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Why Conservatives Around the World Have Embraced Hungary's Viktor Orbán
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=50009"><span class="small">Isaac Chotiner, The New Yorker</span></a>   
Friday, 13 August 2021 08:18

Chotiner writes: "A sociologist explains why the country's Prime Minister is 'the ultimate twenty-first-century dictator.'"

Hungarian resident Viktor Orban. (photo: EPA)
Hungarian resident Viktor Orban. (photo: EPA)

Why Conservatives Around the World Have Embraced Hungary's Viktor Orbán

By Isaac Chotiner, The New Yorker

13 August 21

A sociologist explains why the country’s Prime Minister is “the ultimate twenty-first-century dictator.”

ince his second stint as Prime Minister of Hungary began, in 2010, Viktor Orbán has chipped away at the country’s democratic systems. A proponent of what he calls an “illiberal” form of government, Orbán has imposed policies that are hostile to L.G.B.T.Q. people and immigrants, and has steadily increased his control of Hungary’s public square by cracking down on the press, the academy, and the judiciary. But the end of his tenure could be near: Orbán is up for reëlection in 2022, and a coalition of six opposition parties, from the left to the far right, has formed to defeat him.

Still, over the past decade, Orbán has become something of a hero to conservatives throughout Europe, and has piqued the interest of the American right wing as well. Last week, Tucker Carlson visited Hungary and, over dinner, lauded the Prime Minister as someone that the West could learn from. On Sunday, in the Times, the conservative columnist Ross Douthat explained some of Orbán’s appeal. “It’s not just his anti-immigration stance or his moral traditionalism,” Douthat wrote. “It’s that his interventions in Hungarian cultural life, the attacks on liberal academic centers and the spending on conservative ideological projects, are seen as examples of how political power might curb progressivism’s influence.”

I recently spoke by phone with Kim Lane Scheppele, a professor of sociology at Princeton who is an expert on Hungarian politics and constitutional law. Scheppele met Orbán in the early nineteen-nineties, when she was a researcher working with the Hungarian Constitutional Court and he was a rising politician of the center right. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why Orbán has become a model for conservatives around the world, how he could remain powerful in Hungary even after leaving office, and what makes him, in Scheppele’s words, “the ultimate twenty-first-century dictator.”

Orbán is frequently quoted as advocating for an “illiberal democracy,” but, in an academic article you published a few years ago, you argued that this was a mistranslation. What do you think he actually said, and what does it tell us about his style of rule?

In the speech where Orbán claimed to want an illiberal state, he was also talking about what he calls a force field of power. He was telling his supporters that what he hoped was for Hungary to eliminate political debate through a force field of power, by which he meant: Let’s stop arguing over stuff in politics and let’s just get stuff done. No point in taking different viewpoints into account, because I know what we should do. Which is to say that he was proposing in that speech to shut down ordinary, democratic political debate, which is exactly what he did as soon as he came to power.

And then, because there was such a strong reaction to it, he backpedalled from that phrase into something that might be more politically acceptable. So first it was “Well, we’re an illiberal state because we’ve marginalized the liberals.” It was like “owning the libs” in the United States, and since he was branding his opponents as liberals, therefore, he was an illiberal. And that didn’t go over all that well in the E.U., so he eventually backed into this formulation of being a Christian Democrat, and one of the things being a Christian Democrat does is it gives you these values from Christianity that cannot be compromised and that are illiberal because they’re opposed to liberal political views. So, if the liberal thing is multiculturalism, illiberalism means Hungary for the Hungarians.

Right, he has said he’s in favor of “Christian democracy,” and he translates that as something that’s illiberal and anti-immigration. But can you talk about how important the Christian part is? “Christian Democrat” is also a phrase that we’ve heard for many, many years in Europe, and it generally implies a center-right politician committed to European democracy. How is this different?

Yeah, he came up with the formulation when the European People’s Party, which includes, for example, Angela Merkel’s party, was talking about trying to throw him out because he was becoming a dictator. So he agreed on this formulation. And then, when he quit the Party before they could throw him out, he said, “Well, look, obviously the E.P.P., the European People’s Party, has just gone over to the leftists.” It’s a thing that enabled him to position himself in European politics. But Christian Democracy is a very strange thing for Orbán himself to be arguing.

No one has ever seen him in a church. He is not at all religious. It’s a bit like Trump, who also has never really been seen in a church. Hungary’s Christians are about two-thirds Catholic and one-third Calvinist. And then, having executed a large amount of its Jewish population during the Second World War, Hungary still has a community of Jews—and nobody knows how many, because they don’t count in the census. Orbán’s family was Calvinist. He comes from the minority religion. And yet, in his statements about Christian Democracy within Hungary, he’s always invoking the Catholic Church.

