efforts to shut down Soros’ university.
Three, a couple of church friends of ours were missionaries in Hungary. Compared to the US, it’s an old, closed society, not open to concepts such as the Bill of Rights, or cordiality.
Yes that was 30 years ago, since then soros as pushed for near total disarmament in personal and national terms, drug legalization against any real understanding against islamist threat or immigration concerns. Everything that can deconstruct this country he is for.Narciso (7404b5) — 8/7/2020 @ 7:37 pm
The only thing I know about modern Hungary is that blackpowder firearms are not restricted but the gunpowder and caps are.
What I know about George Soros is that he really is a self-made billionaire, who used his money to shape the world to his ideas, instead of on gold-plated toilets, chippies, and self-promotion.nk (1d9030) — 8/7/2020 @ 7:44 pm
Three, a couple of church friends of ours were missionaries in Hungary.
Yeah, Hungarians aren’t really big on outsiders coming in and trying to convince them to make changes to their lives. And isn’t that the exact nature of missionary work? As someone who has visited, I can report that in my experience Hungarians are warm, friendly, and generally pleased to chat with Americans, providing of course the Americans aren’t trying to get them to change religions.JVW (ee64e4) — 8/7/2020 @ 7:45 pm
Shattering the pound and the renimbhi proviting the great asia bust out of 97-98, that made it a great sanctuary for al queda.Narciso (7404b5) — 8/7/2020 @ 7:47 pm
Agreed. I went there years ago for a music festival and they were friendly enough and open to Americans unlike many of the Euro left. But they have their pride and were also not fond of losing many of their children to other European nations due to the EU. Hungarians are a proud, loyal people. I’m glad they understand the value of their heritage instead of going the way of the rest of Europe.NJRob (eb56c3) — 8/7/2020 @ 7:54 pm
Commentary against orban is often unhinged, there was a harpers piece that said he was channelling vandal spirit, the eu would rather have the model of germany that let a millionNarciso (7404b5) — 8/7/2020 @ 7:57 pm
“Shattering the pound and the renimbhi proviting the great asia bust out of 97-98, that made it a great sanctuary for al queda.”
Were either of these illegal?Davethulhu (8fe8cb) — 8/7/2020 @ 7:57 pm
Oh, those kind of missionaries? In Greece, proselytizing is a crime, but the word for “stranger” and “guest” is the same.nk (1d9030) — 8/7/2020 @ 7:59 pm
So much of the violence we have been seeing and has been excused has been nurtured (not exclusively) by soros, the tides fiundation has other donors after allNarciso (7404b5) — 8/7/2020 @ 8:05 pm
You guys know this post is about Orban, not Soros, right? You can’t help yourselves.Davethulhu (8fe8cb) — 8/7/2020 @ 8:12 pm
Its more about soros because he provides the canvas on which the story is painted, after the initial hungarian soring hungary reverted leftward structural policies not being that popular, this was aided by the holdover elements in the avh, and other institutions in the govt. The ratchet is ever leftward against national autonomy against love of country to supranatural bodies.Narciso (7404b5) — 8/7/2020 @ 8:17 pm
“Its more about soros ”
Only if you’re a conspiracy theorist.Davethulhu (8fe8cb) — 8/7/2020 @ 8:22 pm
@5 and @13 Generally speaking I am also not fond of heretics trying to convert me. I am satisfied with my Papist ways. 😛Nic (896fdf) — 8/7/2020 @ 8:29 pm
“Its more about soros ”
Only if you’re a conspiracy theorist.
I wrote the post, and I think Narciso has a legitimate point.JVW (ee64e4) — 8/7/2020 @ 8:45 pm
“I wrote the post, and I think Narciso has a legitimate point.”
Fair enough, though I disagree with with his point. Orban’s turn against Soros is recent, and also, in my opinion, conspiracy driven.Davethulhu (8fe8cb) — 8/7/2020 @ 9:02 pm
Thanks this epidemic has proven lord actin right, its easy to succumb when the prospects are painted so grimly, now orban is not the same man he was 23 years ago. He is wiser perhaps more skeptical of the liberating forces of transnationaliamNarciso (7404b5) — 8/7/2020 @ 9:04 pm
Hungarians are a proud, loyal people.
You know what this world needs? Less people that are “proud”. Proud was a key ingredient to WWI, and many other conflicts throughout history.norcal (a5428a) — 8/7/2020 @ 10:17 pm
Well, when your pride is all you have. The last 500 years have not been kind to Hungary. The Turks, the Hapsburgs, the Treaty of Trianon, the Nazis, the Soviets, and Dracula for your neighbor that entire time ….nk (1d9030) — 8/8/2020 @ 4:53 am
The eu is how germany ultimately won. What they had couldnt accomplish in the wars.Narciso (7404b5) — 8/8/2020 @ 6:19 am
This is of a piece with the attack on gorka three years ago, sid vicious caries the kremlins water in the 80s, he found peter beinart as his waterboy at the forward.Narciso (7404b5) — 8/8/2020 @ 7:18 am
If their diaspora loses NE Ohio / W Pennsylvania and the game of football, there will be no other option.urbanleftbehind (7dd67b) — 8/8/2020 @ 7:34 am
The Path to Autocracy
……… Shortly after his first reelection in 2014, Orbán gave a speech outlining his political project. Citing globalization’s economic and social failures, Orbán defended the course he had set by noting that those nations best prepared for the future were “not liberal, not liberal democracies, maybe not even democracies.” Drawing on that message, he defined a form of regime change. “The Hungarian,” he said, “is not a simple sum of individuals, but a community that needs to be organized, strengthened, and developed, and in this sense, the new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state.”
Hungary had to be anchored in a sense of nationalism, Orbán believed, and that nationalism required an autocratic hand, and that hand belonged only to him and Fidesz. The identity of the Hungarian nation and Viktor Orbán’s politics would be one and the same.Rip Murdock (db4a44) — 8/8/2020 @ 9:25 am
I’m familiar with the Atlantic piece from which you quote, Rip Murdock. Let me quote from Hungarian-British author Tibor Fischer’s counterpoint to which I linked in the post:JVW (ee64e4) — 8/8/2020 @ 12:01 pm
Seattle ‘Respects’ Black Voices by Slashing Black Police Chief’s Salary in Retaliation for ‘Defund’ Criticism
“I’m very open to sitting down with council and having this conversation … but I haven’t been invited,” she said, adding, “Why the first African-American female chief the city has ever had is not brought to the table is worth questioning.”
Black voices only matter when they push the approved message.harkin (0e0056) — 8/8/2020 @ 5:43 pm