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Orbán: guardian of liberal freedoms

Rod Dreher argues the west’s Orbán hysteria is absurd and that hungary is safe, civilised and democratic

This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

It never fails. On a recent sojourn into Western Europe from my Budapest hideout, I ran into old friends I hadn’t seen since I moved to Hungary last fall. They were being a bit coy, and I knew exactly why. Eventually the penny dropped: “Isn’t the place, you know, fashy?”

To be fair, they didn’t drop the actual f-bomb, but that’s what they meant. It’s what they always mean. They talk to me about my love affair with Viktor Orbán’s Hungary in the way Truman Capote’s friends must have kibitzed with him when he fell in love with an air conditioner repairman. 

One of my concerned Dutch friends declaimed that gay people get beaten up on the streets of Budapest. “Absolutely untrue!” I shot back. Later in the conversation, he expressed concern that Muslim migrants were attacking gays on the streets of Amsterdam. This was my moment.

“You know where that doesn’t happen? Budapest,” I said. “You know what’s one of the safest big cities in Europe for Jews? Budapest. Why do you suppose that is?”

The answer, of course, is that Budapest has very few Muslim migrants, and that’s by government policy. It gives Western Europeans the hives when you point that out. And this, I think, is a key to why they create this imaginary stock villain, Viktor Orbán.

I arrived in Hungary for the first time in 2018, speaking by invitation at a government-sponsored conference on religious liberty. At the end of the event, the organisers surprised us by saying that the prime minister would like to meet us. We motored in a jitney to the government office in an old Carmelite monastery overlooking the Danube on the Buda side, and were led into a meeting room. I thought we would meet Viktor Orbán, shake his hand, take a photo, and then be on our way.

Instead, Orbán sat with us for a solid hour and a half, taking questions, and answering them intelligently, in good English — this, without a press aide nearby to protect him. It was an astonishing performance. 

Could this stout, blunt, whip-smart man really be the monster our media make him out to be? True, intelligence is no guarantee of moral status, but I had been led to expect Orbán to be a coarse strongman. Instead, he displayed a curious, nimble mind and spoke with the kind of clarity and directness — in a language not his own — that you rarely hear from most Western leaders. 

I came back to Hungary to do research for a book, and then, in the spring of 2021, on a journalism fellowship at the Danube Institute, a think tank headed by the venerable British journalist John O’Sullivan. I had hesitated to come, still under the spell of the media’s disdain for Orbán, but I knew that anything that a man of John O’Sullivan’s calibre was part of couldn’t be all bad. 

After the first three weeks in the Hungarian capital, I was hooked. This place is great, I thought: clean, beautiful, and safe, without much police presence at all.

I had asked to meet with one of the best of the anti-Orbán opposition, to hear their case. Péter Krekó, an academic, spent an hour with me, complaining about state corruption, and the Orbán government’s policies about same-sex marriage (not allowed, though civil partnerships are) and gay adoption (forbidden). 

“But at the end of the day,” Professor Krekó told me (I paraphrase), “I can stand in my classroom and say anything I like about the government, and nobody will touch me.”

That’s interesting, I responded. In the United States, you can stand in the classroom and denounce the government, and nobody will bat an eye. But if you say something that offends a sacred minority in most universities you can be fighting for your job, and your career, in the blink of an eye. 

“So who is more free?” I put it to him. “A professor like you in Orbán’s Hungary, or your counterpart in an American university?” He had clearly never thought about it. In my recollection, the professor was honestly unaware of how terrible American universities had become on free speech and open inquiry. This is not a problem in Hungary. 

But, a-ha! you say. what about Orbán’s kicking the George Soros-funded Central European University out in 2018? Yes, this happened, and on its face, it’s a black mark on Hungary. 

Yet when you speak to Hungarians who agree with the government’s actions, you’ll find the story is a lot more complicated. In their telling, CEU had become a beachhead for launching the kind of radicalism that has caused so much trouble in Western countries. 

William Ritchie, an Englishman who lives in Budapest, and who studied there in 2017, tells me that CEU was a hotbed of wokeness. He sat through a seminar in which Margaret Thatcher was denounced as a homophobe, a “fact” that students were taught discredited her entire legacy. He left the school shortly thereafter. 

Orbán understands the realpolitik of culture in ways that his British and American conservative counterparts do not. He gets that NGOs and academics use culture as a way of waging politics and was not going to sit back and let the CEU — drawing on the progressive billionaire Soros’s vast fortune — to radicalise Central Europe’s next generation of leaders and influencers. 

It’s like this: in February of this year, Samantha Power, the director of the US Agency for International Development, arrived in Budapest to donate $20 million to various NGOs to “sustain democracy across Central Europe”. To many Budapesters this seemed like tendentious meddling to undermine a pesky NATO ally. It is beyond absurd that gullible Westerners fall for the “Orbán is an anti-Semite” smear. For one thing, his government supports Hungarian-Jewish institutions generously, and is a close ally of Israel. 

