After the Chinese Communist Party ground its jackboot on a number of democracy activists in Hong Kong last month — sentencing them to prison terms ranging from eight to 16 months, for the newly posited crime of peaceful protest — the European Union prepared to issue a statement of criticism. But to do so would have required the agreement of all 27 member states, and one refused: Hungary.
So the EU tried again earlier this month. As the South China Morning Post reports, the member states’ foreign ministers were set to discuss twelve possible measures in response to Beijing’s crackdown, including “a full review” of relations with Hong Kong, a reexamination of extradition treaties with China, and various forms of engagement with Hong Kong’s civil society. But again Hungary objected, drawing a public rebuke from the German foreign minister, and again the plans were shelved.
Depressing. But also consistent. When in March the EU imposed sanctions on Beijing over its genocidal treatment of East Turkestan’s Uyghur people, the government in Budapest did not block the measure. But it trumpeted its displeasure by calling the sanctions “pointless, self-promoting, and harmful” and hosted China’s defense minister a few days later.
Depressing. But also perplexing. One might have expected the giving of a damn by the government of a nation that itself endured two forms of totalitarianism — Nazism and communism — in the 20th century and whose prime minister, Viktor Orbán, was a courageous leader of anti-communist resistance. As any former dissident ought to know, sanctions and statements of criticism are not “pointless”; even words can hearten the downtrodden and de-normalize those who tread. The Chinese Communist Party certainly knows that sanctions and words are not pointless, or it would not have fits of performative conniptions every time some government utters a peep against the multiform butcheries that constitute China’s “internal affairs.”
So, to repeat, how can Prime Minister Orbán, having helped secure liberty for his own people, lead a government that is so blasé about the liberty of another people as a tyranny not unlike the ones that Hungarians so lately escaped descends and covers them?
The ideologically minimal possibility is economic self-interest. Hungary receives large sums of Chinese investment, which, one may presume, its government does not want to lose. One might point to Greece — which also receives Chinese investment, and also has blocked criticisms of Beijing — and suggest that there is nothing unique in the Hungarian stance.
The ideologically maximal possibility would involve some kind of philosophic affinity. Not with Chinese communism per se, but with certain aims the CCP has in Hong Kong and its determination to achieve them — and even, in a worst case, with its indifference to individual rights and liberties. Those who see in Orbán’s government an inchoate autocracy incline toward this view.
What I propose is that the possibilities are not as discrete as initially they seem and that both could be traced to the nature of Orbán’s nationalism, which contains a powerful current of illiberalism that should trouble friends of Hungary, friends of Hong Kong, and friends of liberty anywhere.
To understand why, we’ll first need to enjoy a bit of not necessarily deracinated reason.
Nationalisms come in varieties, and not all of them are illiberal. Two features that I take to be part of any nationalism are attachment to and celebration of the nation’s cultural particularities and a tendency to prioritize the nation’s interests above those of other nations. Nationalism in this broad sense is probably inevitable wherever a nation exists.
What liberalism adds to nationalism is the idea that a nation’s attachment to its particularity and pursuit of its interests must be limited by certain rights that inhere in all people just because they are people and by a willingness not to damage other nations’ or individuals’ interests to advance its own.
There is plenty of room for debate about precisely how such rights and interests should be defined and what in practice will constitute a violation or destruction of them, but to illustrate the schema, consider a couple of clear-cut examples: A liberal nationalist will not preserve his nation’s particularity by outlawing forms of speech or association that call for or tend toward cultural change; and he will not invade another nation to plunder its resources. (One might question whether this second example actually requires reference to individuals. Can we not say that liberal nations respect one another as nations? Yes, we may; but if one nation recognizes the value of another, it must be recognizing the value of nations as such to individuals as such. Frenchness is not necessarily valuable to Germans, nor Germanness to Frenchmen; but Germans and Frenchmen can both recognize the value of national identity to the individuals who constitute a nation. A mutually respectful relativistic nationalism reduces to a liberal-individualist nationalism.)
This distinction — between a liberal nationalism that necessarily limits itself and an illiberal nationalism that doesn’t — is an application of a more general truth: Authoritarianism, totalitarianism, and all unjust coercion and violence are carried out in the name of the particular. They always manifest a willingness to discard universally intelligible rights and interests of persons for the sake of interests that are specific to those who do the discarding.
We have already considered two such examples. But the coercion or violence might also be a tyranny of the minority or the formally powerless — as when a subordinate group resorts to terroristic violence in order to press its claims, violating the universal right of innocent persons not to be murdered.
Authoritarianism is obviously of the particular when it represents no interests beyond those of the rulers — as with a kleptocratic junta. Of course, it would not serve the junta’s interests to admit this motivation, which is why it will often cynically harness the nation’s particularist passions for its selfish ends. This is why illiberal nationalism and populist dictatorship go hand in hand.
