THR Web Features   /   September 14, 2022

Why American Conservatives Get Viktor Orbán So Wrong

Hungary is neither a success story nor an authoritarian country.

Adam Kovach

( Conservative Political Action Conference meeting in Dallas, Texas, August 4, 2022. MTI/Vivien Cher Benko.)

Early in August, Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, travelled to Dallas to address the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) with the goal of building an alliance between Hungarian and American conservatives. His speech “How We Fight,” ostensibly a lesson in winning electoral strategies of his governing party, Fidesz, began with the reasonable question: Why exactly should conservatives want to fight? Orbán outlined a nightmare vision of Western nations in demographic decline, threatened by both non-Western migrants and woke elites who neither dare nor care to preserve their culture and Christian heritage. Defense of the West requires strong nationalist governments that curb immigration, support traditional families in order to grow native populations and transmit national culture and values, and protect children from untraditional views about sexuality and gender. As promised, Orbán revealed as well as demonstrated key ingredients of his recipe for success: Have enemies. Identify and vilify them. Present their agendas simply, magnifying mistakes and weaknesses. Be openly pro-family, pro-God, and pro-country. Once in power, use referenda to claim mandates for your policies. Most suggestively, “play by your own rules.”

The CPAC speech was broadcast live on Hungarian television, with commentators calling it an opening address and a major foreign policy achievement. In truth, Orbán appeared in the middle of the conference program. His audience was enthusiastic, but the room was half full. Elsewhere, news coverage of Orbán’s speech followed an established pattern. Western media coverage of Hungary has been at a historic peak for the past eight years and is out of proportion with the country’s size and economic or military strength. It is also highly critical of the Orbán regime. In the United States, a few nationalist conservatives, notably Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson, pass on uncritically Orbán’s claim that Hungary provides a model of successful conservative government, but most of the press routinely styles Orbán as an autocrat and Hungary’s government as far-right and authoritarian. Many liberal commentators consider Orbán a more competent and therefore more dangerous version of Trump. In their nightmare vision, CPAC’s hospitality was a step toward the “Orbánization of America.”

Orbán’s reasons for coming to Dallas are entwined with Hungary’s reputation problem. At CPAC, Orbán claimed he needs foreign allies to help him face enemies he has earned from his domestic success. There is truth in this, though Orbán omits important details from the story. The phobic rhetoric on display in Dallas has served Orbán well in Hungarian politics by drawing voters away from ultranationalist parties to Fidesz, without alienating centrist voters. However, it alienates centrist European leaders. The EU government has delayed and threatened to withhold financial assistance from Hungary for disregarding rule-of-law, although the primary offense is not policy on immigration, family or gender but distribution of EU development funds through no-bid contracts to businesses whose owners have friendly or familial relations with Fidesz politicians. Orbán has responded by offering support and inspiration to foreign nationalist conservatives in the hope that they will come to power and strengthen Hungary’s position within the EU.

Yet there is more to the story. Orbán’s grandstanding goes beyond what he plausibly needs for domestic success. Notably, no other European leader has openly taken sides in the electoral politics of a superpower. The degree of risk-taking seems inexplicable unless one takes the peculiarities of Hungarian nationalistic pride into account. Fidesz politicians and commentators have claimed that Hungary offers a new conservative model of government since 2010 when the party won its first parliamentary supermajority and replaced Hungary’s constitution. Many Hungarians dismiss this as empty posturing, but many others believe their prime minister is bringing their country deserved recognition. Orbán may need allies because of Hungary’s reputation, but by now, that reputation derives partly from his attempts to create allies.

Posing as a conservative thought-leader has brought Orbán some admirers and many critics. Both sides would do well, however, to look beyond his personality and rhetoric and more closely at Hungary’s allegedly conservative model of government. This requires abandoning familiar, simple narratives. Hungary is neither a success story nor an authoritarian country. In a Fox News interview, Orbán boasted that Hungary’s economy is booming, the population is growing, and Christian families from Western Europe are beginning to seek refuge there. Tucker Carlson responded with stern nodding. In fact, Hungary’s economic performance is middling in comparison to other former Soviet-bloc and Yugoslav countries. In spite of tax relief and financial assistance to traditional families, the birthrate holds steady below the European average. Meanwhile, thousands of educated and skilled Hungarians continue to leave the country for employment elsewhere in the EU, while others, many of them poorer ethnic Hungarians from countries to the east, take their places.

From the other side, the charge of authoritarianism is not so much false as vague and contaminated by association with dictatorship and totalitarianism. It is all too easy for Orbán’s supporters to dismiss legitimate criticism when it is framed in this way. Even his domestic opponents reject this characterization. Hungarians are free to engage in political activity including public protests and Hungarian elections have real consequences. Observers from the EU confirm voters had a genuine chance to unseat Orbán but chose instead to give Fidesz a fourth parliamentary supermajority. Although Fidesz has great advantages in access to media and advertising, it is doubtful they were decisive. Calling Hungary “authoritarian” unfairly diminishes Hungarian citizens’ responsibility for their government and, by extension, for their country’s reputation and any trouble it brings them.