Generally, in Hungary, people aren’t religious. The last survey I saw showed that about nine per cent of Hungarians attend religious services regularly. And part of that, of course, was that fifty years of Communism wiped religion out of the social fabric. But, also, Hungarians are an ironic, skeptical lot in general. Even if you go back to medieval Hungary, there’s a lot of, shall we say, deviation from official church norms. So, it’s just very odd for Orbán to be claiming that he represents the Hungarian people by virtue of being such a good Christian.

So then why is he doing it?

There is a whole rhetoric that he’s employing that recalls the interwar period of the last century. Hungary became independent after the First World War in a small version of what it had been historically. The area where they could concentrate ethnic Hungarians was in the territory that became modern Hungary, and that meant that two-thirds of the territory that had traditionally been Hungarian fell to other countries. Miklós Horthy emerges in this interwar period with the claim that he’s going to recover these territories and recover these peoples, and he governs as a regent in the name of the Holy Crown of St. Stephen, because, under medieval law, the crown stood for this territory that all Hungarians were claiming. Horthy then claimed that the crown given by the Pope to the first Christian king of Hungary was the symbol of Hungarian sovereignty.

When Orbán was Prime Minister the first time, from 1998 to 2002, one of the things he presided over was moving the Holy Crown of St. Stephen from the National Museum to the Parliament. He wrapped himself in the crown, like we talk about American Presidents wrapping themselves in the flag. And the rhetoric that comes with that will be familiar from this interwar period, when Hungary’s anger at being maltreated by the global community was played out through this heightened Christian symbolism and language. When Orbán does this now, every Hungarian understands that he’s following in the footsteps of Horthy. Now, of course, Horthy joined World War Two on the side of Nazi Germany. This guy governed with the Hungarian Nazi Party. This guy presided over the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. So that’s also part of the mix that every Hungarian will understand.

What noises does Orbán make about non-Christians now?

In the middle of his last campaign, all his campaign posters had these terrible pictures of George Soros with the caption “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh.” Invoking the laughing Jew, right? They were even passing a law called the Stop Soros law. And, of course, one thing Orbán did was sidle up to Bibi Netanyahu, who would show up in Hungary and say, “No, Orbán’s not anti-Semitic. We all hate Soros.” But the coded language around the anti-Soros campaign was clearly anti-Semitic.

I had assumed that much of the Christian talk was meant to mark Orbán as someone who opposed having Muslims immigrate to Hungary. How much—especially from 2015 on, when immigration in Europe became a much bigger political issue—has his approach been about being anti-Muslim?

That was a big thing in 2015, when immigration was in the news, but Orbán was doing that in 2014 in his election campaign, which is to say he was anti-migrant even before there were migrants. He was against taking in other peoples before they actually arrived at the doorstep. But, here again, Orbán is a hypocrite. At the same time that he’s erecting walls, Orbán has created this program through which anyone can buy permanent residence in Hungary—they sold permanent residence during those same years to more than fifteen thousand Chinese people. This is not a policy I object to, but he was not, even on his own terms, being consistent with who was being let in. Later, after Venezuela collapsed, Hungary took in hundreds of Venezuelans. He has a very active foreign policy. He makes partnership agreements with some Gulf states.

Right, this is reminiscent of Trump trying to ban Muslims at a time when he was making deals with Erdoğan and the Saudi royal family.

Exactly. But that’s why Trump and Orbán are like birds of a feather. Not so much because they’re outrageous but because they’re doing it in such a way that it’s opportunistic. It’s completely transactional. Most of it is about putting money in the private pockets of the leader. And this other stuff is really a cover for money, which is the only thing that speaks in Orbán’s world.

I was going to ask you about that, because Orbán has obviously been accused of pretty gross examples of corruption, which makes for another comparison to Trump, who could be said to be more committed to his own corruption than to any particular ideology. Do you think that Orbán sincerely believes in a larger vision?

No, Orbán doesn’t. I met him when I lived in Hungary in the nineties. And I know people who used to be in his party until, in fact, very recently. Everybody who knows Orbán personally says, “This guy is not an ideologue. He doesn’t really believe this stuff.” That said, he knows he has to win elections. Hungary has a parliamentary system—it’s like a British system, where you win in individual districts and party lists, and then the Prime Minister is the one who gets the most seats. So he needs an ideology to govern a party in that kind of system. But I don’t think he believes it, because he changes what he says day to night. His Fidesz Party started off as the Hayekian liberal party in Hungary: small state, no regulation, freedom for everybody. The state, ideally, would wither away. And this is the opposite of what he’s created.