Alternatively, the rulers may actually believe they are serving their nation’s interests and justify all manner of horrors to themselves on that logic; the rulers of the Axis Powers fall into this category.
But what about communism? Is it not perfectly universal in its claims and yet tyrannical in its deeds? Here we must distinguish between claims presented as universally applicable and claims that refer to universally intelligible rights and interests. Communism indeed claims to present a universal solution to the problem of economic and political organization. But it does so by setting the particular interests of certain classes against those of others, even unto the liquidation of the latter. It remains, in that way, a particularist violation of universal individual rights.
Finally, note that forms of political organization called “liberal” can also be authoritarianisms of the particular. This statement may seem to contradict what I have said above, but it reflects the historical reality that there are two different kinds of political teachings that have gone by that name.
The first, paradigmatically formulated by Locke and in certain dimensions developed in the later work of Rawls (please don’t be triggered), is the liberalism of limits that we have already considered. For Locke, the purpose of politics is to preserve life by safeguarding natural rights (see the Two Treatises of Government); to seek the public good, defined as the good of every individual (same); and to secure freedom of worship (see the Letters concerning Toleration). The later Rawls (in Political Liberalism), in a spirit harmonious with Locke’s thinking about toleration, holds that politics should proceed according to “public reason” — that is, reasons we can all share in virtue of our common citizenship — and should avoid the imposition of any “comprehensive doctrine” of the good and the good life (such as the religions, with their incompatible and indemonstrable revealed claims, or a secularism that would dismantle the religions).
Liberalisms of this broad school recommend a politics that is pluralist and appropriately shallow — even transactional. They recognize the obvious fact that we will not all share the same deep commitments or be capable of rationally demonstrating the truth of their correlated beliefs. Politics is, then, the art of coexisting with people who do not agree with us in all answers to the questions of life. It secures the space for us to live according to our commitments, provided we grant others the same space, and then it gets out of the way. By extension, it includes an inviolable space for the pre-political associations that often express our free choices or deep commitments — things such as churches, secular civil-society organizations, or family and kin groups. On the other hand, if you want to atomize yourself, go right ahead. That’s your right, too.
The other sort of liberalism — the classic source of which is Rousseau, with his notions of the necessarily corrupting influence of society — wishes to liberate the individual from traditional forms of association into which he may have been born. This will enable him to express his natural goodness and attain “true” freedom in the form of independence from inherited custom. While claims of this sort are, like Marxist dogmas, meant to apply universally, their substance is particularist in that they prescribe a hostile stance toward the traditional rather than maintaining neutrality toward the traditions as long as they are not literally coercive.
This can lead in practice to the view that traditional forms of association must be dismantled — at the extreme, by guillotining nuns and converting Notre-Dame into a temple of atheism, a temple of Deism or, perhaps best of all, a warehouse. France ultimately thought better about that, but to this day the contrast between the American principle of religious non-establishment and the French principle of pervasive laicité points to the stark difference between these two strains of liberalism. The Rousseauian type, to apply Rawls’s terminology, makes of liberalism a comprehensive doctrine meant to govern all of life and not just limit politics. From the perspective of the first liberalism, the shallow and transactional liberalism of limits, this second liberalism is precisely illiberal.
Enough of abstractions; thank you for reading this far, all five of you. Feel free to pause and make yourself a cup of tea or take a little walk — I hear the weather is nice this time of year in much of the Northern Hemisphere.
Let’s take a closer look at Hungary now — its laws, its prime minister’s rhetoric, and its political practice — and relate what we see to what we have just said about liberalism and nationalism.
To American ears, what’s striking about Hungary’s “Basic Law” (PDF) — i.e., its constitution, adopted in 2011 — is the presence of expressly nationalist ideas that enshrine the nation’s cultural particularity. In this it differs from the American Constitution, which does not mention the cultural nation and, beyond setting up the mechanics of government, simply establishes certain limits on what that government may do. It is purely liberal.
But the Basic Law is not obviously illiberal, because it includes protections for individuals who do not conform to the majority culture, and in non-specific terms it acknowledges minority traditions.
For example, the “National Avowal,” a preamble, says that the “members of the Hungarian nation . . . recognize the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood,” and the Basic Law was amended in 2018 to state that “the protection of Hungary’s constitutional self-identity and Christian culture is the obligation of all organs of the state.” But the National Avowal simultaneously values “various religious traditions” and guarantees that “every person shall have the right to thought, conscience, and religion,” a right that includes “the freedom for every person to proclaim, refrain from proclaiming, profess, or teach his or her religion,” in public or in private, “individually or jointly with others.”
