Why conservatives around the world have adopted Hungarian Viktor Orbán
Since the start of his second term as Hungarian Prime Minister in 2010, Viktor Orbán has undermined the country’s democratic systems. A follower of what he calls an “illiberal” form of government, Orbán has imposed policies hostile to LGBTQ people and immigrants, and has steadily increased his control over the Hungarian public square by cracking down on the press, academia and the judiciary. . . But the end of his term could be near: Orbán is running for re-election in 2022, and a coalition of six opposition parties, from left to far right, has formed to defeat him.
Yet over the past decade Orbán has become something of a hero to conservatives across Europe and has also garnered interest from the American right. Last week Tucker Carlson visited Hungary and over dinner hailed the Prime Minister as someone the West can learn from. Sunday, in the Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat explained part of Orbán’s appeal. “It’s not just his anti-immigration stance or his moral traditionalism,” Douthat wrote. “This is because its interventions in Hungarian cultural life, attacks on liberal academic centers and spending on conservative ideological projects are seen as examples of how political power could curb the influence of progressivism.”
I recently spoke on the phone with Kim Lane Scheppele, a sociology professor at Princeton and an expert on Hungarian politics and constitutional law. Scheppele met Orbán in the early 1990s, when she was a researcher working for the Hungarian Constitutional Court and a rising center-right politician. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why Orbán has become a role model for conservatives around the world, how he could remain powerful in Hungary even after leaving office. , and what makes him, in Scheppele’s words, “the ultimate dictator of the 21st century.”
Orbán is often cited as arguing for “illiberal democracy,” but in an academic article you published a few years ago you argued that this was a mistranslation. What do you think he actually said, and what does that tell us about his ruler style?
In the speech where Orbán claimed to want an illiberal state, he also spoke of what he calls a force field of power. He was telling his supporters that he hoped Hungary would eliminate political debate through a power force field, which he meant to say: let’s stop arguing over things in politics and get things done. No need to take different points of view into account because I know what we need to do. That is to say, in this speech he proposed to close the ordinary and democratic political debate, which he did exactly as soon as he came to power.
And then, because there was such a strong reaction, he went from that sentence to something that might be more politically acceptable. So first it was, “Well, we’re an illiberal state because we marginalized the liberals.” It was like “owning the libs” in the United States, and since he called his opponents liberals, he was therefore an anti-liberal. And it didn’t go very well in the EU, so he ultimately supported this formulation of being a Christian Democrat, and one of the things a Christian Democrat does is it gives you those values of the Christianity which cannot be compromised and which are illiberal because they are opposed to liberal political views. So if the liberal thing is multiculturalism, illiberalism means Hungary to Hungarians.
That’s right, he said he was in favor of “Christian democracy”, and he translates that into something illiberal and anti-immigration. But can you talk about the importance of the Christian part? “Christian Democrat” is also an expression we have heard for many, many years in Europe, and it usually involves a center-right politician committed to European democracy. How is it different?
Yes, he came up with the wording when the European People’s Party, which includes, for example, Angela Merkel’s party, was talking about trying to oust him because he was becoming a dictator. He therefore approved of this formulation. And then when he quit the Party before they could kick him out, he said, “Well, look, obviously the EPP, the European People’s Party, has just gone to the left. This is one thing that allowed him to position himself in European politics. But Christian democracy is a very strange thing for Orbán himself.
No one has ever seen him in a church. He is not at all religious. It’s a bit like Trump, who by the way has never really been seen in a church. Christians in Hungary are about two-thirds Catholics and one-third Calvinists. And then, after executing much of its Jewish population during WWII, Hungary still has a community of Jews – and no one knows how many, because they don’t count in the census. Orbán’s family was a Calvinist. He comes from the minority religion. And yet, in his statements on Christian democracy in Hungary, he always invokes the Catholic Church.
Usually in Hungary people are not religious. The last survey I saw showed that around nine percent of Hungarians regularly attend religious services. And part of that, of course, was that fifty years of communism wiped out religion from the fabric of society. But, also, Hungarians are in general ironic and skeptical. Even if you go back to medieval Hungary, there are many, shall we say, deviations from official church standards. So it is very strange that Orbán claims that he represents the Hungarian people because he is such a good Christian.
So why is he doing it?
There is a whole rhetoric he employs that recalls the interwar years of the last century. Hungary became independent after World War I in a small version of what it had historically been. The area where they could concentrate ethnic Hungarians was in the territory that became modern Hungary, meaning that two-thirds of the territory that was traditionally Hungarian fell to other countries. Miklós Horthy emerges in this interwar period with the claim that he will reclaim these territories and reclaim these peoples, and he rules as regent on behalf of the Holy Crown of St. Stephen, because, according to medieval law, the crown represented this territory that all Hungarians claimed. Horthy then claimed that the crown given by the Pope to the first Christian king of Hungary was the symbol of Hungarian sovereignty.
When Orbán was Prime Minister for the first time, from 1998 to 2002, one of the things he presided over was to move the Holy Crown of Saint Stephen from the National Museum to the Parliament. He wrapped himself in the crown, as we speak of American presidents wrapped in the flag. And the rhetoric that accompanies it will be familiar from this period between the wars, when Hungary’s anger at being mistreated by the world community manifested itself through this heightened Christian symbolism and language. When Orbán does this now, every Hungarian understands that he is following in Horthy’s footsteps. Now, of course, Horthy joined WWII alongside Nazi Germany. This guy ruled with the Hungarian Nazi Party. This guy presided over the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. So this is also part of the mix that any Hungarian will understand.