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Organizing America: The American Right Follows Hungary’s Illiberal Path


Organizing America: The American Right Follows Hungary’s Illiberal Path
(Chelsea Conrad/Washington Post illustration; Photo by Akos Stiller/Bloomberg)

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This is the first part of a three-part Today’s WorldView series examining the shadow cast by the Hungarian leader on American politics.

In the summer of 2018, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban declared war on a generation. He predicted that a wave of right-wing nationalist parties would supplant the liberal establishment of the European Union in the European parliamentary elections the following year. “We are facing a great moment: we are saying goodbye not only to liberal democracy… but to the elite of 1968,” Orban said.

In invoking the “elite of 1968,” Orban was deploying charged shorthand for the status quo that prevailed on the continent. For Orban, the political unrest and student uprisings that took place in parts of Europe half a century ago were the ancestors of today’s the socio-cultural orthodoxy—marked by ascendant feminism, atheism, and left-wing cosmopolitanism—which he wanted to overthrow. He had spent the years since coming to power in 2010 turning his nation of 10 million into a kind of petri dish for illiberal democracy. And now, it was time for the Hungarian model to be exported.

“The generation of the 90s is coming to replace the generation of 68,” Orban said, addressing a gathering of ethnic Hungarians in Romania. “In European politics, it is the turn of the anti-Communist generation, which has Christian convictions and a commitment to the nation.”

The following year, traditional political parties suffered in the election when Europeans voted for their continental parliament. But the far right – with which Orban has much affinity – has not been the only beneficiary, with more left-leaning parties, including a growing vanguard of green factions, also coming to the fore. Orban and his right-wing nationalist allies had accomplished little in their stated aim of planting the flag of a new “Christian democracy” across the continent.

But Orban’s influence and vision are not limited to Europe. The Hungarian Prime Minister and his ruling party, Fidesz, have become an important source of inspiration for American conservatives. Stephen K. Bannon, a former adviser to President Donald Trump, described Orban’s nationalist agenda and government as that of “Trump before Trump.” A steady stream of conservative American intellectuals traveled to Budapest for sabbaticals and scholarships. Later this week, a major event of the Conservative Political Action Conference — America’s premier political right-wing convening organization — is set to take place in Budapest.

Orban and a number of his lieutenants will speak at the meeting, along with a group of Republican lawmakers, far-right European leaders and key figures in America’s right-wing media ecosystem. This includes a virtual appearance by Tucker Carlson, the far-right Fox News primetime presenter who doted on Orban for years and has visited Budapest in the past to interview the Hungarian prime minister.

“Hungarian leaders actually care about making sure their own people prosper,” Carlson said in 2019, pointing to both Orban’s hostility to immigration and multiculturalism, as well as his efforts to inspire Hungarian families to have more children. “Instead of promising the nation’s wealth to every third world illegal immigrant, they are using taxpayers’ money to uplift their own people.”

Carlson was testing a line of rhetoric that has become all the more common in recent years – that of the racist “great replacement” theory, which posits that immigrant arrivals are part of a political project to undermine or even annihilate native-born people. populations. He has animated the deranged worldviews of a string of mass shooters over the past decade, including a teenage white supremacist who authorities say killed 10 people at a Buffalo grocery store over the weekend.

The theory was once prevalent on the fringes of Western politics, but has now moved into the right-wing mainstream, thanks to the relentless fearmongering of people like Carlson as well as its spread by politicians on both sides of Atlantic. A recent poll found that 3 in 10 Americans believe increased immigration is causing native Americans to lose political and cultural influence.

No elected leader in the West resists the specter of demographic peril better than Orban. Despite Hungary’s negligible population of Muslims and Arabs, he treated the prospect of resettling just over a thousand Syrian refugees in 2015 as an existential threat – and arguably bolstered domestic support by doing so and bolstered his profile within the far right in Europe.

“If Europe is not going to be populated by Europeans in the future and we take that for granted, then we are talking about an exchange of populations, to replace the population of Europeans,” Orban said during a a conference on demography organized in 2019 in Budapest. . “There are political forces in Europe that want population replacement for ideological or other reasons.”

The leader of these supposed forces was Hungarian-American financier George Soros, who has a long history of raising awareness among civil society in his native country. For Orban and his allies, Soros was something of a catch-all enemy, a wealthy Jewish elitist who funds cosmopolitan projects like universities and educational and aid organizations. The irony is that in earlier times, an organization funded by Soros in the 1980s helped support the fledgling group of young liberals led by Orban that would become the Fidesz political party.

But Orban turned to the right as he navigated the currents of Hungary’s post-Cold War democratic transition and has since moved to undermine and, in some cases, capture civic institutions that could thwart his rule. Sections of bureaucrats were fired as Orban took control of the state apparatus. The space for the independent press in Hungary has been squeezed, with corporate executives allied to Orban tactically taking control of mainstream media outlets and the government hunting down investigative journalists with spyware. A university founded by Soros was forced to move to Vienna.

For a right-wing US steeped in anti-liberal grievances, Hungary offers a glimpse of culture war victory and a model for action. Consider the words of JD Vance, the Republican candidate for this year’s Ohio Senate election who advocated seizing the assets of the Ford Foundation, an organization that promotes social justice.

Vance, also known for encouraging Orban’s brand of nationalism, suggested in an interview with Vanity Fair that a re-election of Trump in 2024 should trigger a forced takeover of American institutions, including universities. “I tend to think that we should seize the institutions of the left,” he said. “And turn them against the left. We need a de-Baathification program, a dis-awakening program.

He added, “I think what Trump should do, if I gave him advice: Fire every mid-level bureaucrat, every administrative state official, replace them with our people.”

This kind of dismantling sounds fanciful, but analysts see the admiration for Orban among the American right as the intensification of a political project that bears all the venom of Orban’s war against the “1968 elite”.

“I fear Orban is the complete package,” Kim Lane Scheppele, a sociology professor at Princeton University and an expert on Hungarian politics, told The New Yorker last year. “He uses rhetoric that appeals to the right, the way Trump’s rhetoric appealed to the right wing of American politics. But underneath, there’s a dictator running things on his own. I’m afraid the vision is what really attracts the American right.

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