Americans can’t let Twitter noise overwhelm political reality.
The Budapest Option
Contrary to the Davos consensus, Hungary is not a hotbed of “illiberalism.”
I have been spending the month of April in Hungary, giving talks and having productive discussions largely under the auspices of John O’Sullivan’s and István Kiss’s Danube Institute. It is a lively think-tank, sympathetic to the broad outlook of the present Hungarian government, which brings together Anglophone and Hungarian thinkers committed to the twin goods of tradition and liberty, and to a conception of democracy rooted in national self-rule and respect for the larger Western civic and moral inheritance. Such liberal conservatism was long at home within the Western democratic mainstream, but it is now considered by woke and woke/adjacent opinion to be outmoded, reactionary, and oppressive. A radical redefinition of terms, e.g., “liberty” and “democracy,” is characteristic of progressive thought.
Even in Budapest wokeness is bent on doing a number on this little country that has assumed a symbolic battleground status in Europe and America. Hungary is hardly the authoritarian outpost denounced ritualistically by ill-informed politicians and often mendacious Western media. To be sure, many Hungarian intellectuals denounce the government of Premier Viktor Orbán and the ruling Fidesz party with the same ferocity, identifying it with an incipient fascism incompatible with “European” and “democratic” values as defined by progressive elites. Here one sees that this identification of national-minded conservatism with fascism and “totalitarian” contempt for democratic liberty is false, indeed risible.
Elections are free, the opposition controls municipal government in Budapest and other major cities, and anti-government media energetically contests both the policies and the broader political vision of Hungary’s conservative government. That government, in power at the national level since 2010, is resolutely anti-totalitarian and committed to what might be called democratic conservatism with a Christian Democratic tilt. Such democratic conservatism is genuinely respectful of fundamental public and private liberties, supportive of Christian values, opposed to open borders and the resultant dilution of Hungary’s national and cultural heritage, and irrevocably hostile to the racialist and gender ideologies at the heart of the new woke dispensation. Here the battle is joined with woke progressivism.
One card the progressives regularly play is that of supposedly surging antisemitism. However, Hungary’s Jewish population is flourishing, and Orbán’s Hungary is unusually sympathetic to the Jewish and democratic state of Israel, a sympathy remarkably rare in a Europe increasingly hostile to a Zionist state at once national-minded and inescapably religious, however idiosyncratically its Jewish component is defined. It is Orbán’s open antipathy and sustained opposition to the Hungarian-born George Soros’s vision of an “open society,” at once transnational and morally transgressive, that most often has led to false accusations of antisemitism.
Orbán’s vision is indeed diametrically opposed to Soros’s idea of democracy divorced from national sovereignty, publicly acknowledged moral limits, and the fruitful and prudent coexistence of tradition, religion, and liberty. Orbán played hardball and refused to allow Soros to fund the deconstruction of the Hungarian national project, culminating in a power struggle that led to the relocation of Soros’s Central European University to Vienna a couple of years ago. In the odious battle over “Who is antisemitic?” it is only fair to point out that Soros has never remotely been a friend of Israel or the Zionist project—quite the contrary. But the crucial point is this: Orbán’s opposition to Soros’s antinomian vision of the “open society” owes nothing to antisemitism.
As the historian Mária Schmidt suggests in her pugnacious but deeply informative 2021 book From Country to Nation: Thirty Years of Freedom, some of the opposition to Fidesz’s national-minded democratic conservatism is aesthetic in origin: many intellectuals, Hungarian and Western, detest the peasant base of Fidesz, its social conservatism, its unapologetic patriotism, and its lack of intellectual pretenses. Orbán himself, however, is a man of some intellectual sophistication who even sets aside one day a week to read, or so he tells us.
The American ambassador to Hungary, David Pressman, a gay “human rights” advocate, acts as the avenging proconsul for the new woke imperium. He tweets away, denouncing Hungary’s fictive drift toward authoritarianism and its opposition to the transgender revolution. For Passover this April, he spent time with the leader of the once neo-Nazi Jobbik party, who not too long ago wanted the Hungarian government to keep a public list of the nation’s Jews. It seems that anyone, ex-Communists and ex-Nazis included, is preferable to Orbán and FIdesz. Pressman’s latest initiative has been to support the flooding of the country with billboards denouncing the Hungarian government’s refusal to adopt an aggressive policy of hostility toward Russia since the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
Unlike their one-time conservative allies the Poles, the Hungarians see the Ukraine conflict as a largely localized affair with complex origins, not as a battle between cosmic good and evil. They have condemned Putin’s invasion and temporarily taken in Ukrainian refugees. But unlike most NATO countries, they prefer a negotiated solution and distinguish between Russia and the Soviet Union in a way that the Polish government can never do. (A former Polish foreign minister recently suggested in all seriousness that there can be peace in the region only if the Russian Federation is divided into 20 powerless mini-countries.) As a sovereign country with its own interests and scale of values, Hungary ought to be permitted to exercise the independent judgment of a self-governing nation: her foreign policy should not be dictated by a politically correct activist American proconsul, nor by NATO and European officials who confuse the defense of “democracy” with endless NATO expansion, woke imperialism, and deep-seated animus to all things Russian. Perhaps Hungary’s ambivalent stance toward Putin’s Russia is misguided and understates Russia’s nefarious designs. But it is a mark and prerogative of political sovereignty to be able to conduct an independent foreign policy carried out apart from the ideological commitments of outside overlords.