Similarly, the National Avowal presents Hungarian history as the history of the Magyar people, dating to King Saint Stephen’s consolidation of them under his dominion a thousand years ago. (In English translation, the ethnocentric character of this idea does not come across as it should, since “Hungary” is an exonym derived from Medieval Latin. The Hungarian word for “Hungary” is “Magyarország.”) The National Avowal promises “to preserve the intellectual and spiritual unity of our nation,” and commits to “promoting and safeguarding our heritage, our unique language, [and] Hungarian [i.e., Magyar] culture.” But the National Avowal also acknowledges that “the nationalities” — plural — “living with us form part of the [Magyar] political community and are constituent parts of the [Magyar] state,” and promises to promote and safeguard “the languages and cultures of nationalities living in [Magyarország].”
There are nonetheless obvious tensions between the particularist nationalism and the pluralist liberalism. In a constitution of the American sort, national culture is not denied, but it is placed beyond the reach of politics and left to its own development. But in the Hungarian case, the dominant particularities are named and made definitionally essential, while minorities go unnamed and are lumped into the general category of those who “live with” the Magyars. Suppose, then, that a minority religion, already present, proselytizes too well, or that a minority culture out-reproduces the majority. May its liberties be curtailed to sustain the dominance of the Christian Magyars? Does preservation of Christian-Magyar national identity require that certain minorities be kept always minorities — and what might be required to achieve that outcome? These are possibilities that have not arisen in Hungary. But a constitution must take a long view, and it is conceivable that the Hungarian people, through their free choices, might someday develop in ways that show the National Avowal’s normative commitments to be incoherent.
If so, then as a legal matter the cultural particularism cannot simply be disregarded. As the Hungarian constitutional lawyer and Orbán critic András L. Pap notes in his 2018 book Democratic Decline in Hungary, the National Avowal is more than a “festive declaration.” That is because the Basic Law goes on to assert (Article R, Section 3) that its specific provisions shall be interpreted not only in accordance with their own purposes but also in accordance with the National Avowal and “the achievements of our historical constitution” — the historical constitution being the one that King Saint Stephen established. As Pap also notes, Article I, Section 3, says that fundamental rights may be restricted “to defend any constitutional value” — such as those in the National Avowal — “to the extent absolutely necessary, in proportion to the desired goal and in respect of the essential content of such fundamental right.” But suppose the essential content conflicts with a constitutional value, its associated goal, and the necessary means of achieving it. Here the potential incompatibility of pluralist liberalism and Christian-Magyar nationalism is not just thematically reprised but legally operationalized.
If we turn now from the Basic Law to Viktor Orbán’s rhetoric, we find the tension accentuated.
Consider the following statements of the prime minister’s, which are highly representative of many other things he has said: “We do not want a multicultural society”; “we regard it to be a value that Hungary is a homogeneous country and that it shows a very homogeneous face in its culture, way of thinking, and customs of civilization”; “Hungary has a multi-nationality root system and cultural background, but this is not multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is the cohabitation of people of various civilizations, the coexistence of Islam, Asian religions, and Christianity. We will do everything under our power to spare Hungary from this. We gladly see investors, artists, and scientists arriving from non-Christian countries, but we do not want to mix with them at the level of large masses of people.”
What troubles me as I read these words is their elision of a pluralist middle ground. In the usual understanding, pluralism is the melting pot: People of different national origins, through a process of natural and gradual intermingling and cultural development within a single state, forge a common culture — not necessarily abandoning their heritage or giving up their distinctiveness, but also not establishing any particular heritage as formally dominant. Multiculturalism also denies that any particular heritage will be dominant, but it omits the common culture. Instead, large populations of different, mostly unmixed and unassimilated peoples will lead parallel existences within the same state — equal, perhaps, but in any case separate.
Now Orbán’s references to “cohabitation” and “coexistence” are ambiguous between pluralism and multiculturalism. And his aversion to mixing “large masses of people” should be understood in the context of Europe’s recent migration crisis and the prior difficulties that the presence of large and largely unassimilated Muslim populations has produced in Western European countries. (One of the problems with mass migration for a liberal-of-limits, in fact, is that multiculturalism might strengthen not just rightist xenophobia but also, in certain cases, the illiberal sort of liberalism — for instance, by inducing the French to double down on laicité and ban head scarves in schools and burkinis at the beach, or the Danish to remove “ghetto children” from their homes for 25 hours of weekly instruction in “Danish values.”)
So far, so ambiguous. But it is hard to understand Orbán’s wish to preserve Hungary’s “very homogeneous face” and avoid large-scale mixing of peoples — by means of “everything under our power,” no less — in pluralist terms. This is, first, because communities practicing Islam and Asian religions, not to mention Judaism, already exist in Hungary and may grow into “masses” (even if remaining minorities) unless artificially hindered from doing so. And second, it is not realistic for an economy and society engaged with the broader world to welcome so trivial a number of “investors, artists, and scientists” that they will leave no trace. Some will remain. Some will bring their families. Some will intermarry with the native population. Others will depart but leave behind their ideas and influences. This may all happen quite slowly, but the way for a nation to preserve its “very homogeneous face” by means of “everything under [its] power” is either to become a closed autarky or to restrict the liberties of the guests it supposedly welcomes. If we take Orbán’s words seriously, not just multiculturalism but pluralist cultural evolution is not welcome. What policies such a stance might require in the fullness of time is anyone’s guess, but one doubts they would be pleasant.