It is more apt to characterize the Hungarian model as a fusion of clientelism and ethnic nationalism. In a clientelist system, politicians provide benefits to constituents in exchange for political support. The Orbán regime leads an extensive clientelist network that critics derisively call the National Cooperation System or “NER,” by its Hungarian acronym. The NER enriches Fidesz politicians and their associates and hinders opponents from advancing in business or public endeavors. Complete control over public sector appointments, spending, legislation, and the courts gives the regime influence throughout Hungary’s economic and cultural spaces. Loyalists hold leadership positions in business, media, academia, athletic, artistic, and professional organizations. Ethnic nationalists consider it a legitimate and important aim of government to promote and prioritize the interests of a nation understood as a particular community with a common language, culture, and history. Fidesz politicians routinely justify policies on such grounds. To the extent that they acknowledge the NER’s existence, they claim it protects Hungarian sovereignty by keeping Hungarian assets in Hungarian hands.

Choosing appropriate concepts to describe the Hungarian model illuminates the failures liberal critics have identified as well as the damage done to Hungarian politics and culture. Bigotry has passed beyond politically advantageous rhetoric into laws preventing adoption by same sex couples and restricting education on topics of sex and gender. Fidesz control of traditional media has relegated independent and opposition sources of news and information to the Internet. Control of the courts ensures that government spending is shielded from oversight. Such developments are not only morally repugnant. They are part of a winner-takes-all approach to politics and government that sustains the NER at the price of internal division and resentment. Support for Fidesz is strongest among older, less educated, and rural voters, while opposition parties win majorities in cosmopolitan Budapest. Orbán’s recipe for success alienates and thwarts the aspirations of many talented Hungarians.

Clientelism plus ethnic nationalism makes an unlikely model for the United States. From an American perspective, clientelism is institutionalized corruption. There is no clear path to it in a country with a vast, diversified economy and a tradition of resistance to government interference in markets. Even warnings of a planned Trumpist purge of the “deep state” federal bureaucracy envision nothing like the NER. A closer look at Hungarian nationalism also shows that it is far removed from American concerns. Orbán claims that when he says “Hungary first” he aligns with Trump, who says “America first.” But the similarity is superficial. Each nation’s self-absorption is different, focusing the gaze on a particular history, language, and culture.

Hungarians have maintained their unique language and culture through occupation and dependency on foreign powers for most of the past five hundred years. In the twentieth century, Hungary found itself on the losing side in both world wars, resulting in major loss of territory and leaving many Hungarians to live as ethnic minorities in the neighboring countries. It is no wonder popular English language histories of Hungary have titles like The Will to Survive and A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat. Hungarians are keenly aware of this history of loss and dependency. Orbán exploits it as a source of grievance and fear. When he calls Syrian refugees “Muslim invaders,” Hungarians know he likens them not to contemporary jihadists but the Ottoman Turks who conquered Hungary in the sixteenth century. He elicits fear not of terrorism but of cultural extinction.

It is not unreasonable to question whether there is a reasonable component to this fear, and what Hungary’s government may legitimately do in the name of preserving culture. There is no comparable question in the American context. Americans are a nation of immigrants who count themselves among history’s winners, speak the world’s dominant language, and their culture blends into an emerging worldwide culture of the Internet. Orbán himself points out what should be a consequence: “It never enters the mind of an American…that they might be the last to turn out the light, but this always comes up for us.”

Even if demagogues from different countries have different goals and exploit different grievances and fears, the convergence of rhetoric and strategy in Hungarian and American politics is alarming. But I would like to offer three reasons why Orbán’s repeated electoral success would be difficult to reproduce in the United States. First, American conservatives face a strong opposition united in a single party led by capable politicians. In contrast, the Hungarian political landscape is fragmented. In the recent parliamentary election, Fidesz faced an opposition coalition of six small parties from across the political spectrum. Their supporters agreed on little of substance except the need to oust Orbán. Many Hungarian voters have strong reservations about Fidesz but consider it their best option for a functioning government. Second, Hungary and the United States are at different stages in the culture wars. Crudely phobic rhetoric alienates a larger share of the electorate in America than in Hungary. Finally, Americans still have higher expectations of their leaders and the democratic process than do Hungarians. Government corruption was a main campaign issue for the opposition in the last Hungarian election. Tellingly, the Fidesz supporters I spoke with during the campaign never denied the Orbán regime is corrupt. Rather, they insisted any alternative government would be no less so.

Hungary under the leadership of Viktor Orbán has become a canvas for the projection of hopes and fears about the future of democracy in the West. So far, this has served to sharpen the perceptions of neither Hungarian nor American politics. Hungary’s distinctive history, culture, and political landscape make it unlikely that either the Hungarian model of government or Orbán’s particular form of political success could be replicated by American conservatives. Unfortunately, it does not follow that those concerned about the future of democracy in the United States should rest easy. Precisely because they face strong, united opposition, and a majority of Americans do not share their worldview, Trumpist Republicans may have reason to play by their own rules in ways that Orbán and Fidesz do not share.