If one wants to get to the moral heart of Hungary’s independent democratic path, I recommend a visit to the House of Terror at 60 Andrássy Street in Budapest. This museum captures the moral and physical degradation, the fundamental assault on liberty and human dignity, that was coextensive with the totalitarian tyranny of Hungary’s Arrow Cross government in 1944-1945 and the long despotism of Hungary’s Communist Party, especially in the darkest period of Communist rule from 1947 to 1963.
Traversing the museum, one confronts a Soviet T-54 tank, information on the 700,000 (!) Hungarians deported to Soviet camps after 1945, totalitarian propaganda in all its forms, perverse artistic tributes to Communist leaders such as Matyos Rákosi, clips from show trials, and inspiring footage of the heroic anti-totalitarian uprising in Hungary in the fall of 1956. In the basement of the museum, one finds soul-numbing torture chambers where both the Arrow Cross and ÁVO, the Hungarian Communist political police, did their gruesome work. For 60 Andrássy Street is not only the home of this extraordinary anti-totalitarian museum: it was literally the headquarters of both the execrable Nazi Arrow Cross Party and the monstrous instrument of ideological despotism that was ÁVO, the Cheka or Stasi of Hungarian communism’s most repressive period.
With all this in mind, one can understand why Mária Schmidt reacts with righteous indignation to Anne Applebaum’s outrageous suggestion that Orbán is a “neo-Bolshevik.” This characterization of the Hungarian leader who was a hero of anti-Communist resistance in Hungary is both false and obscene. Moreover, Schmidt’s From Country to Nation contains part of a transcript of a 2017 conversation between Schmidt and Applebaum, where Applebaum—whose husband Radoslaw Sikorski, it is worth mentioning, is a prominent Polish politician and member of the European Parliament—repeats her imputations of totalitarianism to Hungary’s anti-totalitarian government and pooh-poohs Schmidt’s concerns about woke despotism on America’s college campuses. Schmidt’s concerns are “strongly exaggerated,” Applebaum insists. Her main evidence is that her son, while a student at Yale, experienced all the benefits of academic freedom. Would she, could she, say that with any confidence today? The once sober Applebaum looks like a fool, seeing totalitarianism in all the wrong places. Fanaticism supposedly lies only on the Right, a persistent delusion of modern intellectuals. This is sad coming from the author of a truly estimable book such as Gulag: A History (2003).
I strongly agree with the distinguished Hungarian-Canadian sociologist Frank Furedi, when he writes in his introduction to Schmidt’s book that contemporary liberalism has largely “mutated into an elitist and anti-democratic ideology obsessed with identity politics.’’ The adherents and advocates of woke-corrupted left-liberalism wish, in Furedi’s suggestive words, “to detach East European societies from their traditional culture and impose on these nations the latest fads invented on the campuses of California and in the studios of Netflix.”
The Hungarians are right to resist. In battle, though, mistakes are made. Viktor Orbán made a crucial mistake in a widely cited 2016 speech when he expressed a preference for “illiberal democracy” against now corrupted liberal democracy. That gave his enemies unnecessary ammunition. For the Hungarians do not oppose the best of classical liberalism. They repudiate only its mutilated form promoted by those who have sundered liberty from sound tradition and age-old wisdom. Democratic conservatism is in no decisive sense “illiberal.”
On a final note, I do not write to put forward contemporary Hungary as the “best regime” available to conservatives in our time. Corruption is a real problem in the country (though nothing of Ukrainian proportions), and Hungary is far less Christian than her official rhetoric suggests (although still an essentially conservative country). Hungary very much needs a more viable and vigorous opposition, one that doesn’t take its bearings so slavishly from the Davos consensus. And the proper conjugation of tradition and liberty in the United States will necessarily be quite different from that which unfolds in an old, small, and relatively homogenous country such as Hungary. Still, this brave, little country deserves to be respected, and even admired, for its refusal to kowtow to a woke imperium that is as much our enemy as theirs.
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