It is already possible to point to ways in which the protection of particularist constitutional values has yielded troubling legal developments, albeit ones that do not — as András Pap, the constitutional lawyer, concedes in his book — involve “disregard for individual liberties” or “blatant denial of fundamental rights (such as habeas corpus, free speech, et cetera).”
In 2018, the government amended the Basic Law to provide that “alien peoples cannot be settled in Hungary.” The same year, it passed legislation, now challenged in the European Court of Justice (ECJ), that made it a misdemeanor punishable with jail time to provide assistance to asylum-seekers who have not been persecuted in their home countries or a country they passed through on the way to Hungary. And the previous year the parliament enacted a law, which the ECJ has ruled against, that required NGOs in receipt of foreign funding above a certain threshold to register with the government, disclose their donors, and label themselves on their websites and in all their publications as organizations “in receipt of support from abroad.” The U.S. State Department criticized this law prior to its passage.
It is possible to look at some of these provisions from angles that make them appear defensible.
Every nation has a right to control its borders and prevent sudden and destabilizing mass immigration, and the Hungarian constitutional amendment came after Middle Eastern migrants in the six figures had arrived in Europe, often passing through Hungary on the way to Germany.
It is reasonable to discourage individuals from helping others to circumvent the law (as by pressing an invalid asylum claim).
And as even the ECJ noted in ruling against the NGO law, it is not in principle unjust to require organizations that influence public life to disclose their funding sources.
But one can easily see things in a less flattering light.
How many individuals constitute an “alien people,” and why cannot the constitutional amendment someday be read to preclude all asylum and immigration?
How can an NGO worker know whether someone claiming asylum is telling the truth? Is it not (as the ECJ advocate general noted) the role of the government to adjudicate such claims? And will the threat of being jailed not chill, or freeze, the provision of assistance even to legal refugees? As András Pap has told me, NGO workers routinely use Faraday packs because they worry that the government will intercept their cellular data.
And is the NGO law’s disclosure and self-identification requirement not easily seen as an effort to intimidate donors and to delegitimize the organizations they support — many of which advocate on behalf of asylum-seekers — as non-Magyar?
The period in which these laws were passed saw a campaign of state-funded advertisements attacking Hungarian émigré George Soros, who had supported such organizations, in transparently xenophobic and arguably anti-Semitic terms. The parliament also passed a law whose primary effect was to force the Central European University, which Soros had founded, and which Orbán demeaned as “Soros University,” to move most of its degree-granting programs to Vienna. (On the other hand, Orbán is more than happy to welcome a Chinese-state university and spend $1.5 billion on the construction of its campus. Perplexing.)
It is not hard to perceive, in the totality and context of these initiatives, a curdling of the Basic Law’s nominally if ambiguously liberal nationalism into something illiberal: an effort to remove from effective participation in public life certain institutions and individuals whose judgment of the political good differs from dominant notions of what Hungarian particularism requires.
Of course, as we said above when imagining the cynical junta, it is also possible to see these moves as no more than pretextually nationalist initiatives whose real purpose is to hobble political opposition to Orbán and his party, Fidesz. And some of the ways in which the government seems to be sidelining critics are not self-evidently reducible to nationalist values.
The systematic co-opting of Hungary’s media may be the most obvious example. The story is long and complex — if you want it in full, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights offered a good summary in March (eliciting these comments from the Hungarian government, which to me seem like comments you would not be surprised to receive from a Frankenstate). The main chapters are these:
All media have been placed under the regulatory authority of a highly centralized administrative body whose membership is in turn under the de jure or de facto control of the government — which in practice means the control of Orbán and his party.
Enforcement of regulations has often appeared to arbitrarily target outlets or broadcasters critical of the government. For example, the license of the government-critical broadcaster Klubrádio was not renewed this year because it had failed to submit certain reports on time — even though similar lapses by radio broadcasters friendly to the government had been overlooked.
Several hundred outlets that were already considered friendly to the government transferred their ownership to a new nonprofit foundation, KESMA, whose CEO is an ally of the prime minister and whose board is composed of members of his party. Thus they were brought under centralized if indirect Fidesz control. The government also issued a decree declaring KESMA to be — I quote the human-rights commissioner — “of ‘national strategic interest’, thereby exempting it from scrutiny by both the competition and media authorities.”
The Hungarian “public service” (i.e., state-owned) media have increasingly excluded viewpoints critical of the government. Journalists working in these media have reportedly been forbidden to make reference to such groups as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
And state advertising contracts, on which the “independent” (i.e., private) media are highly dependent, have mostly and growingly gone to pro-government outlets. In 2020, for example, 86 percent of state advertising went to pro-government media. As Fidesz-skeptical outlets have in consequence collapsed financially, they have often been purchased by allies of the government and remade into supporters. Such was the fate of the last major government-skeptical news website, Index.hu, last November; it now runs “exclusively pro-government storylines,” according to the commissioner.