Where the critics may have a point is in calling his government corrupt — and in my experience, many Fidesz voters complain about it. Yet they keep voting for Orbán — he’s been elected four times in a row — in part because the opposition parties are so hopelessly bad. 

During the 2022 campaign, I read American and British puff pieces on Péter Márki-Zay, leader of the left-wing coalition trying to oust Orbán. What none of these reports said was that Márki-Zay was hapless on the campaign trail. Once he bragged in a public statement that the opposition coalition was truly diverse, because it included everyone from communists to fascists. Unsurprisingly, this did not reassure voters. 

Besides, I can’t forget the words of a US diplomat a few years back who had spent much of his career in post-communist Europe: that corruption is endemic to all the countries of this region, and knows no party. That doesn’t make it right, of course, but it is profoundly woven into the ways of politics in the Central European countries — and prior to the Russia-Ukraine war, at least, it dwarfed other challenges.

Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and other former Communist states all struggle with serious corruption. But only Hungary and Poland get called out in a serious way by Brussels. Why is that? Is it because those countries are governed by social conservative parties who reject European dogma on LGBT?

No doubt that has a lot to do with it, given the grand mal hissy fit European bigwigs threw in 2021, when the Hungarian parliament passed a law banning LGBT media material aimed at minors. “Leave the Union!” Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte spat at the Hungarian leader, who maintained that the law was designed to protect children and parents. Around the US, more than a few schools have been found showing arguably pornographic LGBT-themed material to primary school students, but Hungary’s decision to keep that kind of thing away from its children — outrageous! 

Anti-Orbán hysteria in western Europe is so absurd

Anti-Orbán hysteria in western Europe is so absurd (the latest James Bond novel even takes a swipe at him) that I invite as many people as I can to come to Budapest — a city whose municipal government, like most big cities in Hungary, is governed by the Left — and see for themselves. 

My friend Peter Boghossian, the left-wing, atheist anti-woke crusader, came with trepidation, but trusted my recommendation — and fell in love with the place. He said he could have far more open and productive discussions about ideas with the conservative students at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium, where he was a visiting fellow, than in his left-wing college back in Oregon. He left Hungary still a leftist and an atheist, but with a new respect for the fact that in this supposedly far-right hellhole, the old liberal freedoms thrive in ways they no longer do in much of the West. 

“I came because I saw and felt the fabric of society deteriorating in the US and UK,” says Mark Bollobas, who grew up in Britain as the son of a Cambridge academic couple who had fled Hungarian communism. He rolls his eyes at the thought of Westerners who imagine a right-wing demagogue: the “Viktator,” as Orbán’s enemies call him. 

Elections remain free and fair; as hard as it may be for many to understand, it’s still democracy if the people vote in ways that do not reflect the interests of Washington and Brussels. And despite what you’ve read in the Guardian and the Washington Post, the opposition media in Hungary is robust and powerful, tearing into Orbán’s government every day. 

“It’s sometimes difficult to convince my English friends how good life is here,” muses Bollobas. “Non-stop negative PR works, and that is all that they have been told. But it’s safer here, more civilised, there’s barely any crime — and this without the constant police presence of an American town. And it’s a wonderful place to raise a family.”

As Bollobas sees it, the biggest problem other Europeans have with Orbán is that he speaks “unpleasant truths” and doesn’t care what anybody else says. While immigration rolls over other European countries, and leaders like Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, Brexit be damned, do nothing to stop it, Viktor Orbán says flat-out that it’s a bad thing, and protects Hungary’s borders. 

As Christianity and Christian values are widely mocked among the bien-pensants in Europe and Britain, Orbán asserts without apology that Hungary was founded on Christian values, and is going to keep them. If other European countries want to bury God and queer their children, that’s their business — but Hungary is not going to go that way.

Orbán made his political reputation as an anti-communist student leader in the 1980s. He sees clearly that wokeness, which is destroying liberal values and institutions in the West, is a totalitarian ideology to be resisted with more than words (which is why, for example, his government refused to fund and recognise gender studies programmes at universities). 

The bottom line is that Europeans have to invent a cartoon Orbán to keep their populations, especially conservative- inclined citizens, from asking why they can’t have what Orbán has delivered over the last 13 years: a country that is free, stable, and peaceful with a sophisticated, cosmopolitan capital; a country that is not overrun by mass migration and the malignancy of wokeness. A French citizen who relocated to Budapest said that when she’s here, it feels like the Europe in which she grew up. 

“I ask my friends: look around at how you are, where you are — is your life better now than it was ten years ago?” says Mark Bollobas. “Universally, the answer is no, life is less pleasant. Ask the same question in Hungary, and universally the answer will be yes, on all counts.”

Viktor Orbán is not without fault, God knows. Hungary is a normal country with normal problems, not Shangri-La doused with sour cream and paprika. Still, the longer I live here, the more I understand why globalists, liberals, and others need a villain like Viktor Orbán. It’s the same reason Napoleon needed Snowball in Animal Farm: to distract from their own failures of governance and ideology, and to keep the population from asking too many questions.

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