What American conservatives really admire about Orbán’s Hungary

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Tucker Carlson’s decision to spend last week broadcasting from Hungary and reciting nightly love letters to the country’s prime minister Viktor Orban on Fox News has predictably provoked an intense reaction.

Many critics see this as the latest sign of a growing fondness for authoritarianism and even fascism on the American right. The drift toward Caesarism is very real, as I’ve examined on more than one occasion in recent weeks. Yet conservative admiration for Orban has other sources, and it’s crucial to recognize the difference.

For one thing, Orban’s Fidesz Party has actually won elections by wide pluralities — and, if a unified anti-Fidesz opposition holds together, it runs the serious risk of going down to defeat in next year’s parliamentary elections. (Benjamin Netanyahu was unseated in Israel a few months ago by precisely such a unified opposition.) Suffice it to say that a government that comes to power by election and then faces the prospect of being booted from office through the same means can hardly be described as a tyranny.

Other critics do somewhat better in seeking to understand the infatuation for Orban on the American right in somewhat less incendiary terms. The Washington Post’s Daniel Drezner speaks for many in reducing the allure to “simple” admiration for a leader who uses “legal means to punish his enemies, rig the system in his favor, and stay in power for more than a decade.”

It is certainly true that Hungarian elections are less than fully free and fair, with the Fidesz Party controlling something on the order of 90 percent of the country’s media and with harassment of journalists who try to investigate government corruption increasingly widespread. That’s a good part of the reason why liberals across the Western world, myself included, hope Orban and his party are soundly defeated next year.

Yet that isn’t what American conservatives talk or think about when they look to Budapest for inspiration. Ross Douthat comes closer to the mark when he suggests that it is mainly fear of an intolerant progressivism at home that has driven the American right to embrace the Hungarian prime minister — as exactly the kind of strong-man protector they need to defend themselves against the left.

But that doesn’t go far enough. Grasping what Orban really signifies for the right requires going beyond mere defensiveness to reflect on the high hopes he has raised for pushing back on and even reversing gains for the progressive left in recent years and decades.

Belief in moral progress is ubiquitous on the left and broadly pervasive throughout American culture (and the culture of the Western world more generally). Even most advocates of critical race theory would concede that the U.S. today is a better place than it was when Black Americans were held as slaves, with the rights exercised by the country’s white citizens summarily denied them. First there were the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, which brought emancipation and the promise of full political equality. That promise went largely unfulfilled for a hundred more years, until the civil rights movement finally goaded the government into backing it up, which, despite frequent setbacks and continued struggles for racial justice and equality, it mostly has.

But progress has been bigger than the history of African Americans. Women fought for and won the right to vote and then demanded more than the franchise, including reproductive freedom and much greater equality at home, in the workplace, and in other social settings. Gays and lesbians have likewise called for and received protections and the right to marry, which has been followed in recent years by a movement for transgender rights.

Then there’s immigration. Wave after wave of immigrants has come to the United States from far-flung regions of the world, faced obstacles, and then made the country their home, expanding the bounds of American citizenship to include people from across the globe. Today there is widespread support, if not for open borders, then for allowing people fleeing political persecution and seeking a better economic future to be allowed in, and a reluctance to deport people who make it into the country and set down roots here, even if they arrived in defiance of immigration law.  

Put it all together and we’re left with a story of moral progress on multiple dimensions that serves as a kind of theodicy for most left-leaning Americans, and even for many on the center right. It’s a story of the providential unfolding of justice in the world rather than an expression of a series of contestable political positions from which one could legitimately dissent. Politics is supposed to be about the size of government and what policies it pursues. Journalist Matthew Yglesias spoke for many when he tweeted last week, “Just on a personal level, I miss when politics was more about tax/spending issues and think we should bring that back.”

Plenty of Republican officials felt the same way until quite recently. That’s what politics was mostly about from Ronald Reagan through the administration of George W. Bush, despite some (mostly rhetorical) bones thrown to social conservatives along the way.

But now, politics has become about something much bigger than public budgeting and policy formation. It’s about fundamental questions of national identity. Who gets to be a citizen? Is American history a story of founding sin with thoroughgoing redemption achieved only at the end, in the fullness of time? Or was the country founded in great acts of virtue from which we’ve subsequently declined? What ways of life and ideals should be valorized and demonized in our public life and by public institutions?

The left has trouble accepting that these questions can be open to legitimate political dispute because its moral convictions are so strongly held that any dissent from the progressive side of the argument seems self-evidently archaic (a doomed throwback to more primitive times) or an expression of outright evil that must be defeated at all costs. This assumption is so deeply embedded in leading American institutions and the people who work in them that for many the idea of taking another view seems unthinkable. The result has been that, for all the shifting of ideological debate around taxes and government spending over the past half century, the moral drift of American culture has been exclusively in the progressive direction.

Until 2016, that is, when the outcome of the Brexit vote and then Donald Trump’s electoral victory seemed to show that it might be possible to halt the leftward move of the ratchet and even push it back a few clicks. For many conservatives, it was as if they had at long last been given a megaphone with which to announce to the world that history doesn’t inexorably move only in one direction — that it’s possible to wrest control of the rudder and make the ship of state turn sharply to the right.

That’s where Orban and Hungary come in.

Trump’s big win was thrilling for many on the American right, and his four-year-long act of trolling the left (“owning the libs”) was enormously satisfying while it lasted. But other than appointing a slew of conservative judges to the federal courts, it’s not clear how much long-term change he accomplished.

Orban’s rule in Hungary has been different. He’s imposed stringent limits on immigration, pushed back hard on efforts to mainstream progressive views of sexuality and gender, and instituted an aggressive pro-natalist policy. It’s far too soon to judge the effects of these changes, but they are undeniably efforts to enact a culturally conservative agenda that would reverse the moral and social trends of recent decades.

That is what American conservatives admire about Orban. They don’t see him as a corrupt autocrat they can emulate. They see him as someone who unapologetically fights and wins culture war battles from the right — who shows it’s possible not just to halt the leftward ratchet but to reverse its course.

I know where I stand — on the side of those who’ve won their rights. I want an America open to the world and willing to extend the blessings of liberty to all of our fellow citizens. Yet I don’t consider the effort to oppose or limit these cultural and political developments illegitimate, provided those who make that effort agree to wage the battle democratically, by seeking to win majority support and accepting the results if they ultimately fail in the effort.

Far more ominous than admiration for Orban on the American right is the rise of arguments in favor of disregarding the need to prevail at the ballot box — of seizing and exercising political power in the name of a right-wing cultural agenda regardless of what the majority prefers and supports.

That really would be an effort to impose a form of tyranny on the United States, and something far worse than anything Orban has attempted. American conservatives very much need to keep that crucial distinction in mind. Either they will persuade a majority (or strong plurality) of Americans to support their ambitions to turn back cultural progressivism or they will confront a different and much more dangerous choice — between remaining a part of America’s democratic polity despite losing on the issues that matter most to them or setting out on a quest to prevail by other, explicitly anti-democratic means.


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