The usual defense of Orbán is to point to this or that example of some superficially similar practice in the United States or Western Europe. Don’t we know that regulators in the U.S. have sometimes shown bias? Isn’t it true that allies of politicians buy media companies everywhere? And so on.
The total pictures nonetheless differ markedly. The United States and Western Europe have robust and adversarial media cultures in which opposing viewpoints are widely heard. (This is true even of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, where posts by conservative commentators who regularly complain of bias against them are often among the most shared in any given week.) Partiality and corruption exist, but a sentence like this one, again from the commissioner, could not be written here: “Hungary has just one remaining opposition leaning political daily, Népszava, with a circulation of 20,000. By contrast, the government-controlled network of regional daily newspapers alone has a combined circulation of over 200,000.”
And while a defender of the Hungarian government might note that since Hungary “shows a highly homogeneous face to the world” we can only expect homogeneity in its media, it remains true that impediments to natural development away from that homogeneity have been put in place and that what diversity did exist has been diminished.
As in the media, so in other areas of Hungarian politics and civil society. State universities now have rectors and chancellors picked by the central government — as always, this means Fidesz — without the consent of university bodies. The parliament passed a church law that appears designed in part to sideline a prominent Evangelical leader and government critic. The number of justices on the constitutional (supreme) court was raised from eleven to 15, and the retirement age lowered from 70 to 62, with the result that several justices who were not Fidesz loyalists got forced out as the court was packed with new justices who were.
Or consider the enabling act (the Hungarian government wants you to know that the official name was something to do with “COVID”) that was passed last March as the pandemic got going. It was decried in the Anglophone press mainly for its lack of a sunset clause and its authorization of the prime minister to rule by decree. (And rightly so. Here too the defenses of Orbán rarely went beyond pointing out superficial similarities to Western Europe that masked important structural differences. Did we not know that Emmanuel Macron had made use of such acts much more often than Orbán had? Yes, we did — but they had sunset clauses.)
The act did not make Orbán a dictator, as many of the critics feared it would. But it did enable him to issue decrees depriving municipalities of funds that would have gone to opposition parties and transferring these revenue streams to county councils loyal to Fidesz.
In these and other ways, the super-majoritarian electoral successes of Fidesz have been followed by redrawings of the contours of Hungarian political life in ways that entrenched and further magnified those successes. (Yes, American and Western European political parties do some similar things, as when they gerrymander; no, they have not succeeded — and, for structural reasons, cannot succeed — to a remotely comparable degree.)
None of these measures connect with Orbán’s nationalism a specific and explicit way. But they have also come in the context of his long-running equation of his program and his person with the interests of the Hungarian nation itself.
Orbán’s current premiership is his second; after being defeated in 1992, he remarked that he and his supporters, despite their loss, were not in the minority because “the nation cannot be in opposition.” The blunt implication was that his political opponents did not merely disagree as to policy or even principle; they were nothing less than non- or anti-Hungarian. This was a recurring motif of Orbán’s in the years that preceded his return to power, and it has remained one since.
Following its 2010 victory, Fidesz promulgated a “System of National Cooperation” that reprised the theme. The SNC was presented as nothing less than a new social contract and required to be displayed in all government buildings. It asserted that the elections had been a “polling-booth revolution” (another regular formula in the prime minister’s speeches) and that the new parliament was to be “system-founding.” Once again, “the common will of the nation” was not to be “challenged by partial interests.” And a new constitution was to be written, inaugurating this new order of things. Imagine going to the DMV, finding a notice from the Republicans or the Democrats that announces the founding of a new system — one that expresses the allegedly univocal will of the people — and then watching the party enshrine many of its contested policy ideas as our fundamental law.
And doing so by means of a procedural trick.
The pre-2011 constitution — consisting, in the words of Pap, of a “vast amendment” to the still-earlier communist constitution — had widely been seen as provisional. The logic of this design was to allow the mutually distrusting forces of Hungarian political society to work together after the “velvet revolution” that saw a peaceful end to communism; since the process would be gradual, the stakes would be lower and trust could build. But gradualist consensus-building as to constitutional matters was not a Fidesz value. As Pap explains, “a four-fifths majority of MPs” was required “to adopt the procedural rules of the preparation of a new Constitution.” But having won only two-thirds of parliament, Orbán’s coalition lowered the constitutional-rewriting threshold to match. “Thus, the governing coalition . . . eliminated the provision obliging it to cooperate with opposition parties while preparing the new Constitution.” And this despite the fact that “the idea of creating a new political community (or even the adoption of a new constitution) was not part of the political campaign in the elections”; “needless to say, the principles of this new regime were not up for political deliberation either.”
