Hungarian Rhapsody: The Right Dreams of an “American Orbánism”

Hungarian Rhapsody: The Right Dreams of an “American Orbánism”

Hungarian Rhapsody: The Right Dreams of an “American Orbánism”

Whether it’s a new variation of “the socialism of fools” or the same old fascist shell game, the Hungarian leader’s illiberal democracy has the American right under its spell.


Three of the biggest news stories in the United States are the erosion of reproductive freedom (with the Supreme Court on the cusp of ending the constitutional right to abortion), the surge in racist violence (with the myth of a “great replacement” of white people by immigrants evidently fueling the alleged shooter in the massacre in Buffalo that left 10 people dead), and the increasing authoritarianism of the GOP (with Republican primaries elevating many candidates who echo former president Donald Trump’s election lies and are committed to thwarting future elections). These might seem like distinct issues, but they are in fact strands of the same rope, the cord that could strangle American democracy.

To see how these three disparate threats are connected, you have to turn your attention away from the United States and look at Hungary, where the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), far and away the most influential conservative conference in the USA, held its annual meeting last week.

The very fact that CPAC was meeting in Budapest is itself a testament to the outsize sway that Hungary Prime Minister Victor Orbán has gained over the American right. Orbán enjoys a near-mythic status thanks to tales of his alleged success in revitalizing the Hungarian birth rate, fending off migrants, and thwarting the political left by pushing back against institutional and legal norms. Recently reelected for his fourth straight term, Orbán bestrides not only the Hungarian polity but also the imaginative world of the political right. By the banks of the Danube, Republican activists see a vision of the future it wants to impose on the United States.

Matt Schlapp, head of CPAC, was asked if he agreed with Orbán’s view that immigration is “national suicide.” Schlapp responded by saying that the end of Roe v. Wade might make the need for immigration moot. “If you’re worried about this quote-unquote replacement, why don’t we start there,” Schlapp said. “Start with allowing our own people to live.”

Even with his scare quotes, Schlapp was giving credence to “great replacement” theory and connecting it with worries that “our people” aren’t having enough children. If you read the manifesto of the alleged Buffalo shooter, itself heavily plagiarized from statements by earlier racist killers, you find many of the same themes. The manifesto decries the decline of white fertility and the rise of immigration from non-white countries. It goes on to blame these problems on Jews, naming George Soros as the figure whose “funding for the radical left is majorly responsible for the destruction of our White culture.”

Orbán has engaged in a similar demonization of Soros, an all-purpose punching bag blamed for national decline. In a 2019 speech on demography, Orbán ominously warned, “There are political forces in Europe who want a replacement of population for ideological or other reasons.”

In an important series of articles for The Washington Post on “the Orbanization of America,” columnist Ishaan Tharoor traced the appeal the Hungarian autocrat has for his Yankee acolytes. Orbán’s success is due to not just genuine popular appeal (since 2010, his party has won either a majority or a strong plurality of the vote) but also a reshaping of the rules of democracy via gerrymandering, domination of media monopolies, and patronage. As Tharoor notes, “A program for indefinite majoritarian rule seems underway: Hungary’s prime minister may flout his nation’s commitment to E.U. principles. He may have constructed a powerful network of patronage and crony capitalism to reinforce his rule.”

Thanks to this hollowing out of democracy, Orbán’s conservative coalition has supermajority powers that are unchecked, which the prime minister has used to turn ostensible democracy into a sordid exercise in bullying. Donning the mantle of the personal embodiment of the true nation, Orbán uses demagoguery and legal intimidation to harass migrants, queer people, and anyone who can be associated with Soros (who serves as an omnipresent foil like Emmanuel Goldstein in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four).

Orbán calls his system “Christian democracy.” “Christian democracy is not liberal,” he honestly states. “It is illiberal, if you like.”

It’s that illiberalism that appeals to Orbán’s American fans. Like him, they regard liberal democracy as an existential threat because they believe this system brings in its wake demographic decline, the increasing acceptance of sexual diversity, and displacement of white Christian rule.

Donald Trump spoke at this CPAC via a videolink. Shortly after Trump praised Orbán, a particularly squalid Hungarian racist named Zsolt Bayer took the stage. Bayer, who, as The Guardian notes, “has called Jews ‘stinking excrement,’ referred to Roma as ‘animals’ and used racial epithets to describe Black people,” was a featured speaker at CPAC.

You can get a taste of Orbán’s appeal by listening to a speech delivered at CPAC by a young right-winger, Gavin Wax, president of the New York Young Republican Club (NYYRC), which he proudly identified as the oldest such group in the Republican Party, dating back to 1856. A man of the hard right, as many up-and-coming Republicans are, Wax has gone on a podcast by the white nationalist website VDare, and praised figures like Joseph McCarthy and the British racist politician Enoch Powell, who once predicted that immigration would lead to “rivers of blood.”

“We demand nothing short of an American Orbánism,” Wax, who is himself Jewish, told listeners at CPAC. “We accept nothing less than total victory against the forces that want to subjugate Americans beneath an international cabal of crooks, criminals, and other lowly reprobates.” He listed Orbán’s achievements: “We are so thankful for Hungary because it sets an example and gives hope to beleaguered conservatives worldwide. Hungary has promoted natalism. Hungary has ejected the Soros network from its borders. Hungary has protected its own national borders and protected the interests of Hungarians outside of them. They have kept migrants out and they have halted degeneracy in its tracks.”

He acknowledged that Orbán’s regime has critics, complaining that “Hungary has been subject to attack after attack by the globalist controlled leftist international media for daring to maintain its sovereignty, rejecting so-called liberal democracy.”

Without being explicit, Wax contrasted what he saw as the falseness of “so-called” liberal democracy with the true democracy of Orbánism, whereby the prime minister was the putative avatar of the national will. Orbán, Wax claims, “represents the needs of his people and the will of his people. By rejecting the distant decadent elites and their demented authoritarian fantasies, the prime minister has assembled an impressive constituency that puts his nation on a trajectory that will allow future generations the ability to share a safe, functional and coherent national home.”

Toward the end of his speech, Wax offers a vision of what an American Orbánism might look like: “Sooner rather than later, Americans will follow the Hungarian standard forward. The prime minister has provided us with a road map to follow and we will fearlessly achieve those same goals on our shores. We will establish a form of conservatism that sees the media as the enemy and actually conserves what we hold near and dear. Our national renewal will be preceded by a historic rebuking of not just the soulless Marxists elites of the left but also the greedy, bloodthirsty neoconservatives and neoliberals of the right. They will be exposed, demonized and crushed beneath the waves of a rising tide of populism.”

The populist note that runs through Wax’s speech reflects a common tactic of the post-liberal right to expand the base by appealing to elements of left-wing anti-establishment sentiment. Wax is critical of American foreign policy, including the escalating war in Ukraine. He also, in the manner of a Tucker Carlson or Senator Josh Hawley, takes a few swipes at corporations.

But in practice these sops to the left amount to little. Orbán rose to power in part thanks to Hungarian disillusionment with neoliberalism. But he’s done nothing to break the hold of neoliberalism on actual economic policy. Hungary remains a junior partner in the EU, with an exploited working class providing low-wage labor in a nation dominated by oligarchs.

In truth, Orbán is selling what used to be called, “the socialism of fools.” In other words, he is harnessing popular opposition to capitalism but aiming it against scapegoats like Soros (as well as sexual and ethnic minorities), all in the service of shoring up an increasingly authoritarian status quo.

Orbánism is the same tedious old fascist shell game. American Orbánism is no different.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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