Viktor Orbán's American apologists

The right's love affair with Hungary's nationalistic authoritarianism blows up in its face

Viktor Orban.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Life in liberal democracies can sometimes be a drag.

That's especially so when one's vision of the rightly ordered society consistently falls short at the ballot box, faces opposition from the courts, and comes in for constant abuse by the leading lights of the dominant culture. For those who find themselves on the losing side of political and cultural disputes, there are, broadly speaking, two options: Keep playing the liberal game in the hope of a better outcome down the line — or sign up for a more radical political program aimed at toppling the prevailing order and replacing it with one in which the dissenters might be given a greater share of ruling power.

This is a choice that conservative intellectuals have confronted in recent years, with right-wing anti-liberal movements on the rise at home and across the liberal-democratic world tempting them with the promise of new and expanded horizons. None of these ascendant nationalists and populists has managed to generate more support from American conservatives than Hungary's Viktor Orbán. While those on the center-left and center-right have warned that Orbán and his Fidesz Party were playing with anti-Semitic fire in their unhinged attacks on Jewish financier George Soros, taking direct aim at civil liberties by shutting down opposition news outlets and a prominent university in the capital city of Budapest, and making repeated gestures toward favoring single-party rule, many conservatives swooned — far more than most of them have for President Trump.

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Bestselling author Patrick Deneen has spoken of Orbán's Hungary serving as a model for conservatives in the West and even sat down for a photo op in a book-lined office with the statesman himself. Prominent blogger Rod Dreher has written numerous posts plugging Orbán's anti-liberal political project and passionately defended him against the supposedly malicious smears of Western critics. Author Christopher Caldwell has penned a highly literate essay explaining that Orbán should be considered the "future of Europe." And in the most astonishing example of all, journalist Sohrab Ahmari allowed Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó to use the pages of the New York Post as a megaphone for spreading Fidesz Party propaganda directly to American readers.

I know and respect all of these authors. I count some of them as longstanding friends. I'm therefore eager to know what they think of the alarming (but also completely unsurprising) events of recent days — days during which the Hungarian legislature, which Orbán's party controls with a strong majority, approved an open-ended extension of the previously declared COVID-19-related state of emergency, suspending parliament and elections, giving Orbán the power to rule by decree, and pronouncing that the spreading of "fake news" would be punished by up to five years in prison.

One possibility is that these American conservatives are horrified. Perhaps realizing at long last that they were foolish to place their hopes in Orbán and his anti-liberal movement, they understand now that their center-right and center-left critics were right from the start: The man has long been an enemy of pluralism and freedom, a wannabe dictator waiting for the perfect pretext to snuff out Hungary's liberal democracy after years of systematically weakening its defenses.

In this scenario, Orbán's American cheerleaders should be understood as the latest examples of the "political pilgrims" famously sketched by sociologist Paul Hollander — idealistic and naïve intellectuals who traveled to totalitarian regimes searching for and believing they had found societies more just than their own. The 20thcentury inspired many such journeys on both sides of the political spectrum. Writers and artists traveled to and wrote whitewashed hymns of praise about Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union, Mao's China, Castro's Cuba, Ho Chi Minh's North Vietnam, and many other killing fields. Vladimir Lenin, displaying the distinctive cynicism of the totalitarian dictator, referred to such propagandistically beneficial dupes as "useful idiots."

Understanding the allure and admiring the spiritual sources of political idealism, I am inclined to be far less harsh in my judgment, and certainly more forgiving than many often are. Though only if the mistake is acknowledged and the lesson learned.

But there is of course another possibility — which is that Orbán's American apologists are inclined to go right on apologizing for him, even now. After all, the coronavirus pandemic is an emergency, and maybe they think this one cries out for extraordinary measures on the part of governing authorities. Orbán's aims are still noble, they may believe, even if his tactics are a little crude. Perhaps they are still convinced he was right to challenge Soros, attack globalism, stoke xenophobia, launch and prosecute an ideological crusade against liberalism, pursue aggressive pro-natalist policies, shut down opposition newspapers, and put the common good of the Hungarian people during a public-health crisis ahead of those who would disseminate information the regime deems fake news.

Which way will the conservatives go, I wonder?

It all depends on just how anti-liberal they are ready to become. For years National Review defended the fascist Franco regime in Spain against its many critics. Are contemporary conservatives in favor of treating Orban's nationalistic authoritarianism as a similarly defensible alternative? Just how much do they despise a political system that valorizes liberal journalism, appoints experts credentialized by prestigious secular universities to positions of power, and defers to unelected, busybody bureaucrats who fine-tune national life through the regulatory tentacles of an all-powerful administrative state? And are there any limits to the political forces they would empower to take it on and take it down?

I wish I knew the answer to these questions. Forced by events to answer them, some conservatives will probably recognize that they're political liberals after all and repudiate some of their previous radical talk. But others may opt to go the other way, finally leaving liberal democracy behind for real (as opposed to in the pages of a bracing book).

The time for fudging and fantasies is coming to a close. Important decisions await.

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