I spoke with Pap last spring, not long after the parliament passed the enabling act. Our conversation had two notable themes.
First, although I had approached Pap with dictatorship on my mind, he was comparatively indifferent to the enabling act: “I don’t see anything new under the sun,” he told me, adding that dictatorship was “a harsh word.” But that didn’t mean I should feel relieved. The enabling act was insignificant only because Orbán had already “showed there’s nothing he cannot do”: “He can pass an emergency law without a sunset clause, which is outrageous — why would you want to do that? But also the parliament will vote for anything.” And although there was no dictatorship, Hungary was “an authoritarian regime without checks and balances” — for the reasons we have discussed.
Second, Pap saw Orbán’s Christian nationalism as pure cynicism: “Orbán doesn’t have an ideology. He is a genius at communicating. But he’s only interested in power and money. He does not believe the things he says about a Christian democracy”: “In 1990, his party was this sort of far, extreme liberal party with making joke of religion and Christian Democrats.”
But when I talked to another prominent Fidesz critic, he took a different view. This was the social psychologist and political scientist Péter Krekó, who directs the opposition think tank Political Capital and on one recent occasion had his words propagandistically distorted by hundreds of pro-government Hungarian media, resulting in his receipt of death threats. “I don’t really believe that we can talk something about the 100 percent cynical, only-rational power machine,” Krekó said. “Some of the depictions of Viktor Orbán is something like that. It’s like Richard III. It’s like ‘I looked into the mirror and I figured out that I am evil.’ . . . I don’t think it’s like that. I think that if Orbán looks in the mirror, he’s pretty convinced that he is doing the right thing for Hungary.”
Krekó sees, instead, an idealistic fanaticism of ends and a cynicism of means. “In politics you can be a fanatic and cynical at the same time, and that’s what I would say about Orbán.”
In the end it doesn’t really matter whether Orbán and Fidesz are cynics, idealists, or some toxic mix. What matters is whether they are subject to structural and social limits that protect individuals singly and in their associations and that allow for meaningful political competition. Viktor Orbán said in 2009 that he sought a politics “no longer defined by a dualist power space.” Whatever his precise motives for wanting that, to a shocking degree it is now his.
A colleague, alarmed by the news out of Hungary, told me a while back that his way of looking at these things was to ask how we’d react if they happened here. New laws from the ground up; a pro-government and partisan homogenization of the media; a packed supreme court; an enabling act with no sunset clause; state-run smear campaigns against government critics and their institutions; etc.
There’s something to that. But the fit is not perfect — and not simply because a parliamentary system differs from our own in ways that concentrate political power; or because the role of state-funded media is vastly smaller in the U.S. than it is not only in Hungary but in many nations that are unambiguously liberal; or because we have no established religion, unlike much of Europe.
Hungary has a peculiar history that is different from ours, and different also from Western Europe’s. There is, to begin with, the transition from communism. Consider how this might affect media practices to this day. America, or even a Western European nation with a larger role for government-funded news sources, has no living memory of completely state-run media, like those of Hungary before the Velvet Revolution. This isn’t to deny that what Orbán and Fidesz have done over the past decade should disturb us. But surely part of what made it happen is that attitudes about the proper relationship between the media and the state are different in Hungary.
Similarly, when Orbán speaks of his parliament as having founded a new system, one should remember that system-changes have been shockingly frequent in Hungary over the past approximate century: from the Habsburgs to the violent and unstable interwar period to the Nazis to the Communists to the post-Communist transitional period to what we see today. This whole modern history has probably led many Hungarians to accept frequent changes of political regime as a fact of life. Orbán has made the idea of a generational system-change one of his rhetorical themes; it complements the idea of the polling-booth revolution. He claims to represent a kind of peaceful democratic-nationalist peaceful refounding.
Consider also that a nation that had been largely traditional and inward-looking suddenly found itself joined to the global economic system and a member of the EU. These new political and economic structures brought with them many of the social and cultural habits of Western Europe, which were perceived as threatening. In addition, they triggered throughout Central Europe a large out-migration of the young and ambitious and were accompanied by cronyism in the privatization of state industries, which created strong and justified impressions of corruption. One can have an appreciation of and fondness for Western Europe while recognizing that these changes were bound to produce a backlash and a desire to protect the traditions and communities of the pre-liberalizing era. (For an in-depth telling of that story, consult the first chapter of The Light That Failed, by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes.) Orbán’s cry of “We will not be a colony!” was nominally about an EU funding dispute. But it also distilled the generally adversarial feelings of many Hungarians toward the West, feelings that Orbán has exhibitionistically embodied to his great political gain and that go far in explaining the effectively mono-party state and slide toward authoritarianism of the past decade.
Finally, one must remember that for arguably its entire history Hungary has had no sustained and ingrained practice of liberalism.