So, no, he’s an opportunist, but, as for the corruption, the difference between Orbán and Trump is, frankly, that Orbán is cleverer. He’s also a lawyer. So everything Orbán has done in Hungary has been legal. Trump just kind of wakes up one morning, decides to do something, orders people to do it, and is vaguely annoyed if they don’t just do it. Orbán wakes up one morning, decides to do something, drafts a law, rams it through the parliament, and then does it.

And the difference is that a lot of the corruption has happened in completely legal ways. So he changes the structure of the public procurement agency, which hands out state money, and which is dominated by his appointees. He controls the State Audit Office. He controls the public prosecutor, so the complaints of corruption are never acted upon. He controls almost all the media, so none of it is reported. There have been some investigative journalists who have uncovered a lot about where the money goes, and have survived in Hungary against all odds. The richest Hungarian is Lőrinc Mészáros, Orbán’s childhood best friend. There’s a phrase in Hungarian that sounds funny in English, but it’s a great phrase—they say this guy is Orbán’s walking wallet.

The conservative writer Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote a somewhat favorable piece about Orbán in the National Review, arguing that his supporters aren’t just opposed to immigration; they’re disillusioned by rates of emigration—“watching your children emigrate and lose their connections to their communities, families.” Do you agree?

Orbán may well have said that, and what he would have meant by it is different from what Dougherty thought. Hungary’s a small country. Its population was about ten million people when Orbán came to power. The estimates are a little unreliable, but many people think that it’s down a million since Orbán took office. People have left. And why have they left? It’s because Orbán hits people economically. He doesn’t arrest journalists and jail them. He doesn’t torture his opponents. He doesn’t use brutal methods of that kind. But he does deprive them of any possibility of an income. When he came to office, he fired huge numbers of people from the public sector. And then he went sector by sector through the economy and squeezed it, both the private sector and the public sector.

I interviewed a bunch of people in 2012 who said that they were given lists by Orbán’s people, and that if they hired any of the people on this list they would be ineligible for state contracts. And this is a country where the primary development funds—the primary money for doing anything in the country—is coming from E.U. funds. Most of these businessmen said they couldn’t afford to hire anybody on the blacklist, because they couldn't afford to do without state contracts. So many, many Hungarians have left. The Hungarian government doesn’t keep emigration figures, but other European countries keep immigration figures—how many moved to Germany, et cetera. And, based on this, my colleague Daniel Kelemen estimates that between eight hundred thousand and a million people left Hungary in the first ten years of Orbán’s term. They’ve lost college students, because Orbán has started to charge tuition at universities, and stopped giving out fellowships. College used to be functionally free in Hungary, until Orbán came to power. Now it’s not. So what happens is that ambitious students learn German and go to free German universities.

The people that he’s lost are largely the Hungarians who would vote against him, because Orbán’s base is like Trump’s base: it’s largely uneducated, it’s rural, it’s people who don’t really have the option to go abroad. In the meantime, he’s given citizenship to ethnic Hungarians in neighboring states. The voting population is about the same, but he lost a million voters who don’t support him and he gained a million voters who do. And he did that by making it almost impossible for the people who left Hungary to vote in Hungarian elections. It’s an incredibly brilliant strategy. So, yes, Orbán’s there because of emigration.

So you’re not sympathetic to Dougherty’s argument that the country has lost people to more prosperous European countries for economic reasons, and that has caused certain resentments from the people who stayed?

The Baltic states have emptied out. Once they joined the E.U., lots of people just moved for the opportunity. Poland lost many of its plumbers, and its working-class tradesmen. There was a mass emigration from Eastern Europe once those countries joined the E.U., in 2004. Not so for Hungary. There were some, but a massive amount waited until Orbán came to power and started this economic drive against his opponents by firing them from any work they could have in the country.

You have offered up some reasons why Orbán may be popular with people on the right around the world, but is there anything else that explains his popularity among right-wingers abroad?

Well, I think the public appeal is all this rhetoric, and the fact that he keeps winning elections. He wins with two-thirds of the seats in the parliament, which is a function of how he rigged the rules. But the other thing is, of course, that he’s become a dictator, and he has concentrated power in his hands. Look at Trumpism: no need for an independent judiciary, because they might go after Trump’s corruption. No need for liberals to be around at all. It is better if you just have one voice screaming in the wilderness. That’s a strongman vision of politics, in which the things we think of as the basic requisites of the democratic order are missing. No need to have a pluralistic free press, because they should just say what the leader says. Orbán has done all of that. Orbán claims to be a man of the masses who is constantly getting reёlected by acclaim. That’s not the story of what’s happened in Hungary. So I worry that Orbán is the complete package. He uses the rhetoric that appeals to the right, the way that Trump’s rhetoric appealed to the right wing of U.S. politics. But underneath it there is a dictator who is running things by himself. I’m concerned that that vision is what’s actually appealing to the American right.

