Viktor Orbán has been a darling of Western conservatives, particularly the American Right, for years. Budapest has become a peculiar pilgrimage site for rightwingers keen to learn the secret sauce of Orban’s electoral and cultural success.
Among his fans is Rod Dreher, a usually enlightening journalist at The American Conservative, who has been beating the drum for Orbán for some time. Another is Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who visited Orbán last year to bring the Hungarian message home to America. Orbán himself has attended conferences in Western Europe on ‘national conservatism’, and not only did CPAC organise its inaugural conference in Budapest in May but it has also invited Orbán to Texas to speak to the Republican base in August.
Others on the right have, however, have long held serious misgivings about what Orbanism really means – with its toxic mixture of cronyism and outright racism masquerading as a legitimate political movement.
Orban himself has not exactly been shy in setting out the basis for his tough stance on migration. In a speech last week, he stated bluntly that Hungarians ‘do not want to become peoples of mixed-race’ – a remark his long-time adviser Zsuzsa Hegedüs described in a blistering resignation letter as ‘a pure Nazi text…worthy of Goebbels’.
And it’s hardly as though this is the first instance of Orban going beyond the pale. His time in charge has been characterised by pronounced clampdowns on the rule of law, freedom of association, freedom of speech and, perhaps most significantly, the free press. He has built an economic oligarchy with a corrupt apparatus propping up his friends and family members. He has defended and made friends with the likes of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin.
Given his consistently egregious behaviour, just what do so many influential Western conservatives see in Orban?
For starters, Orbán likes to portray himself as the one last hope of Western civilisation. The way he tells it, he is a Christian who considers Europe’s heritage to be Christian, who believes that Europe can only survive if it holds on to its ‘intellectual and spiritual foundations’. He is the defender of the traditional family and is happy to splash government money on increasing the fertility rate (though results have been mixed to say the least and he himself admits that fertility is still low). Much of this agenda is of a piece with the views of pretty mainstream social conservatives either side of the Atlantic.
Orbán has also fought some important tax battles, implementing a flat tax early on and now fighting proposals for a global minimum tax rate. Along with Poland, Hungary has also been the only country since Brexit to have consistently rebelled against EU centralisation. Again, this puts him on the same side as some pretty mainstream conservative thinkers and politicians, particularly those sceptical about Brussels’ ever-growing remit.
But is any of that really enough to compensate for his racial purity rhetoric and consistent authoritarianism? Would many Western conservatives tolerate the kind of restrictions Orban has introduced on freedom of speech if they appeared in the US or a Western European country? Indeed, if they spent more than a few days in Budapest they might well form a different view of the beneficence of the Orban agenda.
It’s worth delving into just what Orban said in his recent ‘mixed race’ speech. It is little short of a xenophobic diatribe, in which he refers to migration as ‘population replacement or inundation’. According to Orban, countries which allow immigration from other races – and he does say ‘race’ repeatedly – are committing suicide, especially if those races mix.
There was also a healthy dose of his usual conspiracy theorising, of which nonagenarian financier George Soros is always a favourite target. ‘Soros-affiliated troops,’ Orban avers, want to ‘force migrants’ on Hungary. We also got a clue as to where Orban draws some of his whackier ideas, when he advised supporters to read The Camp of the Saints. For the uninitiated, this is a supposedly prophetic 1973 book about how mass migration from the Third World will eventually destroy the West with ‘an attack on personality; Christianity…and white skin’.
Reading this sort of race-baiting drivel, it’s hard to credit the kind of excuses Western rightwingers are still willing to make for Orban. Take Rod Dreher’s column earlier this week, a masterpiece of equivocation entitled ‘The Vision of Viktor Orban’. He describes the Hungarian leader as ‘an iconoclastic visionary politician of the Right’, who could play the role of Margaret Thatcher to a future Ronald Reagan’. As for his ‘race’ comments, Dreher suggests Orban deploys the word merely as ‘a symbol of religion and culture’, rather than, y’know, race. For that matter, if Orban is so concerned about the enduring solidity of Europe, why is he so keen on cosying up to the likes of Putin and communist China, neither of whom, I would venture, have the West’s best interests at heart.
Rather than trying to come up with some kind of defensible intellectual paradigm for Orban’s authoritarianism and grim race politics, why not just admit that he is a malign character, with bad policies and dodgy ideas? After all, it’s perfectly possible to maintain a firm stance on border security, and express concern about mass migration, without indulging in the kind of Great Replacement ‘racial purity’ paranoia that Orban is so fond of.
Ultimately, ‘Orban conservatives’ need to realise that simply being your enemies’ enemy isn’t a qualification for unwavering support. Nor is it credible to create some kind of binary world in which the only choice is between Orban-style authoritarian nationalism and the open border globalism that ‘national conservatives’ rail against.
Either way, I don’t hold much hope that Orban’s cheerleaders will draw the same conclusions I have. Perhaps the most pertinent question now is this: just what would Orban have to do for his Western supporters to disown him?
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