For all these reasons, I must wonder whether Orbán’s Anglophone defenders ironically neglect one of their own characteristic insights: that national culture is of profound consequence and cannot be separated from an analysis and evaluation of the national state’s governing structures.
It is easy to see what an American or Commonwealth observer worried about uncontrolled migration, or the cultural viability of Christianity, or the preservation of national sovereignty, would find attractive about Orbán’s polling-booth revolution. But such an observer nonetheless has marinated since birth in a society whose liberalism he probably takes for granted even as he questions some of its aspects. This might lead him to see Hungary too much according to his own vision of things and fail to appreciate Orbanism’s dangers.
Conservatives in the United States, Great Britain, and continental Western Europe are all, in their ways, struggling with the creeping authoritarianism of the illiberal sort of liberalism — whether in the case of a cake-baker in Colorado, a pro-Brexit Briton, a German who feels no bigotry but thinks a million migrants from another civilization cannot be assimilated at once, or, for that matter, a French Muslim woman who freely embraces her faith’s ideas of modest attire and religious self-disclosure. It is a pressing task for liberals throughout the West today to achieve the practice of a true pluralism in which the shared values of citizenship include the freedom not to share all values.
But whatever reforms are needed, we should not forget that contemporary America is a miracle. The European Union is a miracle. Whether the criterion is standards of living, progress from bigotry to tolerance and injustice to justice, or the likelihood of seeing one’s town or city bombed, shelled, besieged, invaded, or otherwise destroyed, one must have either a very short historical memory or a very impulsive mind to conclude that liberalism has failed and we had better go back to an order in which the rights of individuals are peripheral or unacknowledged. If one had a choice of being born in Boston or Beijing, Minneapolis or Moscow, Paris or Pyongyang, one would be a lunatic to take the latter term of any pair.
They need some nationalism in Brussels, it is true. But what the world needs is liberalism.
Which brings us, at long last, back to Hong Kong.
Recall the ideologically minimal and ideologically maximal interpretations of Hungary’s stance that I mentioned above: that Orbán and Fidesz are simply acting in economic self-interest (minimal) and that they have some sort of philosophic affinity for Xi Jinping and his technocratic goon squad (maximal).
I do not deny that there are many important differences between these possibilities. But either option flows naturally from a governing philosophy rooted in an illiberal nationalism that does not especially concern itself with the rights and interests of people qua just people. (Orbán: “Hungary is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state. It does not reject the fundamental principles of liberalism such as freedom, and I could list a few more, but it does not make this ideology the central element of state organization, but instead includes a different, special, national approach.”)
As I have said, even a liberal nationalism will prioritize the interests of the nation over those of other nations. But a perfectly consistent liberal nationalism, recognizing universal rights and interests, would not have dealings with regimes that systematically infringed the rights and destroyed the interests of anyone. This would include refraining from economic cooperation that strengthened the hands of totalitarians. And refusing to support, indeed blocking, a simple statement of criticism would fall beneath any plausible bar. (It also would violate the National Avowal’s promise to “respect the freedom and culture of other nations,” unless “freedom” means the freedom of the rulers to infringe the natural rights of the ruled. On the other hand, that has long been an aspect of dynastic Chinese political culture, albeit one lately grown worse, and not in a “path-dependent” way, by turning into some horrifying blend of Stalinism and fascism. We discover another ambiguity . . . )
Hesitancy to take a stand against violations of political rights has been something like a reflex for Orbán. For example, he and his government also initially opposed the imposition of new sanctions on Russia in response to the poisoning of democracy activist and investigative journalist Alexei Navalny. Orbán’s stated reasoning for this position was a calculation of self-interest: “We should be very, very tough on the military side in relation to Russia” — i.e., prepared to repulse Russian aggression — “and we should be very cooperative on the trade side.” The first half of that statement is right. But if a nation’s trading practices require silence about Vladimir Putin’s depredations, its “globalism” involves tolerating something much worse than lost manufacturing jobs. Hungary eventually shifted its stance and supported sanctions, and perhaps we will see a similar development regarding Hong Kong. But first impulses reveal something, and what these impulses reveal about this government’s lack of interest in an international order that foregrounds bedrock political rights is not encouraging.
The predictable reply will be that America and Europe are hypocrites. ’Tis true. In a just world, Western grandees would treat Xi as a pariah rather than cozy up to him in Davos. In a just world, Germany would not have failed to recognize British National (Overseas) passports held by Hong Kongers, making it harder for them to flee or to remain abroad, and nobody would care what Hong Kong’s communist-authoritarian government had to say on the topic. In a just world, Apple would not make use of supply chains built on exploitation of the vulnerable and politically unrepresented poor and perhaps even on slave labor. And in a just world, America would never have propped up a dictator (but then again, it never would have felt the need to, since there never would have been a communist empire menacing the liberty of people everywhere).