I’m not trying to understate how bad things are, but you don’t see journalists in prison, the way you do in Turkey, for example, and there is some sense that Orbán could lose the next election. So how would you define his regime?

Orbán is the ultimate twenty-first-century dictator. Twentieth-century dictatorships were about ideology and repression: physical repression with this detestable ideology. Twenty-first-century authoritarianism works through economic means rather than physical means. So economic coercion is everywhere in Hungary. But, if you went there on vacation, you would never guess that it’s a dictatorship. And that’s because the way that Orbán exercises control is through money. Orbán has eliminated the system of welfare and unemployment insurance and so on, so that you only get those things if you pass his litmus test. With the media, his oligarchs have bought out all the media that were critical of him. They’ve consolidated the banking sector in their hands.

And so this is the new form of oppression. It doesn’t look like oppression if you’re on the streets of Budapest. But if you live there and you have no money and you can’t get an income because no one will hire you, then what happens? You have to leave. So, it’s a combination of regulatory adjustments, but mostly it’s economic measures, and those are not very visible. Human-rights groups are not really attuned to tracking those the way that they would track journalists in jail.

I’ve read in your articles that you think that the opposition has to fully unite to beat Orbán. And the opposition has indeed done a fair amount of uniting, and there is an election next year.

One of the ways that Orbán governed was by positioning himself in the middle of the Hungarian spectrum, at least as his rhetoric goes. For the opposition to defeat him, they had to unite all of the other political parties. There is the Socialist Party, which is the former Communist Party and now has no Communists in it. Anybody who was a former Communist under the old regime is in Orbán’s party, not in the Socialist Party. And then there are some liberal parties, and there’s a little Green Party. And then there’s the former neo-Nazis, Jobbik, who have moved a bit toward the center. In order for the opposition to win, given the way the election system is structured, all those parties have to work together. And after ten years of Orbán, they’ve finally decided to. In Tucker Carlson’s interview, Carlson said, “The former Communists are allied with anti-Semites, and they’re running against you.” And then Orbán said, “You see, I’m the only sane guy around.”

Orbán is now trying to defeat the coalition by coming up with wedge issues. The L.G.B.T.Q. law, which has generated a lot of opposition in Europe, is one of those wedge issues. Jobbik, the far-right party, was enthusiastically in favor of that law, and all the parties to Orbán’s left were opposed to it. The whole reason for bringing that up was to deepen a wedge in that coalition.

That said, Orbán has run out of room. He needs E.U. money to survive, and the E.U. has finally put in place a system through which they could cut funds to him—and there seems to be enough support to do that. If that happens, he doesn’t have all this money to give out to his cronies. So what he’s been doing in the last six months is setting up an alternative economic structure that will support him and his oligarchs while bankrupting the Hungarian state. They’ve given billions upon billions of dollars of state property to a set of newly created private foundations, which are run by Orbán’s loyalists. These private foundations escape public audit. You can’t get at them with freedom-of-information requests. And all but five of the universities in Hungary have been put into these so-called public-interest foundations, and the foundations can spend their resources any way they want. They’ve been given shares in the state oil company, for example, and they’ve been given lakes and resorts.

That’s what makes me think Orbán may realize, first of all, that a united opposition may, in fact, defeat him—and that maybe it’s a good thing for Orbán if they do, because then he can play victim, and he could say, “Look, I’m not a dictator. The opposition won.” But as soon as they come to power, he can bankrupt the state.

What has the opposition learned over the past decade?

The only way you can win is if you don’t have the typical three-way split in Hungarian politics. There’s been a split between a center right, a center left, and then a far right. It’s like a triangle instead of a bipolar system. And Orbán was benefitting from the fact that the population splits almost evenly between far right and center left when they’re not voting for him. So that’s why the far-right and the center-left parties only have a chance of winning against Orbán in those single-member districts if they join together. Orbán thought it would never happen, and for ten years, it didn’t happen. Then, gradually, as this autocracy starts choking everybody, it choked Jobbik, the far-right party, too. They had a big internal battle and moved much more toward the center, which made it possible for these left parties to work with them.

But here’s the problem: they can win an election, but can they govern? Orbán’s created a legal structure that makes it almost impossible for the opposition to govern. For as long as Orbán has two-thirds of the parliament, he can amend the constitution every day. So, he amended the constitution to say that the law on his private foundations is a constitutional law. If the opposition wins, it will not win with two-thirds in this system; it’ll win a bare majority, and then it can’t change these private foundations, which are going to be the thing that will give Orbán all his money when he’s out of power. your social media marketing partner