We do not live in a just world, or a consistent one. But there are things worse than hypocrisy. A liberal-nationalist state becomes hypocritical whenever it acts as if it were an illiberal-nationalist state. It nonetheless has necessary principles by which to recognize and correct its failures. An illiberal-nationalist state, having no such necessary principles, need recognize no limit on its pursuits of interest. The rights and interests of Hong Kongers must finally become unintelligible to a consistently illiberal state. Which Orbán’s Hungarian state, to repeat, is not — yet. But is it so hard to imagine that it might want to become one?
For are there not at least some obvious philosophic affinities between the governments in Budapest and Beijing?
In every mǔ (亩) of land that it rules, the CCP pushes the structural hobbling of sources of dissent to its logical terminus. In dismantling the vestiges of British liberalism in Hong Kong, it expels a foreign influence. In so doing, it reclaims for itself an unchallenged authority over an area historically under Chinese control. All of this happens as it advances other policies — such as the ongoing and intensifying destruction of the Uyghur and Tibetan cultures — to entrench Han dominance in a state that includes multiple religious and ethnic sources.
And not one of those things lacks for support in the principles of Orbanist nationalism as articulated and practiced by Viktor Orbán.
The Chinese Communist Party has done nothing if not obliterate a “dualist power space.” It does nothing if not “show a highly homogeneous face to the world.” It is “doing everything under [its] power” to prevent non-Han sources of religion and culture from gaining strength.
And it is even possible to find in Orbán’s rhetoric thematically irredentist ideas couched in terms of national resentment. This was so in the speech Orbán delivered to mark the hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Trianon, which formally ended World War I and by which the modern Hungarian state lost jurisdiction over certain areas under its historical control.
This was, Orbán explained, the work of “the arrogant French and British” and the “hypocritical American empire.” But “history has given the chance, perhaps the last, for the peoples of Central Europe to open a new era, to defend themselves against the danger from the West and the East, and to emerge together.” For “only the state has borders; the nation does not. This is the law.” (It is, in fact, the Basic Law, according to which Hungarians “do not recognize the suspension of our historical constitution” — again, that’s the one that’s a thousand years old — “due to foreign occupations.”)
“Some,” Orbán told the crowd, stoking resentment over injustices done to no one alive during the life of anyone present, “have understood this and some have not. Those who have yet to understand it would do better to hurry because they’re running out of time.”
And having spoken in these vague but quasi-millenarian terms about changes to come (“We, the members of the [Magyar] nation, at the start of the new millennium,” reads the first sentence of the Basic Law . . . ), Orbán concluded on a note fully messianic: “Only one who walks his own Calvary can become a great nation. Who knows the way of hardship. Who can stand the test. He who understands that truth is worth little without power. Hungary before all else, God above us all!”
A strange gospel, that — I seem to recall that the Nazarene rabbi, who was not famed for his political power, spoke of a kingdom not of this world.
More to the point, it is the planting of a certain kind of seed.
Viktor Orbán has stated no intention of redrawing borders; he has given voting and certain other political rights to the Hungarian diaspora. When I spoke to Pap and Krekó, they both believed that political reassembly of Hungary’s historical dominion was not on the agenda.
But the menace in Orbán’s words, and their mystical ethnocentric grandiosity (the natural religion of any consistent illiberal nationalism), is loud and clear. Is it so very hard to imagine that Orbán is playing a much longer game than his critics and his defenders alike? Just as it is possible to see last year’s enabling act as a precedent for one-man rule, so we can read this fuming over Trianon and consider what it might portend for future generations in Central Europe and beyond.
To Orbán’s east, even unto the Pacific, liberty is under systematic assault by autocrats who treat individuals as things to be used and — when necessary for the sake of the particular — destroyed. To Orbán’s west, even unto the Pacific, liberty is under ideological attack by those who respond to liberal democracy’s flaws and corruptions by pining for the good old bad old days.
Orbán has spent a decade now telling the world that he is establishing a new kind of order that is not liberal and is not based on the “ideology” of individual rights. Bit by bit, he has shrunk the space for an adversarial Hungarian politics without quite eliminating it. Over and over, he has shown an impulsive indifference to the freedoms of people elsewhere without quite endorsing their oppressors, at least one of whom is among his most trusted partners.
Throughout this period, the ambiguities of his politics and his speech have been mirrored in the defenses that his Western enthusiasts make of him: some telling us that he’s just misunderstood, that he’s just making a brave stand against progressive coercion and in defense of national sovereignty, that he’s just setting up a nice little parliamentary democracy.
But there are reasons for which he is a hero to those other, highly disturbing, shockingly honest voices across America and Western Europe that are revolted by the liberal order and ready to be done with it. Everything unique in Orbán and his system — every seed he has planted that does not normally grow in the soil we Westerners are pleased to live upon — supports their interpretation. We should take very seriously the possibility that they are right.
Viktor Orbán is not a dictator. But that the seeds of Orbánism threaten the future of liberty is ever harder to deny.